If it weren’t for a minor legal snafu, Charles A. Levine, not Charles A. Lindbergh, would have been the winner of the coveted $25,000 Orteig Prize, given for the first non-stop airplane flight between New York and Paris.
But Lindbergh beat him into the air, by a matter of hours, and flew on to Le Bourget airfield – and immortality. Levine, meanwhile, has been largely forgotten. Levine’s odd tale resurfaced recently during research into the ownership of a 1928 Mercedes-Benz 680S roadster that won the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
At the January 1929 New York auto show Levine, it seems, ordered the mighty Mercedes – one of the most powerful, beautiful and expensive cars of the day. It was built to the lavish specifications he and his wife Grace laid out. But Levine before the car was delivered, months later, Levine had gone broke and he couldn’t pay the bill.
All things considered, however, that was just a minor disappointment in Levine’s rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-prison-and-back life.
Levine, born in North Adams, Mass., in 1897, made a fortune selling World War I surplus and scrap, including shell casings, in the early 1920s. By age 28, he was a celebrated, Gatsby-esque millionaire. That gave him the funds to dabble in aviation.
Although Levine knew how to pilot an airplane, he apparently wasn’t very good at it (bouncing around on takeoffs and landings, spinning out, diving, rolling and even blacking out when he flew too high without oxygen). So he tended to hire experienced pilots to fly him around, although he was known to take the controls when the pilot needed to rest.
In 1926, Levine went into business with noted aircraft designer Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, forming an entity called the Columbia Aircraft Corp. Bellanca developed a large airship, the Wright-Bellanca WB-2 prototype, while he worked at Wright Aeronautical. The WB-2 was, quite simply, the most capable airplane of its day; Levine and Bellanca thought it could easily fly around the world (probably true).
Levine hired pilot Clarence Chamberlin to break various distance records. In one instance, Chamberlin circled above New York City for 51 hours nonstop. That was more than enough needed to cross the Atlantic and claim the Orteig Prize.
So, they drew up plans for their flight. But before they could leave, they were approached by none other than Lindberg himself; he wanted to buy the airplane and rename it “The Spirit of St. Louis” and attempt to win the Orteig Prize with it.
Levine offered the plane to Lindbergh for $15,000 – a deal Lindbergh could actually afford – but Levine stipulated that he wanted to name the crew. Lindbergh refused, and left; he ended up buying a smaller, cheaper craft from T. C. Ryan in San Diego.
Levine’s plans for the WB-2, renamed the Columbia, to fly to Paris and win the Orteig Prize now hit high gear.
Two challengers for the prize had tried and failed: Admiral Richard E. Byrd, the polar explorer, crashed in practice; two French WWI aces disappeared off the coast of Ireland. Levine readied his attempt with Chamberlin as pilot; but Levine got into a legal snit with Lloyd Bertaud, who he had just hired, and fired, as co-pilot. It seems Levine himself wanted to ride along with Chamberlin. (Levine was often in fights – legal and pugilistic – with disgruntled business associates, legal authorities and journalists.)
Bertaud got a temporary injunction, grounding the Columbia. Levine got Bertaud’s injunction lifted – but it turned out that Lindbergh had just hours earlier taken off on what would become his historic flight (he originally claimed to be flying home, not to France). Levine couldn’t react in time. (Bertaud, btw, was killed in his own trans-Atlantic attempt three months later.)
Levine got the idea to claim a second prize – $15,000 offered by the Brookyn chamber of commerce – for a flight to Berlin. He and Chamberlin regrouped and left about two weeks after Lindbergh. They stayed airborne longer, and flew farther (despite Levine nearly crashing the plane during his brief stint) than Lindbergh; but by then hardly anybody cared. They tried for other records, with similar lack of interest shown. He got in another legal battle with a pilot he wanted to hire to fly socialite Mabel Boll back across the Atlantic on Columbia’s return trip home; he flew the Columbia himself on a precarious flight from Paris to England, to escape the pilot’s lawyers. Levine and Boll (a later rival for Amelia Earhart) would go on to be involved in a couple of other notorious romps, including flying to Rome for an audience with the pope (Levine was Jewish!) and with Benito Mussolini.
Levine ‘s stunts, however, were no match for Lindbergh’s fame.
He was still flush enough in January 1929 to order the Mercedes. But it would be months before its custom body could be finished by the Paris studio of design virtuoso Jacques Saoutchik. By then, however, Bellanca had quit the Columbia Aircraft Co., and Levine’s financial empire had collapsed. When presented with the invoice for the Mercedes, Levine couldn’t pay for it. (So, Standard Oil executive Fred Bedford picked up the $30,000 car on the cheap.)
Things spiraled downward from that point rather precipitously. In 1931, Levine’s aircraft company hangar and its new plane, just auctioned off to pay back rent, mysteriously burned to the ground (after valuable instruments had been removed). Authorities suspected arson. They wanted to question Levine, who was also under investigation for income tax evasion and several other felonies, but he and his wife disappeared.
When he resurfaced in 1932 he was arrested and convicted of workmen’s comp law violations; he was given a suspended sentence. In 1933, he was arrested on a counterfeiting charge that was later dropped. In 1934, he apparently tried to commit suicide by sticking his head inside a gas oven.
In 1935, Levine divorced his wife in Nevada, and married someone else the next day.
Two years later, he was caught smuggling tungsten powder (used for making ammunition, missile casings and even counterfeit gold bars) into the U.S. from Canada; he was sentenced to two years in prison. While incarcerated, his second wife divorced him for “cruelty”.
Out of prison, he was arrested yet again – this time for trying to smuggle a German Jewish couple into the U.S. He said he was helping them escape a Nazi concentration camp. The couple was eventually allowed to go free, but Levine was sent to jail for a few months because he didn’t pay $500 he still owed the court for a fine. The U.S. District Attorney would pursue him for the unpaid balance of $209.56 until 1958.
Levine’s life quieted down after that, though. And there is little news of him until 1991 when he died at age 94 in Washington, D.C.
The New York Times remembered him in a short obituary – as little more than the world’s first “trans-Atlantic passenger”. The rest of the story is so much more interesting.
August 23, 2012