About the Author

Robert Matzen broke into print just out of college with the mass-market Bantam paperback, Research Made Easy: a Guide for Students and Writers. His mentor at Bantam Books was New York editorial legend Toni Burbank, who, says Matzen, “provided lessons for a lifetime.” He is the author of seven books and also a filmmaker whose 2001 feature When the Forest Ran Red aired on PBS, earned six national awards including a Muse Award from the American Association of Museums, and became the most respected documentary on young George Washington and his role in the Seven Years War in America. It was the experience of recreating colonial-era battles and shooting on location at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, that inspired Matzen to take a more intimate approach to retelling history. “I want you to feel the heartbeat of these people who once lived,” he says.

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

Climbing Mt. Potosi in October 2012.

For 10 years Robert worked as a communications specialist for NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. There he provided writing support and also used his experience as a filmmaker to write and direct a dozen films for NASA at facilities including Dryden Flight Research Center, Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, and other NASA facilities around the nation. He calls working with and directing astronauts his “dream job.”

Matzen’s interest in aeronautics and in Hollywood history led to his two most recent books. Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 took an unconventional look at the life of Carole Lombard, and at the plane crash that killed her in January 1942. For this book he obtained TWA’s confidential files on the crash, examined the two federal investigations into the loss of Flight 3 along with testimony from the coroner’s inquests of the 22 crash victims, and undertook a dangerous climb of Nevada’s Potosi Mountain to the crash site, which he documented in the introduction of Fireball.

His 2016 release, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, tells the story of Stewart’s career as a combat pilot in World War II as seen through his own eyes and those of the men who fought with and against him. This time the author interviewed veterans of the 445th Bomb Group who flew with Stewart, combed through thousands of pages of U.S. Army Air Forces records, visited key sites in England, France, Holland, and Germany, and flew in B-17 and B-24 four-engine bombers like those Jimmy Stewart piloted in the war.

Robert lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife Mary and their three cats, Simone, Francois, and Angelique.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

With Clem Leone at the Gettysburg Heritage Center Nov. 20, 2016. As detailed in Mission, Clem is a veteran of the 445th Bomb Group whose plane was shot down in the epic air battle over Gotha, Germany Feb. 24, 1944.

 

46 comments

  1. Best wishes for the new blog, Robert.
    You’re off to a wonderful start with yourwonderful tribute to Shirley Temple. Im a big fan of Errol’s, so I especially look forward to your thoughts and observations regarding The Great Flynn. Having grown up on Merritt Island, with a father that worked on Redstone, Mercury, Geminii & Apollo, at the VAB, I would also love to see your work and musings regarding those glory days of the space program there.

    Thanks, Robert.

    P.S. Always loved that lyric aypu quote above from Mulholland Farm resident Ricky Nelson.

    P.S.2 Just recently posted a photo of Alice Marble with Errol on the Errol Flynn Blog.

  2. Well, Robert, having just devoured “Fireball,” I jumped into “Errol & Olivia” with relish. What a delightful book. Although at first I thought…oh, no…this book is HUGE, I’m now delighted that you went with the “coffee table” look. How else to capture those gorgeous photos of two beautiful people. I love your style, interlocking their lives and giving us such an informative time line. I learned so many new things about them, just as I did with Carole and Clark. Your research Is amazing…and the skill in which you take so much information and lay it out makes it such an interesting read. I loved it…

    Tonight I start “Errol Flynn Slept Here.” Can’t wait!

  3. Dear Robert, I think if you visit GWTW Showtimes Facebook and read the entries, you will see why there haven’t been GWTW events. It will answer all your questions. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: TVC 6/27
  5. Love FIREBALL, know JIm Boone, too. However, you start off with an error that everyone from the Vegas Valley and who’s flown into Vegas knows. It’s MCCARRAN… not MCCARREN. It’s a jolt and bothered me each time I read it. You were so meticulous in your research and writing, this proofing error stands out..sorry.

    1. You’re absolutely right, Mary. This was a biggie, the one people come back to. The misspelling had its origin in a couple of citations in the federal records from 1942, and I picked up on it, and it squeaked through–even though I have flown into and out of McCarran countless times. The error was corrected months ago in the Kindle and of course has been corrected in the trade paperback second edition out next spring. But thanks for loving Fireball despite its warts.

