Fireball-Related

Two for Forty

I just returned from three days at Cinevent, the annual celebration of Golden Age Hollywood in Columbus, Ohio. I got plenty of opportunity to talk about Fireball there, and about my next book, with the likes of author and archivist James V. D’Arc, author and blogger John McElwee, Errol Flynn Slept Here co-author Michael Mazzone, and legendary Warner Bros. archivist Leith Adams, among many others.

While there, John dropped an 8.5×11 sheet of paper in my lap. It was a flyer pertaining to a topic I hold dear, the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3. In a nutshell, a self-dubbed “adventuresome couple” intends to climb to the site and pay for the trip by retrieving crash items and selling them to those who pay $25 in advance for one item; $40 for two.Carole Lombard crash site TWA Flight 3

I’m staring at the flyer now and will scan it for inclusion with this column. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I know I believe in free speech, free choice, free will, and free enterprise. Many aspire to these “free” concepts and today of all days, Memorial Day, they take on special meaning.

I guess I say, more power to you, Adventuresomes! By way of full disclosure, I purchased a piece of crash wreckage somewhere around 1998, back when eBay was new and I was obsessed with the site and anything related to it. In the back of my mind I asked myself, Is this creepy? I asked, but participated in the auction anyway, bidding against others for this item. A week later I held the piece in hand, a rib from the empennage, and yes, I was uneasy having in my possession part of NC 1946, the Douglas DC-3 born in February 1941 in Santa Monica, California, that would live less than a year and end up strewn in a million pieces over the side of Mt. Potosi, Nevada.

A decade later I would finally climb Potosi to visit the site as research for Fireball. Only then did it hit me where I was and what the wreckage represented. Only then, struggling to stand on sheer mountainside at the spot where 22 humans were blown to bits along with that infant of an airplane, did I comprehend the reality that I stood at something akin to a gravesite. I understood because human souls reached out and touched me. The pilot made contact. The co-pilot. The stewardess. Fifteen Army Air Corps guys. I felt them there. My communication with these souls infused life into my writing. Suddenly, the manuscript had a soul of its own.

That’s one of two enduring memories of my day at Potosi: having those people reach out and touch me in a most physical way. The other is the sheer danger, the sheer exhaustion, of the climb up and back. There are two ways into the crash site: One is the way I went, four-wheeling to the embarkation point, then snaking up the mountain, which I felt I had to experience since I would be describing what the first responders faced trying to reach the site. The other way in involves riding the ridges by four-wheeler to a government gate, then hiking a long way and descending from the crest into the crash site—the route used to bring up bodies from the wreck. In the bullet points atop this flyer, the author describes “2.5 miles of hiking up into steep and rocky terrain.” He leaves out words, most appropriate descriptions, like perilous and life threatening. I trust the Adventuresomes are hardbodies who employ a good guide. Thanks to months of training and planning I had both, and it helped and didn’t help. I never would have found the site on my own because it’s a tiny pinpoint on a vast mountain. I had the luxury of following the guide as he used decades of experience in wilderness to lead me up contours of mountainside that could be climbed. But he couldn’t lend me any sure-footedness that day and despite being reasonably coordinated and physically prepared, I tumbled over time and again, smashing on the rocks and bloodying myself as I’ve described to you in the past.

Adventuresomes, and anyone else who takes on Potosi (I met another future climber in Columbus and urged him also), please don’t underestimate this mountain. It’s a killer. I’ve known several people who tried the “easy” way into the site and many didn’t make it for various reasons. Season is a consideration; weather; snakes; equipment; terrain. A normal wilderness hike is great fun, but if you’re struggling for your very life to climb 5,000 vertical feet on 45-degree angles or worse, with footing that gives way unexpectedly, the experience is something else. Even leaving at dawn, we had to hurry to make it back down the mountain before night swallowed us whole, so difficult was the round trip, with less than 90 minutes spent at the site. You can’t move at night on the mountain, believe me. I wouldn’t even underestimate the first and last parts of the journey by four-wheel drive, because the desert path we took, colorfully named Ninety-Nine Mine Road (it passes the old mine entrance), is not for your average driver. I wasn’t behind the wheel the day I went to Potosi—I couldn’t have made it on my own because this is serious off-roading and I don’t have the experience.

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

Ninety-Nine Mine Road is much worse in most spots than this photo shows. Here I was able to steady the camera, point, and shoot without being too badly knocked around inside the Jeep.

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

Behind this mound of earth lay the entrance to the old Ninety-Nine Mine in the foothills before Mt. Potosi.

If you are trying to lug anything extra back down the mountain, say, crash debris, if you put it on your back it’s going to a) weigh you down, b) add extra bulk, and c) change your center of gravity as you try to navigate the steep terrain.

