Carole Lombard Fort Wayne

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.

Woodstock on the Maumee

I don’t suppose there will ever be another weekend like this one spent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at what became a Carole Lombard love-in, retracing her heritage as biological product of three great families, the Cheneys, Knights, and Peters, with wealth between them in the tens of millions of dollars. Considering the value of money in 1900, the vast fortune underpinning Elizabeth Knight Peters, the mother of Carole Lombard, was astonishing.

The weekend included a stop at the ancestral home of the Knights on Spy Run Avenue in Fort Wayne. A Knight had married a Cheney (as in the Cheneys of Wall Street) and settled on Spy Run, above the St. Joseph River, in the house where in 1902 Elizabeth Knight married Frederick Peters. Today the Knight building is home to Shepherd’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans of the U.S. military. Barb and Lonnie run the place as a taut but loving Christian ship and host more than 40 veterans at a time. Despite busy schedules they spent more than an hour showing us through many interesting spots within the massive structure.

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

The Knight mansion on Spy Run Avenue, now Shepherd’s House, home to more than 40 veterans.

We visited the Wayne Street mansion of John C. Peters, hardware mogul of Fort Wayne and “Gramps” to Jane Peters/Carole Lombard. Peters had his hand in all manner of construction enterprises and owned part interest in the Horton Manufacturing Co., which produced early automatic washing machines. Whereas the Knights and Cheneys were embedded nationally in big money, the wealth of J.C. Peters was homegrown in Fort Wayne. His mansion is a pure Victorian masterpiece.

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

The Victorian masterpiece John C. Peters mansion on West Wayne Street. An elderly woman once approached the owner with a memory of seeing baby Jane Alice Peters in this house.

Next, came a stop at the home of Elizabeth and Frederick Peters at 704 Rockhill Street, the place where Jane Alice Peters was born on October 6, 1908, 114 years ago today. You know you’ve found the right house because there’s a brass plaque on the front that was placed there as a publicity tie-in to the release of the David O. Selznick comedy, Nothing Sacred, in 1938. It was, at the time, pure cornpone to be putting up historic markers on the home of an actress not yet 30 years of age, but the type of flak that made Selznick PR man Russell “Birdie” Birdwell a living legend and perfect publicity partner for Carole Lombard. Whereas the Birdman dreamed up stunts like a plaque on Carole’s home, it would have been Lombard approving the message and assuring history would record that she actually drew her first breath within the walls of 704 Rockhill. It’s a deceptive house, modest in street views but another grand Victorian inside, as revealed on a tour led by the current owners, Rick and Cora Brandt. The place has a dark and mysterious past since some sort of physical and/or emotional violence within forced Elizabeth to leave her husband of 12 years in 1914 and flee to southern California with children Frederick, Stuart, and Jane.

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

The home of Frederick and Elizabeth Peters on Rockhill Street. Jane’s earliest memories were playing with her brothers in and around the house.

First thing yesterday morning I reported to WANE TV-15 for a short but punchy on-camera interview with Gina Carano. Four hours later came the main event: an exhibit of a couple dozen Carole Lombard-owned items at the Fort Wayne History Center, and an accompanying lecture by yours truly about the book Fireball. My initial doubts about attendance vanished as the crowd poured in. We ended up with a near house record of 133, including Rick and Cora Brandt of the Lombard house, Barb and Lonnie Cox of the Knight (Shepherd’s) House, and Bill and Janet Heffley, owners of the Peters house—making it a clean sweep of Lombard-related homes.

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

Operating on three hours of sleep but ready for action on WANE-TV with Gina Carano.

Other VIPs included three third cousins of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, all named Peters, along with Fireball researcher and Carole Lombard expert Marina Gray and Carole Lombard Archive Foundation director Carole Sampeck. My lecture was followed by a lively Q&A, a book signing, and then a well-attended tour of the Lombard house on Rockhill Street.

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

Lecturing in the spectacular Fort Wayne History Center.

I heard many stories of the supernatural over the course of the weekend. Not Halloween bump-in-the-night ghost stories but interesting real experiences by sober inhabitants of these and other classic Indiana homes. I guess that’s fitting for October.

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

Lots of books signed.

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

…including one for Fort Wayne patron of the arts Anita Cast.

