Fireball-Related

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.

#ballbuster

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.

Once.

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.

Turnover

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

If you happened to be at the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California, this past weekend, I want to be in touch with you because I wonder if you heard a kuh-thump sound. That would have been Carole Lombard turning over in her grave, because at the Heritage auction house in Dallas, Texas, a movie poster from one of her films auctioned today for $107,550. The reason she turned would have done the old flip-a-roo is that the poster represented Supernatural, her least favorite picture in a career spanning almost 80 screen appearances over 20 years.

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with movie posters since high school, and to me there’s nothing so evocative as the smell of a stack of old lobby cards or other carefully aged, 80-year-old paper. I saw the Supernatural one sheet on a wall in Hollywood somewhere around 1985—the one that sold for $107K may have been the same copy for all I know. I believed it would go high because it’s rare (only a few survived) and scarce (many people want the few that exist) and stunning to look at. Lombard’s mesmerizing eyes follow you from all angles—it’s one of those posters, the spooky kind, as CL clutches a glowing crystal ball in her hands.

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

Roma Courtney, now possessed by the spirit of Ruth Rogen, who recently went to the chair for murder.

As recounted in Fireball, Supernatural is Carole’s only horror film, made in 1933 by the Halperin Brothers¾Victor, who directed, and Edward, who produced. Their reputation on poverty row preceded them to Paramount Pictures, where Lombard was then under contract and forced to make this tale of a dead murderess whose spirit drifts around possessing people, including at one point Roma Courtney as portrayed by our gal. The Halperins had just hit pay dirt creating one of Bela Lugosi’s signature features, White Zombie, great-great-great granddaddy of today’s endless stream of derivatives, including a series I just can’t stand called The Walking Dead.

Give me Supernatural any day. It’s a tons-of-fun sexy pre-code feature that moves at a mile a minute. The cast is solid led by Carole, Randolph Scott, H.B. Warner (relevant to today’s general viewer for It’s a Wonderful Life and Sunset Boulevard, although he goes way back in the silents), and Vivienne Osborne as the crazed, dead-then-undead killer. Everyone takes the proceedings oh so seriously, where today with something like this there’d be lots of winks and nods at the camera. Why Lombard was so exasperated making Supernatural I really don’t understand, because she was way into all things paranormal, cavorted with psychics and palmists, and should have seen the benefits of making a picture that was truly different from what was frankly a lot of crap that Paramount kept putting her in—mindless melodramas that induce migraines today. But exasperated she was, to such an extent that at one point during production she threw her arms open wide and screamed to the heavens, “Who do I have to screw to get off this picture?!”

Well, Carole, Supernatural lives on. Brother does it. Your mug made the cover of the Heritage auction catalog and the fact that the Supernatural one sheet, complete with your staring eyes and a pair of glowing, shadowy brow ridges that would make any gorilla proud, will hit the news in collecting circles for the fact that this poster cracked a hundred-grand and comfortably so. You might as well grin and bear it, baby. You have made the news in 2017.

Kuh-thump.

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

The Chain

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

The mountain that called to me.

In the course of my career, I’ve been inspired many times to create, almost always by looking at an aspect of history and wondering why. Where it gets interesting is when what I’ve created inspires others in something of a chain reaction.

Knowing that the wreckage of a DC-3 still littered a remote Nevada mountainside, that you can see the site of the crash from every part of Las Vegas, had been pulling me toward that spot for years. Finally I yielded to the siren’s call and got the shock of my life when after a four-hour ascent, 22 dead people whispered in my ear. Suddenly I was inspired to tell many stories instead of just that of Carole Lombard—and I think it was these souls who had been calling to me all along.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenI guess inspiration is a baton that’s passed from person to person. Reading Fireball served as inspiration for Las Vegas-based artist Kim Reale. First, I have to show you an incredible photograph—Kim displaying superpowers during her ice-skating career. The last time I saw her, she surprised me with a piece of giclée art of a most ethereal Carole Lombard that now hangs on my wall. “The book filled me with such empathy and compassion, I created a painting from it,” said Kim. “I felt Carole’s spirit rising from the horrific plane crash ascending to the heavens above with a dreamlike sadness of what might have been.” I’m pretty sure that prints of this painting–the word ‘haunting’ comes to mind–are available through Kim’s website.