It just occurs to me now that maybe Fireball inspired the Adventuresomes to attempt the climb. I’m not going to make any value judgments about the wisdom of selling crash wreckage to offset costs for the trip. I’m disqualified from making them anyway because I am a past purchaser. On all counts I simply advise, be cautious, dear couple. I want you in one piece to buy my next book, and if that book with James Stewart as main subject inspires you to visit places like Tibenham, East Anglia, where the 445th Bomb Group was based, or Hamburg or Frankfurt, which the 445th bombed, be advised: these places will welcome you with no dangerous climbing required.

Splitting a Limo

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

Nine years ago yesterday: the time they gave me a megaphone. The only time. The reason my clothes are hanging on me is because I was on the low-budget-feature diet, which includes no time for food but the stress-burn of 10,000 calories a day. The guy visible in front of me is my stepson, Rob. Like I say, I called in all markers on May 13, 2006.

The very first reviewer of Fireball, the savvy, revered, and (by a few) despised New York Post film critic Lou Lumenick, praised the book and said, “Fireball would make a great movie.” Since then I’ve heard the refrain often, up to and including this week on Facebook. It happens that I write and direct movies for a living, if one counts videos for NASA and the Department of Energy as “movies.” It’s no coincidence that things I write about present themselves as movies in my head, so it’s natural to describe them that way in books.

I know enough about making feature pictures to be just a little bit dangerous. Nine years ago yesterday, while making the George Washington documentary Pursuit of Honor, I directed more than 100 actors and extras in a Revolutionary War-era battle scene set in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Amidst cannon and buckets of fake blood, horses, cranes, and five cameras stood yours truly with a megaphone—the only time they ever let me use one while directing. All markers were called in that day, and every living, breathing relative who could work as crew or an extra participated. Even my dentist played a wounded Redcoat—so did his brother. This location shoot covered just three pages of the script in a feature that took us to Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Old Town Alexandria, and many other shooting sites. I even fell in the Allegheny River while trying to shoot ice floes in wintry New York. This story doesn’t really have a point; I just looked at the calendar and remembered the date, May 13, 2006.

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

The battle as it appeared in the feature.

Believe me when I tell you, making movies ain’t easy. I was reminded of it this morning when a story crossed the wire about Cate Blanchett’s new lesbian picture 10 years in the making. This article resonated with me on many levels given my present undertaking with Fireball, which is, simply, that I’m in the middle of writing a film treatment of the story. In the Blanchett article about the movie called (ironically enough) Carol, the difficulty of writing a romantic picture came up. Said the director of Carol, Todd Haynes, “…I think love stories are hard to pull off, period. They require forces that keep the lovers apart.”

It’s true, as I’m learning. The best love stories feature lovers struggling to be together, or forced to be apart. The need for this dynamic, the eternal struggle of lovers, sunk the 1976 feature motion picture, Gable & Lombard, which sought to find the conflict separating the characters by inventing it: Gable is a wet-behind-the-ears Hollywood newcomer and Lombard is the brassy movie veteran; Gable is incapable of love and Lombard fears being hurt by it; society torments them for their unmarried relationship until they reach the breaking point and then … well, see the picture. Better yet, don’t see the picture, because it bears no real resemblance to the living, breathing people or their situation, not to mention the grisly miscasting of the actors playing said characters.

In my development of Fireball as a cinematic property, I’ve already run afoul of the physics of how to make the relationship of Lombard and Gable corporeal and not cliché. I used to be angry at the ineptitude of Gable & Lombard but now see what the screenwriters were up against in bringing two highly recognizable Hollywood legends to life as real people. I’m not sure anyone short of John Huston or Joe Mankiewicz could have pulled it off. Or maybe it’s just plain impossible to have an actor and actress impersonate Clark and Carole because their body of work lives on so we know exactly who they were and what they were like.

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

Impersonate THIS? I have my doubts.

I’ve had a discussion or three in recent weeks with people on the inside about Fireball the movie—the pros and cons and ins and outs of screenplays in the modern era. Should I concentrate on selling the intellectual property? Should I develop a treatment? Should I write a screenplay? Ask five Hollywood people these questions and you’ll get five diverging expert opinions, each one valid. My response is I’m just doing what I always do; I’m writing, spurred on by vivid scenes that have played on a loop inside my head for years. Weary people stepping inside an airplane. A fireball in the night sky. Men climbing through snow. A husband staring at a mountain. So many vivid moments that now haunt many as they once haunted only me.

Right now I’m trying out the story I want to tell in two hours. I’m picking the best scenes and identifying the characters that will populate my picture. I’m pretty sure my approach, arrived at after a meeting in Beverly Hills, is going to surprise lovers of the book. I’m open to ideas for what to include, and if you forward them to me, keep in mind that I’m not going to guarantee you a piece of the action. But I’ll remember you if I use your idea. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up splitting a limo one of these years on our way to the Oscars. At the very least I’ll give you one hell of a shout-out in my acceptance speech. You and Lou Lumenick.

2D to 3D

I have nothing profound to say today.

