Carole Lombard: As It Happens

Attention readers of this column and Carole Lombard fans everywhere. Join me on Twitter tomorrow and Friday for a very special event: “Carole Lombard: As It Happens,” with live Twitter feeds as we follow her realtime through her planned day in Indianapolis selling war bonds. We will then follow her home for a reunion with Clark Gable. Coverage begins early tomorrow morning, Thursday January 15, and continues Friday January 16 on Twitter. Join me at @Robert Matzen. For those of you not currently on Twitter, here’s your chance to sign up and get acquainted.

Last Flight

The anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 3 is coming up again this Friday, January 16. Last January 16, the day of the launch of the Fireball hardcover, I stood at the base of Mt. Potosi and stared up at the crash site thinking about all that went on 72 years earlier. The crash, the fireball, and the emergency response from Las Vegas. I possess a decent imagination and stood there in the quiet desert morning reliving all the events, retracing the steps of Deputy Jack Moore, Major Herbert Anderson, Lyle Van Gordon, and dozens of others as they tried to save the people on the mountain. I thought about Clark Gable’s stay in Las Vegas and his endless glances toward this angry giant of a mountain that had swatted Ma out of the sky.

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

Mt. Potosi on the 72nd anniversary of the crash. Wreckage of Flight 3 remains below the cliffs in the saddle of the mountain ridge about dead center in the photo.

After paying homage at Potosi, we drove down from Vegas to Santa Monica for the launch event at the Museum of Flying, a fraction of a mile from the factory where Douglas DC-3 number NC 1946 was manufactured in February 1941, less than a year before it would crash on Potosi. At 7:07 P.M. last January 16, I stood in the quiet and the dark outside the museum under a DC-3 that’s mounted on stanchions there—a display item to commemorate the Douglas Corporation and its remarkable aircraft. The DC-3 is a sleek, beautiful aircraft that revolutionized commercial air transportation. It’s military version, the C-47, helped to win World War II.

I continued to stand under the plane until 7:22, the moment of impact. What an eerie feeling, looking up at the belly of a DC-3 and thinking about the physics of such a beast, fully loaded with passengers and cargo, striking rock cliffs at about 185 miles per hour. Shivers ran up my spine as I stood in the January cold and darkness as 22 lives were extinguished. Boom. Gone.

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

Under the belly of the beast in Santa Monica.

When you read accounts of the crash in 1942 newspapers, the DC-3 Sky Club is referred to as a “giant airliner,” which today is funny because the DC-3 is dwarfed by passenger jets we’ve all flown in. Still, standing underneath the vintage twin-engine plane is an eye opener. It is a giant all on its own, with a broad fuselage, lots of storage capacity, and engines powerful enough to provide dramatic lift even with the plane crammed to the hilt, as it was that fatal January night.

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

The Douglas aircraft plan in Santa Monica in 1952 next to Clover Field–later Santa Monica Airport. The plane that would be Flight 3, NC 1946, made its maiden flight from this field early in 1941.

This year, January 16 falls on a Friday just as it did in 1942, making it easier to relate not only to the events of Carole Lombard’s last day, but to pick up the story on Wednesday morning January 14 as she arrives in Chicago along with her mother Elizabeth, dubbed “Petey” by Carole, and press man Otto Winkler. This coming Thursday January 15 we can recall the speech and flag raising at the Indiana Capitol building in Indianapolis, which took place at 3:00 P.M. Eastern time, the bond sale at 3:30, and the Cadle Tabernacle appearance at 9:00. Night owls among us can think about Carole, Petey, and Otto sitting exhausted in taxis as they and their considerable luggage are driven to the Indianapolis Municipal Airport after 1:00 A.M. We can think of them climbing the aluminum TWA staircase and stepping onto Flight 3 in the darkness at somewhere around 4:30 A.M. Eastern.

Anniversaries are always a time to stop and reflect, and this one will be especially meaningful to all who have been drawn to the last flight of TWA’s DC-3 with wing number NC 1946 and its precious human cargo.

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

This DC-3, renamed “The Spirit of Santa Monica,” was built in the Douglas Corp. at the end of 1941, prior to the crash of TWA Flight 3, delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in February 1942, and transferred to the U.S. Navy that same month. At the end of World War II, it was purchased by Nationwide Airlines and flew as a commercial liner until 1953. Like the plane on which Carole Lombard and her companions died, the wing span is 95 feet and the length from nose to tail is 64 feet.

The Year of Fireball

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen dust jacketI’ve told this story often: When I climbed Mt. Potosi with my guide, Jim Boone, on a cold October day, I stood at the site where TWA Flight 3 struck rock cliffs and exploded, and I felt an electric connection with the people who died on January 16, 1942, all 22 of them. It’s easy to feel a connection with Carole Lombard, the movie star that you see in the movies and in thousands of photos on the internet. But I also experienced a direct link to the pilots and stewardess, to Carole’s mother, to her press representative, to a quiet war bride, and to soldiers whose names I didn’t even know at the time. They were all there on the mountainside—I mean vividly there—and they communicated to me that once they had been alive, and they were important, with stories to tell.