Fireball reader Brian Lee Anderson had to learn more about Carole Lombard after finishing the book, and his quest led him to such rare finds as a previously unknown audio recording of her Cadle Tabernacle speech in Indianapolis the evening before she died. Brian also climbed to the crash site with FAA investigator Michael McComb and planted flowers at that desolate spot. I asked Brian to describe the role of Fireball in his life. “Your book jump-started all things Carole for me and my mom,” he responded. “I have always been a fan of Carole but in the fall of 2013 I took my mother on vacation to the beach for a week and we talked a lot and she told me the story of exactly how much her mother, Rosalie, was a fan [of Carole’s] and that she went to Indianapolis to meet her and how Carole’s death affected her. It all triggered my quest for more information. After we got home from the beach, I found your book on Amazon and ordered two copies, and Fireball answered so many of our questions and led to my finding the speech and trekking up Mt Potosi.”

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

Brian Anderson in the Nevada desert and about to climb to the crash site in April 2017.

Knowing that Jimmy Stewart took his wartime secrets to the grave inspired the writing of Mission. I saw only the challenge of getting at this long-hidden story, which turned out to be one of courage and dedication, of overcoming fear and fighting the good fight. I’ve done several dozen interviews promoting the book since its release, including a recent one with Daniel McCracken, a podcast journalist for a website called the 10th District. As we chatted before the interview began, Dan revealed that reading Mission had inspired him to pursue his pilot’s license. “Reading Mission was the initial push that drove me to research the training programs offered in Chicago,” said Dan. “I’ve read other aviation books but was never drawn to anything like Jimmy in Mission. His courage and humbleness was so endearing and the timeline you constructed helped me envision myself in his world. My training is going well now and the moments of discouragement are balanced by my new instinct to look back on how difficult being a pilot was during the war and at the dawn of aviation.”

It’s funny; each of these people found a unique means of self-expression from the printed page and a way to take the stories to places I never imagined. Brian not only added to the historical record but brought the beauty of flowers to a scene of grim disaster. Kim captured the sweet soul and transcendent energy of Carole Lombard through paints. And Dan now has the ability to soar above the clouds and experience, as Jim Stewart once said, “more than liberation…the ultimate experience of being in control.”

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

In the foreground: pilot Daniel McCracken. In the background: the wild blue yonder.

Who will take the baton next, for instance finding inspiration in a flower-shrouded mountainside, or in Brian’s research finds about Carole Lombard (thanks to his work, the entire speech Carole gave in Indianapolis can be found in the trade paperback edition of Fireball)? Who will stare at Kim’s painting of Carole and write a song or another book? Where will Dan’s career as a pilot take him, and who will he inspire to become a pilot in the future? All I know is, once the energy begins to push in a forward direction, the chain reactions seem to continue, and I can’t wait to find what comes next in the Lombard and Stewart stories.

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

Prominent spot for a precious piece of art.

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

Pass the Graw-VAY

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

Flashback Sunday.

Wait….whut? All right, let’s say Sump-pump Sunday.

The time is autumn 1937 and the place is Warner Bros. studios in sunny Burbank, California. The major focus of the studio is Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is shooting on multiple soundstages, and another A production in progress is the comedy Food for Scandal starring Carole Lombard, fresh off seven years as a contract player with Paramount Pictures, acclaim as the “screwball queen” of Hollywood, an Academy Award nomination for My Man Godfrey a year earlier, and big box office for Selznick with Nothing Sacred.

Free-agent Carole has been lured to Warner Bros. to give that studio, known primarily for gangster pictures, Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers musicals, and the adventures of Errol Flynn, with a hit in the general category of Comedy.

