SEPTEMBER 24, 2020
IN 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first aviator to complete a solo transatlantic flight, departing from New York and landing in Paris 33 and a half hours later. The trip garnered rabid media attention: Fox Movietone newsreels captured Lindbergh’s takeoff in his now famed monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis, and hundreds of millions of people around the world listened intently as flight updates were broadcast across radio waves. When Lindbergh finally touched ground in Paris, he was greeted by what cultural historian Thomas Doherty calls “an orgy of jubilation.” It is in this moment of “mass hysteria, wild rapture, a nation gone mad,” Doherty writes, that Lindbergh the icon was born.
In his new book, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century, Doherty — currently a professor of American studies at Brandeis University — traces Lindbergh’s ascent to contextualize the personal (and simultaneously very public) tragedy that would ultimately define his life: the 1932 abduction of his 20-month-old son. The book provides a thorough cultural history of the media coverage of the kidnapping and subsequent trial, and in doing so, captures a critical moment in the evolution of American journalism.
The moment Lindbergh arrived in Paris, he became a media darling. A celebratory reception was held in Washington, DC, following the transatlantic flight, paid for by Hollywood mogul William Fox and produced by entertainment maestro Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel. The festivities were broadcast nationwide by the NBC Radio Network, turning the young pilot of the hour into a household name. Lindbergh soon received offers to appear in Hollywood films and go out on a celebration tour, though he rejected these proposals in what appears to be an admirable refusal to cash in on his own fame. Two years after the flight, Lindbergh married Anne Spencer Morrow, daughter of an American ambassador and heir to the Morrow estate, with whom he had a baby boy named Charles Jr., born June 22, 1930. The press covered the birth with celebratory zeal and quickly coined a nickname for the child — Little Lindy.
But the Lindberghs’ lives were soon marred by calamity: on March 1, 1932, at the peak of Lindbergh’s celebrity, Little Lindy was kidnapped from his family’s home in Hopewell, New Jersey. The news spread rapidly across the wire services, as the Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service anxiously reported on the abduction. The entire country became transfixed by the disappearance of the celebrity child. Various news outlets deemed the kidnapping “the Crime of the Century”; some journalists decried it as “a final affront to American civilization” — a tragedy made unbearable by the devastation of the Great Depression, which was already at its worst.
The crime and subsequent trial have been widely written about and revisited since the 1930s. But Doherty takes a unique angle by looking specifically at the media’s role in the case, reframing a well-known true crime story as, what he calls, a “true media story.” Doherty illustrates how the crime and the criminal case that followed were major sources of business for newspapers, radio, and the newly established newsreels. And it wasn’t just news media that exploited the situation — attention-seeking writers quick to cash in on the story wrote “instantly outdated” books on the kidnapping, and Hollywood execs scrambled to adapt the story for numerous films.
Shortly after the abduction, retired high school principal Dr. John F. Condon published a letter in the Bronx Home News volunteering his time and money to the Lindbergh case. Condon offered himself as an intermediary for the ransom and also offered $1,000 of his own money to the kidnappers. He was adamant about his ability to help, and Lindbergh welcomed his service, even letting Condon spend the night on the nursery floor. Condon soon put an ad out in the New York American to alert the kidnapper about negotiations, and he used both the New York American and the Bronx Home News to keep communication with the kidnapper, always signing as “Jafsie,” devised from his initials, JFC. Eventually, Condon met with the alleged kidnapper in the Woodlawn Cemetery. The man, known as “Cemetery John,” had proven himself as either the kidnapper or an accomplice by providing two safety pins taken from the crib — a detail deliberately omitted by the press so that authorities could use it to identify the criminal.
Hearst newspapers reported on the story obsessively. Coverage of Little Lindy was so ubiquitous that it even made it to Al Capone, who was just starting his sentence for tax evasion. When Hearst journalist Arthur Brisbane landed a rare interview with Capone, the mobster began their conversation by asking about the Lindbergh baby and offering any amount of bail money so that he could get out and help the search. One of the most notable voices reporting on the case was Laura Vitray — the first woman in the United States to hold a city editorship of a major metropolitan daily newspaper — who wrote about Little Lindy for Hearst’s The New York Evening Journal. In one particularly symbolic and heartrending moment, Vitray arrives at the Lindbergh home in Hopewell to find the place surrounded by nosey journalists peering shamelessly into windows.