Ooh, I just heard about a hundred clicks as people flew off this page.

The time between book releases is quiet, and a lot happens within the confines of an office surrounded by government documents and original photos and published works like biographies and military histories. At the moment there’s a stack of file folders related to the Eighth Air Force a foot high beside my chair, and another pile half that high next to it.

A funny thing happened about three weeks ago. I was researching a bombing mission by Capt. James Stewart’s squadron over Frankfurt, Germany, and all of a sudden the project went from 2D to 3D. From black and white to color. From mono to six-speaker surround. It happened when a character I didn’t know would be in the book jumped out from the shadows of history and said boo to me. A woman I had never heard of but realized would be a friend by the time this book is finished. Granted she’s been dead 71 years, but we’ll be friends just the same, just like I’m friends with Alice Getz and Wayne Williams. They’re real to me, flesh and blood, thoughts and dreams, cologne and perspiration. Now, I have to learn all about this German woman, track her down in a language I don’t speak (sorry Miss Diamond, but your two years of trying to teach me German in high school were for naught … kaput) in places I haven’t yet seen.

I’ve said more than once that a couple years ago I’d be sitting here writing Fireball all alone for months on end thinking, who the heck is going to care about a movie star dead for 70 years? What if nobody cares? But I don’t have any such concerns rattling around in my head this time. I’ve got an epic story to tell, a story as big as Europe and 30,000 feet tall. But just like in Fireball it all comes down to molecules of human beings; who they were, where they were placed, how they acted and reacted in good times, bad times, and the worst times. If I do it right, then you’re riding along in the airplane with engine number 3 on fire or you’re on the ground under 1,000 bombers screaming to yourself, I can’t stand this! I’m going to die!

It’s strange looking at an outcome like that when it’s still two years away, with so much research dead ahead, trips to libraries and interviews of experts. In between each trip and each interview, I’ll be sitting here in the smoke of battle, writing.

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

As the final validation that people would care about the movie star dead 70 years, Fireball won the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Gold Award for biography of the year at ceremonies in Austin, Texas, on Friday night. It was agony not being there because of a scheduling conflict, but all was well because my friend of 30 years Carole Sampeck stepped in and represented author and book beautifully, accepted the crystal statuette, expressed my appreciation and my regrets about not being there in person, and stood for photos better than I ever could have. Ms. Sampeck—a leading expert on Carole Lombard and her place in Hollywood history—played a crucial role in the development of Fireball, so it was fitting that she experienced this payoff and heard the heartfelt cheers of those in attendance. I am certain of 22 attendees, my friends from Flight 3 whose stories were told in Fireball. Mary Johnson was there too, the 23rd passenger who left the plane in Albuquerque. They will always be my friends, very close at hand, and I am thrilled to see them get a moment to stand there with Carole Sampeck and enjoy the spotlight of an Austin Friday evening.

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

Carole Sampeck after accepting the Benjamin Franklin Award in Austin, Texas last Friday evening, April 10.

Killer

A group of men climbed a mountain on January 17, 1942. Men had been climbing mountains for thousands of years before that, but these men were special. They were in a rush. They didn’t know exactly where they were going, and they were underequipped, underdressed, and underfed for the climb. History forgot these men, but I had a feeling they had a story worth telling. Brother was I right.

Ron Kantowski, a writer for the Las Vegas Tribune-Review, reminded me this week about these men when he climbed Mt. Potosi to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, where Carole Lombard and 21 others died on the evening of January 16, 1942. I hadn’t met Ron when I was researching Fireball in the Vegas area or when I stopped there on the book tour last year. I wish I had, because Ron gets Fireball. He took inspiration from Fireball and decided to make the climb himself.

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

Mt. Potosi as seen from Ninety-Nine Mine Road. The outcropping at center-right is an hour’s hike/climb away up a boulder-strewn dry wash. Then you cut left along the line of green at the right edge of the photo, which is where the loose shale begins. Then you go UP. The outcropping seems to be the peak but no, it’s just a foothill.

Ron documented his climb in a Review-Journal piece that to me was validation. Mt. Potosi kicked my butt the day I climbed it and left me bruised and bleeding after falling and bouncing off rocks onto other rocks, with enough cactus embedded in my arm to make a hairbrush. I could feel cactus needles in my arm for a year after the climb; there will always be cactus needles in my arm. “Something to remember me by,” I can hear Potosi saying.

Guess what? Kantowski’s experience was similar, like reporting cuts and bruises and torn clothes. Like getting mired on all fours in shale, which doesn’t sound like peril but try it on a 45-degree mountainside with a drop of a couple thousand feet behind you. The oddest thing about the Potosi climb was going up facing the mountain, focused on each branch to hold on to, choosing rock ledges carefully because some were solid and some weren’t. Going up occupied my brain so completely that I didn’t think much about getting back down until I started the descent. Then the realization: holy shit, I can see all the way down. Thousands of feet down.