Paired with sure-fire Lombard is Belgian import Fernand Gravet (pronounced Graw-VAY), who had been signed after scoring hits in France and brought to the U.S., much as Flynn had been signed in England and brought to Hollywood and gone on to be a Warner cash cow. Graw-VAY had made one picture at Warner Bros. to date, The King and the Chorus Girl with always dependable leading lady Joan Blon-DELL, and now Carole Lombard would be Fernand’s second co-star.

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

A Frenchman, a sexy girl, and some comedy. What could go wrong?

The problem was, given Gaw-VAY’s significant accent and limited range in English-language pictures, the only thing it made sense for him to play was a European Prince or European something, but that was OK with the concept of Food for Scandal: down-and-out Frenchman becomes enamored of American movie star and through a twist of fate becomes her chef, to the chagrin of her fiancé. A scandal ensues. Hence the title Food (because he’s her chef) for Scandal. But the title hadn’t tested very well, and Warner Bros. always second-guessed itself with comedies and titles of comedies, so pretty soon the picture would be called Fools for Scandal (even though there’s a musical number in the middle of the thing called “Food for Scandal”).

I bring to your attention to this on-set photo as evidence that life in 1930s Hollywood wasn’t all fun, games, sex, and stardom. I came across this vintage little jewel on some website or other and bought the original still stamped Dell Publishing. It shows our scowling gal Carole pointing at something in the script with frazzled director Mervyn LeRoy, as some nattily attired youngster looks on. I couldn’t identify said youngster so I turned to Rudy Behlmer, author of Inside Warner Bros. and commentator on DVDs of studio hits of that time, including Robin Hood. Between Rudy and his better half Stacey (of Herrick Library fame), soon Irv Brecher had been identified as the third face in this photo. Brecher, then the stunning age of 23, had been hired to do a little script doctoring on a picture in trouble, even though if there’s anyone who doesn’t look like a comedy writer it’s this guy. As it happens, Brecher would go on to write scripts for two Marx Bros. MGM titles, At the Circus and Go West, which represents, on the one hand, two significant credits for the Writers Guild and, on the other hand, a hint that said writer maybe wasn’t so funny after all. But then the Marx Bros. marriage to MGM was doomed by much more than the writing on their later pictures.

Why is Carole scowling? What prompted a standby cameraman to pull the trigger on this photo, which was then forwarded to the fan magazine circuit for republication? I have no answers but to tell you that Fools for Scandal became the BOMB of Carole Lombard’s career, along with her only invitation to Warner Bros. After this she would make four dramas in a row for Selznick Pictures and RKO, but see no profits in drama and suffer a career crisis as a result.

Just a little Sunday something on the verge of spring.

Visiting with the people of Flight 3

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

A spiritual welcome to the Potosi area: cactus and shards of light.

I spent the past few days in Las Vegas with 24 old friends and several new ones. Kim Reale Johnson is a retired figure skating champion, fantastic artist, and wonderful human. Mary and I spent an afternoon getting reacquainted with Kim and her husband Wally, who is a lighting and event professional with experience at major venues all around the country. We met at the Bonnie Springs Ranch in Red Rock Canyon, very near the site where Calvin Harper and Maj. Herbert Anderson rushed to the Wilson Ranch and rousted Willard George from his bed the night of January 16, 1942, looking for horses to use to reach the Flight 3 crash site. George gave them the horses and also his most experienced cowboy, Tweed Wilson, who led one of the rescue teams across the ridges to the obscure place on Potosi Mountain where the TWA plane had gone down. Prior to meeting Kim and Wally, we ventured down a long lane to visit the Wilson place and take some photos.

https://www.goodknightbooks.com/titles/fireball-carole-lombard/

The Blue Diamond Mine at the mouth of Red Rock Canyon. The night of January 16, 1942, Ora Salyer heard Flight 3 fly over from the business office and then heard an explosion. Danlo Yanich was on the ridge above the plant as he watched the fireball on the mountain to the south.

