A Jewish man from Greenpoint was the first passenger ever on a transatlantic fight. Today the name Charles A Levine is largely forgotten, but there was a moment when Levine was a celebrity and considered a Jewish hero. His tragic life story only proves that wealth and fame are often fleeting.
Charles A Levine was born on March 17, 1897, in North Adams, Massachusetts. His parents who were immigrants from Vilnius, Lithuania moved him to Williamsburg where he grew up. His father had a scrap metal shop on the corner of North Eleventh Street and Roebling just across from the beautiful Rutheninan Cathedral and its spectacular onion dome.
Had Levine’s luck been better he might have been even more famous. He was preparing to fly across the Atlantic at the same time that Charles Lindberg made his famous flight in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” A law suit prevented Levine from using his plane and Lindberg made history two weeks before Levine was ready to fly across the Atlantic. Two weeks later he was ready to risk his life and fly over the ocean in his plane the Columbia.
Light was just breaking in the eastern sky as the plane, patriotically named the Columbia, lifted off the runway straight into the rising sun. It was 6:05 am at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, Saturday, June 4, 1927. Aboard was the pilot, Clarence Chamberlin and a last minute recklessly courageous passenger. Slowly pulling its heavy weight, the propeller clawing at the air, the plane ascended. Levine’s wife screeched in horror. She had come to the field to watch the historic event with her husband, who owned the Columbia. To her sheer terror they took off. He told her they were just going to taxi around the field, to let him get a feel for the aircraft. Levine had written his will, leaving his fortune to his wife and his two daughters – one of which was an infant of less than a year. The young wife watched sickened, thinking she would be a widow in a matter of hours. Her husband and his pilot, would soon be lost beneath the cold empty waves of the North Atlantic, forever. She angrily cried aloud, if she had known that her husband intended to fly with Chamberlin, she would have burned the plane first.
The Columbia was a better-designed and more powerful aircraft than Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. It was designed by Giuseppe Ballanca with help from the Wright Brothers’ firm. It had been ready; sitting for weeks in a hangar near the Spirit of St. Louis, grounded by a lawsuit the owner of the Columbia was embroiled in. The injunction kept the Columbia grounded and Levine out of history. The Sheriff’s attachment was lifted just hours before Lindberg took off into the iffy weather; that morning was too late to prepare the Columbia to beat Lindberg. The following day the Columbia’s owner announced that his plane would not just surpass, upstage, Lindberg’s record but would do so with a passenger.
Off the coast of Newfoundland, the S.S. Mauritania steamed toward America. The Columbia dipped down and circled the ship. From its deck, his neck craning skyward, Charles A. Lindberg could only stare in wonder at Columbia. The plane pulled skyward and flew east. Reaching the coast of Cornwall, England the Columbia continued on. Crossing the English Channel they flew to the continent intent on making it to Germany and winning the $15,000 prize for the first New York to Berlin flight. An argument started by Levine with Chamberlin over which direction was Berlin wasted precious fuel. They landed 115 miles short in Eisleben, Germany, out of gas. They were greeted by an exuberant crowd of German Well wishers. A refill of petrol and they took off again only to learn the engine got the wrong fuel. They crashed landed again. The next day, June 6, they arrived in Berlin. An estimated 100,000 people awaited the Argonauts them, cheering wildly, excitedly, for the two men
Levine and Chamberlain were celebrated as heroes by the media, by the world. Royalty, society and women threw themselves at Levine and he responded. The President of Germany, Paul Von Hindenburg personally welcomed them. The American Ambassador to Germany met the fliers and presented a congratulatory cable from the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. In the ensuing weeks, Charles A. Levine was granted a private audience by the Pope, in the Vatican. It was the first private audience granted to an American ever in the throne room. The indefatigable Levine was speechless as the Pope blessed him. Levine met and amicably discussed flying with the prime minister of Italy, the founder of Italian Fascism, Benito Mussolini.The Jews in America and Europe went wild with adulation for one of their own. Jewish breasts swelled with pride as one song title proclaimed, “Hurrah far unzer held Levine.”
A June 15, 1927 article recalled his youth in Williamsburg. Back in Brooklyn the Eagle wanted to report on the youth of the now famous aviator. He joined his father as a kid in selling scrap metal. A local blacksmith remembered Levine as a smart prankster full of mischief and intelligence. He loved pranks and the hapless blacksmith was often the victim of them. Once Levine appeared on a motorcycle asking for a push. When the blacksmith touched the bike’s metal he got a violent electrical shock and was thrown to the ground as the snickering Levine drove away. Locals remembered him as shrewd, devilish and a risk-taker.
Levine ran the books of his father’s business, but quickly set up his own firm in Long Island City. At the end of World War I not yet thirty years old Levine realized that there was a fortune to be made from the scrap metal contained in the now useless ordinance the military had stockpiled around the country. Levine figured out a safe way to cut the brass casings from the shell safely to disarm the bombs and reclaim the valuable metal. He had made a million dollar fortune before his thirtieth birthday and funded the construction of the Columbia.
Sadly, his story turned tragic. He became a womanizer and left his wife and family for another women who stripped him of much of his wealth. He lost a fortune in the depression and ended up doing time for counterfeiting. Eventually, he ended up a bum on the Bowery and died in poverty and obscurity at the age of ninety-four.