A Jewish Greenpointer made aviation history and became 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 both a celebrity and 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, immigrants from Vilnius, Lithuania moved him to Williamsburg where he grew up. His father ran 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 Lindbergh made his famous flight in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” A lawsuit, however, prevented Levine from using his plane and Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic crossing 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.
The Columbia, though, was a better-designed and more powerful aircraft than Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Columbia 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 Lindbergh took off into the iffy weather; that morning was too late to prepare the Columbia to beat Lindbergh. The following day the Columbia’s owner announced that his plane would not only surpass Lindbergh’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. Lindbergh 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 them, cheering wildly for the two men. Levine and Chamberlain were celebrated as heroes by the media and the world. Royalty, society and women threw themselves at Levine. 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.” They even wrote a Yiddish language song about him.
A June 15, 1927 article recalled his mischievous youth in Williamsburg. Back in Brooklyn, the Eagle reported 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 a shrewd, devilish, 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 the yet thirty year 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, which funded the construction of the Columbia.
Sadly, his story turned tragic. He became a womanizer and left his wife and family for another woman 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.