One Saturday morning

It’s funny how close you get to the people you write about in a book. Spend every day over a couple-year period with Carole Lombard, and you get to know her pretty well, then you go away and write another book and lose touch with your friend until something yanks you back, like the upcoming 75th anniversaries and release of the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 , and suddenly you’re going, “Carole! Nice to see you! How you been?”

As I write this, it’s the morning of January 10. This day 75 years ago Carole was at home off Petit Avenue in quiet little Encino, California, packing for her trip east to sell war bonds. And packing and packing, trunks and trunks of carefully mapped-out wardrobe for whistlestop bond-selling opportunities, interviews in Chicago, and then multiple events in Indianapolis and more whistlestops heading west for home.

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

She had a lot on her mind this Saturday morning the 10th. She’d had a dust-up with her old man about his closeness with a certain younger woman. Now he was gone east to New York and here she was listening to the ticking clock and remembering all the words they had used to bloody each other. He wasn’t what you’d call an elegant or articulate fighter. He was quiet by nature and went from zero straight to rage, and she could match him and bring a lot more intellect to the battle along with an arsenal of four-letter words he just couldn’t match, and the result was carnage on both sides.

The larger issue: How could she compete with the endless parade of youthful flesh passing before his eyes? She had already maxed out on diet, exercise, and beauty creams. Personally she had no fear of aging and said so to the press and meant it, but aging in the context of holding her man was a different matter. To keep up, she had already met the man’s man on his terms and done the gun-moll bit. She did everything to please him, from hunting and fishing trips into the middle of nowhere to discreetly averting her gaze for his frequent dalliances. Now, to her horror, she could see him growing bored anyway. He had had a tough life and was not a happy guy despite his fame and millions, despite the fact that he was reaping all the many benefits of a beautiful woman offering him unconditional love. Despite everything, absolute power had corrupted him absolutely in just five years of being together, and less than two married.

Because this was such a slow-speed train wreck in the making, she had had time to try to prevent the collision, chief among them to get pregnant and present the king with an heir. But the skin she was so comfortable in had betrayed her and she kept miscarrying. Such heartache that caused. So frustrating for a woman who specialized in willing dreams into reality.

Tripping over the opened suitcases and trunks reminded her of a thousand details, and she got on the phone to her mother, nicknamed Petey, who would be going along on the trip. Petey grew up in the ice station known as Fort Wayne, Indiana, but had spent nearly 30 years thawing out in Southern California, so they kept reminding each other how cold Chicago and Indianapolis were going to be in January. Hats, coats, stoles, gloves, scarves—pack plenty of each. And relatives were suddenly coming out of the woodwork wanting to meet up with the Peters girls for reunions in Chicago or Indianapolis, and could they please stop off in Fort Wayne for a day? No, they couldn’t, because Carole had to be back home for a sneak preview of her new picture Monday, January 19, and she would be enslaved on passenger trains for days and days to her great frustration.

Otto kept calling because the schedule was a living thing even on a Saturday. Otto as in Otto Winkler, hubby’s PR man and best friend who was now hers for the trip. Men had no trouble packing even for a week, and she managed to kid him about that despite her mood. A few suits, a tux, some dress shirts and ties, and he was good to go, while the mess surrounding her looked like the contents of the Lusitania bobbing on the water after torpedoing.

The next nine days were going to be a blur, she knew, and yet it seemed like an eternity until she’d be able to see her man again and really patch things up. Carole being Carole, she had to do what she could to control the situation, and she’d come up with the idea of writing a series of notes that would be doled out to him one a day—intimate little reminders of good times past and future. He was going to be spending considerable time with that younger woman, and the notes might serve as the conscience of the king. She could hope, anyway. So she sat and thought and wrote nine notes and tucked them in envelopes and sealed them up with love.

That was life at 4525 Petit Avenue in Encino 75 years ago this morning.

11 comments

  1. Thank you for this Robert Matzen. . . she has been on my mind as well, each day I find myself thinking about those final days leading to her last on January 16th. Gone for 75 years, but still inspiring people to this day. She’s had a special place in my heart since I was a young girl. I remember telling you when we met a few months ago at a book signing that I don’t fight it anymore, or wonder why I feel they way I do. It’s just been a part of who I am for so long. She was special and gone far too soon. Debbie summed it up. Breaks my heart too.

    1. Myra, I wrote an op-ed the other day that forced me to sit down and compile her attributes: champion of women’s rights, humanitarian, patriot, businesswoman–and gone at 33. You can do worse than having this person in your heart.

      1. Would love to read your op-ed about those amazing attributes … she crammed so much love, laughter and yes tears into those 33 years! Honestly, I’ve been quite happy to have someone like her in my heart all these years, despite the sadness I sometimes feel. Thanks for the new edition of Fireball, I look forward to reading it.

  2. Great post! You brought Carole back to life for a few moments. When is the trade paperback edition of Fireball coming out? And I’m curious about why Gable was out east that last week Carole was at home. Will that be discussed in the expanded edition?

    1. Betsy, the trade edition of Fireball will be released on the 75th anniversary January 16. As for why Gable flew to New York City, it seems to have been a personal matter and I haven’t been able to track it down. I do know he left Friday January 9 and was back a few days later.

      1. Lots of new content. Details on her Baha’i faith, eyewitness accounts of her day in Indy, the full Cadle speech, declassified FBI files, and quite a bit about the body found recently at the crash site. Plus an additional 16 pages of photos for a total of 32.

  3. I have read just about every biography on Lombard (and Gable as well). Your book on Lombard brought her to life like no other author. Larry Swindell’s Screwball was good but there were some obvious mistakes.
    I can certainly tell that you are haunted by Lombard. I’m sure that trip you took up to Mt. Potosi
    is something you will think about every January.

  4. A lot of things must have haunted Gable after her death. But the thought of that final meeting with her, the accusations, the screams, the raw emotions on display, the truths espoused by her which he denied, must have been a particular huge regret for him. I wonder if almost two decades he was more at peace with that bitter memory.

    Thanks for giving us the opportunity to get a feeling for Lombard’s last morning at home, Robert. Strange the fates that can affect our lives – in her case, the flip of a coin that altered the decision to return home by plane, rather than train.

    1. It was a quiet morning, the calm before a storm she knew was coming. It’s too easy to lose the humanity of a person packing for a trip, breathing, heart calm, just going through a morning like any other. It only becomes important for what came later but my goal, Tom–always my goal, is to paint these subjects of biography as humans first and foremost. Get up, wash your face brush your teeth humans. As for Gable, I give him tremendous credit for soldiering on and lugging his flaws and regrets with him. We all have flaws and regrets, and I will not judge him for his lest I be judged. But he kept going and did it with dignity.

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