On the eve of war

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

I came across this letter on a Facebook (posted by Brian Lee Anderson) Carole Lombard fan page. It’s written in Lombard’s own hand for Movie Mirror magazine in celebration of Thanksgiving 1939, and I find it evocative on a couple of levels. I don’t know how much prepping she did or who might have helped her with this piece. This was her RKO period so it’s not a Russell Birdwell/Selznick PR piece, and maybe it’s just Carole being Carole and winging it. The sentiment is beautiful, democratic, and gives a nod to the fact that, hey, worldly possessions are important. It’s better to have them than not to have them.

The handwriting itself shows an unusual amount of concentration and workmanship from someone who often scribbled like your average M.D. A handwriting analyst might say that the lack of slant in one direction or the other indicates a practical, down-to-earth person, which she certainly was, and the occasional backward slant reveals a rebellious streak that just couldn’t be contained.

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

Carole Lombard at about the time she wrote her Thanksgiving 1939 open letter in Movie Mirror magazine.

To me the allusion to world events hits closest to home because in working on my new manuscript, Mission: James Stewart and World War II, I am forced to confront human suffering that’s at the least uncomfortable and often devastating. She wrote her Thanksgiving message about a year after Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass symbolizing the beginning of the end for Jews in Nazi-occupied territories. She wrote it two months after the invasion of Poland that sent refugees streaming westward. She wrote it with the German war machine rising to strike against France and England and with Hitler rallying hundreds of thousands in Nuremberg. She wrote it as the conflict between Japan and China raged for its second year. She wrote it in anticipation of a war that would claim more than 400,000 American lives, including her own.

The Allies would prevail in what would become World War II, and their spoils included the writing of the history of it. I continue to struggle to uncover accounts of civilians under the rain of Eighth Air Force bombs because the losers in war don’t get to tell their stories. But if war is hell, then those unlucky enough to watch 200 B-24 Liberators fly over and unload their “cartons of eggs” truly knew what hell was all about. Before you say, “Well, they were the enemy, that’s what they deserved,” consider that the bombs fell on civilians who had learned that challenging Nazi authority meant death; on Jews hiding in Berlin basements for years; and on Dutch, French, and Polish nationals forced to work in German factories. Tens of thousands of these humans were blown back to their molecular components by the Americans of the Mighty Eighth.

And that’s what I see written between the lines of Carole Lombard’s Thanksgiving 1939 message. There’s a palpable sense of foreboding, that history was about to blow through in the form of a worldwide cyclone and no one, absolutely no one, would be spared.

2 comments

  1. What do we think she meant by “kindness of fates”? To be clear, she writes “fates” with an “s”. Was she referencing the Moirae? If so, that’s even more telling given what was going on in 1939 as you’ve written. In Greek mythology, the Moirae are the three goddesses of fate. In English, they are called the Fates.

    The goddesses are Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life, Lachesis, the measurer of the thread of life, and Atropos, the cutter of the thread of life. According to mythology, the Moirae appear three nights after a child’s birth and set his/her destiny. Atropos further determines the manner of death.

    Carole Lombard seems to have been well read so it’s entirely possible she took an interest in mythology. She definitely did not follow in the traditional Presbyterian or Lutheran footsteps of the Knight and Peters families. She was guided by the Bahá’í faith, numerology, palmistry and her own intuition. Was she also guided by the Fates? If it’s to be believed, Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote after Carole’s death that Carole had said she could see herself with a baby, but not with a grown child.

    Did she ponder her future? Did she envision an early death? Those “fates” may have been kind with her worldly possessions and her wealth, but were far less generous when granting her length of life.

    1. Fascinating stuff, Marina. Lombard was shaken to her core by Russ Columbo’s death at age 26; the loss of Harlow (also just 26) seems to have hit Carole hard as well, although there’s no evidence they were close pals. It’s strange to me to be so young and get an inkling you wouldn’t be around long, but she hung out with a crowd that included highly intuitive people (read: “psychics”) who may have had an inkling as well.

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