Crossing Over

When the idea of Fireball came to my attention, the seed planted in my head by pal John McElwee, and I started investigating elements of the story, I couldn’t believe that some writer hadn’t already turned it into a book. The more I looked at the event, the more angles I found, so many in fact that when I talked to writer Scott Eyman about the idea, he sat there stunned and murmured, “That’s commercial. That’s commercial.”

Considering that Scott had written the bestseller Lion of Hollywood about Louis B. Mayer among many other successful biographies, and experienced the publishing landscape from a lofty perch, that reaction affected me. I realized then that I was writing something that had the potential to cross over into the mainstream. It’s one thing to write a niche book about Errol Flynn’s house, a book you know will appeal primarily to Flynn’s fans and secondarily to Hollywood buffs in general and perhaps fans of Rick Nelson, the last owner of the house. It’s something else to find a concept with the potential to jump niches and find a broader audience.

But in establishing the parameters of the Lombard story, I felt I had something akin to A Cast of Killers, Sidney Kirkpatrick’s account of the 1922 murder of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor. After its 1986 release, A Cast of Killers reached an audience far broader than those interested in old Hollywood. It’s been 25 years since I read it, but I remember I couldn’t stop turning the pages of a spooky mystery that felt so authentic I could smell the must of an aging Mary Miles Minter’s home. I aspired to take the readers of Fireball to a similar place where the pages had minds of their own and demanded to keep on turning as the complex story unfolded.

And Fireball is complex. It’s a juicy dual biography of two juicy people, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. It’s about Hollywood’s glamorous golden age in the time of My Man Godfrey and Gone With the Wind. It’s about scandal for what Gable did with Lana Turner and what Carole felt compelled to do in response. It’s about 21 other people—all the souls aboard Flight 3 with Lombard as it lifts off one last time in Las Vegas on a course for Burbank, California. It’s about lives interrupted on the ground in Vegas when a fireball suddenly appears on the southwestern horizon and about heroism as brave men rush to the spot of the fireball in hopes of finding survivors of what they know to be a plane crash. It’s a true crime story as victims are plotted and the scene is scoured for evidence. It’s a mystery as investigators try to determine how in the world TWA’s most experienced pilot controlling its most reliable aircraft on a clear night could fly straight into a mountainside. It’s about aviation now in adolescence after a childhood spent barnstorming, and of how they still can’t quite figure out how to make air transportation run. It’s the story of a world war newly begun for the United States, of sacrifice for the cause, of a great call to action. Perhaps most of all it’s romance—a king, a queen, a love lost.

I had the equivalent of a basket of parts and looked at the basket and wondered how to make this story work. Should I tell it as straight biography? Carole Lombard’s life from birth to death, from stem to stern, from 1908 to 1942? I couldn’t imagine it that way because lives are experienced chronologically, but stories are not. This needed to be a story, like A Cast of Killers. One scene kept playing in my mind, on an endless loop: Night in the flat basin of desert. Cold, lonely, quiet night. A plane flies overhead. I hear it more than see it. Then I spot running lights. The plane flies right over me and off into the distance, and the growl of its engines spreads out and echoes and then goes away.

Carole Lombard Flight 3 crash site, Potosi Mountain, Nevada

Flight 3 slammed into Potosi just below the ridge line at right center, in the saddle of the mountain.

A plane flies over. No big deal, right? We all experience planes flying over at all hours. But Flight 3 flying over? That’s a hook. That, I realized, was where the narrative of Fireball had to begin. The plane flies over, people who witness it go back to the task of the moment, and a little later a fireball is seen on Potosi Mountain in the distance. If the chapter ends there, tell me you don’t have to turn the page.

Then and only then, with the forward push established, could I flash back to start telling the story of Carole Lombard’s life and how she got to be on that plane and in that fireball. Flash back to a portion of her life. Flash forward to those moments on the ground in Las Vegas. Back. Forth. I knew this was risky because the reader would be jarred every time, practically a fender bender each time it happened. But it’s a jarring story anyway for so many reasons, so why not go with it? So I did.

One of the first reviews of the galleys was from Library Journal and I awaited it the way a political candidate awaits the votes. Guess what: the LJ reviewer made it a point to hate this construction above all the other things that annoyed him about Fireball. He didn’t damn it with praise, faint or otherwise, he just damned it. And then he recommended that Fireball be added to library collections. Go figure.

I won’t lie; his criticisms stung, and I had to wonder if I had miscalculated. He also said I “did the writerly thing” and presumed to know what was going on in people’s heads. I took umbrage at that one because I did know what was going on in people’s heads. I had researched this thing so thoroughly and found so much detail that I didn’t have to make up what people were thinking, saying, and doing. I had it in 2,000 pages of official testimony about the crash. Plus I had dug up so much on Lombard and Gable that I knew their characters inside and out and from every other angle.

There were a few other pans of Fireball, but just a few. Praise for the book poured in from the start, from the time it hit NetGalley in September, and by now I’m feeling vindicated by the positive comments in reviews and by those I’ve heard in person at book events. I don’t prompt people to talk about the story construction; they can’t help but tell me they love the way the story unfolds and often it’s the first thing they have to say about the book. I guess the lesson is, trust your gut. If it feels right, go with it.

