Within days of his pioneering transatlantic flight, Charlie was America’s newest darling — renamed “Lucky Lindy” and “The Lone Eagle” and immortalized in song. On June 11, 1927, 25-year-old Charles Augustus Lindbergh (1902-1974), and his plane Spirit of St. Louis, arrived back in the United States, and Washington, D.C., threw a party.
The celebration was hurriedly arranged, highly politicized, and, according to biographers, not at all to Lindbergh’s liking. After his successful landing in Paris on May 21, the young aviator had planned to tour Europe with his famous plane. For political reasons, however, he was “persuaded” to head back home via a U.S. Navy cruiser. Postmaster General Harry Stewart New (a Republican appointee) then convinced President Calvin Coolidge that the hero must be welcomed first in the nation’s capital, rather than in New York City (which was controlled by Tammany Hall Democrats).
On the eve of the celebration, all Washington hotel rooms were booked. Newspapers predicted record crowds to welcome not victorious troops or a new President but a single, shy young man who had harnessed technology’s power, and done so with courage and intelligence.
Everyone wanted a piece of the celebrity’s glory. The welcoming crowd at the Washington Navy Yard dock included 2,500 “favored few”: his mother Evangeline Lodge Lindbergh, North Pole explorer Richard E. Byrd, the Secretary of the Navy, and assorted Senators and other politicians. As Boston Globe journalist Louis M. Lyons remarked, “Sailors have sweethearts and politicians have pull.”
Tens of thousands of people lined the bunting-bedecked parade route. As the open car bearing Lindbergh and his mother proceeded north on 8th Street, S.E., past the Marine Barracks, and then west on Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol, the journey turned unintentionally nostalgic, passing the high school at 7th and C Streets which Charles had attended when his late father had served in Congress.
At the Peace Monument, near the foot of Capitol Hill, more bands and honor guards joined the procession. People hung out of windows and the crowds roared whenever Lindbergh came into view. Rich and poor, grandmothers and flappers, lawyers and clerks, yelled “Atta Boy” from rooftops, balconies, and curbs. The dirigible U.S.S. Los Angeles, which had flown out to escort the Navy cruiser up the Chesapeake Bay, floated over the parade route.
The broadcast networks promoted June 11 as “Lindbergh Radio Day,” and extended the celebration nationwide through one of the first uses of an extensive onsite “radio hookup” for a live event, improving on techniques used for Coolidge’s 1925 inauguration. Announcers described the spectacle from the Capitol dome, the roof of the U. S. Treasury, and even atop the Washington Monument. NBC linked over fifty stations in 24 states and the audience was later estimated as at least 30 million. Graham McNamee broadcast from the Navy Yard and then hightailed it downtown to describe the award ceremony (“Everyone in the reviewing stand turns back to watch this boy arrive. ... unassuming, quiet, tall, a little droop to his shoulders ... very serious”).
At 1 p.m., on a decorated reviewing stand on the Washington Monument grounds, in front of a crowd of over 200,000, President Coolidge presented Lindbergh with the Distinguished Flying Cross, the first ever awarded. Coolidge praised Lindbergh as a “messenger of peace and good will,” a “wholesome, earnest, fearless, courageous product of America” who had “broken down another barrier of time and space,” while refusing “to become commercialized” and returning home “unspoiled” by the acclaim. Lindbergh’s response may have been brief but, as the press reported, he “ruled all hearts” that day, demonstrating “unwavering modesty and simple poise.” As Coolidge pinned on the medal, a crate was opened and 48 homing pigeons (one for each state in the Union) flew into the summer sky.
Two photographs taken by Science Service journalist James Stokley convey a familiar sense of an observer cognizant of “being in the event.” A few days later, Stokley boasted to a fellow astronomer that “Washington has been very much excited the last few days about the return of Lindbergh, and, as you might expect, I was inside the police line at his reception backed by the United States, incidentally taking a few photographs.”
Following the ceremony, Lindbergh and his mother were guests at the temporary White House (at 15 DuPont Circle) and a state dinner. Later that evening, the Lindberghs went to a Minnesota Society reception at the Willard Hotel, and then to a presentation ceremony sponsored by the National Press Club. At that last event, a standing room only audience of over 6,000 people applauded as Postmaster General New presented Lindbergh with the first copy of the 10-cent air mail stamp to be issued in his honor, and Charles Greeley Abbot, Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian, announced that the institution would award the aviator its prestigious Langley Medal. Even before Lindbergh left Europe, the Smithsonian had formally expressed its interest in acquiring his plane, which hangs today in the National Air and Space Museum.
Historian Constance Green notes that, despite Prohibition, the capital city was only “nominally” dry. Drinking at such occasions would have been heavy, a circumstance that may account for the weary expressions in one photograph of postal officials, Lindbergh, and William B. Robertson (who had first hired Lindbergh as a pilot for the Robertson Aircraft Corporation’s air mail route from St. Louis to Chicago).
Live radio coverage, political hype, and clever marketing combined in 1927 to create what we now routinely characterize as a “media circus.” Even the notoriously acerbic and unexpressive President Coolidge, the Washington Post wrote, “paid quite a bit of attention to the [announcer’s] patter coming from the loudspeaker” as dignitaries awaited the guest of honor. When Lindbergh went to New York City a few days later for a lavish tickertape parade, broadcasters were there, narrating the hero’s progress. Such “history-making radio undertakings” signaled a new era, as one Washington Post writer predicted, “a phase of an art which may ... be greatly elaborated upon and perfected,” and which indeed persists in today’s celebrity culture — where a modest “Charlie” can be transformed overnight into everybody’s “darling.”
Spirit of St. Louis Was Star Attraction for Smithsonian, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Stamps Take Flight: Pilots and Aviation Pioneers, National Postal Museum