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

After 2.5 hours of climbing, you reach a ridge. Across a valley you can make out the destination, visible through trees at lower-center.

There’s a way to access the crash site along the ridge that calls for driving and then hiking, but it’s the long way and first responders to the plane crash followed a more direct route. The leader of this group was a Clark County deputy sheriff named Jack Moore; the group also contained a former high school football star named Lyle Van Gordon who climbed into the morning sky like a rocket that day and reached the crash scene, in two feet of snow, long before the others.

I’ve been told that the most powerful moment in Fireball is when Van Gordon climbs up to where he can first see gleaming silver aluminum from the plane and believes that it has crash landed; that he can smell wood smoke from a campfire built by survivors. Van Gordon was an uncompromising man, not the friendliest in the world, but in this moment having just made that climb his intentions were pure. He represented the best in all men. Because he did smell a campfire, because the aluminum gleamed silver in the morning sun, he believed in a happy ending. It becomes chilling because of what happens next.

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

The plane, in a million pieces large and small, ended up in a ravine. This is the lower end of the ravine, where Lyle Van Gordon climbed 73 years ago until he could see gleaming airplane ahead. The first pieces of debris that I saw that day were spotted here, far below the impact point.

Ron alluded to this passage in his column—he and I both understand that moment, having stood where Van Gordon stood in a place that I guess is beautiful for a limitless view toward the north, with Las Vegas spread out 30 miles off like Plasticville. To me Potosi is a harsh place. A savage, unforgiving place. It was harsh prior to the crash, and it was harsh after the crash. It will always be harsh. Brittle, brown desert that goes straight up. Potosi is a killer—that’s the truth of it. Anyone who scales its heights is lucky to come down more or less intact.

The crash site is about to grow a lot less accessible in coming weeks, as the heat takes over, bringing with it all the trappings of a desert summer. Round about October nature will unlock the peaks of Potosi again for the next adventurer. I know I want to go back one of these days to pay my respects to the 22 lost there, and 6 men who scaled a mountain.

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

This photo of a random spot of ground at the crash site shows the amount of debris on the mountain. The more you study the photo, the more pieces of airplane you can find.

Royals

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

Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.

Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.

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

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

I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.

The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.

Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.

The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.

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

Carole’s mother, known as Tots or Petey, stands with the happy couple at the Bel Air press event. Less than three years later she would ride into history with her daughter aboard TWA Flight 3.0

Electronic Eyewitness

We now know that no alarms sounded in the cockpit of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. The co-pilot locked the cockpit door from the inside and set the autopilot for an altitude of 100 feet. It was an eight-minute controlled descent from 38,000. There were no automatic warnings because that co-pilot was operating the ship within parameters, and passengers didn’t catch on for several minutes.

No civilized human being outside of a psychiatrist or psychologist can comprehend the murder of 149 innocent people, and I certainly can’t make sense of it here. But the parallels with TWA Flight 3 continue. Earlier this week we all wondered, was the Germanwings crash due to mechanical failure? Terrorism? Sabotage? Investigators ran through the same checklist in January 1942 after Flight 3 went down, with the United States fighting a new world war against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Was the crash of Flight 3 the result of a premeditated act? Another theory had to be examined after the crash of this “giant” DC-3 airliner with 19 passengers and a crew of 3: Did the pilot, Captain Wayne Clark Williams, commit suicide by intentionally crashing the plane? At least one civilian claimed that he did and expressed the opinion in writing to the FBI. The Civil Aeronautics Board and House Committee investigating the crash in 1942 scrutinized Williams’ behavior and mind-set on the day of the disaster, interviewing eyewitnesses that included the TWA station managers in Albuquerque and Las Vegas, the two stops of Flight 3 prior to its crash. Both TWA men stated that Williams was in good spirits and a positive frame of mind, like always. Williams was a cool character, a former barnstormer who had flown in all weather and faced all adverse conditions with a calm demeanor. Wayne Williams could be counted on to bring his ship in safe. More than 14,000 flying miles confirmed this fact.

The “black box” hadn’t been invented in 1942, and answers were uncovered (if they were uncovered) the old-fashioned way—by investigation and scientific measurement. In March 2015 we can usually figure things out by examining those two critical collectors of data: the cockpit voice recorder and the flight data recorder. Already the cockpit voice recorder has revealed truths we can’t fathom but must accept.

Some reviewers of my book on the TWA crash, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, gave the opinion that there really wasn’t a mystery. Air & Space Smithsonian, while praising the book in general, took that approach. I disagreed then and disagree now. Imagine if the Germanwings plane had gone down without data recorders. Maybe it was tracked on radar but we couldn’t know what went on in the cockpit because there were no witnesses, human or electronic, to tell the story. How could we ever know for sure that one of the pilots had deliberately flown the ship into the ground? We couldn’t. In 1942 the answers were never found because of a lack of conclusive evidence. I think I ultimately did find the reasons for the crash through a synthesis of 70 years of evidence and perspectives that investigators didn’t have in the 1940s. Back then they tossed the “official” cause of the crash into a bucket called “pilot error” because, ultimately, the engines and controls were deemed to be working, so the pilot must have been at fault.

