Author: rmatzen

Award-winning author of "Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe," "Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3," "Errol & Olivia," and "Errol Flynn Slept Here."

Legacy

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenIt’s 75 years plus one day after one of the most important women in America went up in flames. The way she died reflected the life that had preceded it: Charge ahead, accomplish at top speed, damn the consequences. Charging ahead that January 16, a Friday evening, had fatal consequences when her plane struck a mountaintop west of Las Vegas at 185 miles an hour. Up she went with Petey, Otto, and 19 other humans in a fireball seen in the moonless sky for 50 miles.

The latest couple of generations, your average people on the street, don’t even recognize the name Carole Lombard, but in the 1930s and 40s she made dozens of motion pictures and earned a higher salary than any other actress in Hollywood. She was thought to be a glamour-puss but at heart remained a Hoosier from Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a tomboy.

Lombard’s Hoosier generosity drifted gently across hedonistic Hollywood as she launched careers and rescued the occasional soul. Among those she nudged on the path toward greatness were Lucille Ball, future queen of television, and Robert Stack, the future Elliott Ness then just starting out.

The tomboy aspect made Lombard a fearless champion of women’s rights in a town then—as now—ruled by men. She cursed like a dockworker and, when irritated, told many a Hollywood executive to “kiss my ass.” In fact, she had “kiss my ass” etched in brass plates and placed on the doors and walls of her home. She gave interviews where she disclosed how she “lived by a man’s code” and proceeded to do just that. In 1938 she looked a reporter in the eye and stated, “There is nothing I’m afraid of.” She espoused equality of the sexes and the still-yearned-for-today equal pay, and more than held her own on male-dominated soundstages where she knew as much about camera setups and lighting as many of the hard-nosed crew members around her. She was certain she would move behind the camera one day and produce and direct motion pictures, which women weren’t doing at that time. She also knew she would move other talented women into prominent roles alongside her.

As World War II edged closer to the American consciousness, Carole Lombard the New Deal Democrat and fan of FDR began to drape herself in the flag. There was nothing unusual about this action because movie stars routinely told the public what the public wanted to hear. But Lombard put her money where her mouth was, literally. When it was revealed that in 1937 she paid all but $20,000 of her half-million-dollar salary in taxes, she said, “Taxes go to build schools, to maintain the public utilities we all use, so why not? I live accordingly, that’s all.”

There was some sort of cosmic justice involved when this woman who once professed that “Hollywood marriages can’t succeed” fell in love with the fan-voted king of Hollywood, Clark Gable. They became Hollywood’s most beautiful and unconventional couple—unconventional because he was still very much married to another woman for the first two years of the relationship. When Gable finally untangled himself, he and Lombard eloped in the spring of 1939 during production of Gone With the Wind and settled into life on a ranch in the San Fernando Valley dubbed “the house of the two Gables.”

They were the Brangelina of their day, certainly in popularity, but Gable loathed the press and kept as low a profile as a king could keep. Lombard never met a camera she didn’t like, or as close friend Alice Marble put it, “What a ham! What a ham!” The marriage of self-involved Gable and socially conscious, shutter-loving Lombard worked for a while, but by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor late in 1941, cracks were showing in their marital veneer, in part because of Gable’s alley-cat prowling. The newly formed Hollywood Victory Committee went searching for a star to host the first event to raise funds for national defense against Japan and Germany. Lombard leapt out of her seat to volunteer and plans quickly developed for a wintertime trip to Indianapolis where she would sell war bonds in the capitol building of her home state.

As described in Fireball from GoodKnight Books, the resulting trip played out like a triathlon. Three days by train with whistle stops preceded arrival in Chicago and a day of appearances there. Then a commute to Indianapolis for 12 hours where she faced the crush to deliver two heartfelt speeches broadcast on national radio, and participate in two flag raisings, a tea, a dinner, and two receptions, all of which helped to raise $2 million for the war effort in one long day—four times the amount projected.

At the end of that January 15, she decided she had done her duty and now it was time to take care of Carole Lombard by getting home to her carousing husband by the fastest means possible. That meant air travel, something expressly forbidden because of the fear of accidents in wintry weather or sabotage by Hitler’s spies. To which the response was predictable: Kiss my ass.

At 7:20 local time on January 16, the brightest flame in Hollywood suddenly grew into the brightest flame on Mt. Potosi, Nevada, when TWA Flight 3 failed to clear the 9,000-foot peak and hit near-vertical cliffs. It took the better part of 24 hours to sort it all out and come to grips with the fact that force-of-nature Lombard now ranked as the highest-profile casualty in the new world war. Seventy-five years and one day ago she rode to glory at age 33, leaving behind a legend as Hollywood’s most original movie star along with a legacy of charity to her fellow humans and service to a nation just beginning to understand what sacrifices lay ahead.