  6. Greetings Robert and congratulations on a compelling, entertaining read. (Don’t mean to nitpick but there also appears to be a proofing error on page 318, 2nd paragraph, last sentence, regarding Fred Peters’ son: “…also named Fred, to fly on a airliners.”) That out of the way, I’ve wanted to make the climb to the crash site since learning about it several years ago. But I’m glad I didn’t before reading Fireball and acquiring a much deeper knowledge and appreciation of the people affected by the tragedy. Thank you and everyone who provided support for the book, well done. I plan to visit the site in April ’15 via the “traditional route” as described on Jim Boone’s website. I just need to experience and see it for myself.

    Regards,
    Rob
    NYC

    1. Yes, Rob, that proofing error was cleaned up months ago when the hardcover was converted for e-readers, but I really appreciate your care in passing the information along. You have picked one of two “perfect” times for a climb, April or October. Perfect in quotes because it won’t be an easy day, whatever the time of year. I have wanted to go up again and have plenty of motivation. My next opportunity will also be in April 2015. Maybe I’ll run into you up there.

      1. In fact, my brother and I did a precursor hike last month via the traditional route. It took us 2 hours and we made it about 2/3 of the way before heading back down which took less than an hour. It’s easier and faster than the direct route but there are numerous steep sections that get the heart pumping (hard to believe utility workers drive vehicles on this road). We’d rather do the route you took but aren’t confident enough about finding the way, especially through the cliffs. Anyway, we’re excited about reaching the crash site and are preparing carefully for it. We don’t have a particular date yet but I’ll let you know when we do, we’d love for you to join us. My brother and I live for this type of adventure; we did a really cool hike in Blue John Canyon, Utah where Aron Ralston (127 Hours) was trapped. It’s otherworldly, so isolated and inhospitable but stunningly beautiful. Congratulations again on the success of Fireball and good luck with your upcoming projects, I’ll be “following” you!

        Rob
        (p.s., have you seen the youtube video of the crash scene…must’ve been shot by the CAB: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8qk9k81XEQ)

      2. Rob, the UCLA footage is raw newsreel stock–all the footage shot by one of the newsreel cameramen on the mountain. Logic would dictate that the body you see being pulled up the mountain so roughly is The Most Important Body. That’s what the cameraman was there to shoot: Carole Lombard. It’s not for him to judge whether the footage will be used or how it will be used. He’s just doing his job. At first we can’t even get a sense of what’s being dragged up on a rope by those men. Then it’s startling to realize it’s a partial human body wrapped in a blanket. I’m certain we are getting a revealing look at the remains of the movie star in the link you provided.

        If I went again, I wouldn’t take the route I took–there were too many brushes with disaster going that way, on the way up and especially coming back down. My experienced guide had to stop and backtrack three or four times, kind of like going through a vertical maze. At some points it was a long way straight down. So when I go back to the site, it will be by “the traditional route.” We should keep in touch to see if it’s possible to team up next April.

  7. I was startled by how roughly the remains were handled and I’m sure you’re right that it’s her in that blanket. But I understand what those men were up against and cannot imagine how tough and horrific the recovery was. Your description of the direct route is harrowing and I want no part of that. But despite all the difficulty, you must’ve gained a real sense of accomplishment. I look forward to the challenge and will stay in touch! (BTW, is her wedding ring still presumed to be up there somewhere?)

    1. I have nothing but admiration for Lt. Hunt and his 20-man Army detail, the civilian volunteers, and the federal investigators on the mountain for three long days of investigation and body recovery. They did what they had to do. In two feet of snow. On a steep mountainside where there was no decent place to stand. In January.

      Yes, thinking about it, there’s a feeling of accomplishment all right, and yet the mountain humbled me. A couple more wrong steps and I would have been in a bad way because those rocks don’t give an inch when you crash into them. I’m intrigued by the way you and your brother attempted to go in, which is I guess the way the bodies were brought out, roughly speaking. One consideration is the length of the days up there in April. We barely made it up and back in daylight and made the return drive down Ninety-Nine Mile Road after night had swallowed us. I figure there won’t be a minute to spare getting in and out on whatever day you go.