But they didn’t know why back then. Yes there was circumstantial evidence like an erroneous flight plan, but an experienced pilot should have spotted trouble and taken evasive action. In that sense the crash of TWA Flight 3 is a mystery and always will be, specifically because no one lived to answer the question, why?

Today the data recorders “lived” and we learned the what of this past Tuesday. Time will tell if we end up getting an answer to the question we want so desperately to be able to ask that co-pilot: Why?

Mystery Within the Mystery

News of the death of my friend Kenneth Keene has hit me hard. I mean, come on, I’m not telling tales out of school when I say the man drank liquor a quart a day and knew the word exercise only as a theoretical experience. But he was one of the most extraordinary humans I have ever met, and his passing has left a hole in my heart.

As you will recall from a post dated last October, Ken Keene owned Tuckaway, an Indianapolis National Landmark and a home tied to the death of Carole Lombard. Ken Keene insisted, Ken Keene swore to me, that Carole Lombard stood at the front door of Tuckaway the day before her death and was warned by scientific palmist Nellie Simmons Meier “not to take the plane.” Ken learned this from the lips of Nellie’s niece Ruth, making it more than legend. It was oral history. But the fact of the matter is, I have not been able to find evidence that Lombard managed to sneak off to Tuckaway, located on the north side of Indianapolis, on the hectic day of the bond sale on January 15, 1942. If you followed my Twitter campaign of January 15 and 16 of this year, when I recounted Lombard’s day selling war bonds minute by minute, you know how frantic was her time in Indianapolis.

I would say to Ken that I needed evidence of her Tuckaway visit, and he would respond, “You don’t believe me!” I assured him that yes, I did believe him, but I needed verification to put it in print. But Ken had heard it from Ruth, and Ruth had heard it from Nellie, so it was incomprehensible to Ken that I needed more than that.

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

The dark and mysterious interior of Tuckaway. Ken is barely visible at center of photo, beside the lamp.

Now, about Ken. He was a dark-haired man with a puppy-dog-sad face. According to the feature obit in the Indianapolis Star, he was 69 or 70. He mentioned that he was the son of Army Air Corps Brigadier General Ken Keene, although the subject only came up because he asked me what I was working on and I told him a book about James Stewart in World War II. He said, “Oh, my father knew him and used to tell stories about the two of them in the war.” It was then he showed me a picture of Gen. Keene and his wife Gigi, the stunning woman who was Ken’s mother. But knowing the unorthodox Ken, I sensed that there was a lot of discontent among parents and child, because he was the last guy to be thought of as a chip off the ol’ block of Gen. Keene. Another sign of problems was the fact that Ken had no interest in recounting his father’s experiences with James Stewart.

Ken was often bombed from all the scotch, but a brilliant conversationalist at all times. He tracked every word that anyone said and had an immediate response, even after a full tumbler of scotch. I mean a big glass of scotch and ice. He might slur a word or two, but the man had his faculties and his brain processed like a NASA supercomputer.

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

The “other” Lombard autographed portrait that I found on Ken’s wall.

Ken’s passion was Tuckaway, and Carole Lombard was among his favorite Tuckaway topics. He would point out the autographed portrait of her hanging at the bottom of the stairs, which had become famous over the years through newspaper coverage. As Mary and I wandered through the house, I found another Lombard inscribed and framed portrait hanging in the library, which didn’t really look so much like her so it was no wonder it had been overlooked. It was taken off the wall and handed to Ken, who fixed his hazy eyes on it and said, “Oh yes, I had forgotten about this one.”

It turns out that I spoke to Ken by phone within a week of his death on February 18. He had asked me when I would be out for a visit—he always asked that—and I promised to get there in the spring. I was thinking about planning that visit the day I learned about his passing, just hours after thinking about him, this past Tuesday.

I interviewed Ken extensively about his connection to the story in Fireball, this incredible missing piece of the Fireball timeline, so it’s not as if his death has affected the historical record. But I so admired this guy for being gracious, and brilliant, and determined to show visitors to Tuckaway the time of their lives. I admired him for his warmth at all times, whenever I’d call. Above all he was a brilliant individualist who lived life on his own terms and never compromised. He never skimped on the liquor bill and never condescended to see a doctor even when it was obvious he should. What good does it do now to scold the guy? I’d rather celebrate this life brilliantly lived, and pursue the clues he left me about what is potentially a chilling moment in the last days of Carole Lombard’s life when she was warned what was ahead and for some reason ignored the warning and hurried to her doom.

Revisionism

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

Glamour pusses Gable and Lombard share an ‘up’ moment exiting Ciro’s on the Strip in August 1941.