A Stretch of Desert

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

Frustrating. Torturous. Maddening. She forces her legs down the steps of the DC-3 Sky Club for the umpteenth time. She’s so weary she can’t even remember all the stops, but among them have been St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and, of course, Albuquerque. Petey is practically a statue at this point and is not speaking to anyone or even getting off the plane most stops—except this time in Las Vegas she’s stretching her legs if not actually participating in conversation.

They’re so close to home. So painfully close. All that separates her, Petey, and Otto from their own warm beds is one last stretch of desert out there in the blackness of night. She’s told it’s only one hour by air from McCarran Field in Las Vegas to Burbank where Pa will be waiting for her, and Stuart for Petey and Jill for Otto. They’ll all be there, and she and Pa can finally make up for their knock-down-drag-out of a week earlier. Can it be a week already since he had left for New York? Yes, a week exactly, and how much she has seen and done since then, including this latest cross-country adventure courtesy of TWA. She can’t wait to tell him about all of it—every last story she’s been saving day by day. They’re already on their third set of pilots and third time zone in a long and grueling passage. They hadn’t slept at all Thursday night, and sleeping hasn’t really been possible today given the cold at 10,000 feet and the relentless screaming of the engines of the plane on either side of the cabin.

Coca-Colas and cigarettes have kept her going as they always do, and she is tired and hungry despite having just eaten on the plane, and boy does her posterior hurt. Everything hurts after going a million miles an hour yesterday in Indianapolis and then 180 miles an hour on the plane ever since. But finally the end is in sight after fog, headwinds, turbulence, mail delays, passenger delays—17 hours coast to coast my ass.

Nightfall has been chasing them west for quite a while and finally swallowed the plane up prior to landing here at this desolate little piece of nowhere. Las Vegas is fit for an Army base maybe but not for much else except coyotes. They’ve waited what seems like forever for fuel in the little Western Air building, the passengers milling about, including 15 Army boys that started out full of energy but have quieted down a bit. Her own companions sit there under thunderclouds, but at least Petey and Otto understand now: She had been right to ditch that stupid train in favor of a quick—well, everything’s relative—straight shot from Indianapolis to Hollywood. Two solid days on the train versus less than one by air? No contest!

She knows she hasn’t been her usual self today, and Petey has every right to be furious with her for needing to get home to a cheating husband as fast as possible. Petey has worked very hard to give Clark a chance and Petey likes Clark, but he is what he is, which amounts to a long set of pluses and an important set of minuses. Plus number one: He is Clark Gable, deemed the most attractive and marketable man in the world. Minus number one: He is Clark Gable, who draws women like a magnet and doesn’t have a whole lot of willpower to turn them down when propositioned, and that happens every single day when he’s out of her sight.

Still, she has so much to live for, work toward, and dream about. Sooner or later she’ll be able to carry a child to term, and that will change everything. It has been so much fun since Fieldsie has a little boy and Freddie does too and how Pa will love being a, well, pa. They’ll find the right formula sooner or later. And her career is rebounding, with a new picture previewing in three days that she believes might be her best yet and certainly is the most important yet given the world situation, plus she has two more lined up after that, both romantic comedies. So many people in her life need her and she loves to be able to help her family and friends. Loves it more than anything. So it’s important to keep making pictures and keep the money coming in, so she can help.

Then the big thing. The biggest thing. The war means new responsibilities, and she has already seen how important she can be and how much she can contribute and needs to contribute.

The station man calls the passengers to line up to board. A couple of the Army fellows ask her for autographs and she smiles as genuinely as she can given everything and signs, and then the door opens and they file out into the cold night air to the plane. She puts an arm around Petey on one side, and Otto puts a hand under Petey’s elbow to steady her up the steps on the other. What a godsend Otto is. She gets Petey in her seat and then settles into her own and fastens her seat belt. One more hour, then in the arms of her man. She’s going to talk his ear off all right, and he will kid her for not shutting up for the first hours they are together again. But driving him crazy is half the fun.

She can see the pilot up there working the controls and hears the engines sputter to life. One more hour. So much to live for. Almost home.

Pinnacle

Unexpected. Overwhelming. Astonishing. She steps out of a car at the Indiana State Capitol to a sea of bundled souls. If they’d been locusts they’d constitute a plague; if bees they’d be a swarm. But they’re people and they’ve besieged the Capitol. A military honor guard from the Culver Academy stands at attention 30 strong in present-arms. Police officers with batons keep a watchful eye of the cordons. A raft of newsreel cameras on tripods is ready along with a firing squad of photographers facing the platform where she will speak to the nation. When she climbs the steps onto the platform alongside Indiana’s governor, the mayor of Indianapolis, and others, all she can see are humans stretching back along the plaza all the way past the cross street and buildings beyond, a full fraction of a mile. Thousands of people—maybe tens of thousands.

