Levine and his flying machine
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his flying machine"
Everyone has heard of Charles A. Lindbergh, the first man to fly the Atlantic. But does the name Charles A. Levine ring a bell? Likely not. Yet seventy-five summers ago the two men were locked in a battle for aviation history — one as a pilot, the other as a promoter.
Levine, a 30-year-old millionaire who had made his money buying and selling World War One surplus materiel, had entered the competition for a $25,000 prize for the first person to complete a nonstop flight from New York to Paris. Lindbergh beat him to it on May 20, 1927, but the following day the young entrepreneur announced that his privately owned airplane would presently fly farther faster– and with a “mystery passenger” aboard. The pilot, he stated, would be one Clarence Chamberlin. The mystery passenger remained a mystery. On June 4, 1927, thousands gathered at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, New York, to witness the takeoff. While they waited, Charles A. Levine climbed into the back of his plane and had Chamberlin taxi him around the airfield. No one thought much of it until the plane was halfway down the runway and gaining speed. Suddenly it was clear: The mystery passenger was none other than Levine himself. The millionaire’s wife fainted. His children wept. The press had a field day. Forty-two hours later, Levine and Chamberlin ran out of gas and landed safely in a peasant’s wheat field in central Germany. Despite being 40 miles short of the intended destination of Berlin, Chamberlin had smashed Lindbergh’s distance and speed record. And Levine had become the world’s first transatlantic air passenger — as well as an international hero whose face was plastered across newspapers from Europe to America. The euphoria was greatest among American Jews, for whom Levine was a new symbol of Jewish courage and fortitude. Yiddish radio stations and newspapers covered and re-covered the story and Jewish musicians wrote songs about him. It seemed Levine had made history.
In the weeks following Levine’s triumph, the Jewish-American community was in a state of rapture as across the sea one of its own was received by European dignitaries from Hindenburg to Mussolini. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Jews spoke of little else.
Since the summer of 1927, everything Charles A. Levine had touched ended in ruin. In 10 years he had lost everything: fortune, family, and fame — the latter returning momentarily in 1934, when, the LA Times article reports, he was “found unconscious in the kitchen of a friend’s home, with five gas jets on.” In the eyes of the writer summarizing his life, Levine had sunk plenty low. In fact, he had a ways to go.
A few months following the article’s appearance, the erstwhile headliner was back in the news, this time in connection with a Federal charge of tungsten smuggling. After spending 18 months in jail, Levine was eventually busted again, this time for the smuggling of an illegal alien. (The “alien” was a German Jew denied an American visa in his attempt to escape Hitler.) The former hero’s indignities were for a time thought amusing enough for newspaper back pages, but eventually, even the tabloids lost interest.
By the 1950s only the FBI cared to investigate further. Fifteen years after his tungsten smuggling conviction, Levine still owed the lion’s share of his $5,000 fine. In 1952 the Justice Department sought to ascertain whether the cash was recoupable. The Federal Bureau of Investigation operative assigned to the case picked up Levine’s scent in the shadowy world of New York rooming houses and dubious businesses. But laying hands on the former flier proved far more difficult. Levine had become a ghost, resurfacing sporadically among acquaintances to make a pitch or borrow a few bucks and then disappearing for days, weeks, or years at a time.
No one, not even Levine’s daughter, knew where he lived or how he survived. Those who saw him remarked on the shabbiness of his suit and his evident lack of money. There was hardly a soul to whom he didn’t owe money. According to his notes, the FBI agent had trouble believing that Levine “was at one time a prominent newsworthy individual.”
After evading the FBI for 26 months Levine was finally discovered in April 1956, thanks to a tip from a former business associate seeking revenge for an unpaid loan. But the task of catching Levine was still easier than getting him to cough up, and in 1958 the FBI closed the case without recovering a penny. Although the FBI ultimately failed in its mission, the paper trail it left behind illuminates an otherwise obscure chapter in Levine’s drawn out fall. Having finally hit rock bottom, Charles A. Levine stayed there for the remaining days of his life. He breathed his last on Dec. 6, 1991, cared for by an older woman who had picked him up off the street some 30 years earlier, having vaguely remembered his name from headlines of yore.