Why do we need there to be a happily ever after? When I was interviewed during the Fireball book tour, I would often hear things like, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured.” There would be such conviction in the voice of the interviewer, and at moments like that I found myself in an awkward place because the interviewer believed what was being said and, in fact, it was and was not true.

During the years that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were together, she was in love with him in a mature way and he was in love with her in his own way. She was an older soul and possessed a strong altruistic streak. He was a perpetual adolescent and quite selfish the way males can be. Up to the time they became an item, he had relied only on himself, number one, and there was no number two. But suddenly she became number two and worked like hell to maintain that position, which must have been, for her, something like barbequing in a snowstorm. As the premiere sex symbol in the world and therefore a male of unquestionable power, Gable cut a swath through the female population of Hollywood. He slept around and continued to sleep around until the day Lombard died. She approached this fact as practically as she could: This is the price I’m paying to be Mrs. Clark Gable. He can get his rocks off wherever he likes because I know he comes home to me.

But that doesn’t mean she found rationalizing easy, and even a self-confident soul and sexual libertine like Carole Lombard had her limits.

Every indication is that if she had lived, he’d have gone right on as a brigand for as long as the marriage could endure. There were rumors at the time of her death that their union had already hit the rocks. A particular photo that appears in Fireball bears this out. They are sitting together in a restaurant, and she is smiling politely but looking like hell and he looks as miserable as you’ll ever see Clark Gable looking. It’s not the kind of grouchy-miserable that you see when Clark Gable is acting. This is vulnerable-miserable, pained-miserable, as if they are arguing and he’s wrong and he knows he’s wrong.

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

Three months later, here they are, her smile painted on, his nonexistent. She rests her hand on top of his hand, but she’s not holding his hand and he’s not playing along.

When the host of a Fireball interview would turn the statement into a question, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured, didn’t they?” there was my opening and I would answer with the truth: They loved each other, yes, but there were problems with the marriage that I think would have ended it before too much longer. Probably by 1945 or 1946, had she lived, she would have given up and left Clark Gable. Sometimes, loving someone and giving it your all isn’t enough. Sometimes, unconditional love causes the self to endure too much, give away too much; in this case she would have given away the prime of her life. I could easily see her reaching age 36 or 38 and no longer being willing to serve as consort to a hard-drinking, womanizing sovereign. Or I could see Gable waking up one morning and beholding a Lombard whose looks were beginning to wane from smoking, drinking, stress, and the natural process of aging. You can see the beginnings of it in the photo discussed earlier. At that point Gable might decide to trade his wife in for a newer model, say the sleek, 10-years-younger Lana Turner.

Whether Carole would have ended it or Clark would have, I don’t think this relationship was headed for happily ever after, and it was the shattering event of her death at age 33, after only two-and-a-half years of marriage, that bronzed the timeless, forever love of Gable-Lombard legend, the kind of love this twosome sometimes captured but was beginning to find elusive.

Looking even further down the line, I could see the Gables divorcing and remaining friends like she was friends with her ex William Powell and somewhere around 1955 getting together again for a Gable-Lombard picture or two. Precedent: Lombard made My Man Godfrey with Powell three years after their divorce. Gable made Key to the City with Loretta Young 16 years after she bore their love child—a child he would never acknowledge. Stars set personal feelings aside for the sake of box office. Astaire and Rogers weren’t exactly fond of one another; Abbott and Costello grew so far apart they didn’t speak except in front of the camera.

That’s life is how I look at it. Happy endings don’t come about very often and “for keeps” usually isn’t for keeps, especially in Hollywood. But that doesn’t detract from the story of Lombard and Gable. They were real people, “juicy people,” Loretta Young called them, and they deserve to be remembered for who they really were, not who we wish they would have been.

Curves

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

Carole Lombard in 1928 after Mack Sennett had labeled her “scrawny” and ordered a weight gain.

When did “unnaturally thin” and “emaciated” become desirable for women? Mack Sennett told Carole Lombard to put on a few pounds when he hired her in 1927, and I think she never looked better. Otherwise, Lombard spent her career dieting and sweating to be as thin as possible, mainly I think because she tended to put on weight in her legs if she gained an ounce and she didn’t like it.

I have grown so bored, my friends, of women who are proud because their ribs are showing. We have long been at the point where women brag about starving themselves, brag about every ounce lost in an effort to be a 4 instead of a 6 or a 10 instead of a 12. Women don’t even seem to do it for men; they do it to one-up the competition—other women. Is it a billion-dollar or a trillion-dollar industry, the companies selling the message that if you aren’t skinny, you’re miserable? It’s a brainwashed world gone mad.

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

Ashley Graham: Sports Illustrated-bound.

The so-called “plus-size model” who will appear in an ad in the upcoming SI swimsuit edition, Ashley Graham, is, to me, as sexy as it gets. The xylophone-ribbed waifs who will surround her on the pages—not so much. To me they all look exactly alike. They’re up and down and boring.