Lindbergh had tolerated the press pushing into his personal life after he shot to fame in 1927, but became increasingly annoyed with the constant media interference after the birth of his son. However, the Lindberghs also attempted to use the press’s incessant interest to their advantage. On March 2, for instance, Anne Lindbergh requested that newspapers run an article about the baby’s diet, and many of them obliged, in hopes that the child might be well taken care of, wherever he was.
Because radio offered unapparelled speed, the airwaves scooped the newspapers on every story, including the Lindbergh one. As radio acted as the Twitter of its day, there became enough of a problem with unverified news that wire services stopped sending news to NBC and CBS. In response, newspapers and readers alike began to rally around the print medium as the only trustworthy outlet, seeing as so much of radio news was rushed to the air before it could be confirmed. While print news became the most trusted medium during the Lindbergh story, newsreels were also major a source of information, as moviegoers began to buy movie tickets just to get updates on the Little Lindy case.
Almost every major Hollywood studio was quick to take advantage of the situation and the attention it attracted. A string of movies featuring kidnapping subplots — Warner Brothers’ Three on a Match; Universal’s Okay, America!; Fox’s The Mad Game; and Paramount’s Miss Fane’s Baby Is Stolen — dominated theaters from 1932 to 1934. But by mid-1934, Hollywood’s Production Code Administration tightened its grip on film content, preventing any further exploitative fare.
As the case dragged on, newsrooms began to reconsider their approach. Many reporters themselves had children, provoking a newfound sense of empathy and discretion in their coverage. Prominent journalist Walter Lippmann even called for journalists to give the Lindberghs some space. In a way, the Lindbergh case was for the press a shock to the system, replacing the traditional “if it bleeds it leads” mentality with an all-hands-on-deck charge to ensure the safe return of this beloved baby.
With care, Doherty depicts the struggle that many outlets faced when it came time to report that Little Lindy was found dead on May 12, 1932. The first AP flash occurred at 6:11 p.m., and by 6:33 p.m. the extra editions were on the street. Radio producers didn’t want to blast such terrible news across the airwaves without warning. Some newspapers, like the New York Daily News, ran a front page made up the entire front page with just the words “BABY DEAD” — no further explanation needed. Politicians also issued statements. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then governor of New York, assured his constituents that “every agency at my command has been instructed to bring the fiendish murderers to justice.” President Hoover called the murder a “never-to-be forgotten case, never to be relaxed until these criminals are implacably brought to justice.” But just soon as Lindbergh made peace with journalists and their help with the search, he found reason to detest them once again — as soon as he identified the body of his child, photographers were quick to snap photos for their next editions. Though the distasteful photos would ultimately not be printed, their mere existence profoundly disturbed Lindbergh.
As soon as a suspect — Bruno Hauptmann — was in custody, the trial would be reported on by 300 journalists, with 11 million words wired over 28 days. Doherty identifies the Hauptmann trial as a turning point for getting radio and newsreels into the courtroom. After two years of intense media scrutiny, Americans felt they had a right to “gavel-to-gavel” coverage, having followed the story so closely through newspapers and radio broadcasts. The newsreels were not allowed to film during session but did anyway, to the dismay of the presiding judge. The trial’s emotional climax, according to Doherty, occurred when Anne Lindbergh took the stand, teary-eyed but composed. The room was riveted, hanging on her every emotion while she clutched the baby’s sleep sack that was soon put into evidence. Boake Carter of CBS described the scene as deeply moving, writing, “We had witnessed an exhibition of a woman’s courage.”
With scrupulous research and thrilling insight, Little Lindy Is Kidnapped reveals that the news coverage surrounding the kidnapping of Little Lindy is just as historically significant as the crime itself. The case had an obvious legislative impact: the Lindbergh Act, which makes kidnapping across state lines a federal felony. But the Hauptmann trial was also a turning point for media access in the courtroom, setting the stage for future highly publicized celebrity trials. Situating the Lindbergh trial within a larger framework of media history, Doherty demonstrates how many questions surrounding ethical and responsible media coverage are, in fact, not unique to our present moment.
Photo credits: Media History Digital Library via Lantern
Chris Yogerst is assistant professor of communication in the department of arts and humanities at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. His new book is Hollywood Hates Hitler! Jew-Baiting, Anti-Nazism, and the Senate Investigation into War Mongering in Motion Pictures (University Press of Mississippi, 2020).