Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIn case you haven’t noticed, we’re living through a gender revolution that will make the history books. Women from all walks of life are stepping out of the shadows to speak about the sexual abuse they’ve suffered, whether in the form of unwanted advances, or bullying, or rape. It began with actresses in Hollywood, but now workers in the casino, restaurant, and hospitality industries have come forward, and we stand at a moral crossroads. The movement has revealed the continued inequality of the sexes, and a truly surprising lack of progress made in the treatment of women by men. Personally, speaking only for myself as a male of the species, I would argue that men and women aren’t equal at all. Women are superior in almost every way.

When you stop to think about the fact that Harvey Weinstein and so many others have been getting away with vicious behavior in Hollywood in what should be an enlightened age, you have to wonder how bad things were 70 and 80 years ago when L.A. was, to an even greater degree, a “man’s world.”

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

Gable is his usual over-showered self but not his mate who emerged from a successful hunting trip unbathed and wearing no makeup. But still in a fur.

Since the Weinstein business came to light, we’ve seen a cascade of alleged male abusers. You know who this has brought to mind? Carole Lombard. I’ve gained new and growing awareness about how Lombard conducted herself during her Hollywood years. Back around the time she became a leading lady in 1928, she adopted a hard-edged vocabulary that earned her the alias “profane angel” and she used it with everyone, but particularly with men. She was an aggressive woman. She arranged to be photographed with men’s toys—cars, airplanes, guns. She kidded the hell out of men and in the rawest possible terms. She kept men off guard pretty much all the time. Throughout her career, she was known for cursing like a sailor and adopting a manner with men that was charming but also in the bounds of “confrontational.” In other words, she made it clear she was in charge of any situation, and since I got to know this woman pretty well while writing Fireball, I’m going to wonder if once she may have been sexually groped or assaulted.


If it did happen, her highly unconventional behavior of the next 15 years suddenly makes perfect sense. Supposedly her two older brothers, Fred and Stuart, helped Carole figure out how to live successfully in a man’s world through a tailored attitude and vocabulary. Whoever it was who came up with the formula, it worked. As one of the fan magazines trumpeted, Lombard ‘lives by a man’s rules’ in such grand fashion that, pretty soon, she had a reputation like a gunslinger: Don’t mess with this one; you could get hurt. Carole Lombard flat-out intimidated men—she who kept the massive ego of Clark Gable in check as easily as she wielded a shotgun.

Last month marked 76 years since Carole Lombard died in a plane crash near Las Vegas. That span of time boggles the mind because of how progressive she was. She negotiated paychecks comparable to those of some of the leading men of her day; she made it a point to learn all about directing, producing, and lighting—all of which were male domains; she cheerfully paid 80 percent of her income in taxes because it was for the common good; and she espoused equality of the sexes in a town, and a world, dominated by men. And now, viewed through the prism of the #metoo movement, she seemed to have found a way all those decades ago to take charge of her own safety. I used to think her blue language was eccentric, but now I realize the brilliance and practicality of her brash manner as a loaded weapon with the safety off.

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

Giving Robert Stack the business on the set of To Be or Not to Be.


  1. Lovely post!

    I think Carole would have been proud that we are finally speaking out and naming names. Some of the stories, like the one with Azir Ansari, are the usual ” girls sharing bad dates experiences.” which, of course, we all do, only that, this time, it is public shaming, which would be wrong, if not serving the purpose of advise young and naive women what they might expect if they agree to go out on a date with said guy.

    Happy 2018!

  2. Another incredible article, Robert. I used to think that Carole Lombard’s sailor mouth and mannish stance were just an evolution of her childhood tomboyishness. You have made me reconsider that opinion. It was very likely her shield from a Hollywood culture in which sexual harassment was not only widespread, but tolerated. If anything, I must believe that it was much more difficult for women to navigate the choppy Hollywood shoals back in the day, because of the times, and because an aspiring actress would not get much sympathy if she did speak out about mistreatment. If you were a woman and you wanted to get ahead, you were expected to play the game.

    Brava to Carole for standing toe to toe with the patriarchal Hollywood system and not backing down. She was indeed a trailblazer in many ways. I’ve read a number of stories told by women in the biz who were subjected to sexual harassment and even sexual assault. The list includes Maureen O’Hara, Shirley Temple (when she was 12), Tippi Hedren, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley Jones.

    I must also wonder if there were young aspiring actors who were victims of unwanted sexual attention in days of yore. Not necessarily from women, but by prominent men in the industry. I have to think it did happen, but they too couldn’t easily speak out.

    Thank you for another great piece, Robert. I always learn from you.

    Best regards!


  3. Great post, Robert, giving us a perspective of Lombard, the charming queen of screwball comedy, as a tough survivor in a man’s world. Heck, she was so good at getting what she wanted she even got the “King” of Hollywood, warts and all.

    Lombard, like everyone else, undoubtedly saw a lot in a movie industry that turned an eye the other way when it came to the abuse of women. Was she spared it? Seems unlikely but that, as you say, may have contributed to her toughness to make sure it never happened again.

    We’ve seen photos of her behind the scenes on the Mr. and Mrs. Smith set when she directed Hitchcock, primarily as a laugh, it would appear. Looking at her final film appearance right afterward in To Be Or Not To Be I have always thought she was at a new mature peak in her beauty. But that, of course, would not have lasted.

    If she had lived longer (probably a divorce from Gable in the cards) where would her career have gone in a Hollywood that could be unforgiving of a woman of beauty starting to lose her looks? Would Lombard have become a domino behind the camera, directing perhaps (a la Ida Lupino, when good roles were no longer coming her way) or producing? She sure had the balls to do something. It took a plane crash to stop her but nothing short of that, I suspect, would have been able to.


  4. Carole’s personal powers were unmatched by any other woman in Hollywood. Historians continue to mark the greatest actresses of the 30s era as Betty Davis and Katherine Hepburn, who also fought the studio chiefs for equal rights; although many might disagree. But the most respected path making, enterprising, sharing, feminist, spirituallly seeking, and inspiring to many others woman, as shown thoroughly in Fireball, is that unquestionably beautiful girl from Indiana, Jane Alice Peters, who was loved and remembered more widely than any of her contemporaries.

  5. Was Lombard a victim of sexual harassment early in her career? We’ll never know fully. But the Baha’i faith she learned from her mother had a strict belief in equality of the genders. With her desire to learn as much as she could about the industry — not merely the technical aspects but the personal ins and outs — she no doubt saw what happened to many young girls who moved to Hollywood to seek stardom and didn’t make it. They found menial jobs, moved into prostitution…or worse.

    Several other stars have been harassed, including Janis Paige (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/871751.html), Maureen O’Hara (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/873017.html) and Goldie Hawn and Anna Faris, two of Carole’s comedic heirs (https://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/875238.html).

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