Why the rant against anorexia? Because women’s obsession with weight and the negative consequences of being anything but ribby is nothing new. Case in point: Carole Lombard’s close friend and confidante Madalynne Fields. I’m reading a 1936 article from Modern Screen magazine that Vincent Paterno posted on his Carole & Co. web site. My friend Marina had tipped me off to this article during the research phase of Fireball, and I remember being frustrated back then by the typically fluffy nature of the piece. “Fieldsie” spent her lifetime hiding in shadows, and all we get are glimpses of Carole’s fun-loving companion from the early 1930s when Lombard and Fields rampaged through Hollywood as a distaff Laurel and Hardy.

Have you ever wondered why there seem to be just a couple of photos in existence that show the supposedly inseparable duo of Lombard and Fields? Carole never met a camera she didn’t like, but Fieldsie managed to avoid cameras most of her life. The truth is not pretty.

Straight dope on Madalynne Fields was impossible to obtain until I accessed old audiocassette tapes in the Academy’s Herrick Library, one of which was an interview from 1976 by Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene with Fieldsie’s son, Richard Lang. Richard’s mother had just recently passed on at the time of the interview, and his voice is tinged with sadness as he describes this woman whom he knew as “the General.”

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

One of two photos you’ll see of Carole and Fieldsie. Here they attend an event for Carole’s picture, Twentieth Century. Fieldsie is looking not at the camera but at Russ Columbo, a man she disliked, as described in Fireball. Lombard looks at her Twentieth co-star, John Barrymore.

The real Fieldsie was brilliant, meticulous, demanding, driven, and unhappy. She didn’t want to be six feet tall. She didn’t want to weigh in a range that fluctuated around 250 pounds. She didn’t want to stand out in a crowd and draw everyone’s stare. It was the most difficult thing in the world for Fieldsie to be Carole’s comic foil, and she became trapped in the role when Carole hit it big in 1934 with Twentieth Century and then bigger in 1936 with My Man Godfrey. Fieldsie had a tremendous sense of humor that became central to the Lombard legend, but it was humor as a defense, humor as a shield, humor to hide the pain.

The 1936 Modern Screen article gives us hints of the life Fieldsie faced. She describes herself as a thirty-five-dollar-a-day motion picture actress—but that was on the days when she could land work as a walk on or extra, and those days were almost nonexistent because she was so big. As a result she went to school and learned secretarial skills that allowed her to become Carole’s secretary. Night school wasn’t a lark as positioned in the 1936 article; for Fieldsie, the adding machine and shorthand meant survival.

The article quotes Fieldsie as saying, with tragic understatement, “Although I wouldn’t admit it, I was terribly self-conscious about my weight. I knew that Carole realized this, for without mentioning it, she used to say and do things that meant a great deal to me.” The article also mentions that Fieldsie was, as of the writing, under a doctor’s care and had lost 60 pounds, and soon she was marrying director Walter Lang, who had directed Carole in the features No More Orchids in 1932 and Love Before Breakfast in 1936.

I used to wonder why Fieldsie suddenly departed the scene upon marrying Lang in 1937. It seems as if she left Carole high and dry as secretary and business manager and, in truth, she did. As Carole’s star neared its zenith, Fieldsie vamoosed because she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t stand to be seen towering over her perfect little svelte clothes-horse of a best friend. She couldn’t stand the heat of the spotlight and sought nothing more than a quiet life away from it.

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

Madalynne Fields makes a rare public appearance with Clark Gable and Irene Dunne at the launching of a ship named for Carole Lombard. Not only are Fieldsie and Clark the same height; she was the General and he was only a major so she out-ranked him.

So effectively did Fieldsie go on to avoid that spotlight that only in January 1944, when the liberty ship Carole Lombard was christened, did Madalynne Fields make a public appearance in range of cameras, and how uncomfortable she appears.

Fieldsie was 18 months Carole’s senior and appointed Carole to be godmother of son Richard, who was born in 1939. He would be Fieldsie’s only child. Fieldsie transitioned from power behind the Lombard throne to power behind the Walter Lang throne as Lang progressed through a successful career as director of pictures for James Stewart and Clark Gable, among many others. It’s easy to see Fieldsie living to 80 or 90 but her life was cut short at 67, not by ill health from carrying around extra weight but from a mugger who cracked her on the head with a lead pipe. The incident took down a woman whom Richard described as “fierce” and she died soon thereafter.

Of the millions of women out there struggling to force themselves into the media’s accepted norm of body shape, Fieldsie was an early casualty. She had the misfortune to grow up in the 1920s when “boyish” became the figure of choice for women, and she was anything but that. Carole Lombard, empathetic soul, did all she could for Fieldsie, but the association proved to be both blessing and curse, and so here is the uncomfortable truth behind the legend of Carole’s fun-loving sidekick.

