Fireballed

You may be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I’m working on my new book and it’s the bottom of the ninth, as in, after two years, I have to be done at the end of May. I only have a one-track mind, unlike later more sophisticated models of humans who can, as the kids say, multitask, and so getting this thing completed is pretty much all I’m eating and sleeping these days.

And because of that single track, I haven’t addressed a very interesting comment that came into this website at the end of April, so I thought I would pause to admire it in the sunlight. Mary Whittaker had first left a comment here saying that she had begun Fireball and was enjoying it. Then she followed up.

First of all, thank you Mary for reading and liking Fireball and for taking the time to write about the following:

So wow – I just finished “Fireball” and am still “not over it.” Thank you so much for writing this book. It was absolutely fascinating…and the most fascinating thing to ME is the question of WHY this story is so compelling (and it absolutely, positively is). The amount of angst and stress I felt reading it – having absolutely no personal knowledge of the individuals involved AND with full knowledge of pretty much how it all ended…was remarkable.

When I consider Lana’s retort (‘I didn’t make her get on that plane’), I find that I have to reluctantly somewhat agree. Gable didn’t make her get on it either. How is it possible that this smart, savvy, successful, confidant and seemingly universally loved woman was somehow reduced to changing her interests, going cross country in desperate pursuit of pregnancy, lurking around Hollywood sound stages to monitor her husband’s behavior and accepting a pattern of one sided adultery in her marriage? How did she get to a point where she was so desperate to hang onto a man that she was a wreck over an 8 day separation and the fact that he wasn’t answering the phone….to the point of defying solemn promises made to her traveling companions, ignoring military air travel demands during war time and throwing a celebrity fit in order to get her way? It’s maddening! I understand that he was “the king” and all…but she was not exactly chopped liver and absolutely nothing in her background would lead one to believe that she would not only put up with this kind of situation but literally kill herself and 2 others in her single minded desperation to retain it. I’m guessing that this wealthy high society party girl/hugely successful actress was not previously terribly interested in hunting/camping. Her prior relationships, marital opinions and career plans did not seem to have a lot of focus on motherhood. She seems to have been trying to become what she thought he wanted from the start – then obsessed with having a baby (really good idea with a straying husband) as a further means to hold him. You just want to reach through the pages and shake her — HE IS NOT WORTH IT!!!

An irony too I think is that if she hadn’t died like this, my guess would be eventual divorce when she had finally had enough. He certainly was not going to stop his behavior as her prior entreaties had not worked…it was just a matter of time before she either became too humiliated/fed up to take it any more…or he got someone pregnant (again) or found some other 20 something actress to replace his (in Hollywood) “aging” 30 something wife. I don’t think absent this tragedy the “Gable and Lombard” legendary love story would have endured.

I did not quite come away with much admiration for Gable. I felt for him and was mesmerized by the details of his attempt to climb up, time in Las Vegas waiting for the outcome/bodies and life after…but at the end of the day I couldn’t help but think that karma had kind of gotten him (with the incredibly unfortunate corresponding outcome for Winkler and Petey too). His treatment of his first wife – the ugly reality of his second marriage – the complete abdication of human/moral responsibility for Judy Lewis and of course his cavalier and hurtful behavior while with Lombard — all too much for me to erase via a few kind deeds later on.

As you so correctly pointed out, SO many people died in WW2…WHY does this one plane crash seem so compelling?! It is positively haunting to me and I’m not exactly sure why. The passage of 75 years….the fading photos of a long ago movie star who many/most today have never have even heard of….the lingering debris (including that wedding ring) still resting undisturbed on that mountain….the LONG list of reasons why this never had to happen and the various opportunities that would have changed everything are gut wrenching. I can certainly understand why Gable never recovered.

Thank you for an outstanding read. I never knew all the details…now I do and will never forget them.

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

My 2012 view of the place where all the stories intersected.

What more could any author want than a reader who is this literate and this energized after reading that author’s book? You bring up so many great points, Mary, with the first being, why did Carole bend herself into a pretzel to try to accommodate this particular man? I think the answer can be found in her capacity to love unconditionally. She was an old soul and she understood and was able to accept his baser instincts, insecurities, and shortcomings. It wasn’t ever a two-way street with these two. He was the king and she was his consort. But then she hit 30 in the place where one must never do that—Hollywood. And tastes changed among moviegoers, causing her to drive her career into a ditch. Once she was in there, it wasn’t so easy to get back out, and the result was fear she would lose her man to the hottie of 1941, Lana.

Another point you raise, the one that made you want to reach through the pages, concerned her rush to get home. As I read your reaction, it occurred to me that at age 33 years and 3 months, Carole still possessed the energy and invincibility of youth. Dying was for other people. If there’s one thing I understand above all (because she and I share this trait in spades), it’s Carole’s goal orientation. And that night her goal was, I gotta get home. She saw the prize and she went for it whereas after another 10 or 20 years of living, she might have tempered her impulse into, I want to get home, but he’ll be there tomorrow and I can’t put my traveling companions through emotional hell.

I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again. I remember vividly sitting there in the middle of writing Fireball in my quiet house. Dead quiet. And looking at the wall in front of me and thinking, “Will anyone care about this story of a movie star who’s been dead 70 years?” I’m going through it right now in a different sense because, Audrey Hepburn. Sheesh. But this time it’s, “Have I pulled this off? Have I told this story in a way that compels the reader to keep going?” You just never know.

