162. False Fame, reprise

In October, 2015, I wrote a post about the people who got fame they didn’t deserve, or failed to get the fame they did deserve, or who deserved fame, but for reasons other that what the public believed to be true. Since we are going to visit a bunch of forgotten heroes in the next two weeks, I am reprising that post here.

True or false: Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly across the Atlantic.
False. He was the ninth.

True or false: Charles Lindbergh was the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic.
False. He was the third.

The first flight across the Atlantic was by the NC-4, a flying boat with a crew of six, which left New York on May 8, 1919 and arrived at Lisbon, Portugal on May 27, after several stops and numerous problems. (coming June 13)

Less than three weeks later, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown flew nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland in a converted WWI bomber. (coming June 14)

Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York, north to Newfoundland, then across the Atlantic ending up in Paris. His flight was longer, but the Atlantic crossing was identical to the one made by Alcock and Brown eight years earlier.

Ask anyone in America today who was the first to fly across the Atlantic, and they will either say nothing or name Lindbergh. Alcock, Brown, and the crew of the NC-4 have all been forgotten. It’s not enough to be first, or best, if you don’t also catch the public imagination, or fall under the anointing power of the press.

*****

John Glenn was the most famous astronaut until Neil Armstrong replaced him. If you asked anyone in America during the sixties who was the first man in space, they would have said John Glenn. Nope, he was fifth.

All right then, he was the first man in orbit. Nope, he was third.

First American in space? Nope, third.

Russian Yuri Gegarin was the first man in space and in orbit. (see 130. First in Space) Alan Shepard’s sub-orbital flight was next, followed by Gus Grissom, also in a sub-orbital flight. Russian Gherman Titov orbited next, then John Glenn. For the completist who is reaching for his reference materials, the first X-15 pilot to win his astronaut’s wings came in just after Glenn. (We’ll look at the X-15 tomorrow and Thursday)

John Glenn earned his fame, and he never asked to be better remembered than his fellow astronauts. But he was.

Gegarin is still remembered by a very few, but ask any American who Gherman Titov was and you will either get a blank stare or be told that he was the Communist dictator of Yugoslavia. (And if you’ve forgotten him, it was Josip Broz Tito.)

*****

Okay, let’s not be sexist. True or false: in 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly a plane across the Atlantic.

False. She was only a passenger on that flight; the pilot was Wilmer Stultz and the copilot was Louis Gordon. The flight was a bit of a stunt, and a successful one. On arrival in England, Earhart became instantly famous. There was a ticker tape parade and a reception at the White House when she returned to America. The press called her Lady Lindy. She wrote a book, went on tour, designed luggage and clothing, and generally became rich and famous – essentially before she had done anything.

But that’s not the whole story. Earhart later came to deserve the fame she had already gained. She became the first woman to fly solo across the North American continent, participated in the Santa Monica to Cleveland Woman’s Air Derby, and in 1932 she became the first woman to fly nonstop alone across the Atlantic, finally earning the fame she had received four years earlier.

It is a final irony in the fame-for-the-wrong-reasons game that Earhart is best remembered today for the flight in which she died, while failing to finish.

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