It’s Thursday, January 15, 1942, and Carole Lombard has arrived. In every sense of the word, she has arrived. Never the most popular actress. No Academy Awards. A penchant for headline-grabbing that puts some in Hollywood off. A social climber, others say, for marrying king-of-the-movies Clark Gable. But today she will just be herself and let the chips fall, here in her home state among thousands of friends and family, people with her sensibilities and values.

For the next eight hours she will be in constant motion, deliver five speeches of varying lengths, shake thousands of hands, remember every name of every person she just met 10 minutes earlier, charm wallets into the open air, and sell four times the pre-event estimate in U.S. war bonds.

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

Leaving the Capitol after a speech and frenzy of bond selling. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

It had been a long road traveled to reach this point for the girl born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, quiet unassuming Jane who had been transplanted from Indiana to Southern California at an early age and caught the acting bug as a teenager at a time when motion picture studios had been a ravenous people mill. Jane-turned-Carole managed to get a few parts that impressed no one, and then her face had been torn up in a car crash that, it was assumed, had ended the journey. But those who believed her to be finished didn’t know this iron-willed girl who accepted the facial scars from the accident and moved on to start over in Hollywood.

The life that followed had been a full one, with its share of successes, failures, and controversies. No one so unconventional as to be labeled “Hollywood’s profane angel” would be universally loved, but all who truly knew her would be won over. Now here she stands in the spotlight in what she recognizes will be the high point of her life. If she lives another 40 or 50 years there will never be a day to top this one, when the self-acknowledged “ham” will kill more flashbulbs and magazines of film than any other celebrity on the planet. She’s in her glory, so on message, so keyed up, at times nervous to say the right thing. But all eyewitnesses will agree that she never once slips or fails to live up to the demands of the moment. She nails it. She hits every mark and delivers every line from the first public appearance at the train station to the last, a cameo at the Indiana Roof ballroom next door to her hotel where she steals the mic and makes a final plea to “buy a bond!” Every take is Cut and Print, to use the lingo she understands so well.

Gracious.

Radiant.

Genuine.

Humble.

Warm.

Vibrant.

These are words used most often to describe Carole Lombard this day. As revealed in an audio recording that surfaced recently courtesy of Lombard enthusiast Brian Anderson, Carole is heard displaying all the poise of her hero FDR in a speech in front of 12,000 who are all but hanging from the rafters at the giant Cadle arena in downtown Indianapolis.

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

Hours later still going strong with Otto by her side as she chats with an official. [©2013 by GoodKnight Books. All rights reserved.]

An hour later she’s running on pure adrenalin in her Claypool Hotel suite greeting cousins and friends from Fort Wayne. Her mother, the 65-year-old Petey, is all-in but not Carole. Carole knows what she’s just accomplished and she pronounces it enough. Tomorrow morning she’s to appear at Wasson’s Department Store down the street to sell more bonds but she knows she’s already raised $2 million. In other words she’s done her duty, as have the people of Indianapolis. It’s a wrap. Rather than depart on the train tomorrow, Carole pronounces that she, Petey, and Otto Winkler the PR man are packing and leaving tonight, and not by train, by air. Eight hours of absolute power have corrupted absolutely. They’re taking the first available flight west, Carole proclaims to the shock of Petey and Otto. Both protest, but Carole knows how safe air travel is these days, and she swears they’ll both thank her when tomorrow night at this time they are snug in their beds at home and not in the middle of nowhere on some damn train. Otto digs in his heels so she turns magnanimous and offers to leave it to the fates. A coin flip. Call it, Otto, heads—or tails?

With furious packing, consternation, and hurt feelings, the most successful day of her life ends. With a vengeance.

Learn all about Carole Lombard’s life and death in the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by GoodKnight Books.

Windswept

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

Just off the train in Chicago, Carole poses with a war bond poster in this shot later used to publicize To Be or Not to Be. Eerily, her death date is visible on the wall calendar.

On Wednesday, January 14, 1942, Carole Lombard stepped off the City of Los Angeles, one of Union Pacific’s streamliners. In a little while she walked out of the North Western Station in downtown Chicago and received quite a shock: an air temperature of 35 degrees F, which wasn’t terrible, but winds gusted to 30 miles per hour, and that stung. Back in Los Angeles cold weather of the American north had been theoretical, but now she and her mother, Petey, tested their dainty Southern California blood and found just what they expected: This blood turned to icicles pretty fast so close to Lake Michigan.