But in both cases I’ve latched onto a story that all past biographers stepped right over without really even glancing back to see what that just was. In the case of the last days of Carole Lombard, I was like, wait a minute. There were so many stories that had never been told. Carole living the best full day of her life on the last full day of her life. The veteran airline pilot who made a rookie mistake. The first responders rushing up a mountain to make a rescue. The crash investigators trying to figure out what had happened. The poor young officer who had to pick up body parts on mountainside you couldn’t even walk across. The hotshot Army flyboy desperate to get to his fiancée. And on and on. You didn’t have to end up liking Gable because there were so many other people who were so goddamn cool, including some who broke your heart by not living to the end.

Audrey in the British picture Secret People playing a young dancer. She made this two years before she hit Hollywood.

In the case of Audrey Hepburn in World War II—that’s my next one, Audrey Hepburn in World War II—there’s an obligatory chapter on this topic in all the bios that came out after she died in 1993. A single chapter about six years of her life in the midst of the greatest crisis in human history! Oh let’s just get past this thing about Hitler and Jews, the murder of her uncle, the battle for Arnhem, the Hunger Winter, and all that other boring history. We have to blaze through it so we can get to the good stuff about sex with William Holden and the making of Breakfast at Tiffany’s! Well, fine, you all did that. There are some really good AH bios out there, particularly the one by Barry Paris.

Me? By focusing on the Netherlands, I found a story just as riveting as what there was on Potosi. Once again I’m sitting here thinking, I can’t believe I get to be the one to tell it! But, boy, I can’t just tell it. I have to tell it right. That’s the pressure and the sixty-four-dollar question. Have I told it right?

Anyway, that’s where I’ve been—back in time in the Netherlands circa 1940-45 learning how Audrey Hepburn became who she ended up being. Walking in her footsteps, breathing her air, meeting some of the people she knew in the places she knew them.

In the meantime this is just me poking my head in to say hello and to acknowledge the tremendous compliment paid by Mary Whittaker.

7 comments

  1. Robert – Thanks for the message. Your updates keep adding to and enhancing the books you’ve written. What a great idea. I very much look forward to your new book.

    1. It means a lot to me to hear you say that. By the nature of deadlines, the author has to turn over a manuscript and be “done” telling a story even though scholarship continues and the story keeps evolving, just as the author and readers keep involving. That’s why I think a blog can be valuable, to keep this living thing called the story on-the-grow. And with this particular story, about Carole and Flight 3, we are all in it together and sharing a cathartic experience.

  2. It’s so funny that you bring up Fireball. I have just re-read it and it is such a page-turner. By the way, this is my third time reading it. The book is good for a re-read once a year. I always find myself on tenterhooks hoping Carole will not get on that plane dragging her mother and poor Otto Winkler knowing this will all end badly. About sixteen years ago my husband and I were in Las Vegas and we were staying at the Venetian. I’m not a gambler so we decided to take a ride. I had asked the concierge where the Carole Lombard crash site was, and he had to ask an older employee (where the site was and who Carole Lombard was). I’m not a hiker but off we went to Red Rock Canyon as far as I could get in a world without GPS. I have to say that area is so peaceful. It’s beautiful in a very sparse and haunting way. I know you’re not Gable’s number one fan, but I think you would do a terrific job on a book on his life after Lombard. I’ve always had an interest in how Gable’s life worked with Kay. I will be reading your new one on Audrey Hepburn!

    1. Sue, I’ve been thinking a lot about Fireball as I try to put Audrey to bed. Fireball is a page turner because of the two stories–as I was just told today, you want to get through the Hollywood chapters to get back to this mile-a-minute crash story.

      I have heard before that I should do Gable, but I think Tornabene did it, except maybe for the Kay angle because Kay was alive when Long Live the King was released. From all I know and can tell, Kay was a not-aces girl who willfully destroyed a lot of Carole’s world–got rid of her possessions and tried to obliterate her memory. I admire Gable for surviving the crash, but I don’t admire him for hooking up with this poser in the last decade of his life. I know people reach a certain age and “settle” so they have someone to look after them in their declining years. He could have done better is all I have to say.

      Stay tuned; Audrey’s coming. And thank you again.

  3. Just listened to a pod cast about the Lombard crash. They expanded the info on a UFO spotted flying near that area right before the crash. You did mention it so that is why it caught my attention. Also they mentioned you and the book FIREBALL and said that you weren’t able to get any official documentation on the subject. Not a big UFO believer but it was interesting. I suppose anything will be having to do the crash since I read the book.

    1. Robyn, when the original Fireball hardcover was released, I didn’t have access to the full FBI files on the crash, and it was in there that two Civil Aeronautics men described UFOs in the air lane that Fight 3 took. These weren’t two crackpots, they were feds, which is why I included the information in the revised and expanded Fireball trade paperback. I mean, this was five years before Roswell, when “flying saucers” hadn’t, strictly speaking, been invented in the press yet. Do I think UFOs “brought down” the plane? No. There were plenty of causes without adding spacemen. But it sure was an interesting turn of events to find those sworn statements in the FBI documents. The podcast itself as you describe it has some problems–the UFO was seen some nights before the crash, not “right before,” and I did end up getting official documentation. I think it’s also possible that someone has interpreted the confusing statements of eyewitness Willard H. George as having something to do with UFOs.

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