Novels focuses on the shy woman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh

03/05/2013 12:00 AM

03/05/2013 9:38 AM

Melanie Benjamin had returned to her Chicago suburbs home the day before, exhausted from another leg of a book tour that's been going nonstop since the January debut of her best-selling historical novel, "The Aviator's Wife."

Others might crave a respite from such promotional duties, but here she was, up early and on the phone after a breakfast of Cheerios, ready for another round of questions.

It's all part of being an author in demand. Benjamin went through similar scenarios with her two previous historical novels, "Alice I Have Been" and "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," both set in the late 1800s.

But "The Aviator's Wife," the Bee Book Club's choice for March, is something different. As in her two other books, she narrates the reimagined story of a woman who had to reinvent herself to have an identity of her own. But in this case, Benjamin takes readers into the quickly changing world of the early 20th century, showing it through the eyes of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh.

If this plot sounds familiar, it was just a month ago that the Bee Book Club hosted Paula McLain for her historical-fiction novel "The Paris Wife." That, too, was the story of a doomed marriage between a famous man (Ernest Hemingway) and an obscure woman (Hadley Richardson), set in the 1920s and told from the wife's point of view.

However, both stories are as distinctive as their protagonists. Anne Lindbergh learned to fly early in her marriage to Charles, becoming the first woman to hold a glider pilot's license, and was one of aviation's earliest radio operators. Later, she became a writer and poet, and an advocate of women's rights, publishing the best-selling protofeminist "Gift From the Sea" in 1955, about how difficult it was for women to juggle their various roles and find their own voices, too.

"After Anne married him, they were an instantly glamorous couple living their lives in the air, doing amazing and dangerous things," Benjamin said.

As partners in aviation, they charted and flew new air routes between the continents, taking off on aerial explorations over the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa. Years later, insurmountable tensions between them would bring an end to their relationship.

"There was a dichotomy between her accomplishments and courage, and her willingness to let the public see her only as an appendage of Lindbergh," Benjamin said.

Benjamin's 2010 novel "Alice I Have Been" is the reimagined life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." The author gives a similar treatment to the heroine of "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," the fictionalized life of the 2-foot-8 performer Mercy Bump.

"I'm a storyteller who is obsessed with history," Benjamin said. "I write entertainment, and in this instance it's a book about the Lindberghs. They're in our collective consciousness, but I felt strongly that the scope of their marriage was unknown and deserved to be told."

Benjamin worked with editor Kate Miciak on all three titles. Miciak is vice president and editorial director of Ballantine- Bantam-Dell, imprints of Random House in New York.

"When Melanie called and said she wanted to do Anne Morrow Lindbergh next, my first response was, 'Why would you want to write about her? She always stood in his shadow,' " Miciak said.

"But she wanted to try a couple of chapters. When they came in, I thought, 'Most of us know about the kidnapping (of the Lindberghs' baby), but we don't know the huge canvas of their life.' Melanie does a marvelous balancing act, walking us through a moment in time when women didn't say, 'I'm leaving my husband,' while convincing us to be patient with Anne and understand what she was feeling and why she stayed with Charles."

To get inside Anne Lindbergh's psyche and be able to narrate the story from her perspective, Benjamin "got a picture of her in my mind and a sense of her voice" from reading Anne's diaries and biographies.

"The Anne in my book came from my interpretation of the real Anne," Benjamin said. "When you fictionalize people, they do behave differently than they do in real life. We expect more of our novel heroines, so I have to be a storyteller. That's what sets me apart from historians and biographers."

Complementing Benjamin's storytelling facility is her brief stint as an actor, gleaned when she dropped out of college to perform on stages around Indianapolis, where she grew up.

"My acting background informs the way I write," she said. "I have to be an actress assuming a role (in order to) shrug off modern sensibilities and imagine myself in other times and places, and inside other people's heads."

In the telling of Anne's story, Benjamin reveals a bombshell about Charles Lindbergh personal life. To pull back the curtain on the scandal would be a spoiler – and you won't read it here.

"It's in historical records but came to light only recently," she said. "Did Anne know about it? We don't know. But her reaction to it is what I get to imagine through my fiction."