Carole knew the train as the “choo-choo” and the “clickety-clack,” and likened it to your usual experience of watching grass grow or paint dry. She preferred to fly over the earth and not interact with it mile for mile. Flying got you places a lot faster, and she didn’t mind flying, although she did mind heights. But the powers that be had forbidden her to fly on this trip to Indianapolis via Chicago to sell war bonds, so she was earthbound on the Union Pacific Railroad for every bloody mile but hardly idle as the train bisected America’s vast western spaces. She spent her time battling United Artists by telegram over the title of her latest picture, To Be or Not to Be, which UA wanted to change (over her dead body). She also pumped her husband’s best friend, Otto Winkler, her PR man on the trip, for information on said husband’s carrying on. And she gabbed with Warner Bros. star Pat O’Brien, who was taking the same train east.

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

Petey and Carole at the North Western Station in Chicago on January 14, 1942.

In Chicago she appeared on WGN Radio to talk about war bonds, and was interviewed by Marcia Winn of the Tribune and then retired to the Tribune’s color studio to have portraits made for the cover of Sunday’s rotogravure. Before departing she boldly signed the wall of the dressing room Carole Lombard Gable and dated it 1-14-42. In the WGN building she ran into Don Budge and Bobby Riggs, tennis pals from Alice Marble’s set on the SoCal courts, and made a loud fuss over both.

After too much confinement in a Pullman car and too many Coca-Colas and cigarettes, she was practically wired for sound and paced, growled, screeched, and otherwise carried on through the various interviews, at times frightening those asking the questions. But finally she was through it and ready to retire for the day, and yet it was early and she had a plan: She wanted to fly from Chicago to Indianapolis, and she wanted to do it now, or as close to now as possible. Otto did not want to fly, but Carole had an ulterior motive for getting into Indy early, and son of a gun if there wasn’t an Eastern Airlines flight that would get them there in little more than an hour. Otto knew better than to go up against Carole in this particular mood, so he said OK and off they went, leaving Petey behind to catch up with family who had come up from Fort Wayne for the day.

The DC-3 flight into Indianapolis on Eastern Airlines Flight 7 went well, far too well, and Carole and Otto checked into the Claypool Hotel lickety-split, leaving Carole time off the grid for a visit with a local Indy celebrity, as described in the trade paperback edition of Fireball, due for release on Monday.

What a whirlwind day it had been, and finally, finally she had seen some action instead of remaining confined on that damn train. After an evening bath Carole managed to get some rest and contemplated what likely lay ahead tomorrow just a couple of blocks away from the Claypool at the Indiana State Capitol Building. And in the back of her mind she noted the success of that hop by air down from Chicago. It made so much sense. Sure Otto had protested; in fact Otto had white-knuckled it all the way, which wasn’t like him, but the results were spectacular. Here they were in a third of the time it would have taken by train, and they’d wake up rested and refreshed in the morning. Yes, she would have to think about this some more. Getting home two days earlier than scheduled was quite the attractive proposition for any number of reasons, not the least of which was hubby and his new object of fascination. Yes, she’d have to start working on Otto first thing in the morning, but then there was her mother who had not stepped on an airplane in her 65 years and intended to keep that record intact. Getting Petey on a DC-3 would take some doing.

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.

A Jagged Edge

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

Jim Stewart as George Bailey Standing on the edge of suicide in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve heard more than once on the book tour that some people are uncomfortable with It’s a Wonderful Life as a motion picture. A couple weeks ago I watched it on the big screen and sat there with this specific point of view in mind. I have to say, I understand where these people are coming from. This is a dark tale, so dark and so unusual that it’s no wonder Jim Stewart balked initially when Capra pitched it to him in autumn 1945.

A man driven to suicide? No, no, no, Jim countered, if I can find work–if any studio will have me-I just want to make a comedy.

An angel needs to earn his wings? What? Forget it, Frank, I’m out.

When you’re sitting in a balcony looking at a silver screen 30 feet high, the view is much clearer than your television system at home, even if you’ve got a 65-inch setup. As viewed this picture the way God intended, in a theatrical setting, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled as a long picture, and grim, with a carefully crafted screenplay that drives our hero to despair in a relentless effort. Take for example the “Buffalo Gal” sequence after the dance and the terrific exchange between Stewart and Donna Reed walking along the street. It’s a dynamic sequence that builds and builds and suddenly she’s (presumably) naked in the hydrangea bush. Jim says what the audience is thinking, “This is a very interesting situation!”

Boom! The air is let out of characters and audience alike by news that George’s father has suffered a stroke. I don’t think it’s just me who reacts badly to this. We are meant as an audience to be uncomfortable with this moment because the theme of the picture is oppression, gloom, and the erosion of a person’s will by the tide of life. If not for the relentlessness of the setup, the payoff wouldn’t offer such release from the emotional bondage Capra has spent two hours creating.

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

George at the end of his rope, praying for guidance. Jim only had one take in him, and told Capra he had nailed it and couldn’t do another.