I came back from the mountain and started putting their stories together, sitting in my office all alone writing Fireball week after week, month after month, researching Carole Lombard and these people and thinking to myself, Will anybody care? What if nobody cares?

Fireball has been out almost a year now, and there are at least four people who truly don’t care. If you go to Amazon and look at the reviews you will see all four there, with comments like, “interesting to someone who lived during that era, but the author spent too much time writing about people and their lives who were killed on ill fated flight.” Set against this view are tens of thousands of people who eagerly consumed the book and now know the story of how Carole Lombard lived and died. So many readers have said to me, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard when I started.” If they didn’t know Lombard, they probably didn’t know Gable, and none would have known Carole’s mom or Otto Winkler, or pilots Wayne Williams and Morgan Gillette, or stewardess Alice Getz, or Lois Hamilton the Army wife, or soldiers with names like Barham and Nygren and Varsamine.

I knew up on the mountain that this book would be different and not what a reader of Hollywood biography might expect. It’s a mile-a-minute story, so why would I want to pound it into a standard format? These people lived and breathed and so must their story, and so I told it on two parallel tracks: The story of the crash, and the story of the passengers in life. Mostly it’s Carole Lombard’s story of course; she was as memorable a character as lived in the twentieth century, and people want to know about her. They want to know about Clark Gable as well, and the dynamics between Carole and Clark as lovers and spouses. The trick was to weave all the other characters into the story, the people Carole knew and loved, and also the other passengers, the rescuers, and the crash investigators. So many cool, competent, heroic people for one book, and I got to be the first to tell their story.

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

Best broadcast media coverage: six TV and three radio appearances in Las Vegas.

I am sitting here on the last day of 2014 looking back at the year of Fireball, a book now in its second printing, feeling such a sense of satisfaction that people do care about this story and these people. I know because I met them at lectures and book signings. I looked into the eyes of veteran television interviewers who couldn’t learn enough about the story; I heard interest in the voices of radio personalities who had invited me on the air. There are so many angles to pitch—Carole Lombard’s trail-blazing career as a liberated woman in Hollywood; the tempestuous love of Carole and Clark; his infidelities and how they contributed to his wife’s death; Otto Winkler’s premonition that he would die on a plane; the mystery of how TWA’s most experienced pilot could steer a perfectly running airplane into a mountainside on a clear night; the fact that all 19 passengers were traveling on government business related to the war; my own trek up the mountain and what it was like to find the last thing I expected: human remains at the crash site after all these years.

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

Biggest crowd: more than 130 in Carole Lombard’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

It was a fantastic year for Fireball, from the book launch in Santa Monica, California, in January to all those lectures across the country to the featuring of the Fireball trailer at just two days ago. Some dude named Pitbull even wrote a song about Fireball. Personally I can’t hear any mention of Carole Lombard in the lyrics, but I guess he liked the book anyway. I’m pretty sure Carole would have liked his song.

I don’t know what 2015 holds, but I’m excited to find out. Happy New Year everybody; may 2015 be a spectacular year for you—a Fireball kind of year.

Nobody Saw It Coming

New Year’s Eve; the year winding down past the last sunset into the quiet and the dark, to the dim glow of holiday lights and the anticipation of New Year’s celebrations ahead. I’m sitting here reflecting on the year past, and figured I would write a column called “The Year of Fireball,” but my friend and colleague Tom Wilson has reminded me that this is the anniversary of two other plane crashes that affected me deeply when they occurred. Pittsburgh Pirates baseball star Roberto Clemente crashed at sea on a charter flight on his way to Nicaragua on December 31, 1972. The other air disaster involved rock ‘n’ roll singer Rick Nelson, who went to his death along with the other members of his band on December 31, 1985, when their plane crashed in Texas.

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

Clemente signed this for my sister the day she introduced me to him.

It’s amazing that I hadn’t thought about these anniversaries until Tom mentioned them because I had been such a fan of both of these titans lost on New Year’s Eve. I grew up a bigtime Pirates fan and had met Clemente when I was a kid. He was on a first-name basis with my big sister Janet, and she would take me to Pirates games and we’d sit in the right-field bleachers for day games. It would be deserted out there, just the two of us, and between innings my sister chatted with Clemente. It was that easy to do in the Forbes Field bleachers. As a kid I saw some of those plays that continue to be shown today, plays that carried Clemente into the Baseball Hall of Fame—spectacular catches and rifle throws of a baseball 300 feet to an exact spot. I remember when he got hit number 3,000 right before the 1972 playoffs. For those of you outside our shores or for whom baseball isn’t on the radar, 3,000 is a big round number glorified by baseball fans. If you get that many hits, you are a legend. Well, Clemente was that, plus he had this dignified air about him and went around with his nose held high. He had an ego, no question about it, but he backed it up by being a terrific athlete, a star in two world series, both of which the Pirates won. Most of all he was, to my sister and to me, a quiet, polite guy with a nice sense of humor.

