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The Lindbergh kidnap is a lesson for the McCanns - and the media

Original Source: GUARDIAN: 15 SEPTEMBER 2007
Ian Jack  Saturday September 15, 2007
 The Guardian
 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 the Resurrection".
 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 anguish.
 "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 confess.
 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 rage."
 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.


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