With my newfound perspective on Jim Stewart the man and actor, knowing more than anyone in the world other than Jim himself what he had gone through in the war, I watched him onscreen as, frame by frame, It’s a Wonderful Life unspooled in the dark. In his first scene buying the suitcase he’s playing 22 when in the real world he’s 38 going on 50. He’s got a hairpiece in front, hair coloring left and right on his gray, heavy makeup, and careful lighting to help him carry an impression of youth. He bubbles over with energy in that first scene. He’s a thoroughbred just out of the gate at Churchill Downs in this moment, a stallion away for five years and now once again feeling the bit between his teeth. And man does he run. What comes across is youthful enthusiasm but make no mistake, this is a man who appreciates the opportunity he’s been given, a man who is going to work this day and not getting shot at by a deadly foe.

There is brutal hate in George Bailey, and Stewart—a desperate man at this point in his life—finds that vibe easily, as when he goes to Mary’s house and berates her for showing romantic interest in him and accuses her of trying to tie him down. What did Mary ever do but love this man, and he all but wipes his shoes on her. Jim Stewart’s George Bailey is a guy with an edge, wild-eyed in some scenes, rage-filled in others, as when he wrecks his living room and terrorizes his wife and children who see not husband and father but a monster unmasked. The America of 1946 was filled with monsters, men back from the hell of World War II and now strangers in their own homes, in some cases ticking time bombs, full of self-loathing at what they had seen and done and unleashing fury on family members, just like George did with Mary and the kids.

Indeed, the picture is populated by people riding the line of good and evil, like Nick the bartender, good in the Bailey world, evil without Bailey’s influence. Or George’s mother, a bitter soul without George around. And Gower the druggist, who so easily beats youngster George to a pulp and bloodies his ear. Capra paints this corner of America as a brutal place but for the intervention of someone extraordinary like George, a man of principle who influences impressionable, self-involved masses.

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

Jim wild-eyed and letting the world see something from deep inside.

There is a myth that It’s a Wonderful Life bombed at the box office on release 70 years ago this month at Christmas 1946, but that’s not accurate. This was a prestige picture and it performed like one and nearly made back its cost, but that cost had been extravagant, from construction of the main streets of Bedford Falls at the RKO Ranch in Encino to the snowstorm created in 90-degree Mojave Desert to all those expensive bridge and river shots that took weeks to complete on RKO soundstages.

What isn’t myth is that this was a picture ahead of its time, too long and dark for war-weary audiences to process in 1946. In another 10 years television would intervene and peacetime Eisenhower-era viewers would drink up and savor It’s a Wonderful Life for its themes of principles, friendship, the value of human lives lived well.

When you finish reading Mission you will understand what Stewart brought to this production and what it meant to him. You will sit there in the dark not just with Jim but with fine young army fliers like Albert Poor and Earle Metcalf who died under Jim’s command but lived on through all their skipper’s accomplishments. Jim carried with him all those boys he had lost, which is one of the reasons he wouldn’t talk about the war—it hurt too much. He didn’t talk about it but he remembered those men and their times each and every day on a journey into the second half of his career that began with It’s a Wonderful Life.

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

Heartfelt salutations from both Jim and George in the last reel of It’s a Wonderful Life.

FLASH: AMERICA IS AT WAR.

It’s difficult to imagine a moment like that, when those words are heard. Wait, no it isn’t, not if you lived through 9/11 and the chaos, fires, and heartbreak of that day and the days that followed. But December 1941 was a more innocent time. We got our news from daily papers and radio, without benefit of TV or the internet. By 2001 we had been desensitized by all sorts of horrors over the decades brought into our homes mostly courtesy of television, but in the run-up to the holidays 1941, no one could conceive of a sneak attack by another nation on an American naval base where young men and women were stumbling out of their bunks in the utter quiet of a Hawaiian Sunday morning and wiping the sleep out of their eyes, guard down.

Pearl Harbor? Where the heck is that? We have a naval base way out there? There was so much we didn’t know that day and struggled to find out. It all unfolded so painfully slowly. First a bulletin after 2 in the afternoon on the East Coast, and phones ringing off the hook in D.C. Families told families until the news had rippled across the nation. All gathered around living room radio sets and stayed there through the evening to pick up shards of information that came through not in today’s explosion of information and misinformation but as facts crawling in one at a time, in single file.

We know now, from the hindsight of 75 years, what happened 75 years ago this morning. Hours of hell on earth. Bombs, exploding ships, blood in the water, death. We know how and why the Japanese attacked, the damage they inflicted, and the gross miscalculation of picking a fight with a “sleeping giant” and filling it with a “terrible resolve.” But on the evening of December 7, 1941, nobody in the United States enjoyed any sort of historical context. Instead, all wondered what would happen next because the Japanese hadn’t just attacked Pearl; they had swept across the South Pacific in a multi-pronged invasion that most believed would bring landing craft to Washington or Oregon or California. Air raids were feared and blackouts went into effect at once.