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

Courtesy of Tom Hodgins: a shot from the Sennett days with Fieldsie center and Carole foreground left of frame, highlighting the problem for the larger of the girls.

Marathon

Here we are on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Seventy-three years ago today, Sunday, January 18, 1942, recovery teams were combing the unforgiving mountainside of Mt. Potosi, Nevada at the site of what one Civil Aeronautics Board investigator called “the most completely destroyed airplane I have ever seen.”

This year of 2015, the events covered in the book Fireball occurred on the same days of the week as they did in 1942, which led me (after the germ of the idea was hatched by Carole Sampeck) to launch a Twitter effort to replay key events in Carole Lombard’s last days in real-time, as they happened, beginning at 1:35 P.M. Central on Thursday, the moment Lombard and her party—including her mother Elizabeth Peters (“Petey”) and press man Otto Winkler–were greeted at Union Station, Indianapolis, by the Indy mayor and other officials. I then followed her progress through the day, which included five big events and interactions with at least 20,000 people, and her sudden decision made on Thursday night to fly home instead of take the train.

This past Friday, two days ago, the Twitter reports transitioned to updates from TWA as Flight 3 progressed across the country.

I learned a couple of things through this Twitter campaign. First, I learned how many people still care. The effort drew many new Twitter followers who were eager to participate. Second, I was struck by how fast events transpired for 19.5 hours, from the moment she stepped off the train to the moment Flight 3 struck the mountain. She was in almost constant motion one way or another. For example, from the train station at 1:35 she was driven to the state capitol for a speech and flag raising at 2:00, a bond sale from 2:30 to 3:30, another flag raising at the Claypool Hotel at 3:45, more driving to the governor’s mansion for a tea and reception from 4:15 to 5:30, private dinner with VIPs back at the Claypool at 6:30, a bond rally in a local civic center before 12,000 at 8:30, and a private reception for her friends and family once more at the Claypool at 10:30. Then did she retire for a long sleep? No, of course not. After midnight, Carole, Petey, and Otto packed up for a trip to the airport to wait for a flight that came in late, and you know how easy it is to catch a few winks in an airport terminal. The travelers didn’t board until 5:00 A.M. and then proceeded through a day of hops from city to city on a DC-3 (an uncomfortable plane to fly in) that ranged from the shortest of 1 hour, 11 minutes to the longest of 2 hours, 56 minutes in duration. During the Lombard portions of Flight 3’s intercontinental progress, the plane took off seven times and landed six. Get off the plane, climb on board. Get off the plane, climb on board. For any of us today, one layover is too many and two is torture. But six?

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

Detail of one of Myron Davis’s photos for Life, this one taken at the governor’s mansion, shows Carole Lombard with her guard down for a moment and already exhausted–hours before beginning her cross-country trek. Was she capable of rational decisions by the time she ordered Winkler to book plane reservations?

The first landing out of Indianapolis was into a bad weather situation in St. Louis that caused a two-hour delay in a crowded terminal. Living that in real-time was difficult (because I wanted to get on with the story), but I was sitting at my computer after a good night’s sleep. Imagine those two hours when you’re on Coca Colas, snack bar sandwiches, and upright naps all night and through the morning. Another weather delay followed at the next stop in Kansas City and this one made the local papers because of so many delayed flights and stranded passengers. From there the plane dragged its passengers to Wichita, then Amarillo, then Albuquerque where what was left of Carole Lombard was told she must vacate her seat and wait for another flight.

As I tracked events real-time, I realized that any human—even good-hearted, down-to-earth Carole Lombard—would snap. She must have been seeing polka-dotted koala bears by this time when all she wanted to do was get home.

Many have asked the unanswerable questions: Why was she in such a rush? Why did she drag her companions on a plane when both expressly wished to avoid the dangers of air travel? Was it all about her husband Clark Gable cheating on her? Or was there something more than this? It’s been hypothesized that Carole believed, or had it confirmed in Indianapolis, that she was pregnant and wanted to rush home to tell Gable. This explanation would solve the problem of obtaining the buy in of her companions to get home ASAP. But after at least two miscarriages and a procedure at Johns Hopkins to “clean her out” in efforts to get pregnant, would she put her reproductive system through this particular 19.5 hours of hell? We will never know the answers, assuring that this aspect of the mystery of Flight 3 will remain.

I ended my Twitter effort on Friday night with TWA Control cutting off any further public information about Flight 3 when it was clear that the plane had crashed. Several people confirmed for me later what I already knew: Those last moments are chilling to re-live, no matter how often we do it.

Some people heard of the real-time Twitter feed and signed on after events had transpired, so I have been issuing sporadic updates about goings-on at the scene and thinking about the fact that when Carole Lombard’s marathon ended, Clark Gable’s began. With no warning what was coming or how brutal it would all be, Gable never had a chance.