Charles Lindbergh was born 109 years ago today. In honor of the famed aviator’s birthday, let’s hop onto five things you might not know about The Lone Eagle.
1. He Was Time’s First Man of the Year
After Lindbergh made his celebrated transatlantic flight in May 1927, he found his picture splashed on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country. Well, almost every magazine. Time made the curious decision not to run with Lindbergh as its cover subject for the next edition, a choice that editors quickly regretted.
By the end of the year, though, the same editors struck on a clever way to rectify their omission and also move some magazines. When faced with a slow news week, they decided to devote an entire issue to Lindbergh’s influential flight. The magazine slapped a portrait of Lindy on its cover and dubbed him “Man of the Year.”
Although the article began a beloved tradition for Time’s readers, it reads a little awkwardly now. The article begins by listing Lindbergh’s height, age, eye color, cheek color (pink, in case you were wondering), and foot size. (“Large. When he arrived at the Embassy in France no shoes big enough were handy.”) The article then lists Lindbergh’s habits: “Smokes not; drinks not. Does not gamble. Eats a thorough-going breakfast. Prefers light luncheon and dinner when permitted. Avoids rich dishes. Likes sweets.” The piece an analysis of his handwriting, which showed “Superiority, intellectualism, cerebration, idealism, even mysticism.”
2. He Helped Invent an Artificial Heart
Lindbergh gained international renown for his transatlantic flight, but most people aren’t quite as familiar with the contribution he made to medical science. Lindbergh became keenly interested in cardiology when his sister-in-law was fighting against what proved to be fatal mitral stenosis in 1930, and he wondered why it was impossible to surgically fix a damaged heart.
As Lindbergh’s interest in heart surgery grew, he ended up working with Dr. Alexis Carrel at New York’s Rockefeller Institute on a system to keep organs alive outside of the body by circulating nutrient-rich fluids through them. Carrel wasn’t some quack who wanted to capitalize on Lindbergh’s fame, either; at that point in his career the doctor had already won a Nobel Prize for his work on organ transplants.
Lindbergh lent his unique mechanical acumen to his research with Carrel, and the pilot eventually perfected a glass perfusion pump that could maintain a heart in a sterile environment. The breakthrough helped other scientists eventually create the first artificial heart. Lindbergh and Carrel even coauthored the 1938 medical text The Culture of Organs, which included an early description of how an artificial heart would work.
3. He Only Drew a Steady Paycheck Once
While Lindbergh enjoyed early success as a pilot and became a reserve airman for the Army, a 1974 New York Times profile by Alden Whitman noted that the aviator only held down one “paycheck job” over the course of his life. Lindbergh worked on the side as an aviation instructor and a circus stunt flier for fairs as a young pilot, but the only steady gig he ever held was a post as chief pilot on a mail run between St. Louis and Chicago that he started in 1926.
According to Lindbergh, it was on one of these runs for the Robertson Aircraft Company that he had the epiphany that a nonstop flight from New York to Paris was possible. Upon returning to St. Louis after the run, Lindbergh started scaring up funding for his historic trip. A group of St. Louis businessmen staked him for $15,000, which was part of the reason Lindbergh dubbed his plane The Spirit of St. Louis. The less-exciting working name of the plane had been “the Ryan NYP,” which reflected the plane’s maker (Ryan Airlines) and its objective (New York to Paris).
4. He Became a Big Advocate for Conservation
Later in his life Lindbergh turned his attention from aviation and cardiology to conservation. The same Whitman article from the Times includes a quote on Lindbergh’s 1964 realization that he should devote his energies to conservation. On a trip to Africa, Lindbergh said, “Lying under an acacia tree with the sounds of the dawn around me. I realized more clearly the facts that man should never overlook: that the construction of an airplane for instance, is simple when compared to the evolutionary achievement of a bird; that airplanes depend on advanced civilization, and that where civilization is most advanced few birds exist. I realized that if I had to choose I would rather have birds than airplanes."
Lindbergh spent the rest of his life vigorously campaigning for various conservationist causes. In 1968 he made his first public speech in 27 years to implore the Alaska Legislature to consider conservation legislation. He made trips to the Philippines to work with President Ferdinand Marcos to establish a sanctuary for the tamaraw, an endangered hoofed mammal.
5. He Had a Secret German Family
It’s anyone’s guess how one of the world’s most famous people pulled it off – it probably didn’t hurt that Lindbergh was famously camera-shy in his later years – but Lindbergh managed to father an entire secret family in Germany during the 1950s and 1960s.
Lindbergh met hat maker Brigitte Hesshaimer while visiting Germany in 1957, and the two began an affair that produced two sons and a daughter. Lindbergh would visit the family several times a year, but the children never knew that their father was the famous aviator. Instead, they thought he was an American writer named Careau Kent.
After his death, though, they found bundles and letters and photographs of Lindbergh and realized they were his children. Their mother confirmed their suspicions but asked that they not reveal their paternity until after her death. When she passed away in 2003 the Hesshaimer children finally told the media about their famous father. DNA tests confirmed their claims.
The story gets even wilder, though. According to the Hesshaimer children, Lindbergh was simultaneously having an affair with their mother’s sister, Marietta. These trysts allegedly produced two more sons, although a 2005 Telegraph story noted that Marietta Hesshaimer’s sons were remaining mum about their paternity out of respect for their mother’s wishes.