|As a prisoner of his own fame,
Charles Lindbergh of the
celebrated transatlantic flight of
1927 finds himself besieged by
the media, who have made him
into the first true global star.
Together with his young wife, he
seeks shelter in Hopewell, New
One night in 1932, Lindbergh’s
large estate in the woods, built to
protect the privacy of his family,
becomes the setting of a dreadful
nightmare. His home is broken
into and his two-year-old son,
Charles Jr., is abducted.
The event gives rise to a manhunt
that has America holding its
breath. The White House, the FBI,
and the international press all
unite in an attempt to unveil the
mystery of the Lindbergh case,
the “crime of the century”.
Sherwood “Chuck” Forbes is one
of the many reporters that flood
Hopewell. Without family and
wrestling with a difficult romance,
Chuck is a reporter rather lacking
in natural talent, and forced to
accept the rules of trash
journalism which have been
imposed on him by the Great
Depression. The Lindbergh
kidnapping and its unraveling will
become an obsession for Chuck,
his only constant in a life without
aims or ideals.
Based on a true story, “La scala
spezzata” (The Broken Ladder)
represents the journey into an
America marred by the collapse of
Wall Street, a country filled with
extraordinary characters, striving
to reestablish itself. This is the
profile of an era of dreams
entrusted to courageous spirits,
great writers and flying
May 20-21, 1927
Maybe it was time for his first sandwich.
It seemed like ages ago, as the Long Island sunrise peeked
through the clouds, that a grocer had made five of them for him,
all ham. They were still under there, wrapped in a brown paper
bag. To feel their reassuring presence, all he had to do was stick
his hand beneath what passed for a seat in this bare bones metal
skeleton of a cockpit. He had been flying for fifteen hours and all
he had allowed himself was a few sips of water.
A sandwich might help. Besides, what else was there to do?
After the Spirit of St. Louis had plunged straight into the middle of
an electrical storm, complete with menacing cloud formations
filled with thousands of tiny icicles, his compass had become
useless. Only if and when the stars came out, would he have any
chance of figuring out where he was.
It was just as big a waste of time to try leaning out the side
windows. The horizon was nowhere to be seen amid the
mountains of vapor that enveloped the aircraft.
He was in complete darkness.
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
As the temperature fell, the solitary man at the helm huddled
deeper in his flying jacket. Holding onto the controls with one
hand, he stuck the other under his armpit, searching for a little
warmth. With his free hand he tried to gauge each and every
vibration that was being transmitted through his wrists, up
through his tired arm and into his numb body. Under his leather
cap, his ears were attuned to pick up the slightest irregularity - an
engine hiccup, a metal ping, any seemingly imperceptible change
in the normal rhythm that might mean disaster.
No, no sandwich yet. There was a bigger issue to resolve.
Should he change course and head south, trying to outrun these
clouds? Not an option. He had spent weeks calculating how
much fuel he could store in the tanks and had eliminated every
superfluous ounce to make space for a few more drops of the
precious liquid. He could not afford to waste any of it. Paris was
far away, really far away.
If he ever made it there.
His only hope was to follow his instincts. "I've seen worse", he
repeated over and over to himself, remembering past adventures
and the terrible risks he had taken, flying the St. Louis to Chicago
route every day to deliver the mail. Instinct and a capacity to
reason had always helped, together with a healthy dose of good
luck. It wasn't a fluke that the press had nicknamed him "Lucky
Lindy", a moniker, by the way, which he detested.
Looking back at the tortuous 25-year path that had landed him
where he was today, it didn’t seem like luck had had much to do
with it. There had been misfortune - his beloved childhood home
burned to the ground, his broken family – and forget about
money, there had never been enough of that. No other moment of
his life, though, would prove whether or not good fortune had any
compassion for him, than the one he was living now.
