Woodstock on the Maumee

I don’t suppose there will ever be another weekend like this one spent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at what became a Carole Lombard love-in, retracing her heritage as biological product of three great families, the Cheneys, Knights, and Peters, with wealth between them in the tens of millions of dollars. Considering the value of money in 1900, the vast fortune underpinning Elizabeth Knight Peters, the mother of Carole Lombard, was astonishing.

The weekend included a stop at the ancestral home of the Knights on Spy Run Avenue in Fort Wayne. A Knight had married a Cheney (as in the Cheneys of Wall Street) and settled on Spy Run, above the St. Joseph River, in the house where in 1902 Elizabeth Knight married Frederick Peters. Today the Knight building is home to Shepherd’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans of the U.S. military. Barb and Lonnie run the place as a taut but loving Christian ship and host more than 40 veterans at a time. Despite busy schedules they spent more than an hour showing us through many interesting spots within the massive structure.

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

The Knight mansion on Spy Run Avenue, now Shepherd’s House, home to more than 40 veterans.

We visited the Wayne Street mansion of John C. Peters, hardware mogul of Fort Wayne and “Gramps” to Jane Peters/Carole Lombard. Peters had his hand in all manner of construction enterprises and owned part interest in the Horton Manufacturing Co., which produced early automatic washing machines. Whereas the Knights and Cheneys were embedded nationally in big money, the wealth of J.C. Peters was homegrown in Fort Wayne. His mansion is a pure Victorian masterpiece.

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

The Victorian masterpiece John C. Peters mansion on West Wayne Street. An elderly woman once approached the owner with a memory of seeing baby Jane Alice Peters in this house.

Next, came a stop at the home of Elizabeth and Frederick Peters at 704 Rockhill Street, the place where Jane Alice Peters was born on October 6, 1908, 114 years ago today. You know you’ve found the right house because there’s a brass plaque on the front that was placed there as a publicity tie-in to the release of the David O. Selznick comedy, Nothing Sacred, in 1938. It was, at the time, pure cornpone to be putting up historic markers on the home of an actress not yet 30 years of age, but the type of flak that made Selznick PR man Russell “Birdie” Birdwell a living legend and perfect publicity partner for Carole Lombard. Whereas the Birdman dreamed up stunts like a plaque on Carole’s home, it would have been Lombard approving the message and assuring history would record that she actually drew her first breath within the walls of 704 Rockhill. It’s a deceptive house, modest in street views but another grand Victorian inside, as revealed on a tour led by the current owners, Rick and Cora Brandt. The place has a dark and mysterious past since some sort of physical and/or emotional violence within forced Elizabeth to leave her husband of 12 years in 1914 and flee to southern California with children Frederick, Stuart, and Jane.

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

The home of Frederick and Elizabeth Peters on Rockhill Street. Jane’s earliest memories were playing with her brothers in and around the house.

First thing yesterday morning I reported to WANE TV-15 for a short but punchy on-camera interview with Gina Carano. Four hours later came the main event: an exhibit of a couple dozen Carole Lombard-owned items at the Fort Wayne History Center, and an accompanying lecture by yours truly about the book Fireball. My initial doubts about attendance vanished as the crowd poured in. We ended up with a near house record of 133, including Rick and Cora Brandt of the Lombard house, Barb and Lonnie Cox of the Knight (Shepherd’s) House, and Bill and Janet Heffley, owners of the Peters house—making it a clean sweep of Lombard-related homes.

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

Operating on three hours of sleep but ready for action on WANE-TV with Gina Carano.

Other VIPs included three third cousins of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, all named Peters, along with Fireball researcher and Carole Lombard expert Marina Gray and Carole Lombard Archive Foundation director Carole Sampeck. My lecture was followed by a lively Q&A, a book signing, and then a well-attended tour of the Lombard house on Rockhill Street.

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

Lecturing in the spectacular Fort Wayne History Center.

I heard many stories of the supernatural over the course of the weekend. Not Halloween bump-in-the-night ghost stories but interesting real experiences by sober inhabitants of these and other classic Indiana homes. I guess that’s fitting for October.

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

Lots of books signed.

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

…including one for Fort Wayne patron of the arts Anita Cast.

I want to thank the Fort Wayne History Center for booking me into that fantastic venue, particularly Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director, and Nancy McCammon-Hansen, marketing director, and also Steve, Randy, Bob, and Carmen for their help onsite. Thanks also go to Anita Cast for her help in lining up the lecture, Kevin Kilbane of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel for his print pieces heralding the event, and Gina Carano and Natalie Wagner of WANE for one of the smoothest TV appearances of the whole Fireball tour.

Special thanks go to partners in crime Marina and Carole for a wild ride this weekend. From the two of them—and I’m sure all of you—I want to say directly to the cosmos, Happy Birthday, Carole Lombard. Fort Wayne loves and remembers you.

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

Displays included a clutch purse, monogrammed handkerchief, and jewelry owned by Carole Lombard.

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

Another case featured snapshots of Gable hunting trips, a Gable duck call, a handwritten note from Lombard to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and a bond receipt from Indianapolis.

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

Also at the History Center, a display of material from the Flight 3 crash site, including partially burned mail and melted aluminum–reminders of the ferocity of impact and daunting task facing investigators in 1942.