      The wedding ring disappeared because it was on her left hand, which also disappeared. I have seen photos of a gold wedding band recovered on the mountain and I thought it was Carole’s. However, experts insist that hers was a narrow band and the one found at the site was a wide band. By process of elimination it may have belonged to Lois Mary Miller Hamilton, the young war bride and the only other married female on the plane. So in theory, Mrs. Gable’s wedding band is still up there someplace.

      It’s good to remember that TWA tried to dynamite the crash site, unsuccessfully, but their work caused some disruption to the terrain. Treasure hunters have gone up there looking for 70 years but they’ve always been hampered by difficult access and the horrendous nature of the ground. Letting alone the emotional nature of the site, the practical fact is that it’s hard enough to maneuver up there in the rocks, cactus, Joshua trees, dead branches, and plane parts, let alone dig for artifacts. For many, the site is akin to a cemetery and shouldn’t be disturbed at all. Had it been locked away from day one I would agree, but given the encroachment of serious hikers, aviation buffs, Lombard fans, at least one author, and others, my position is: explore and investigate, but stay safe.

      I appreciate your messages, Rob. They have reminded me of the climb, which is never far from my mind’s eye anyway.

      1. Robert, I was describing to my wife how Carole Lombard took people under her wing and mentioned the story of Alice Marble. I was stunned when she reminded me that her mother tried to develop a film project based on Marble’s life; I’d completely forgotten. My mother-in-law, Christine H., was an athletic 18-year old when she contracted polio and lost the use of her legs in 1953 (her story is also remarkable). She grew to become a champion for women’s causes and Alice Marble’s story resonated deeply with her. Christine lived and worked in Studio City, CA and had friends in the entertainment industry. She acquired the rights to Marble’s autobiography, “Courting Danger”, in 2001 and presented the idea to various persons. My brother-in-law worked with her in the effort and tells me that Christine remained hopeful for the project until her death in 2012. My wife & I grew up in Studio City and relocated to NYC shortly before she passed away. Christine had a travel agency on Ventura Blvd. where I worked for many years. I’ve driven past Petit Ave. in Encino a thousand times and know exactly where the ranch was. I’ve flown in and out of Burbank (Bob Hope) Airport many times. Though I wasn’t yet born, it’s haunting to imagine Clark Gable driving along Ventura Bl. en route to Lockheed Air Terminal to meet his wife who would not arrive. These connections make “Fireball” all the more fascinating and meaningful for me. When you’re in NYC I’d love to meet you and hear about your Potosi hike. And I’m looking forward to your book on the Mighty Eighth as I’m also an avid WWII history buff.

  8. Have to correct you on your Clark Gable blog. The King of Hollywood passed in 1959, not as you wrote, 1951. If that were true, The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe would never have been made!

    1. Marji, I have no idea on what blog you saw a reference to Clark Gable dying in 1951. He died after more than a week in the hospital in November 1960 following completion of production on The Misfits.

  9. I just read your piece about my grandmother, Madalynne Fields. I certainly inherited her body type. I am also 6ft tall and in the 250 weight range. If you have a digital copy of the interview with my father, I’d love a copy.

    Thanks!

    K. Lang

    1. Hello K. Lang–

      I don’t have a digital copy of the interview; to access the audiotape, you have to follow protocol with the Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills. You contact Special Collections and specify that you would like to visit on such and such a day and listen to the Richard Lang interviews in the Lyn Tornabene collection. They will provide an audiocassette player and headphones. You may not make a copy; you can only take notes on paper or a laptop. As I remember it there are two audio interviews by Tornabene on the phone with your father, and what an interesting guy he seems to have been. He was a major influence on my book, Fireball, not just about your grandmother but also about Clark Gable.

  10. In Fireball you write that Irene Dunne was miscast in My Favorite Wife. Wrong! Irene Dunne was one of the best movie actors of all time, especially in sophisticated comedy. Cary Grant stated that she had the best timing of all of the women he acted with. I doubt that any movie critic worth his/her salt would agree with your opinion about Dunne and My Favorite Wife. She was brilliant in that movie as she was in all of her movies of that genre.