He checked the control panel, lit by a weak pocket flashlight, for
the umpteenth time. A wall of instruments took up all the space
where the windshield should have been. He smiled, remembering
the shocked faces of the engineers from Ryan in San Diego, when
he had described the airplane he wanted for this journey. A
drastically scaled-down cockpit, to make room for extra fuel
tanks, a single engine, to reduce the weight, and no front
windshield, so that the only way to see would mean leaning out
the side windows - not the best of conditions, to be sure, for take-
offs and landings.
The guys at Ryan had to twist his arm to convince him that a
periscope needed to be installed, if he was going to have any
chance at a seeing what was in front of him. But the periscope
was heavy and he agreed to it only when other, essential,
instruments, equaling its weight, were removed.
His eyes were burning something awful. Lack of sleep had
become his worst enemy. He hadn't closed his eyes in over 35
hours. He had tried, without success. Returning late the night
before to the Garden City Hotel, the usual group of reporters was
still camped out in front, waiting for him. Explaining his need for
a little rest, he had excused himself. Anyone one else but him
wouldn't have had a chance with those bunch of voracious
notebooks, ready to snap open and start devouring. For him,
though, they moved aside, letting him pass, giving him looks of
admiration and wonder. To them, he was still an unknown
quantity, a boy from Minnesota who had made his way to New
York, who was about to try something no other man had ever
attempted. His gentle manners, his long silences, his shyness, that
rare mix of mystery and majesty, had won them all over. He was
a Greek god, fallen to Earth, and they, mere mortals, could do
nothing less than show him the respect such a divinity deserved.
The pilot got to his room by midnight and left a young man,
George Stumpf, standing guard, with strict instructions to wake
him no earlier than quarter after two. Just as he was about to fall
asleep, George knocked loudly at his door.
"Slim" he ventured in his child-like voice, calling the Greek god by
the nickname of every skinny guy in America, "What am I
supposed to do after you go?"
He didn't tell him to go to hell, that wasn't his style. Any chance
of getting some shut-eye, though, had vanished and, resigning
himself to that fact, he got up. By quarter after four he was in the
hangar at Roosevelt Field, surrounded by reporters. At seven
forty-five on the morning of May 20th, the Spirit of St. Louis took
off from Long Island and headed for the ocean.
As his eyelids grew heavy, the engine’s rumble became a far-off
drone. He could not fall asleep. Not now. There would be time
for that later, but not now.
He darted another glance out the window, but the tiny aircraft was
little more than a speck that seemed to have been swallowed
whole by the immensity of the Atlantic storm.
No man had ever flown this long.
No man, in all of history, had ever been this alone in the middle of
such unending vastness as was Charles Augustus Lindbergh.
He passed the comb once more through his Vaseline-covered
hair. Holding it in his right hand, Calvin Coolidge used his left to
busily and methodically smooth down the remainder of his
thinning hair. It was a daily ritual that pleased him, one of his
many fastidious and unalterable habits that, strung one after the
other, made up the day. Looking in the mirror, he saw his icy
blue eyes, his thin, and, unavoidably, lined lips, his wide forehead.
He tried to get to his aftershave, but one of the housekeepers had
stuck it up on the highest shelf in the bathroom, clearly beyond
the reach of his five foot seven inch frame.
For what had to be the millionth time, he cursed the Patterson
House. Two months were already more than he thought he could
bear in this house on Dupont Circle, but it looked like he might
have to put up with being stuck here through the end of the
summer. Renovations at the White House would not be
completed until September, but the 30th President of the United
States of America did not feel like waiting. He missed all the
things he was used to having around him everyday. Especially
that mechanical bull that he loved to climb up on, yelling like a
cowboy and pretending he was riding the prairies of the West.
With his mid-morning hair-combing ritual complete, he turned
back into his private office. His secretary greeted him with the
latest news of Lindbergh's flight.
"Don't forget to keep me updated on the situation", Coolidge
reminded, before excusing him. There hadn't been much to tell,
but even so, he didn't want to miss a single detail of what was
The President, like millions of Americans, anxiously awaited news
about Lindy. The pilot was up there alone in the middle of
nowhere, but at the same time, no man had ever been in the hearts
and minds of so many. America seemed frozen in silence,
waiting. Europe, too, followed the flight with equal trepidation.