Two days prior to Christmas 1972, Managua, Nicaragua, was devastated by an earthquake. Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto Clemente, a proud Latin American, helped to round up supplies for a relief effort to Nicaragua, and decided to personally supervise the distribution of these supplies to head off pirating by corrupt government officials. Clemente’s plane, a DC-7, took off from Puerto Rico and crashed into the ocean for undetermined reasons—either overloading or mechanical failure or both. His body was never found. I can still remember how it felt to learn of Clemente’s passing on New Year’s Eve—42 years ago tonight. It hit me hard; I still feel it on a personal level.

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

Clemente had a perpetually stiff neck and was always stretching it out–the result was a nose usually in the air.

Then there was Rick Nelson, former teenage television star and rock ‘n’ roll singer who for a solid 15 or 20 years reigned as the coolest human on the planet. Listen to his first number-one song, Poor Little Fool, and tell me he wasn’t cool. Check him out in the Howard Hawks picture Rio Bravo and you see a 19 year old who was comfortable in his own skin and loved what he was doing, acting with John Wayne and Dean Martin. Nelson endured the turbulent 1960s and emerged a busy performer who appeared at Madison Square Garden to play his new material but found himself ridiculed by a massive audience expecting teenaged Ricky Nelson. The result was his most famous song, Garden Party. In it, he laments his treatment by that audience but sums up his feelings with, “You can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself.”

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

Rick Nelson, still cool at age 40–around the time he purchased Mulholland Farm.

One of the spookier aspects of Rick Nelson was that he moved into Errol Flynn’s aging mountaintop estate, Mulholland Farm. Nelson was a big Flynn fan and expected it to be a blast to live at the Farm, but the place had bad vibes (and possibly a malevolent ghost) and to this day Rick’s children think the place brought their father down. When not touring, Nelson turned recluse at Mulholland. He became obsessed with DC-3s and began building models of them at home. Then he bought one for his band to travel in, and this was the plane that crashed on the last day of December 1985. The DC-3 was unpressurized, just as they were in Carole Lombard’s day, and in winter and at 6,000 feet, the cabin was bone chillingly cold. Nelson and his Stone Canyon Band mates tried to start a portable heater, and a fire erupted. The pilot landed perfectly in a field in De Kalb, Texas, but then hit trees and rough terrain. Rick Nelson, his girlfriend Helen Blair, four other members of the band, and their sound man all died. In 1942 when Carole Lombard and 21 others died on a DC-3, the Douglas plane was gleaming new and utterly reliable. More than 40 years later, the DC-3 had maintained its reputation for reliability, but the one that Nelson bought was at the end of its useful life and little more than a bucket of bolts. His obsession with the plane had contributed to his death at only 45 years of age.

Twenty-nine years ago tonight, Rick Nelson died. I sit here in the quiet and the dark thinking about my brush not with Nelson but with his home, Mulholland Farm. I think about talking to his sons about their dad, and I got to grow close to him that way, hearing the stories from Gunnar and Matthew and others who knew this polite, gentle musical giant. One of those was Leda Carmody, a Rick Nelson fan who met him on many occasions. Leda was instrumental in helping me write the Nelson chapter of Errol Flynn Slept Here, and I can only imagine how she felt 29 years ago tonight. Leda has worked hard to keep Rick Nelson’s memory alive, and she must have done her job well as there are legions of his fans out there to this day.

Tonight, we look ahead to 2015. May it be a prosperous year for all of you out there. But just for a moment I need to pause and take a look back at two great men who left us in their prime, in the same way, on New Year’s Eve when nobody saw it coming.

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

First news flash of the death of Rick Nelson crosses the AP wire.

The Weaver

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

Carole Lombard loved the secular side of Christmas, as demonstrated by the number of surviving letters, cards, and notes attached to or referencing various gifts presenting by Carole to friends and acquaintances over the years. Examples can be seen at the fine Carole & Co. web site. Much less is known about her religious beliefs, which was a topic she kept private. A glimpse into Carole’s belief system is found in the poem entitled The Weaver that she wished to have read at her funeral service. I am not a religious person by nature; I would label myself as spiritual, so this column is by no means meant as an endorsement of any religion. The poem, by Grant Colfax Tullar of Bolton, Massachusetts, was abridged in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Many variations exist online and in religious tracts and emblazon many plaques hung on many walls, but this version of The Weaver seems to be the full original. It reads:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who chose to walk with Him.

The mother of a friend of mine, upon reading Fireball last summer, was struck by Tullar’s verse to such an extent that she raved about The Weaver to her husband. When this woman passed on unexpectedly last week, her husband requested the full version of the poem so it could be read at her funeral service. At this sad time, I was struck by the fact that these words chosen by Carole Lombard and read over her casket would now, almost 73 years later, provide comfort to another grieving family.

