Hands up Spectator readers who can remember the American celebrities Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and the adulteress and husband-killer Ruth Snyder who all, in 1927, lit up what Bill Bryson calls ‘one hell of a summer’.
Born in America only five years later, I knew about most of these characters. Lindbergh, in particular, whose flight across the Atlantic from the east coast to Paris made him for some years the most famous man ‘on the planet’ (one of Bryson’s favourite phrases), attracted vast crowds; once, in a welcoming frenzy, they almost tore his plane apart — an easy feat considering that it was covered in fabric. Flying the ‘Spirit of St Louis’, Bryson observes, was ‘rather like crossing the ocean in a tent’. Older readers will remember the kidnapping and murder of the Lindberghs’ infant son, and perhaps even his father’s plummet from fame when once too often he praised Hitler and attacked Jews.
Almost equally famous was Al Capone, the Chicago murderer and bootlegger whose final disgrace came when an imaginative female federal prosecutor sent him down for years for income-tax evasion rather than for his vile deeds.
Bryson himself concedes, however, that ‘nearly nine decades have passed since the summer of 1927, and not a great deal survives’. Babe Ruth, known as ‘the Sultan of Swat’, and a name still familiar to most Americans over 40, though he died in 1948, was the most famous baseball player ‘on the planet’. Sacco and Vanzetti were two Italian anarchists, executed for a murder that many people, including my parents, were sure they didn’t commit (although Bryson makes a fair case for their possible guilt).
Jack Dempsey, known as ‘the Manassa Mauler,’ used to hurry across the boxing ring and break his opponent’s jaw with a single punch.