I’ve told this story often: When I climbed Mt. Potosi with my guide, Jim Boone, on a cold October day, I stood at the site where TWA Flight 3 struck rock cliffs and exploded, and I felt an electric connection with the people who died on January 16, 1942, all 22 of them. It’s easy to feel a connection with Carole Lombard, the movie star that you see in the movies and in thousands of photos on the internet. But I also experienced a direct link to the pilots and stewardess, to Carole’s mother, to her press representative, to a quiet war bride, and to soldiers whose names I didn’t even know at the time. They were all there on the mountainside—I mean vividly there—and they communicated to me that once they had been alive, and they were important, with stories to tell.
I came back from the mountain and started putting their stories together, sitting in my office all alone writing Fireball week after week, month after month, researching Carole Lombard and these people and thinking to myself, Will anybody care? What if nobody cares?
Fireball has been out almost a year now, and there are at least four people who truly don’t care. If you go to Amazon and look at the reviews you will see all four there, with comments like, “interesting to someone who lived during that era, but the author spent too much time writing about people and their lives who were killed on ill fated flight.” Set against this view are tens of thousands of people who eagerly consumed the book and now know the story of how Carole Lombard lived and died. So many readers have said to me, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard when I started.” If they didn’t know Lombard, they probably didn’t know Gable, and none would have known Carole’s mom or Otto Winkler, or pilots Wayne Williams and Morgan Gillette, or stewardess Alice Getz, or Lois Hamilton the Army wife, or soldiers with names like Barham and Nygren and Varsamine.
I knew up on the mountain that this book would be different and not what a reader of Hollywood biography might expect. It’s a mile-a-minute story, so why would I want to pound it into a standard format? These people lived and breathed and so must their story, and so I told it on two parallel tracks: The story of the crash, and the story of the passengers in life. Mostly it’s Carole Lombard’s story of course; she was as memorable a character as lived in the twentieth century, and people want to know about her. They want to know about Clark Gable as well, and the dynamics between Carole and Clark as lovers and spouses. The trick was to weave all the other characters into the story, the people Carole knew and loved, and also the other passengers, the rescuers, and the crash investigators. So many cool, competent, heroic people for one book, and I got to be the first to tell their story.
I am sitting here on the last day of 2014 looking back at the year of Fireball, a book now in its second printing, feeling such a sense of satisfaction that people do care about this story and these people. I know because I met them at lectures and book signings. I looked into the eyes of veteran television interviewers who couldn’t learn enough about the story; I heard interest in the voices of radio personalities who had invited me on the air. There are so many angles to pitch—Carole Lombard’s trail-blazing career as a liberated woman in Hollywood; the tempestuous love of Carole and Clark; his infidelities and how they contributed to his wife’s death; Otto Winkler’s premonition that he would die on a plane; the mystery of how TWA’s most experienced pilot could steer a perfectly running airplane into a mountainside on a clear night; the fact that all 19 passengers were traveling on government business related to the war; my own trek up the mountain and what it was like to find the last thing I expected: human remains at the crash site after all these years.
It was a fantastic year for Fireball, from the book launch in Santa Monica, California, in January to all those lectures across the country to the featuring of the Fireball trailer at www.bookreels.com just two days ago. Some dude named Pitbull even wrote a song about Fireball. Personally I can’t hear any mention of Carole Lombard in the lyrics, but I guess he liked the book anyway. I’m pretty sure Carole would have liked his song.
I don’t know what 2015 holds, but I’m excited to find out. Happy New Year everybody; may 2015 be a spectacular year for you—a Fireball kind of year.