To read the diaries
of Anne Morrow Lindbergh is to be taken to the heart of parental anguish
Madeleine McCann has been missing for 135 days; Charles Augustus Lindbergh was
missing for 72. This week readers of the Daily Express were invited to respond
to the question "Were Madeleine's parents involved in her death?" by phoning or
texting Yes or No (25p plus network operator rates - and "death", note, not
disappearance). For the first time, the words "hyperactive" and "unruly" have
been connected to the vanished child. Some papers report that her soft toy,
Cuddle Cat, now in her mother's possession, is badly wanted by the Portuguese
police. Others report that what the police need to see more of is Kate McCann's
diary. Meanwhile Kate McCann and her husband, Gerry McCann, doctors and fellow
suspects, are prospecting for a new public relations person, who may turn out to
be a former editor of the News of the World.
A conventional view of the McCanns is that they are now being eaten by the
tiger they tried to ride; the media like to manipulate rather than be
manipulated, and the Portuguese police don't care to be mocked. But if they had
behaved differently, what then? They would do well to study the Lindbergh case.
Eight days after her 20-month-old son vanished, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in a
private letter that there had been little in the way of new developments: "With
this lull the papers, especially the tabs, bring out wild stories every hour and
none of them true, as you know ... "
Mrs Lindbergh last saw her son about 7.30 on the night of March 1 1932. She and
her Scottish nurse, Betty Gow, made sure that he was well tucked-up in his bed -
he was recovering from a cold. They closed the window shutters, save the pair
that couldn't be closed because they were warped. Colonel Charles Lindbergh, the
great flyer, came home to the house in Hopewell, New Jersey, soon after. The
couple had supper. At 10pm, Betty Gow went to check on the baby and discovered
he wasn't there. It became, in the words of HL Mencken, "the biggest story since
Whatever the McCanns achieved in publicity - the visit to the Pope, the
wristbands, the words of David Beckham and Gordon Brown - was both prefigured
and far exceeded by the Lindbergh baby. By midnight there were road blocks all
across the state; the next day 100,000 police and volunteers were sweeping the
countryside and 400 journalists had gathered in the Lindberghs' garden. Aircraft
circled to take pictures. Presidents, prime ministers and the Prince of Wales
extended their hope and sympathy. Al Capone offered his help from jail. Such was
public vigilance that a car with New Jersey number plates was stopped 109 times
on its way home from California.
"I think it is thrilling to have so many people moved by one thought," his
mother wrote, but soon it became less thrilling, became exhausting and
confusing. By mid-April, the Lindberghs had received 38,000 letters, which Mrs
Lindbergh divided by content: Dreams 12,000, Sympathy 11,500, Suggestions 9,500,
Cranks 5,000. Mrs Lindbergh wrote in her diary: "I have a sustained feeling -
like a high note on an organ that has got stuck - inside me."
Her husband, unlike the McCanns, didn't seek this attention. He already knew,
as the McCanns may now do, how newspapers behaved. By the courageous but
essentially simple act of being the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic
he'd become the world's hero. The press had made him famous but he despised its
inaccuracies and inventions. Now that he was in charge of the hunt for his son
(the police were in awe of him), newspapers began to feel that they were
unfairly rejected. Unhelpfully, always seeking stories, the tabloids published
ransom notes and details of Lindbergh's negotiations with the underworld figures
that he felt sure would lead him to the kidnappers. He and his wife felt the
publicity was risking their baby's life by scaring his captors. "I think such
papers are really criminal outside of their inaccuracy," Mrs Lindbergh wrote.
"The publicity makes it almost impossible for them to get the baby to us."
Those were the days when parents of vanished or dead children were not the
prime suspects. The Depression had brought "kidnapping syndicates" to American
cities. Nobody, at least publicly, suspected the Lindberghs had harmed their own
child. In private, there were rumours. Lindbergh was well-known to be an
irritating practical joker and a believer in "toughening up" his son; perhaps
there had been an accident. As to Mrs Lindbergh, it would be observed today that
the previous year she'd left her baby with her parents and servants while she
went flying with her husband - for several months, adventurously, in the Arctic
and Asia. Nothing was made of this then, or should be made now: to read her
diaries, eventually published in 1973, is to be taken to the heart of parental
"January 30, 1933. Terrible night. 'Do you think about it much, Anne?' All the
time - it never stops - I never meet it. It happens every night of my life. It
did not happen and it happened. For I go over the possibilities of it not
happening - so close, so narrow they are. So hard do I think about it that
almost I make it unhappen ... and then always, like a bell tolling, like a clock
striking, inevitable: 'It happened.' Then, at last, back to the only comfort -
Death; we will all have it. In a century, between him and me it will be nothing.
And then: He did not suffer, he did not know, a blow on the head. But I want to
know - to know what he suffered - I want to see it, to feel it even."
Seven months earlier, on May 12 1932, a man got out of a truck four miles from
the Lindbergh's house and went to urinate among some trees. There he discovered
the body of Charles Augustus and a burlap sack. Gnawed off or eaten away,
presumably by animals, were the left leg below the knee, both hands and most
internal organs. The post-mortem concluded that death had occurred two or three
months before, the result of a fractured skull. Until then, the Lindberghs had
believed that reckless newspapers and bungling police were damaging their baby's
chances of survival - may even have killed him. Now they faced the stark
probability that nothing they could have done would have made any difference.
Their baby had died that first night, either by falling to the ground when his
taker was balanced on the ladder to the window with the warped shutters, or by a
sharp blow with a hammer to the head. In 1936, Bruno Richard Hauptmann, a German
immigrant living in the Bronx, was sent to the electric chair, refusing to
The Lindbergh case sent a shudder through America, and led the
American-Japanese furniture designer, Isamu Noguchi, to invent his Radio Nurse,
now known to us as the baby monitor.
The Lindberghs went on to have five more children. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, as
her diary suggests, was a good writer and turned it into a career. Too-bright
optimism sickened her. Reading Virginia Woolf, she wrote in her diary: "Excited
by The Waves [but] I hate those labored in-between descriptive passages of the
sun's rays and birds cheeping, etc. When I see those italics coming at me, I
Who knows what Kate McCann's diary will be like? This week, watching her
assured exits and entrances on television, it was easy to imagine that she
contained Mrs Lindbergh's "sustained feeling - like a high note on an organ that
has got stuck"; a feeling sustained and quietly shrieking.