On What Matters: Navigating an Interview with Reeve Lindbergh

When Reeve Lindbergh’s parents were young they were, for a time, arguably the most famous people in the world. So great was Charles Lindbergh’s celebrity that  it spawned the first generation of Paparazzi.  As Susan Hertog pointed out in her splendid biography, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life, when Lindbergh landed in Paris after his historic transatlantic flight in 1927, the overzealous crowd “surged toward him, mauling his plane in a wild stampede.”  

Two years later, Anne Spencer Morrow,  a 23-year-old introverted intellectual, caught Lindbergh’s eye while on Christmas break from Smith College. She was visiting her family in Mexico, where her father, Dwight Morrow, was U.S. Ambassador. 

Packs of news photographers followed the Lindberghs everywhere. When the couple’s infant son Charles Jr. was kidnapped in 1932, the press paid frenzied attention to the crime. The story remained in the headlines for months.

(Among the many heartbreaking artifacts that remain from the kidnapping is a front-page item in The New York Times from March 3, 1932: It’s a brief notice,  stating that the baby had been ill: “In the hope that whoever has taken the baby may see and understand the necessity for care, Mrs. Lindbergh…gave out the diet she had been following.” It included — exposing a young mother’s anguish to the world — “half a cup of orange juice on waking.”)

So as public figures go, one might think that anything about the Lindbergh family is fair game.

But I wanted something different. This podcast is about the way women carry out the most sacred role in their lives. As for the husband, famous or otherwise, there must be a good reason for him to enter the conversation. If there isn’t, I leave him out.

Charles Lindbergh was a complicated man. Historians have documented his respect for the Nazis in prewar Germany. And two years after Anne Morrow Lindbergh died, it was revealed that for many years he had led a double life.

In 2003,  a German woman named Astrid Bouteuil came forward with the news that she and her two brothers were Lindbergh’s children, the result of a years-long affair he had had with their mother. DNA tests confirmed it.

In short order, it was revealed that in the same years Lindbergh was involved with Brigitte Hesshaimer, he had an affair with her sister, Marietta, that produced two other children.  And a third relationship – with his secretary and translator – produced two more. Apparently, he provided for all of the children.  Still, he kept his extracurricular families  a secret from his wife

A book, Das Doppelleben des (The Double Life of…) Charles A. Lindbergh, was published in 2005. (Interestingly, it has yet to be translated into English.)

When the story of Lindbergh’s double life first came to light, the question of how Anne Lindbergh’s children might react was addressed at the time by  A. Scott Berg, Lindbergh’s biographer. ”It’s a titillating story in Germany,” he told The New York Times. “But for four people named Lindbergh on this side of the ocean, it’s a deeply troubling personal story.”

The story of Lindbergh’s secret  lives, it turns out, has been linked – compellingly, I might add – to the story of the kidnapping (see Lloyd Gardner’s excellent book, The Case That Never Dies, from Rutgers University Press).

When I spoke with Reeve,  I chose not to bring any of this up, for what boiled down to a very simple reason .

Asking Reeve to comment wouldn’t merely have cast a shadow over the entire interview. It would have made the interview about her father.

Instead, I urge you to read Reeve’s own writing on the topic.  She has written beautifully about her life as a Lindbergh in general, and about this sordid chapter in particular.  In her 2018 memoir, Two Lives, Reeve reflected on her own  split life, navigating her role as the public face of her family while, at the same time, leading a quiet existence in rural Vermont. In that book, and in her 2009 book, Forward From Here, she writes about her father’s other families. 

“I have the feeling that he was the only person involved with all these families who knew the full truth, and I keep thinking that by the time he died in 1974, my father had made his life so complicated that he had to keep each part separate from the other parts … I don’t know why he lived this way, and I don’t think I ever will know, but what it means to me is that every intimate human connection my father had during his later years was fractured by secrecy.”

At the end of our interview, I thanked Reeve, and she thanked me in return. “This has been a real nourishment for me to be able to talk about her with you this way,” she said.

I wouldn’t have wanted it to be anything else.

A note: Reeve’s word to describe her mother was “thoughtful.” Please visit the Mother Word Cloud and contribute your word to best describe your own.

This week’s episode of Our Mothers Ourselves can be found on Buzzsprout, Apple iTunes, Spotify, and pretty much everywhere else in the known podiverse.

Artwork: Paula Mangin (@PaulaBallah)

Music: Andrea Perry.

Producer: Alice Hudson