When you enter the state of Indiana on President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, you see a sign that says, “Welcome to Indiana, Crossroads of America.” Further probing into the state reveals that Indianapolis is also known as the Crossroads of America, so you’re really at the crossroads when you reach Indiana’s capital city. On Sunday I spoke at a quaint bookstore on Mass Ave in downtown Indianapolis called Indy Reads Books talking about Fireball and on Monday morning I appeared on CBS affiliate WISH-TV’s Indy Style talking more Fireball in general and Carole Lombard’s last day of life in particular. For Lombard it was a blur of a winter’s day with appearances from downtown at the Capitol Building to the tony northern suburbs.
Indianapolis is laid out crazily around a downtown circle much as Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed Washington DC, with diagonal streets laid over a city grid, and the diagonals intersecting in roundabouts here and there. I guess it’s no coincidence since L’Enfant disciple Alexander Ralston co-designed the street pattern of Indianapolis. It’s easy to argue that these guys were geniuses…or that these guys were just plain nuts. Indy’s got six-way intersections and more pedestrians that you can shake a stick at. Jaywalking seems to be a sport in Indianapolis, and some streets have bike lanes but all streets seem to have bicyclists—who don’t always behave predictably. Downtown motorists had better be on their toes all the time because fancy driving doesn’t just happen on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it happens all over Ralston’s complicated downtown system.
But I digress. I asserted on Indy radio, TV, and in person that Carole Lombard enjoyed two especially stellar days in a stellar life: her March 29, 1939 elopement with Clark Gable to Arizona, and her January 15, 1942 day selling war bonds in Indianapolis. Carole had to love everything about her time in Indy, where thousands of people treated her like a queen from the first instant to the last in a slate of appearances that ran like clockwork.
An excellent Indianapolis Star feature by Will Higgins that heralded my lecture looked exclusively at the local angle on Lombard’s Indy trip, which was orchestrated by local businessman J. Dwight Peterson. I had seen the name in my research but didn’t call him out in Fireball, so Higgins’ article dovetails nicely with the narrative. I quickly learned in my Indy Reads lecture just how much the locals claim Lombard and how magical her day in town has remained over the decades. Attendees were very much into it, and included a rare father-daughter combo with the young lady maybe 13 and not too enthusiastic at the beginning, but the story is irresistible and before long she perked right up. I also met longtime Lombard-Gable fan Patricia Kennedy, who filled me in on some local particulars about the Lombard visit. It was a wonderful give and take of information—my national view and their local view, and I learned some things that will certainly make a future edition of Fireball.
My TV segment the next morning on Indy Style was more magic, as host Andi Hauser found herself engrossed in a copy of Fireball while prepping, and when I offered the exclusive Myron Davis Indianapolis photos as roll-ins with the segment, Brian, the director, snapped them up. How’s the saying go—Print anything you want about me; just spell my name right? I found out afterward that they spelled my name wrong in the super, and if you click the link it’s hideously misspelled still, but only because TV people live in a world where everything happens fast and the next thing is important and the thing that already happened isn’t. The meeting before airtime was maybe three minutes and the host, producer, and director asked brief questions and I knew to give brief answers because of the general state of hurry. But they treated me and Fireball very well, so Robert Matzum it is!
Afterward Mary and I sped down to the Capitol for a private tour of the Lombard hotspots, using Davis’s photos for visual reference. Jennifer Hodges and Rose Wernicke of the Tour Office helped us triangulate where Carole stood and handed out war bond receipts imprinted with her photo, personal message, and signature. It was near the office of Indiana Governor Henry Schricker, which made sense in terms of logistics. But Lombard and party were tucked away in a corner behind a makeshift wooden counter, outside a doorway. I asked Jennifer why that would have been. She thought a moment. “That’s the governor’s business office, so they would have been able to take her out that way afterward, down the stairs and outside without having to go out through the crowd.” Like I say: clockwork.
Outside the building Mary and I easily found the spot where Carole stood on a makeshift platform for her speech that was covered by all the newsreel companies and by national radio. It was at the bottom of the steps near the east entrance, with the facade of the building unchanged today from what the Davis photos showed in 1942.
Our tour of Indianapolis was a clear success, and I can only hope the stop in Las Vegas next week goes as well. It will include some TV early in the week, followed by a lecture and signing on Saturday, April 12, at the Sahara West Library, with Potosi Mountain in full view. I know from writing the story how special Nevadans are; I’m hoping to meet some whose parents or grandparents participated in the search and recovery in 1942. Or maybe there are a couple hardy first responders still with us who can teach me a thing or two like the people of Indianapolis did just yesterday.