Carole made no bones about the fact that she was a fatalist. She believed, as she told an interviewer in the 1930s, that, “When your number’s up, your number’s up.” She achieved fame at a time in U.S. history that was dominated by European Protestants—remember, not even a Catholic was elected president of the United States until John Kennedy in 1960. Interviewers of the 1930s expected Carole to deliver quotes reinforcing a Protestant belief in the New Testament, but the profane one would not oblige; she refused to make her religious beliefs public. She would acknowledge a belief in God and then brush aside any further probing. In fact Carole was, like her mother, Elizabeth Peters, of the Baha’i faith, becoming Baha’i in 1938. Confidential Baha’i documentation reveals a spiritual side to the earthy, madcap Lombard that would surprise many, yet her alignment with some of the teachings of Baha’i reflects her nature as a generous person who helped the little guy whether it was a friend down on his or her luck or someone just starting out in the business. She also gained a reputation for promoting freedom of expression as well as a tolerance for a variety of lifestyles—religious and otherwise.

Yes, Christmas was big to Carole Lombard. She took it seriously and spent liberally on presents each year. In the spirit of the fireball herself, I would like to pause on this Christmas Eve and wish every visitor to the site a Happy Holiday season, whatever that may entail for you and your family and friends.

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

A naughtier Christmas celebration, this one at the Mack Sennett Studio in 1927 with leggy Lombard at right (back in the days when Mack ordered his actresses to have some meat on their bones).


A couple of anniversaries are worth mentioning amidst this joyous season that has left me bewildered and many around me anything but joyous. Did you know that George Washington died 215 years ago this past Sunday at age 67? Did you know that he died of a sore throat? Everybody has to die of something, but a sore throat is a nasty way to go when you are treated by doctors who have no earthly idea what they are doing.

George Washington was a massive human, six-foot-three and most of it muscle, even at 67. He had been a natural athlete all his life and a splendid horseman. He spent five hours on horseback riding his range the day he got sick, arrived home, went to bed, and the next day was so bad off, apparently from a strep infection, that his doctor “bled” him five pints. You know how when you give blood they take one pint and then tell you to rest and eat well to replenish what you just lost? Well they stole one pint times FIVE from the ill former president, and for good measure they gave him a mercury concoction to make him better. Mercury, as in the stuff that is poison. Among the prexy’s last words were, “I die hard,” which he murmured at the end of 1799 and which may be the understatement of the entire century, uttered just under the wire. So December 14, a couple days ago, marks 215 years since we lost the Greatest American of any generation.

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

Among George Washington’s last words in December 1799: “Please tell me Dr. House is on duty this evening.” He wasn’t; the rest is history.

Seventy-five years ago yesterday, the finished version of Gone With the Wind premiered in Atlanta, Georgia. Movie stars imported from Hollywood began arriving two days earlier, on December 13. The picture’s producer arrived on December 14 with cast members Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland via Eastern Airlines DC-3. Later, on an American DC-3 (because he couldn’t stand Selznick), Clark Gable arrived with his bride, Carole Lombard, and the pair of them stole the show from the other VIPs and held the city spellbound for 36 hours.

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

The fireball, Carole Lombard, arrives in Atlanta on American Airlines with husband Clark Gable and bandleader Kay Kyser on December 14, 1939.

Many activities took place over three crazy days, which the governor of Georgia declared a state holiday. The teeming throngs of Atlantans that clogged Peachtree Street 300,000 strong have been described in many books. Still, a few pieces of trivia astound me.

Did you know that city schools and public buildings in Atlanta were closed the day of the premiere, a Friday? Imagine any movie commanding such attention in a top-10 U.S. city today.

Did you know that there were still many Confederate Civil War veterans living at the time of the premiere, and when they trooped into the Loew’s Grand Theater from the Old Soldiers’ Home, the crowd erupted in cheers and rebel yells?

Did you know that among the non-cast members attending the Atlanta festivities were World War I fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker, Wimbledon tennis champ Alice Marble, and Clark Gable’s Oscar-winning It Happened One Night co-star, Claudette Colbert?

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

No Gable isn’t falling asleep at the Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind. Lombard is whispering something in his ear; probably something snarky.

Did you know that the ticket price in the sold-out, two-thousand-seat theater was $10 but scalpers were getting $200+?

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

A charming tike, age 10, who would participate in Gone With the Wind festivities and then change the world.

Did you know that certain cast members were barred from attending the Atlanta festivities at all because of the color of their skin? This group included Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen, who would not have been permitted to socialize with the white stars in segregated Georgia. (David Selznick fought against this segregation almost to the point of threatening cancellation of the entire Atlanta experience.) McDaniel would become the first African American to win an Academy Award just a couple of months later.