 

16 comments

  1. Thanks, Robert, for providing a sense of the excitement you felt over the Carole Lombard tribute weekend. It must have been something to have toured those homes, and Carole’s childhood residence at 704 Rockhill sure looks like the kind of place in which a lot of kids would like to have been raised.

    Looks can be deceiving, of course, particularly with the dark secrets that the home holds regarding Carole’s parents’ marriage and her mother’s flight from it, taking Carole and her siblings with her.

    You mentioned hearing a number of tales of the supernatural, Robert. I don’t suppose any of them involved Lombard’s own spirit, did they? Well, if there is something to this spirit world business, I wonder if Carole’s own mischievous spirit wasn’t looking in on the proceedings. No unexplained pranks, possibly from the Beyond, occurred that weekend, did they?

    1. Tom, I so badly wanted to be bonked on the head by a ghost over the course of the weekend. I’ve had a few unexplainable experiences in my life, but I guess I’m not that sensitive because nothing went bump in the night for me in Fort Wayne. Or in the daytime, either. There was talk in one of the homes of a ghostly little girl sitting on the steps holding a doll, but since CL lived to adulthood, I tend to doubt it was her. One of the homeowners I talked to started out as a 100% nonbeliever–until he kept meeting ghosts face to face in his 1880s mansion–an adult male at one point and an elderly female at another. The closest thing to paranormal that happened to me in Indiana was that when I held a pair of CL’s handmade leather gloves, I had a gut-level emotional reaction and got some goosebumps, but I have no idea what that was about.

      1. I think I would have the same reaction if I held CL’s gloves in my hand. There is just something about her that reaches out across the decades; she had such a strong life force. It is why we mourn her loss today.

  2. I’m glad you had such a great visit. It really was a great day. The lecture was wonderful. And it was an honor to be able to see her home and some of her personal belongings. I feel like I should already know more about her. I’m proud to be from the same hometown as such a beautiful lady and great actress. The more I learn about her, the more I want to know. I can’t wait to read your book. Thank you so much for coming here.

    1. If you can’t already tell, Nanette, it was my pleasure. I’ve never met so many wonderful people in one place in my life. Thank you for participating in a day none of us will forget. And by all means, if you end up reading and liking Fireball, spread the word!

      1. That will most likely happen. I love talking about books! We are so fortunate that all of the families’ houses are still around. I was in the neighborhood of the Peters’ houses a few months ago, driving around with a friend just to look at all of the beautiful old houses. I remember seeing the John C Peters house. I just didn’t know it had a connection to Carole Lombard. I love all of the interesting details on it.

  3. What a jam-packed weekend. One of those experiences which will loom in your memory out of all proportion to the time it lasted. It sounds like it was head-spinning and a lot of fun.

    I know next to nothing about Carole Lombard, but I’m getting interested.

    I also was thinking that you might try reaching out to Wisconsin Public Radio if you’re looking for more promotional opportunities. They have several call-in shows and a big audience of people interested in that era. Your book sounds like a good fit for them and I bet you’re a lively guest.

    Hope you’ve rested up!

    1. I need to look into that, Sarah. Thank you. Or I might hold it for the promotional campaign next spring tied to the Fireball trade paperback release. I was unprepared for so much hospitality and so many invitations to walk through the classic homes, and I was especially unprepared for the talk of paranormal activity in the homes. It was creepy, and it was fun. It was creepy fun.

  4. After reading about Carole Lombard’s third cousins, I can’t help telling my celebrity second cousin story. I was working in a library and a woman came to the counter to check out a book. The name on her card was Barbara Patinkin. She kind of resembled Mandy Patinkin, so I asked if they were related, just joking, really. She got very animated and said, Oh yes! He’s my second cousin! I said, oh, that’s kind of a distant relationship. She said, Oh no! We grew up on the same block. We’re a really close family. He still comes to family events. I know him really well. He’s a great guy! So much fun!

    So I was jealous, having a Mandy Patinkin crush at the time. Then I went and told one of my co-workers, a hipsterish young man, that Mandy Patinkin’s second cousin had just checked out a book. “Wow!” he said. “Did you say to her, ‘my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die?'”

    I was like, “uh, no.”

    Oh, by the way, there was creepy and fun supernatural activity in my area Saturday night…..not entirely unrelated to Carole Lombard.

  5. I’m in way northern Illinois. And I’m really sorry, but I shouldn’t have mentioned the “supernatural activity”. After I posted that, I realized how personal the thing seemed and I feel that I should keep it to myself.

    I’m glad you laughed.

  6. I’m truly pleased last weekend’s Lombard lovefest turned out so successfully and that Fort Wayne still loves and cherishes its native daughter.

    Robert, if I may, I’d like to use some of the photos to illustrate a Carole & Co. entry I intend to write about the event. Wish I could have made it there from Los Angeles, but you’ll be happy to know I visited Forest Lawn on Oct. 6 and paid my respects to Lombard on the 106th anniversary of her birth.

    1. First of all, thank you for spreading the word about Fort Wayne, Mr. Paterno. That was a big help and much appreciated.

      Absolutely, please use any photos you like off my site. I have others of these locations, including interiors of the Rockhill house, if you need them.

      It’s a nice tribute for you to visit the crypts on the big day.

      1. Assuming you have my email address, please forward me a few of those Rockhill house interiors. They would be helpful.

        Again, congratulations on a superlative job.

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