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The 1920s — An Age of Heroes

If there was one thing the 1920s had a lot of, it was heroes. The advent of radio and the increasing popularity of national magazines and tabloid newspapers provided an arena for stars to shine. And armies of public relations agents pushed and shoved their clients into the spotlight.

There were movie stars. Clara Bow reportedly got 45,000 fan letters a week. When screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino died of a perforated ulcer in 1926, several women reportedly committed suicide. More than 30,000 mourners filed past his $10,000 casket, which had a glass plate above his face so they could have one last look. There were also vaudeville stars like magician Harry Houdini and humorist Will Rogers.

Every sport had its own gods or goddesses: In swimming, there were Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller; in football, Red Grange and Knute Rockne; in boxing, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney; in golf, Bobby Jones; and in tennis, Bill Tilden.

And in baseball, there was the moon-faced son of a Baltimore saloonkeeper. His name was George Herman Ruth, but everyone called him Babe. For most of the decade, Ruth was perhaps the most photographed man in the world.

A fine pitcher, he became the greatest slugger in history and almost single-handedly restored baseball as the national pastime after a fixed World Series in 1919 had threatened to ruin it. Ruth was so popular that when his team, the Yankees, moved into a new stadium in New York, it was dubbed “the house that Ruth built.”

But as big as Babe Ruth was, he was only second to a tall, thin, and modest airmail pilot from Michigan named Charles A. Lindbergh. On May 20, 1927, Lindbergh lifted off alone from a New York airfield in a $6,000 plane laden with gasoline and sandwiches.

When reporters asked him if sandwiches were all he was taking to eat, Lindy replied, “If I get to Paris, I won’t need any more, and if I don’t, I won’t need any more either.” Lindbergh headed over the Atlantic, and 33-1/2 hours later, he landed in Paris. He was proclaimed the first man to fly nonstop between the two continents.

The world went nuts. Lindbergh was mobbed everywhere he went. In New York City alone, an estimated 4 million people turned out for a parade and celebration in his honor. In later years, Lindbergh’s luster was badly tarnished by his pre–World War II enthusiasm for Hitler’s Germany.

But his flight proved a giant shot in the arm for aviation. Suddenly, flying wasn’t so scary. By the end of the decade, more than 40 U.S. airline companies were carrying close to 200,000 passengers per year.

Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis wasn’t the only thing in the air as the 1920s came to a close. The economy continued to hum along at a frenetic pace, as well. “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau,” said Yale economics professor Irving Fisher on October 16, 1929.

Eight days later, the plateau collapsed. An overinflated stock market crashed, costing investors $15 billion in a week. America was plunged into an economic mess the likes of which it had never seen before.

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