Did you know that among the costumed “slaves” performing at a charity event during premiere activities was Martin Luther King, Jr., age 10, as part of the Ebenezer Baptist boys’ choir?

As noted in this column earlier, the time of Gone With the Wind has largely gone, but in an America recovering from Depression, it was the biggest thing ever, a social phenomenon like nothing seen before or since. If you lump The Graduate with the original Star Wars and pile The Godfather on top and serve Jaws as whipped cream and Titanic as the cherry, and plunk it all on a platter of Lord of the Rings pictures resting on a table of The Hunger Games, you would still not equal the pop culture earthquake that was Gone With the Wind 75 years ago yesterday.

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

Gable and Lombard in the motorcade through Atlanta. They shut the city down for the day. Note the stars and bars at upper left. In 1939 it was no big deal; today, not so welcome.

The Censor Almost Forbade

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

Lombard models a gown she wears early in To Be or Not to Be.

Carole Lombard’s last picture, To Be or Not to Be, aired on the Saturday night prime time edition of The Essentials on Turner Classic Movies the other night. I only learned this the day after. Damn! I missed it, which is a shame because I enjoy the perspectives of Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore as they dissect the classics.

To Be or Not to Be shares with Saratoga, Rebel Without a Cause, the upcoming Paul Walker picture, Furious 7, and many others, the distinction of being released after the death of a major star. Saratoga was in mid-production when Jean Harlow took sick and passed away, causing a problem for MGM that became a publicity gimmick: spot the scenes featuring a body double for Harlow. As recounted in John McElwee’s fantastic book, Showmen, Sell It Hot! producers and distributors sometimes face this macabre fork in the road, having to complete or market a motion picture featuring a leading player who’s suddenly deceased. McElwee discusses at length the problems facing MGM when another Walker, this one Robert, died during production of My Son John. Following the death of super-hot cult icon James Dean in a car crash, Warner Bros. cashed in with a teenaged population that camped out in theaters to watch their “crossed-over” hero over and over and over again. As described by McElwee, the stellar box office of Rebel led to a fast reissue of Dean’s two other pictures, East of Eden and Giant, as well as production of an odd little documentary, The James Dean Story. Cash registers really do jingle when a big star dies.

I had always read that Carole Lombard’s last picture didn’t do well, which made no sense given the very public, very heroic, way she died. Then I did the research and learned what boffo business To Be or Not to Be did upon its release in February 1942, a discreet one month after Lombard’s passing on TWA Flight 3. To Be was a smash hit for United Artists, which it probably would not have been otherwise due to the three strikes against it.

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

Another photo from one of her last portrait sessions.

For those few of you who haven’t seen To Be or Not to Be, do yourselves a favor and rent or buy it at once. The plot concerns a troupe of actors in a Warsaw that experiences Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The harmless group of performers is enjoying a run of Hamlet but had also been rehearsing a comedy about Hitler that is now shut down by the invaders—the censor forbids such satire of the Fuhrer.

Who in an America plunged into war was going to buy a comedy about Hitler? That was strike one. The title, a line from Hamlet, itself spelled trouble in rural areas, and UA sought to change it prior to the picture’s release. Strike two. In fact, Carole Lombard spent the first leg of her bond tour in a tizzy because To Be or Not to Be was about to become The Censor Forbids. As covered in Fireball, telegrams shot back and forth between the train and New York, with Carole asserting that a change to this new title “in no way conveys the spirit of the picture and is unbecoming to an organization as important as United Artists.” She found the new title “suggestive” and distasteful, and in general raised such a stink that UA quickly backed down.

Strike three was Lombard herself. She wasn’t scoring at the box office, and her pictures of late had been unsuccessful. Only two of her past seven pictures had done well, and neither was a smash. The two pictures she had lined up after To Be were practically B-level and both at second-tier studios, one at Columbia and the other at Universal.

All these factors conspired with the outbreak of war to make United Artists executives in New York nervous, and the combination of them indicated that the picture was about to premiere to middling business.

No wonder Lombard was in a pissy mood on the train. Well, it didn’t help that she had just brawled with her husband, Clark Gable, about his eyes wandering in the direction of a hot little number at MGM named Lana Turner. Stakes were high for Carole all around on this bond trip, and she was plenty shrewd enough to understand that headlines of big bond sales in Indianapolis would help restore her name at the box office.

Carole and co-star Jack Benny knew they had something special in To Be or Not to Be. They had fun and shooting went fast—two positive signs for the picture that was supposed to be sneak previewed on the evening of Monday, January 19. Theoretically Carole could have completed the bond tour as scheduled by train and still made the preview, but of course she died on January 16 and the preview never happened. She did not live to see her last picture, which most fans call her best.

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

Restrained UA artwork announces “Carole Lombard’s last picture.”