  11. Hi – I came to this page after coming across a book written by Nellie Meier, Lion’s Paws. You filled in some of the questions I had about her history. And then, of course, I spent time looking at all the other posts. Such an interesting and illuminating blog you’ve created!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, jcrn, and for the kind words. Nellie Meier’s story is a fascinating one and I’m still not sure if Carole Lombard did or did not stop at Tuckaway in the last days of her life.

  12. Dear Mr. Matzen: My ex-wife and I attempted to find the crash site in 1977, after hearing tales from Hughes Airwest WWII pilots I had flown with at the airline. They said you could occasionally see the sun reflecting off wreckage if the angle was right. We met a very old lady in Goodsprings who’s husband was on the recovery team. She had seen the fireball the night it happened. I’ve since retired from the airline but am currently working corporate flying and making occasional stops in LAS. I’ve become interested once again and was wondering if you would be interested in a recreation of the flight. I have access to a TWA DC-3 and am qualified to fly it as well. I believe the museam owning it would allow such a project and perhaps the mystery could be solved in present day conditions. If interested, please contact me. Thank you.

    1. Bo, I am intrigued by your idea but wonder if you could control enough of the variables to make the simulation authentic and accurate. It would be quite a risk for a flyable vintage DC-3 to load it to 26,000 pounds and fly it after dark out of Nellis–if that’s even possible. Plus so much of the area has been developed, with light encroachment and light pollution,n that I’d worry about spillover light contaminating the test. And would it possible to replicate the atmospherics as described in the investigations, including two feet of snow atop Potosi. I was at the mountain on January 16, 2014 and there was no snow cover at all, so it wouldn’t be a given. All that said, the fact you have vast piloting experience, especially out of LAS, along with long-term interest, make me want to learn more about what you have in mind.

    1. Hi Paul, yes, Fireball is available as an ebook on all popular readers, and the electronic version of the Fireball trade paperback will be available on the release date of January 16, 2017.

  13. Robert

    I just finished reading “Fireball”–you did a great job bringing the story to life. I noticed a comment you made about wanting to create a book as engrossing as “The Cast of Killers.” I think you achieved your goal. I had the pleasure of reading that book many years ago and loved it. I think your book captured the same spirit. I felt a connection to the people and places you described. I also appreciated the time you spent bringing us closer to the other people on the plane.

    One question—at the end of the book, you mention that Jill Winkler lost her home. Can you share some additional details about what happened to her in the years after the accident? The only thing I found on the Internet was that she sued Clark Gable’s estate unsuccessfully.

    Thanks again for writing such an interesting book. BTW, I also have your book on Errol Flynn and Olivia deHaviland—also a wonderful book.

    I can be reached at:

    george_granger@att.net

    Thanks!

    George Granger

    1. Thank you for liking Fireball, George. Any favorable comparison to Cast of Killers is music to my ears. As for poor Jill Winkler, she wasn’t the most stable person, it seems, and had a run of self-imposed bad luck later in life. She got hooked up with the wrong guy and lost all her money, but rebounded and married a man named Rath. After his death, I believe she went to Arizona and lived under the care of Nazoma Ball, who helped me tell Jill’s story.

    1. The death toll on heavy bomber training missions in the west was heartbreaking. The Liberators in particular were such an unforgiving beast to fly that it’s no wonder so many guys never made it into the European fighting. I’m honored to meet 2nd Lt. Robert Madsen, although I wish it were under better circumstances. Thanks for sharing this, SARGuy, and I hope you and Roberta find Mission to be worthwhile.

  14. Robert

    Your comments on the B-24 echo what Ernest K. Gann wrote in his classic airline biography… ‘Fate is the Hunter’. See Wiki on it below here…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fate_Is_the_Hunter

    He hated the B-24 as he felt it literally betrayed even the best of pilots and could never be trusted. As such it was despised by the Airline Pilots who had to ferry them overseas… including Earnst Gann. Its easily the best book ever written on aviation – and IMO, possibly the best biography ever written by anyone on any subject.

  15. Robert

    Your comments on the B-24 echo what Ernest K. Gann wrote in his classic airline biography… ‘Fate is the Hunter’. See Wiki on it below here…

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fate_Is_the_Hunter

    He hated the B-24 as he felt it literally betrayed even the best of pilots and could never be trusted. As such it was despised by the Airline Pilots who had to ferry them overseas… including Earnst Gann. Its easily the best book ever written on aviation – and IMO, possibly the best biography ever written by anyone on any subject.

