In the period between world wars, Billings claimed Charles Lindbergh, an American idol, as its hometown hero. Then life turned sour for the flying demigod. Finally, Lindbergh’s life got worse. Much worse.
In the 1970s, the colorful mayor, Willard Frazer, loved hobnobbing with the rich and famous. News of a celebrity’s imminent arrival would stoke the mayor’s excitement.
Willard would order up a hook and ladder fire truck, an ambulance or two, a half-dozen squad cars and a John Deere combine if one could be found. As the mayor and his guest passed Rimrock Road, Willard would announce with pride, “We are now on Lindbergh Avenue.”
They were, too. But something was missing. Signs. There was no sign of Lucky Lindy on his avenue.
Lindbergh won a $25,000 award posted by a hotel owner for the first to fly from New York to Paris. He turned down a $50,000 offer to endorse a cigarette. More offers and more cash poured in.
He flew to all points of the U.S., South America and Europe, promoting the aeronautics industry, airmail and America. He spoke at banquets, receptions and other gatherings. But it was private, not public, speaking that brought him grief.
Lindbergh held a number of unpopular opinions, including his warm endorsement of Adolph Hitler and Nazism. Americans who had idolized Lindbergh began to hate him.
In 1931, the Lindberghs’ youngest child was kidnapped and murdered.
The press followed him unmercifully. The kidnapping was dubbed the crime of the century. American journalist H.L. Mencken called it “the biggest story since the resurrection.”
In 1935, after three years of torment, including the trial of the man accused of committing the crime, Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh chose to flee. After spending two quiet years in rural England, they moved to an island off France. Charles, the inventive genius, wanted to work with the medical genius Alexis Carrel.
The ever-inventive Charles built a pump (a prototype for the artificial heart) that impressed Carrel.
Carrel was a medical genius and a notorious racist, a fact that likely added to his attraction to Lindbergh. A 1935 interview quoted him as saying, “There is no escaping the fact that men were definitely not created equal ... .” Carrel was in favor of eliminating from society criminals, the insane and any others who, in his view, weakened civilization’s foundation.
Lindbergh said Carrel had “the most stimulating mind I have ever met.”
Charles’ flirtation with the Nazis began in earnest. The Lindberghs were impressed with the Nazi rebuilding of war-torn Germany in 1936. Charles was asked by the American military attaché in Berlin to determine the state of Germany’s military aviation program.
While in Germany, Charles and Anne attended the Summer Olympic games as the special guests of Field Marshal Hermann Goering, the head of the German military air force, the Luftwaffe. The American hero’s romance with Germany, its people and controlling party caught fire as the couple toured German factories and noted the multiplying airfields.
Lindbergh visited Germany twice during the next two years. With each visit, he became more impressed with the German military and energy of the German people. He was soon convinced that no other power in Europe could stand up to Germany in the event of war.
Back home, he sang the praises of Germany’s “organized vitality.” While he shared America’s hatred for most dictators (especially Russia’s Stalin) he found “dictatorial direction” fit the German people’s pistol and might not be a bad thing in some cases. In 1938, the Lindberghs made plans to move to Berlin.
America’s entry into World War II canceled plans that might have made Lindbergh a German rocket scientist.
While Lindbergh faded from the hearts and memories of the American people, plans to keep his memory alive in Billings were forgotten.
Willard Fraser, the most popular and colorful mayor in the city’s history, died in 1972 of a heart attack while escorting first lady Pat Nixon on a tour of Yellowstone National Park.
Could Fraser, Lindbergh’s greatest fan in the Magic City, have salvaged Lindbergh’s reputation? Maybe so. Hizonner was key to the resurrection of Major Marcus Reno’s glory.
In the wake of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s widow, Libbie, fought vigorously to protect her husband’s reputation. Writers, particularly fellow officers who knew Custer, did not want to be accused of being cruel to the bereaved widow.
Libbie outlived most of Custer’s critics and Reno became the scapegoat that sopped up Custer’s guilt. Fraser lobbied Washington, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Army to reclaim Reno’s honor.
For reasons of his own, Fraser did not like Custer.