n 1927, 25-year-old Charles Lindbergh
stood on the balcony of 15 Dupont
Circle and waved to the crowds who had
mobbed the area to catch a glimpse of
America's most celebrated hero. Lindbergh was
received by President Calvin Coolidge in this
private residence because Washington socialite
and newspaper editor Eleanor Medill "Cissy"
Patterson loaned the Coolidges her home while
the White House was undergoing renovations.
Though it's not clear that Cissy Patterson and
Charles Lindbergh were acquainted, their fates
intersected in many interesting ways. Lindbergh's
path to fame and fortune came when a French
hotelier from New York promised to pay $25,000
to the first person to fly from Paris to New York
or vice versa.
Lindbergh was the only serious contender
who planned to fly alone. In his 27-foot "Spirit
of St. Louis" plane, he flew 3,600 miles across the
Atlantic Ocean in 33.5 hours. Fighting fog, ice
and sleep deprivation, with four quarts of water
and a couple of sandwiches, he sometimes flew
only ten feet above the waves. When he landed
at night on the Le Bourget airstrip outside of
Paris, a crowd of cheering French citizens nearly
trampled him when he got out of the plane.
At the time Lindbergh walked through the
doors of the Stanford White-designed Dupont
mansion, Patterson was one of the most
powerful women in Washington. Cissy was
the first woman editor of The Washington
Times-Herald. She wore trousers in public
and hired women reporters, both unheard
of at the time. She had numerous love affairs,
three marriages and was known for her
In a strange turn of events several years
earlier, Cissy's daughter had been kidnapped. Two-year-old Felicia was
snatched from her baby carriage by Cissy's
estranged husband, the child's father, who
hid the girl in Europe. This Polish-Russian
count, who had married Cissy for her money,
demanded a ransom of one million dollars.
After two years of negotiation, President Warren
Harding himself intervened, prevailing on Czar
Nicholas II of Russia to make the count give
the child back to her mother.
The Lindbergh kidnapping was very different.
When the young couple's beloved infant son was
taken from his nursery, the whole country waited
and prayed with the Lindberghs for the safe return
of the child and recoiled in horror when the baby's corpse was found. After the
highly publicized kidnapping trial, the Lindberghs moved to England.
It was in Europe that Charles Lindbergh developed his views on
isolationism, arguing that it would be foolish and dangerous for the U.S. to
get involved in Europe's war. Some of his speeches were tinged with anti-
Semitism, and when he came back I home to head up an isolationist group
called the America First Committee, public opinion in the U.S. had turned against him. Even
his home town in Minnesota had taken his name off its water tower. After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh
changed his mind and flew 50 combat missions
in the Pacific, but he never regained his former
status in the eyes of the public.
Cissy also embraced isolationism in the early
1940s and became as unpopular as Lindbergh.
This former darling of society, whose home
had been the setting for the best dinner parties
in town, died of heart failure brought on by
alcohol abuse. Once surrounded by admirers,
Cissy died alone.
The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once said,
"Show me a hero, and I'll write you a tragedy."
Charles Lindbergh gave the world a new vision
of the possibilities of aviation and also a look
at the unprecedented heights of adulation a
hero could achieve. When we look at his 1927
photo, with the tall, slim youth squinting in the
sunlight next to an airplane the size of a toy,
we can imagine how people felt about the shy
young man's singular feat of astonishing bravery.
Perhaps that's why, in retrospect, his fall from
grace was so heartbreaking,