I urge you to watch To Be or Not to Be because it’s such a smart picture. The humor is sly throughout, with Lombard portraying a famous Polish actress who contemplates infidelity with a young air force pilot 10 years her junior. Laugh at Nazis? The audience couldn’t help but laugh because the premise worked. This joke really was on Hitler.

Carole Lombard turned 33 as production commenced, and she never looked better. To Be or Not to Be is a swan song that needed no tricks and no ballyhoo, and UA was careful not to say or do anything untoward—anything that could upset a grieving Mr. Gable or his studio, powerful MGM. Metro itself had gone to questionable extremes in pitching Saratoga, like urging theater operators to set up shrines to the dead blonde bombshell, complete with saintly photos, crucifixes, and floral displays. No such showmanship seeped out of UA—To Be or Not to Be sold itself as the masses sought one more date in the dark with the late queen of screwball and American war hero, Carole Lombard.


I like to tell the story of the time I was subpoenaed to testify as an eyewitness to a car crash. Afterward, my co-worker Amy asked, “When you were sworn in and put your hand on the Bible, did it burst into flames?” Anyone who knows me would not be surprised at this question. However, in my time I have indeed opened a Bible or two, and during the confirmation process many years ago I read about all that “begetting” that started in Genesis, and I was never more bored in my life. All these people begat all these other people and so on and so forth. I don’t even much care about my own genealogy as it extends back into the distant Bavarian past…unless of course I’m somehow connected to rich Matzens and vast European fortunes. Then, by all means, sign me up for genealogy classes.

So, I had mixed feelings when a couple of weeks ago my friend and Fireball researcher Marina Gray sent me a thorough, 12-page document containing years of her expert research on Carole Lombard’s genealogy, the story of the Knight and Peters families, which combined their gene pools into the begetting of three children: Frederick Peters II, Stuart Peters, and Jane Peters. Marina sent me the fruits of her genealogical work, which turned out to be a fascinating history, as prep for my upcoming lecture on Fireball in the hometown of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday October 5. Click here for an article about the event published September 28 in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

As you may know, Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana and was named after Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, known as “Mad Anthony,” after he chose this spot on the map for one of several forts to defend white European settlers from the Miami Indians—who had every right to be “mad” themselves after a bunch of white people started to claim Native American lands.

Fort Wayne sits in the northeastern corner of Indiana and it was here that a whole lot of wealth congregated. On Carole’s mother’s side, the Cheneys were already on the level of “magnates” when they joined with the Knights, who were Wall Street wizards. On Carole’s father’s side, John C. Peters, or “gramps” to Carole, pretty much owned Fort Wayne. Among his businesses was the Horton Manufacturing Company, which introduced the first automatic washing machine to the world and offered replacement to back-breaking manual labor in the cleaning of clothes. It was quite the revolutionary device and that alone would have made any family a fortune, but to the Knights and Peters, the income from washing machines was pocket money. Chump change. All this is why I say in Fireball that money grew on trees around Carole Lombard all her life. This girl was lucky enough to be rolling in dough long before she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood in the late 1930s.

Part of the fun of visiting Fort Wayne will be the ability to get a glimpse of the three-story home of John C. Peters at 832 West Wayne Street. It’s so big that it was converted to an apartment building. The elegant brick home of the Knights, in which 26-year-old Elizabeth wedded 27-year-old Frederick before begetting the three children (including Jane/Carole), still stands at 519 Tennessee Street and is now known as “Shepherd’s House,” a shelter for homeless veterans. The house built for Frederick and Elizabeth Peters in 1902 still stands at 704 Rockhill Street. It was within these walls that Fred exhibited such dark, violent behavior that Elizabeth, known later as “Tots” and “Petey” to daughter Carole, had to gather up the children and flee to California.

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

Elizabeth Knight Peters sits for a portrait with her three children in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1911. From left: Stuart, Frederick II, Tots, and Jane, who would grow up to be Carole Lombard, and already looked the part.

Sunday, October 5, is going to be a big day for any Carole Lombard fan. It really starts on Saturday evening at 8 (Eastern) when Turner Classic Movies shows Carole Lombard’s Twentieth Century on The Essentials with Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. The following morning, Sunday the 5th, I’m appearing as a guest on WANE-TV to talk about Fireball and the day’s events. Then at 2 P.M. I’m speaking at the Fort Wayne History Center. Before and after, you will get to see a once-in-a-lifetime collection of personally owned Carole Lombard items on display at the History Center, including jewelry, purses, hats, a cigarette lighter and cigarette case, compact, documents–including the hunting licenses of Lombard and Gable, a letter handwritten from Carole to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and the 11×14 Hurrell portrait that Carole inscribed to Clark, “Pa dear, I love you, Ma.” There will also be movie memorabilia and rare photos on display, including candids from the Myron Davis set taken in Indianapolis the day before the crash of Flight 3. At the conclusion of the History Center event, at approximately 5 P.M., attendees will get to tour the Rockhill Street house to see the room in which Jane Peters was born and slept, and the streets she roamed with her two big brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootey.” [Note: the Lombard house is not a working bed and breakfast at this time.]