A couple of shy lovers

Charles "Lucky Lindy" Lindbergh astounded the world in 1927 with his nonstop 3,600-mile trans- Atlantic solo flight from New York to Paris in the custom-built plane Spirit of St. Louis. He became a global hero, as recognizable in his day as, say, Tom Cruise is now.

But the fame and adulation cost him and Anne their privacy and, ultimately, their relationship.

The celebrated pilot met Anne Morrow in 1927, on a goodwill tour of Mexico (her father was the U.S. ambassador to that country). They wed in 1929 and eventually had six children.

When they met, he was a star and she was a nobody. What caused the sparks?

"There was always a physical attraction, but initially it was their mutual shyness," Benjamin said. "He was extremely bashful and very happy in silence, as was Anne. He later said he'd never met a girl who was as comfortable not saying anything as she was."

In our present age of instant communication and overpopulated "celebrityhood," it's difficult to appreciate the frenzy that greeted the couple wherever they went, and the awkwardness they felt.

"The public had an insatiable appetite for everything they did, and the media fueled it," Benjamin said. "I can only liken it to what happened to Princess Diana, and what's happening to (Duchess of Cambridge) Kate Middleton.

"All of a sudden, people were seeing Charles Lindbergh in newsreels on movie screens everywhere, as handsome as any movie star," she said. "The Lindberghs didn't seek the media spotlight – they were appalled by it."

The defining moment in their marriage was the 1932 kidnapping and murder of their firstborn son, 20- month-old Charles Augustus, which they blamed on the chronic media coverage of their every move. The sensational case was dubbed "the crime of the century."

"You can look at everything they both did afterwards through the prism of that moment," Benjamin said.

Initially, the horror brought them closer, and when public scrutiny intensified with the birth of their second son, the Lindberghs fled to Europe in 1936 for three years of self-imposed exile.

"At first, it was them against the world. Later, the tragedy drove a wedge between them," she said. "Anne never saw him grieve for (Charles Augustus), and he refused to talk about it. It broke him and he never recovered. It was the first thing he had ever failed at – to bring his child home. Initially, most people thought he was the stronger (of the two), but really Anne was the one who survived it."

Flying separately

What was their life together like, out of the spotlight?

"In the early years she was a very typical bride of her time and class – in some ways, an obedient housewife," Benjamin said. "She was happy to let him speak for them and hide herself in his shadow. But over time their closeness deteriorated, especially after the war. After giving Anne wings, Charles spent the rest of his life trying to clip them."

The Lindberghs led separate lives the last 15 years of their marriage, though home base was still their residence in Connecticut. She spent time with literary friends in New York, while he flew all over the world for his work with Pan American Airways and the Strategic Air Command, and as a board member of several aviation companies, Benjamin said.

"He all but abandoned Anne and their children," she said. "Before, his travels would have included Anne, but now they did not."

Anne's personal journey "paralleled women's journeys in the first half of the 20th century," Benjamin noted. "Remember, she got married a mere nine years after women got the vote. Women today say, 'Why would she put up with that man? Why didn't she just leave him?' They have to understand that that was really not an option for most women of Anne's generation."

It wasn't until Lindbergh was dying of lymphoma that he came back to Anne.

"They worked together on her diaries, which were eventually published," Benjamin said. "After his death in 1974 (at age 72), she became even more of a private person and never wrote anything again, even though she lived to be 94." She died in 2001.

As Benjamin worked on "The Aviator's Wife," she was increasingly concerned about "their children reading this story that came out of my head."

"Ultimately, I had to realize that their children have their own stories to tell about Anne as their mother, which was not the story I was telling. What child knows the truth of their parents' marriage? And it was the story of their marriage I was writing."


Melanie Benjamin will appear for The Bee Book Club,

in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library, for her historical novel "The Aviator's Wife" at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Doors will open at 5:15 p.m.

Benjamin's presentation is a free event, but tickets are required. To get them, go to www.beebuzzpoints.com and click on "Bee Events."

Barnes & Noble will be there to sell "The Aviator's Wife" for 30 percent off the retail price (Delacorte, $26, 416 pages).

Through Thursday, these stores will offer a 30 percent discount on the title: Barnes & Noble, Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento, Avid Reader in Davis, Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills, Time Tested Books, Underground Books, Carol's Books, Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento, the UC Davis Bookstore and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.

Visit the author at www.melaniebenjamin.com.

Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128.

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