After take-off, a plane filled with reporters had followed the Spirit
for a while before leaving him to his destiny and the last people to
see Lindbergh were the inhabitants of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
After that the aircraft and its courageous pilot disappeared,
vanishing into the infinite expanse of the ocean, perhaps never to
be seen again.
In the hours that followed, thousands of New Yorkers appeared
as if by magic in Times Square, hoping the New York Times
office might have gotten some news. In the most frenetic and
self-indulgent place on Earth, everyone, for once, began to realize
the enormity of what was happening and they were all holding
their breath. The young, blond beanpole, with the blue eyes and
the clean-faced countenance that betrayed his Swedish roots, was
a new Christopher Columbus. Or rather, something different,
something better. Columbus was not alone when he tried it, three
ships full of men had shared his anxiety and his hopes on that
Lindbergh was a new Ulysses, searching for the Pillars of
Hercules. He was the living embodiment of a dream that united
the men and women who silently waited, holding hands, on the
streets of Manhattan. He was both the culmination and the future
of the adventurous pioneering spirit.
Millions of children, from the far-flung towns of North Dakota, to
the Mississippi Delta, went to bed that night praying for Lindy.
Millions of grown-ups, even if they were reluctant to admit it, did
the same thing in the silence of their hearts.
At one house in Detroit, a diminutive woman prayed for her son's
safety, while the police kept a hoard of reporters and curiosity-
seekers at bay on her front lawn.
Evangeline Lindbergh realized something she had never thought of
before. “Christopher Columbus’ mother must have worried about
him too.” She wondered what that woman must have gone
through, forced, four hundred thirty five years before her, to
shoulder the burden of having brought a hero into this world.
That evening, President Coolidge slipped beneath his linen sheets
and felt the simple pleasure of curling up in a ball, just as he
always did ever since his early days in the lumpy little bed of his
childhood home in Vermont. He began to think that if Lindbergh
could pull this off, it would be something he would play for all it
was worth, showing-off to everyone the power and courage of
his wealthy, carefree America.
But his good mood evaporated seconds later, leaving behind harsh
In all likelihood, unfortunately, that boy was committing suicide.
The mythic transoceanic flight had already taken the lives of two
French pilots, who had disappeared somewhere over the Atlantic
just a few days ago.
Unexpectedly, like a gift from heaven, a moonbeam lit the cockpit,
catching Charles Lindbergh's tired eyes. The surprise of the light
startled him awake and shook him out of the dangerous stupor
that threatened to overtake him. The clouds were opening up, the
stars were back out and he could see them.
With a compass and the Mercator map from that store in
California, his only guides on this epic journey, he verified his
course. Then he made a few notes in his flight journal. Little
tasks performed methodically every couple of hours. It was his
only hope for staying on course. His only hope for staying
awake. For staying alive.
It had been a while since he had passed the point of no return.
The place from which, even if he wanted to, he could not turn
around and go back. There wasn't enough fuel. He would have
to wait for a piece of Europe to appear below him, maybe
Ireland. But for now, and for the past hour upon hour, there was
only ocean, over which he had flown so low a few times that the
waves had washed over his wheels.
His back had started to ache and his legs were stiff. Lindbergh
tried to shift his position on the wicker seat back, another
concession to the weight issue, and in that moment, he saw
them. They were forms, faces fluttering about the cockpit. They
were indistinct entities whispering indescribable words.
Messengers sent to share unthinkable secrets with him.
He rubbed his tired eyelids, shook his head, and took a sip of
water. But his adventurous companions on this fantastic voyage
were still there with him, flying into history.
A shudder went through him, jolting him, and with it came a
sudden awareness, an unexpected, pleasant sensation. Up here,
flying above this infinite expanse of water, in the company of five
sandwiches and a few ghosts, Lindbergh felt incredibly happy.