LIKE HER FAMOUS PUBLICITY-SHY FATHER, Reeve Lindbergh shuns the madding crowd. The 47-year-old daughter of aviator Charles Lindbergh lives in tiny Passumpsic, Vt., in an isolated mountaintop farmhouse off a mile-long dirt road. Routinely, visitors complain about the trek. Notes Lindbergh: “One friend said, ‘Reeve, you said you lived at the end of a road, not the end of the world!”
The retreat’s inaccessibility is a reaction to the decades of unwanted attention that dogged the Lindbergh family after Reeve’s father made the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and especially after the 1932 kidnapping and murder of the 20-month-old son of Lindbergh and his wife, writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Now Reeve has written a literary response to those fishbowl years. “So much has been written about my family, but my parents didn’t encourage it, and there are inaccurate stories,” says Reeve. “I always got mad reading them. So I thought, ‘I’m going to write fiction, but it’s going to be the truth? ” The result is The Names of the Mountains (Simon & Schuster), a poignant memoir of Cress Linley—the youngest child of famed flyer Cal Linley and his wife, Alicia—and a soul-searching weekend Cress and her siblings spend with their aging mother, who is losing her memory. The only thing fictional about Mountains is the characters’ names. For the past several years the five Lindbergh children have been struggling with the real-life pain of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s worsening memory lapses, the result of her age—she is 86—and a series of small strokes. “In some ways she is wonderfully intact, gracious and social,” says Reeve. “But we’ll have a phone conversation, and she’ll say, ‘Who is this?’ She won’t recognize her own grandchild, or she’ll forget where she is.” The children have hired caretakers for Anne at her Darien, Conn., home.
Reeve recalls her early childhood in Darien as happy and normal. “We always knew our father was famous, but it wasn’t something you got to be important about,” she says. A rough-and-tumble fellow who took his children flying, camping and swimming, and taught them to shoot, Lindbergh was “much more playful, funny and full of life than he’s been portrayed,” says Reeve. Then a consultant for Pan American Airlines, he never spoke of his flying career and when asked, always told the kids to read his Pulitzer-prizewinning book, The Spirit of St. Louis. A man of strong and usually conservative opinions, Lindbergh often clashed with his children politically, particularly over Vietnam. It wasn’t until her college years at Radcliffe that Reeve learned of Lindbergh’s being ostracized in the early 1940s, after he advocated U.S. neutrality in the war in Europe and was branded an anti-Semite. Reeve never confronted him about the charges. “My mother can take anything, but he was different,” she says. “Anything physical he could handle, but emotionally he was very vulnerable.”
Nor did her parents ever mention the death of their first son. Reeve and her siblings—Jon, 60, an aqua-culture specialist in Seattle; Land, 55, a Montana rancher; Anne, 52, a writer who lives down the road from Reeve; and Scott, 50, a national-park scientist in Brazil—knew of Charles Augustus Jr. mainly because men would occasionally turn up claiming to be him. The kidnapping, combined with Lindbergh’s unpopularity during the war years, caused the family to retreat from the public eye almost to the point of reclusive—ness. If they were accosted by strangers, they left; any suits filed against the family, no matter how absurd (one cook sued after cutting her hand (in a kitchen knife, claiming the knife was too sharp), were settled quietly out of court. “They tried to keep our lives normal,” says Reeve. “Once, we drove home from a ski trip in Canada because someone recognized Father. We thought they were weird, but protecting us was important to them. It came from those terrible times early on.”
Charles’s need to be in charge—even planning his own funeral—is detailed in Mountains. In 1974, when he and Anne were living on Maui. Lindbergh, sensing he was close In death, asked his daughters to send him a Hudson Bay blanket—his favorite—to be buried in, prepared a list of hymns to be sung at his service and had his grave dug. Days later he died of cancer.
By that time Reeve had married photographer Richard Brown and left Cambridge for the wilds of Vermont—an experience she described in her first book, Moving to the Country, in 1983. She taught second grade, and her husband taught English and ail at high school in Whitingham. They had three children—Elizabeth, now 21, Susannah, 18, and John, who died in 1985 of encephalitis when he was 20 months old—the same age as his murdered uncle. Like her parents, Reeve found that “part of you dies and the rest of you goes on.” John’s death prompted Reeve to begin writing children’s books, but the loss also drove Richard and her apart. “We didn’t hate each other or have some horrible thing going on,” she says. “The relationship just sort of disappeared.” Soon after her divorce, she married writer Nat Tripp, 48. With their son, Benjamin, 5, they live on an idyllic 140-acre spread in Passumpsic that includes sheep, chickens and a horse.
Reeve and her siblings remain close. The whole clan gathered at her farmhouse last Christmas, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh spends at least one week a month with Reeve. When the children are together, they often talk of the joys and the trials of belonging to such an extraordinary family. “There are times you write a check in the store and people start talking about some connection they had with the kidnapping,” says Reeve. “I’m accustomed to that. But everybody’s got something. I’ve just got the name Lindbergh.”
TOBY KAHN in Passumpsic