I knew as I was writing Fireball that it was the book of my lifetime, to date at least. I dreamed about the characters, received break after break, met great, helpful people, and Fireball became an inferno in my computer. That doesn’t happen many times in a writer’s career. Will it cross over? It shows signs, but since GoodKnight Books isn’t Simon & Schuster, the headwinds remain strong, and only time will tell.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen dust jacket

5 comments

  1. There has been so much said and written about Lombard and Gable over the years. Congratulations, Robert, for your dedication and perseverance in writing a book which is the first to adopt the challenge of confronting and trying to explain the tragic air disaster which ended one of their lives and forever changed the other one.

    Lovely, smart, beautiful, talented, spontaneously funny Carole Lombard played into fate’s hand, ignoring the advice of her mother’s numerology warnings in the process, in her decision to return to home from a bond drive by plane, rather than train.

    I look forward to reading Fireball, Robert. And here’s hoping that your unique approach to this tale of the tragedy befalling one of Hollywood’s royal couples captures the attention of a mainstream readership.

    1. You hit on the problem, Tom: granted Fireball is a big story, how does one make the Lombard and Gable sections fresh given all the scholarship already out there? More than that, how do you make sure the story is accurate considering the mythological status these two have achieved on Hollywood Olympus? For me this meant going back to the Academy Archives and starting from scratch to reconstruct Carole and Clark as authentic humans.

      You hit on another key factor, Tom, and that is fate. For Carole to die that night, many things had to happen a certain way, and they all did. I list them in Fireball, these little occurrences that didn’t mean much individually, but in sequence, they green lighted disaster.

      I can’t wait to hear what you think of the book, Tom, given the depth of your knowledge of Hollywood history.

  2. Robert!

    Holy Fireball! Finally! Finally, someone has written the definitive book on Flight 3 and ALL the persons on board! I have waited 40 years to find out the entire story and, by George my boy…you’ve done it! Kudos to you. I know a thing or two about Gable and Lombard. I’ve heard all the stories, read all the biographies, grabbed at every snippet from news articles, personal recollections and such, that were available to the general public. For 40 years I’ve researched and waited. But….for years and years I’ve never been satisfied with any commentary on Carole’s last days, the forgotten lives of the others on the plane, the crash site. Talk about a page turner. I could not put your book down because each chapter lured me into the next and answered all my unanswered questions one by one.

    When you study personalities as big as those two people, you begin to feel you know and love them…despite their faults and the revelations somewhere along the way that they were human like you and me. You wished you had been their friends…been brought into the glow of their circle. Andy yet the tragedy of their love and life cut short. I hungered for more information on the events leading to Flight 3 and the answers as to “why?” it happened.

    It took 40 years, but it was worth the wait! You not only clarified so many issues surrounding Clark and Carole, but you brought us into the lives of the crew and airmen who also tragically lost their lives, and in turn, set into motion the grief of so many who loved them as well.

    But, Robert…..when I finally got to the crash site with those first local heros that dark night, reading the first hand account of what they saw had an alarming and surprising effect on me. After waiting so long to hear what happened to Carole, after completing all the chapters leading up to the final scene on the mountain, I actually had a physical reaction to the details of the crash site. When they finally discovered Carole’s body, my stomach began to churn, my spine tingled and tears welled up. I almost wanted to turn away from the page. I knew the ending…I knew what was going to happen…I knew she was dead, but that chapter hit me like a ton of bricks. I can’t get those images out of my head.

    Wow….the book is a must for everyone on so many levels. For me, it was relieving the loss of an old “friend.” I shall read it again…to make sure I didn’t miss anything from the first read.

    I can truly take this amazing story of Carole’s final flight off my “bucket” list. What an awesome read. Thank you, Robert, you touched my life.

    Carol

    1. First of all, for the record, Ms. Murray, could you please swear under oath: we do not know each other, have never corresponded, aren’t related, and you aren’t paying off a bet.

      Your comments got to me. I was overwhelmed by them. Thank you for relating your experience reading Fireball. I can only say in response that this story was meant to be told and for some reason that I don’t understand, I became the conduit of the information. Nobody’s more surprised or appreciative than me at the way it turned out, and, believe me, there were uncomfortable moments writing the section you describe, wondering how much information was too much. Wanting to respect the victims while also respecting what the recovery team endured–what any recovery team endures after a disaster. I was guided by the families of two crash victims that I interviewed; relatives of Alice Getz and Lois Hamilton. I realized that after 70 years, even the condition of the bodies had passed into legend. If the families were desensitized to it, I felt, then it would be OK to describe exactly what was found after the crash.

      I guess it’s fair to say that your comment touched my life, Carol, so we’re even.

      1. I remember once, as a young adult, talking to my mother about an incredible book I had just read from an author I was not familiar with. I could not use enough adjectives about my “discovery.” How the author had touched me…how the book was like a delicious meal. My mother, an avid reader, listening to my youthful enthusiasm with a smile, touched my arm and said knowingly, “It sounds like you’ve discovered a new friend.”

        Who is Robert Maztzen? Well..there ya go…now I know. A new friend.

        Under oath…never heard of you before “Fireball.” Saw it for sale…thought…oh no, here we go again…more of the same. But I have to find out… Fast forward….another “delicious meal.”

        Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Robert.

        Under oath, just ordered “Errol and Olivia” and “Errol Flynn Slept Here.” Got to know my new friend better.

        Thank you, Robert, what a lovely response. What a lovely experience.

        Keep writing, my friend!

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