As ships burned at Pearl Harbor, America entered a new reality, just as we did on September 11, 2001, when buildings burned. Everyone knew nothing would be the same again and they were right. The world was plunging into a blackness that would claim tens of millions of lives. Parents would no longer sleep at night because they worried their children would be sent off to fight. Austerity became a way of life as everything of value was rationed for the common goal of defending liberty.

I’m not a big fan of war because it so rarely settles anything and only causes other problems. But 75 years ago today the United States entered a just war against terrible foes. After tremendous sacrifice over nearly four years, good defeated evil. I’m pausing this morning to think about the thousands of innocent kids who woke up at peace on the ships of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and ended the day as battle-tested warriors. And I’m especially remembering the 2,300 who fell in that attack, many of them entombed on the U.S.S. Arizona. Theirs are the first names on the honor rolls of World War II and I say to each one: Thank you. We will never forget.

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

In 1962, a memorial was built over the sunken U.S.S. Arizona, where hundreds of American sailors and Marines remain entombed. Arizona crewmen who survived the battle of Pearl Harbor are given the option by the National Park Service of being interred there after death.

Long Live the King

Sometimes there’s nothing you can do but laugh. In the past two months I’ve been interviewed dozens of times about the themes of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, my GoodKnight Books release. It’s a story with so many angles that the media practically has a smorgasbord. But my experience of a couple days ago was one I didn’t see coming and an angle I wasn’t comfortable talking about at all.

A certain talk show host at a radio station in a major Midwestern city asked me for a 7- to 10-minute interview. It was on the schedule for 10 days. Sometimes the station calls me and sometimes I call the station. Usually, I speak first with a producer during a commercial break who patches me in so I hear the intro, and then go live. Well, this time it was me doing the calling, and there wasn’t any conversation with a producer. I automatically went into a queue where I heard the commercial break and then the talk show host, a woman, started her segment with a folksy chat about the holidays, and I thought she was segueing nicely into a mention of It’s a Wonderful Life and then here I’d come after she completed a standard welcome of Jimmy Stewart biographer Robert Matzen.

She was going on about the baking of holiday cookies, and I wondered how she was going to bring it back to Mission, but OK I’m sitting there listening waiting for the plane to circle around to my direction. Then she started talking about the “Cookie King,” Robert Merten who has written a book about holiday cookies and in a split second I realized: Wait a minute. Robert Matzen, Robert Merten. World War II book, cookie book.

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

A book not about cookies.

It’s a horrible thing when you realize, This plane isn’t landing. This plane is about to crash. She launched into an adoring, full-fledged introduction to Cookie King Robert Merten and the deeper she got into it, and the closer I got to going live, the faster my brain operated as I tried to think of what to do. I imagined the conversation that was about to take place, the one where I hesitated and stumbled my way through an explanation of how, yeah, I like cookies just fine but I’m not the king of them and in fact my blood isn’t blue but rather, it’s as red as the next guy’s, and I’ve written this book called Mission about death in the heavens over Germany. It would be a conversation blinded on both sides by egg on faces, and there would be earwitnesses all over a major Midwestern city.

The flop-sweat started to flow as she brought the intro into what she imagined was a smooth landing with a warm, “Joining me today in a rare radio appearance is the Cookie King himself, Robert Mert—

*CLICK*

Yes, people, I strapped on my ’chute and jumped before the plane crashed in flames. I left the host to die in the cockpit and I besmirched Robert Merten’s reputation but at that moment the Cookie King was on his own and I was out of the doomed ship in one piece. I lived to fight another day.

The post-mortem with Sarah my top-notch publicist left us both baffled (and her furious on my behalf), and I don’t feel too bad because somebody at that station wasn’t paying very close attention: How do you confuse an author who’s written a book about cookies with an author who’s written a book about World War II? I mean, I can sort of imagine how this crash happened, but only sort of, and the startling lack of preparation on their end mitigates any guilt I felt about bailing out with bare seconds until impact.

For the record, the Cookie King’s book is entitled, logically enough, The Cookie King, and sports a royal crest on its cover. The subtitle is, “Delicious, sweet and savory cookies from a lifetime journey of cookie baking” and my sweet tooth thinks it must be a steal at $34.95.

So there you have it, just another day in the life of an author who is soldiering on in a major publicity campaign. And Robert Merten, the next time you realize that somebody has booked you to talk about Jimmy Stewart as a combat pilot in World War II, please bail at the last moment and leave the host to crash in flames. At that point we’ll be even.

