Why you should care
Because behind every great man, there is a woman — sometimes multiple women.
For a time, Charles Lindbergh was as close as a mortal can get to being a real-life Superman. After piloting the first solo, nonstop trans-Atlantic flight in 1927, the 6-foot-3 college dropout turned aviation icon could go few places in public without being mobbed. To his adoring American fans, he was Lucky Lindy, the Lone Eagle and, later, a devoted husband and father to six children.
But to Lindbergh’s seven other children — the ones living in Germany — he was mild-mannered American writer Careu Kent. That’s right, it turns out the globe-trotting Lindbergh’s most daring trans-Atlantic feat in his later years was the two-decade round-trip voyage between his American and German families. Despite having once been the most photographed, most famous person on the planet, Lindbergh — thanks in no small part to the modern miracle of trans-Atlantic travel he had helped unleash — managed to pull off a double life like few else in history.
The kids were told Lindbergh was a famous American writer on a secret mission.
It was a secret life that remained a secret for quite a while. Lindbergh died in 1974, and it was not until 2003 that the world learned the full scope of his infidelity. That’s when three Germans, Dyrk and David Hesshaimer and their sister, Astrid Bouteuil, came forward claiming that the aviator was their father. To prove it, the siblings shared more than 100 letters Lindbergh had written their mother, Brigitte, and a DNA test conducted by the University of Munich that confirmed the paternity of the three siblings, and of four other children. The siblings, who didn’t come forward until after their mother’s death, per her request, did not seek any claim to Lindbergh’s estate, only acknowledgment that he was their father.
The revelation was shocking to many. According to Winston Churchill, Lindbergh was “all that a man should say, all that a man should do and all that a man should be.” He and his longtime wife, the writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were regarded as the “perfect couple,” a relationship cemented by the public tragedy that unfolded in 1932, when their 20-month-old son Charles Jr. was kidnapped and murdered.
But Lindbergh’s impeccable reputation would suffer considerably in the following decades after he became a pariah for his Nazi sympathies and anti-Semitic statements. That didn’t stop President Dwight D. Eisenhower or Pan Am airlines from enlisting Lindbergh as an overseas representative in the 1950s. During the last two decades of his life, he spent months at a time away from his wife and five surviving children in their Connecticut home on overseas trips. During one of those trips, the 55-year-old Lindberg met Brigitte Hesshaimer, a 31-year-old Munich hatmaker, and started a secret love affair that would produce three children. The prolific American would later have an ongoing affair with Brigitte’s sister, Marietta, that produced two more sons, and another with his secretary, Valeska, which produced another two children.
For a decade and a half, until his death in 1974, Lindberg made a circuit in southern Germany a few times each year, visiting his three paramours and seven children. The kids were told he was a famous American writer on a secret mission and that their interactions with him should be kept quiet. They remember trips to the countryside with him and the American-style pancakes he would make them. In his last letter to Brigitte, a dying Lindberg made his final goodbye and sent his love to her and the children, requesting again that they “keep the secret.”
Lindbergh may have benefited from his fame and good looks — and the means to travel overseas frequently — but psychologists claim that leading a double life is not as uncommon as you might think. Many of us lead very different private and public lives, even if just in the form of fantasy or daydreams. “It is on a spectrum ranging from secrets we keep from others and even ourselves to pathological,” says Robert Motta, director of the doctoral program at Hofstra University’s School-Community Psychology. And, according to the General Social Survey, 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women have had sex with someone other than their spouse while married.
On the bright side, a double life can provide an opportunity to be a better person. Despite a reputation as a distant, unsympathetic man in his everyday life — one who subscribed to eugenics theory and disparaged the weak — Lindbergh was caring and attentive to his German families in his later years, including to two of his mistresses, the Hesshaimer sisters, who were both disabled as a result of childhood illnesses. “I am aware that our actions have tainted the image of an impeccable American hero,” Astrid told The Telegraph in 2005. “But they also reveal that a man once thought of as emotionless and unattainable was in fact a caring and loving father.”