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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.