 

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

The Wilson Ranch in the Potosi foothills on a crazy, spooky day.

Knowing this land and this story as well as I do, it was otherworldly to be there 75 years after the crash and recovery effort, in January, with snow on the peaks and conditions very similar to those of 1942. The weather that day was enchanted, with rainbows and shafts of sunlight radiating down from the heavens and mists like you’d expect on English moors but not so much in desert. I like to think it was a welcome from 22 very special souls whose memory lingers on Potosi.

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

Love all round as we explored Blue Diamond and Red Rock Canyon.

That evening we made two new friends as we met Clark County Coroner’s Investigator Felicia Borla and her fiancé Jim Preddy, an emergency room doctor, so Felicia could recount the story of how 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue made his way from seven decades as a lost Fight 3 passenger on Potosi Mountain to the coroner’s office in 2014 and finally to burial with military honors in Maine this past October. Felicia spent so much time with Kenneth finding his identity during the investigation that he’s now known around the office as her “boyfriend” (which is sort of confirmed by the artist’s rendition of his head made from the skull during identification efforts; that 3D model now sits by her desk). Coolest of all is that when a police officer brought two brown paper bags of remains to Felicia from the site of the old mountaintop plane crash, her starting point in historical immersion was Fireball. She brought her copy with its highlights and post-it notes as confirmation. She told me that if I hadn’t given names to the three military men on the plane who hadn’t been IDed by dental records (Ed Nygren, Hal Browne Jr., and Donahue) she never could have tracked down his identity and brought closure to the Donahue family after so long.

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

Felicia has Jim, a terrific guy for a fiancé–she also has Kenneth for a “boyfriend.”

I was near tears when she told us about traveling to Maine to witness Kenneth’s burial. After the ceremony, the military honor guard lined up in front of Felicia and gave her a traditional salute to thank her for her tireless efforts “to bring our brother home.” Each member of the guard signed her copy of Fireball, as did Kenneth’s niece Maureen Green. I was honored to add my signature to what has become a precious keepsake.

On Friday, January 20, I visited KNPR, the National Public Radio affiliate in Las Vegas, for a 30-minute in-studio interview to talk about the circumstances of the crash from the perspective of 75 years later. Then it was on to the Orleans Hotel & Casino to speak about Mission and Fireball to attendees of the SPERDVAC old-time radio convention. It was a large, enthusiastic, and welcoming group and a rewarding two hours.

Wouldn’t this be enough for any commemoration? Well, yes, except for the encore. I had known pilot and crash investigator Michael McComb of the Federal Aviation Administration for many years but only long distance. Mike had advised on the aeronautics story in Fireball and made important comments and corrections. Well, as many of you know, he has also investigated the crash site on Potosi and reverently and painstakingly preserved and catalogued items found there in the name of future research. I had asked him if it were possible to view his archive, and so we had a date for Friday evening. Dear readers, it was overwhelming. In two hours I held in my hands so many items that were important to the story and the people; in fact it’s safe to say that I touched belongings of all 22 on board. The only word that comes to mind is poignant, from Capt. W.C. Williams’ engraved metal luggage tag to one of the rudder pedals he likely slammed his foot onto in a last-instant attempt to avoid the mountain, mangled silverware from the galley, parachute buckles from the fliers’ kits, and brass collar insignias reading U.S. and some brass lieutenant’s bars. There is a lady’s stocking still retaining its flesh color, stocking garter fasteners, a fountain pen, several coins, including quarters that may have included the one tossed by Otto Winkler, luggage clasps, hair clips, parts of a camera, and on and on, and on. He’s got some items that are distinctly Carole Lombard and Elizabeth Peters, including a compact and jewelry, and so much material from the Army boys.

In all, I’ve never been so close to the 22 on board as I was these past few days. It was like I was back five years ago immersed in their day-to-day lives, these people I got to know so well in writing the book. I stepped on a plane yesterday to come back home realizing that life is so short, and shorter still for some, and how important each day is because you never know when it will be the last.

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.