The Mission

I stood in high Pennsylvania winds last Sunday morning on what is ground zero to the core story of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. At my back was Gettysburg’s infamous Wheatfield, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the second day’s battle. A half mile at my front rose Little Round Top. And staring me in the face was a granite monument to the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, the regiment commanded by Col. Samuel M. Jackson. In murderous fighting on July 2, 1863, the 11th Pennsylvania—part of Fisher’s Brigade of the Fifth Corps—was part of a charge down the slope of Little Round Top that checked Longstreet’s ambitious maneuver to hit the federal left flank. Afterward, a Union commanding general rode up to Jackson hat in hand and exclaimed, “Colonel Jackson, you have saved the day. Your regiment is worth its weight in gold; its weight in gold, sir!”

Thanks to men like Col. Sam Jackson, the Union was preserved.

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

The monument of the 11th Pennsylvania Reserves, with Little Round Top in the background. This ground was carpeted with the dead and dying on July 2, 1863, but Sam Jackson remained upright. It was here that union Brig. Gen. Samuel Crawford praised Jackson for saving the day.

Why is this ground zero to Mission? Sam Jackson was Jimmy Stewart’s grandfather, his mother’s father. Jackson’s regiment had been positioned at the foot of Little Round Top and received orders to hold against the Confederate advance at all cost. This his regiment did, and advanced probably no more than 1,500 yards that day, but hard-fought and bloody real estate it was. Standing amidst the monuments to so many regiments intermingled there and representing both Union and Confederate units, this hallowed acreage, I was hit by what Jackson had done, and how much it influenced James Maitland Stewart, the laid-back star of stage and screen.

Except Stewart wasn’t laid back at all. Stewart was high-strung and possessed a compulsion to serve—his Mission of the book title—that was born of his two grandfathers, Sam Jackson and James Maitland Stewart, Jim’s father’s father and a sergeant in the Army Signal Corps. Sergeant Stewart had fought his way through many Civil War battles, the last being Appomattox, where he then witnessed the surrender of Lee to Grant that ended the war. The estimable Jackson had died just before Jim was born in 1908, but old J.M. lived into the 1930s and Jim learned about service and sacrifice from this man above all others, one who had lived through America’s bloodiest war.

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

The Pennsylvania Memorial at Gettysburg, where S.M. Jackson gets top billing.

This past Sunday, November 20, I lectured at the Gettysburg Heritage Center, which includes an ambitious multi-media museum designed to entertain and educate even today’s short-attention-span learners. When I described Jackson’s advance and his connection to Jim to a packed Heritage Center house, there was a collective gasp. People just don’t realize what a giant shadow Jim’s grandfathers cast on his life. In effect, Jim was poured into a military mold and had no choice but to end up a soldier. It’s the reason he gleefully reported for induction after being drafted nine months before Pearl Harbor. With this action he turned his back on Hollywood luxury, a thriving avocation as a sexual athlete, and an Academy Award career with a giant, goofy grin and pulled an army private’s uniform onto his six-foot-four, 139-pound frame. After he was fingerprinted and sworn in before a throng of reporters and cameraman, Jim refused to talk to or work with the press for the next five years so he could concentrate on being the best soldier he could be. It’s unprecedented what he did and the way he did it.

Speaking of soldiers, I shared the microphone last Sunday with Clem Leone, 92-year-old veteran of the air war over Europe. Clem knew and flew with Stewart as described in Mission, and was shot down over Gotha, Germany, on February 24, 1944. I’ve never experienced anything quite like this stretch of two hours, sharing the stage and then sitting and signing books with my own hero who had lived history. It’s one of many things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving 2016.

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

With Clem Leone at the Gettysburg Heritage Center event. Amidst an outpouring of love for Clem, who is a local celebrity, 97 books sold in 90 minutes.

Inside the Reptile

There is an affectionate term for the planes that helped win the fight against Hitler: warbirds. Mary and I saw all the warbirds of World War II in our recent visit to the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, where Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe was launched the evening of October 27.

This Veterans Day it’s easy to think about the boys who stormed Normandy’s beaches 72 years and 5 months ago because they’ve been memorialized in the neat and tidy The Longest Day and in the stunningly realistic Saving Private Ryan, and as one who sees and hears and feels and smells and tastes history, I don’t know how they did what they did that day. You know how you blanch when facing headwinds and slanting rain and the natural sense is to squint from it and recoil and run for cover? Well imagine the raindrops are eight-ounce parcels of lead coming at you like slanting rain. We’re all waterproof so the rain can’t really hurt us, although we act as if it could. None of us are bulletproof and for thousands of those guys that day, the rainstorm ended in instant death or worse.