As I understand it, the History Center event is free to the public (but I can’t swear to that); I know for a fact that the tour of the Rockhill Street house that will be hosted by Rick and Cora Brandt is free.

Special guests on October 5 will be Carole Sampeck, director of the Dallas-based Carole Lombard Archive Foundation and consultant in the development of Fireball, and the aforementioned Marina Gray, one of two Jedi Ninja researchers who helped to make Fireball a book that has drawn praise for the comprehensive nature of its information. [DC-based Ann Trevor is the other Jedi Ninja.]

I’ve had some terrific experiences speaking about Fireball around the United States, and met many people I now call friends, but I can’t imagine there’ll be anything to top this celebration of Carole Lombard in her own home town and on the day before her October 6 birthday. I hope to see as many of you there as possible.

And, for the record, no, the Bible did not burst into flames that day.

Climbing Every Mountain

I met an author the other year who had written a successful book about a famous battle in U.S. history. In the course of talking about the book, he mentioned that he had never visited the ground, and I was surprised. No, I was shocked, and it changed the way I approach my own writing because, as I thought then and continue to think, how can a writer recount a true story without intimate knowledge of the setting?

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

Potosi was unlike any mountain I had encountered in the past. Only through the climb could I get to know it as a character in Fireball.

I climbed Mt. Potosi in part because of this guy and our chat. I knew Potosi was going to be more than terrain on which my cast struggled; Potosi was in itself a character in Fireball and in opposition—Man against Nature—with my heroes. In the past I’ve climbed in mountains, but they were lush eastern mountains, and I’d had no experience with desert mountains with cactus and Joshua trees. So, if I had never climbed Potosi, my inclination would have been to write eastern mountains and not desert mountains. And because I climbed to the site of the crash of Flight 3 over the first-responder route, I could speak of that particular experience up the dry wash and scrambling between the cliffs, then over rises and into hollows and then up into the final ravine. I could speak of every lethal danger because I saw and experienced them.

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

You’d think judging by this 1930s photo of the Café Trocadero on the Sunset Strip that these were flat lands. But the Troc was built into a hillside, with a sheer drop behind it–something you would only know from being there.

How can you write a book about Hollywood and its stars without visiting the place and learning that “Hollywood” doesn’t mean a city with defined boundaries? Hollywood is a chunk of Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills, and Century City, and extends toward Culver City and the ocean. Hollywood is ultra-green, overwatered lawns in a desert. It’s volcanic mountains jutting up out of nowhere and houses built into the mountains accessed by goat paths that no one ought to drive over. Hollywood pulses to the beat of its major arteries, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, which take you, block by block, from silent-era art deco to billion-dollar office buildings in gleaming gold, and from crumbling adobe apartments full of struggling actors to sprawling mansions of those lucky enough and talented enough to score big in show business. How could you write about the Sunset Strip of the 1930s without walking along that little piece of real estate with Ciro’s on one side of the street and Mocambo and Trocadero on the other? How could you even imagine how quaint it is? How confined and built on ledges? How packed in the stars were when they hit the town? Everybody had to know everybody just because of the terrain of the land they call Hollywood.

Now I’m heading into my next book about the Eighth Air Force in World War II, and my first inclination was to fly in the big bombers that conquered Germany in 1944 and 1945, so I booked myself into the cockpit of one of 10 remaining airworthy B-17s and went up. Up a grand total of 1,500 feet, but up nonetheless, and experienced something of what the boys of the Greatest Generation did in the airship known as the Flying Fortress. Now, I have a sense of the roar of four big Pratt & Whitney engines, of the confines of the cockpit, of the catwalk over the bomb bay, of the treacherous footing skittering around the lower turret, of the size of the bombs, and of feel of the waist machine guns. I know what it feels like to crawl into the nose of the plane in flight and where the bomb sight was and where the bombardier and navigator sat and what they could see out the observatory-style nose. Up those 1,500 feet I could begin to experience the terror of being a target for guns on the ground, knowing that a strike on the wing or the tail section meant sure death or bailing out at 10 or 20 times my 1,500 feet. I realized for the first time just how unpressurized the cabin was, and it hit me how vulnerable were the airmen, on oxygen at 30,000 feet with the temperature 30 below and anti-aircraft guns booming from the ground, and German fighters buzzing around rattling the ship with machine gun fire. Do you have any idea how big and heavy a .50 caliber machine gun shell is? I do, now, after holding one in my hand. It looks more like a small bomb than a bullet, and the machine gunners fired them in belts nine yards long. Hence the term, “the whole nine yards.” What’s the physics of firing shells that size out of both sides of a plane flying at 300 miles per hour, and out the tail and above and below? I couldn’t tell you, but after being aboard a B-17, now at least I know enough to ask.