I want to thank the Fort Wayne History Center for booking me into that fantastic venue, particularly Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director, and Nancy McCammon-Hansen, marketing director, and also Steve, Randy, Bob, and Carmen for their help onsite. Thanks also go to Anita Cast for her help in lining up the lecture, Kevin Kilbane of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel for his print pieces heralding the event, and Gina Carano and Natalie Wagner of WANE for one of the smoothest TV appearances of the whole Fireball tour.

Special thanks go to partners in crime Marina and Carole for a wild ride this weekend. From the two of them—and I’m sure all of you—I want to say directly to the cosmos, Happy Birthday, Carole Lombard. Fort Wayne loves and remembers you.

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

Displays included a clutch purse, monogrammed handkerchief, and jewelry owned by Carole Lombard.

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

Another case featured snapshots of Gable hunting trips, a Gable duck call, a handwritten note from Lombard to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and a bond receipt from Indianapolis.

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

Also at the History Center, a display of material from the Flight 3 crash site, including partially burned mail and melted aluminum–reminders of the ferocity of impact and daunting task facing investigators in 1942.



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.

Stay Tuned

My posting tomorrow will contain final details regarding the Carole Lombard events in Fort Wayne, IN next Sunday October 5, 2014, including a lecture about Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, a video presentation, a book signing, and a display of Lombard photos and personal items–all at the Fort Wayne History Center–plus a tour of the Peters home (the house in which Jane Peters/Carole Lombard was born).


Who’s up for another live-event hurrah for Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3? How about coming to hear me speak at the Fort Wayne History Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday, October 5, 2014, at 2 p.m? I’m an introvert and a cranky pain in the ass, and yet I’m told I’m a good speaker when I get going on the topics contained in Fireball. I make no bones about this: Audience members have been known to pull out wallets and shower me with cash after a lecture. I guess it’s possible they are using money to shut me up, but I choose to believe that they’re moved to purchase based on the many compelling themes in Fireball. As a result, I think it would be worth your while to book plane reservations or get in your car and commute to Fort Wayne and incur all the expenses such a weekend would entail just to step in the middle of this incredible story and visit the place of Carole Lombard’s birth.

Before and after my lecture, tours will be conducted of the Peters family home on Rockhill Street where Jane Peters (who would become Carole Lombard) was born on October 6, 1908 and lived to age six. Her father continued to live there after his wife and three children had split for California. Two special guests are already confirmed for the October 5 lecture and house tours: my very good friend Carole Sampeck, director of the Carole Lombard Archive Foundation and Hollywood historian who was quoted at several points in the Fireball narrative, and Marina Gray, Lombard expert and one of my two Jedi Ninja researchers on Fireball. Carole is flying in from Dallas and Marina from Seattle, so you begin to understand what a special weekend this will be.

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

My Indianapolis triumph: turning around a disgruntled teen. I never did get their names, but it was a positive experience for the three of us.

I’ve talked previously about the many lectures and signings that comprised the tour, starting in Santa Monica and Hollywood, California, and moving on to locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and culminating in Indianapolis, where Lombard spent what was the most intense, satisfying day of her life, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where that life ended 24 hours later. I especially like focusing on the skeptics in the audience—people dragged to the event, like the teenaged girl in Indianapolis who had been brought to a Sunday afternoon lecture by her enthusiastic dad. How sullen she started out; I felt bad for her. But by the end, I had her in the palm of my hand. Poor kid didn’t know what hit her as she took in this story of love, romance, betrayal, sacrifice, patriotism, tragedy, and grisly post mortems. This story is irresistible.

The most recent lecture was to 75-or-so people at a film convention in Columbus, Ohio, and here I found both aviation buffs and Hollywood authorities and that’s the best part for me—the Q&A. The people who raise their hands for questions test my knowledge and challenge my assertions. They bring new information to the table, like the woman who tipped me off to a significant and forgotten incident in Indianapolis, or the woman in Las Vegas who possessed deeply buried information about Carole Lombard’s faith. This is all new information worthy of the revised trade paperback second edition of Fireball due out next spring.

Oh, yeah, by the way, the first printing is nearing sellout and demand is still strong. A second printing of Fireball is in order, so why not add in some more facts where possible?

The new book project is starting to suck me in, but there’s work to be done on Fireball first. I owe it to the 22 souls aboard Flight 3, people I bonded with on the mountain and people who haven’t left me since. I could feel them about me that first night in Santa Monica, and they’ve been nearby many times since. I’ll be curious to see if I feel anything special when I’m standing in the room in which Carole Lombard was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’ll be a special weekend and I invite you to join me there, so save the date: Sunday, October 5, 2014.