Where do the warbirds fit in this story? Well, I didn’t know before writing Mission exactly how the war had played out up to the point that the LSTs hit the beaches of France. I knew there was an air war and a ground war in Europe, but it didn’t sink in that the air war came first and made the ground war possible, which means that for Americans over a two-year period, the front lines in the war for Europe were manned by flyers of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They climbed into their warbirds every morning not knowing if they’d ever walk the earth again. They’d give a thumbs-up and take off not into a glorious sunrise but into pea soup because, after all, this was England and the English weather is usually dreary.

And the warbirds themselves? Yikes. Sure, you had your sleek and nasty fighter planes, your Warhawks and Thunderbolts and Mustangs, and the kids who climbed into them fought like the glamorous swashbucklers they were. Theirs was the grave responsibility of guarding and defending the most unglamorous of warbirds, the heavy bombers. And that is the core story of Mission.

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

The B-24 Liberator, mocked as “the packing crate the B-17 came in,” but beloved by the men who flew inside.

Two heavy bombers flew for America in WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator. The relative beauty of the 17 and its lethal firepower made it the media darling of the war. Think Memphis Belle. The 24 was described as “the packing crate the B-17 came in.” It was boxy; it was decidedly unglamorous. Imagine this as a verbal portrait of your airplane: “On the ground it looks like a slab-sided prehistoric monster wading through swamps.”

But the boys assigned to the B-24 Liberators loved their airplanes. They cared for each as if it were a hotrod, as if the thing wasn’t a flying death trap. The Liberators Jim Stewart flew exclusively in the war had real problems, like controls that required muscle at all times and leaks in the fuel lines that would, all of a sudden, cause them to blow up in the air, usually on ascent when loaded with gas and bombs. Ka-BOOM! Ten men obliterated over friendly skies because of spark meeting fuel leak: pilot, copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, engineer, waist gunners, ball turret gunner, tail gunner, all gone. This happened to Lt. Earle Metcalf and crew of Stewart’s squadron one morning during a relatively “easy” mission to bomb German rocket emplacements near the coast of France. There one moment and vanished the next, with no trace ever found.

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

This Veterans Day I am saluting the flyers of the Eighth Air Force, with a special shout-out to this crew: (kneeling, L to R) engineer Don Dewey, gunner Stan Treusch, gunner Bill Timmons, radioman Phil Bronstein, gunner Earl Doggett; (standing) engineer Jim Crawford, navigator Paul Fischer, copilot John Lercari, pilot Earle Metcalf, and bombardier Ernie Hutton. Of the men in this photo, only ground crew chief Eugene Peterson, kneeling at far right, lived past Feb. 2, 1944 when the Lib they were in, Billie Babe, blew up without warning in English airspace. These men were under Jim Stewart’s command in the 703rd Squadron of the 445th Bomb Group, and their deaths hit him hard.

On each mission to Germany, missions sent up every possible day, hundreds of planes would take off from a cluster of bases each five miles from the next in eastern England into that pea soup I described earlier featuring low cloud cover. If the pilot didn’t fly precisely in that cloud cover, as in, fly straight for 47 seconds after takeoff while climbing to 5,000 feet at an air speed of 150 and then on the 48th second turn right to a precise compass heading, ka-BOOM! Two bombers both flying blind would collide—loaded with gas and bombs—and not 10 but 20 men would be erased from the roster. That happened more than once on missions Jim commanded. He would hear the deafening explosion close by, muscle the controls as the shock wave hit his plane, and know that a score of fine flyers alive five seconds ago were now dead. Young men he had just seen and eaten breakfast with.

Dear readers, we haven’t even left friendly airspace yet! This was the easy part before hitting an enemy coastline that featured hundreds of anti-aircraft batteries aimed at Forts and Libs lumbering straight and level across the sky as if targets in a carnival shooting gallery. Each plane held 10 males somewhere between 19 and 26, except for Jim, the old man of 35. They were kids, so very young, so very brave, so very skilled, who died by the hundreds and thousands for the two years leading up to D-Day in an ongoing effort to smash Hitler’s ability to manufacture weapons of war. Not until they had succeeded in the task of fighting and fighting and fighting on endless brutal missions to knock out enough of the German air fleet did D-Day even become possible.

I spend a great deal of time in Mission driving home the point that, yes, Jim was a hero, but the band of brothers he flew with every day were people who lived and breathed. Each represented the best the United States had to offer. On the morning of a mission they rode out to their slab-sided reptile of an airplane, a beast that might turn around and bite them at any moment. They struggled inside it while loaded down with flying gear. They held their breath through a lumbering takeoff, each focused on all the tasks essential to keeping that plane in the air for a flight to and from Germany. For many, too many, something would go wrong and they would fly on to glory.

I am writing about the men of the Eighth Air Force today, but I think of them every day. They inspire me to be an American worthy of their bravery and sacrifice.

 

To learn more about Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Flight to Europe, visit the publisher’s website.