    Regards
    Robert McCoy

  16. Robert, I’m thrilled for your Mission book. I spent many days with the late Emmett Watson as a child. He often told me stories of his missions, life in the 445th BG/703rd BS, his crash landing in the B-24H Kelly, and of Jimmy Stewart, the man and commander.

    1. Craig, every time one of the pilots in the 703 referred to Watson, it was always to “Emmett O. Watson.” Always included the O as part of his name. I got a areibf feeling he was quite a character. Did you happen to ever record his war stories?

  17. Hi,

    I don’t know what to make of the allegations of that Clark Gable raped Loretta Young during the filming of “Call of the Wild”. Linda Lewis, daughter-in-law to Young, claims that Young admitted to her that she was sexually assaulted by Gable and it was not a romantic affair. We only really have her say and she expects the world to believe her. She is very adamant about what Young told her.

    Are we supposed to just believe her and accept that Gable is a monster? He is not alive to defend himself.

    I really would like to know what Lewis’s real agenda is. To smear Gable’s reputation and have people who are fans turn away from him?

    It would be nice if you did a book about Gable’s and Young’s supposed affair and counteract with the allegations that have been made against Gable.

    1. Wonderwriter, I’m as sure as I can be that no “assault” took place on the Call of the Wild location shoot. Loretta Young was known around Hollywood as an ardent heterosexual and had made her reputation on a number of very racy pre-Code pictures. In other words, she knew her way around. Gable was usually the one receiving the assaults due to his status even by 1935 as the hottest sex symbol in American cinema. William A. Wellman, director of Call of the Wild, characterized what went on between Gable and Young on location as “monkey business” and 100-percent consensual.

      As for writing a book about it, there’s nothing there. Nothing to expose. Anyone who wants to know about the real Gable should read Long Live the King by Lyn Tornabene. I used some of Tornabene’s extensive research on Gable, including audiocassette interviews with Loretta Young and others, in the writing of Fireball.

  18. Dear Mr. Matzen – I just read Mission about Jimmy Stewart and I think it is a marvelous book for guys like me, who as a 20-year-old kid flew an RB-50 as a Navigator in 1955-58. I flew with a lot of the WW-2 types who were in the B-17s and B-24s. Mission puts me back in the sky, again. Unfortunately, I had no college degree, and got off active duty to get a couple of degrees in Electrical Engineering, under the Korean G.I. Bill. But, then, In 1962, i got to go to NASA-Houston and train astronauts in the radio they would be using at the Moon. I also got up to NASA Hq. in D.C. occasionally, where i saw you also spent some time. Now, 50 years later, I’m a long retired college professor, and spend a lot of time reading, really good books. And, yours ranks to be on the top of the heap. Thanks for doing it. – John P.

    1. Wow, Professor, thank you. I sweated this one because I knew it would be getting very close scrutiny from fliers and military buffs alike, and the details had to be right. So far, so good. I did a fair amount of work at JSC roughly 45 years after you were there, long after the glory days. What a career you had!

      1. Robert – Well, at the time I was having the career at NASA in the early 60’s, it never occurred to me that we were making history. It was working with a lot of guys who were ex-military, including the pilots, and trying to figure out how to go to the Moon, and come back alive. As an ex-USAF aviator, I had some intuition about the coming back alive part. Only in old age did I start to examine what I did over my professional life and decide it was time well spent. – John P.

  19. Hi Robert. Really enjoyed reading Mission, and naturally led me to Fireball. This had pretty much everything that I like to read about. History, airplanes, biographies, and a little sex thrown in. Both books were very well written and showed a tremendous amount of research. My small complaint is that when you refer to Alice Getz flying from O’Hare to LaGuardia, that is not correct. Orchard Field was built in 1942, and was renamed O’Hare in 1942, for “Butch” O’Hare. Commercial flights didn’t start until 1955.

      1. It’s ok. I only know this because I grew up near O’hare, have been flying for 40+ years, and my dad flew DC-3’s.

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