There’s always another mountain to climb. I’ve got to find a B-24 and fly in it. I’ve got to go to where the bombers departed in England. I might have to go see where the bombs fell in Germany—who knows? It’s all part of telling authentic stories where the characters aren’t just people. Sometimes, they’re mountains, or airplanes.

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

Flying in a B-17 is research just like digging through federal records. This B-17 was built in 1945 and used in filming of the 1990 feature, Memphis Belle.

Hedge Hopping

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

This postcard, circa 1940, shows TWA airships at the gate of the Allegheny County Airport. On its last voyage, TWA Flight 3 taxied into position here; 18 hours later it crashed in Nevada.

Understanding the nature of commercial aviation as it existed in January 1942 proved to be, for me, one of the eye openers of the Fireball narrative. In Q&A following my lectures, people often assume that the plane on which Carole Lombard died along with her mother Elizabeth Peters and MGM press rep Otto Winkler was a charter, and they’re surprised to learn it was a regular commercial flight, and a transcontinental flight at that.

We think of transcontinental air travel today as five tedious hours spent motionless in a first-class or coach seat, headphones on, dozing the time away, or working on laptops or reading. New York to L.A. in upwards of six hours, depending on headwinds. L.A. to New York in about five. In 1942 the term “transcontinental” was a lot different. Instead of a nonstop or perhaps a stop for a connector, it took 10 or 12 stops to reach one coast from the other. Up and down, up and down endlessly, landing one or two times per state as the plane progressed cross-country with stops to refuel and/or pick up and drop off passengers and all-important airmail.

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

The Allegheny County Airport, unchanged in outward appearance from its 1936 expansion.

The DC-3 itself was a fabulous plane and so dependable that a few still fly today, almost 80 years since they first rolled off the assembly line. Passenger versions seated up to 22 comfortably, with the word “comfortable” being entirely subjective. In an unpressurized cabin, which the DC-3 featured, you were at the mercy of a) the ambient air temperature—except for a cabin heater controlled from the cockpit and b) the roar of two very loud engines just three feet on either side of the fuselage. The glamour and luxury of transcontinental travel in Carole Lombard’s day, in fact, hurt. It hurt your flesh; it hurt your back; it hurt your ears. Cruising altitude would be 9,000 feet above terrain if they could get away with it or 12,000 in mountains. Think of the ear popping in that unpressurized cabin. Think of the climate as you would routinely be subjected to temperatures 30 or 40 degrees colder at altitude than on the ground.

After a couple of hours in the air, you were begging for relief, and you knew it was coming; it was always coming with all the takeoffs and landings. And that’s our story for today, boys and girls, the state-of-the-art airport terminal of 1942. I am lucky enough to live about 20 minutes from just such a building, the one that used to service Pittsburgh until being replaced by a much larger facility in 1952. Because the new Greater Pittsburgh Airport was placed 15 miles west of the city, there was no need to tear down the old terminal located closer to the heart of Pittsburgh. Instead, it became a secondary hub of aviation activity and continues to serve Southwestern Pennsylvania today.

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

Vintage 1930s touches like stainless steel trim remain in place.

I’m no architect, but to me, the Allegheny County Airport terminal is an Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1931 with wings added in 1936. Many original design features remain intact, from intricate tile work to stainless steel accents and art deco lettering for the Waiting Room and Office. The original wooden benches are still in place along with the original compass set into the floor. Can’t you see men in suits and women in furs sitting there waiting to board the next flight out? I wish I could find vintage interior views to glimpse the restaurant, ticket desk, and souvenir stand as they existed in 1942, but I haven’t been able to locate any.

Readers of Fireball may remember that this airport was a stop for Flight 3 on its last voyage. The plane had taken off from LaGuardia and stopped at Newark before landing here and taxiing to the gate. From Pittsburgh the TWA airship headed west to Columbus, Ohio, and after that Indianapolis, where Lombard’s party boarded. At each stop stood a facility just like this one, offering temporary sanctuary from the rigors of air travel.

Upon completion in 1931, Pittsburgh’s airport was the most modern in the world and boasted by far the most paved runway area. Presidents and movie stars roamed this floor and the place buzzed with activity in World War II. Literally. All dignitaries and celebrity traveling from the American heartland to and from New York City stopped and stretched their legs here. It’s a building that’s drawn my eye from earliest memory—every time my parents would drive by, and then every time I would as well. I certainly hope the building is haunted. Then again, how could it not be given all the history it holds?

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

Original lettering for the Waiting Room and Office evoke a bygone era.

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

A single room served passengers for several major airlines. In an alcove to the right was the small restaurant. Original 1930s wooden benches remain in place, including one that looks out on the tarmac.

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

Passengers always knew which was way up–as well as north, south, east, and west, at the Pittsburgh air terminal.

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

Even the planters flanking the building’s entrance tie into the aviation theme. The green tile work matches inlaid tile accents on the building exterior.