fireball carole lombard

Make It Personal

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

Months ago I was invited to appear at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Georgia near Savannah to talk about my book, Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. My presentation took place the evening of May 16 before a wonderful and enthusiastic dinner crowd.

This particular museum is all about the experience of the men of the U.S. Eighth Air Force based in England who slugged it out with their German counterparts for three bloody years in the skies over northern Europe. I got uncomfortably close to this story writing Mission, and now understand how horrifying was their job and how scarred they returned in 1945. And make no mistake, Stewart was scarred like the rest of them. As much as any other group, including those who stormed the Normandy beaches, these men won World War II.

I came away from my experience at the museum unsettled. After my presentation there was a lively Q&A and the best set of questions I’ve been asked yet. One of these was, “In your experience, how can we get the 12-year-olds of today interested in this story?” It was a question I hadn’t prepared for and I made a joke at the moment, but then really got to thinking about it because this is the challenge of any facility that wants to remain vital after all the veterans have passed on and their stories have been set in marble. It’s the challenge of any museum anywhere, say a museum about Hollywood history, as learning styles change.

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

The Memorial Garden with its statues and tablets dedicated to individuals, air crews, squadrons, and bomb and fighter groups moved me to tears.

Before my flight back to Pittsburgh the following day, I took an hour to drift through the museum and its haunting Memorial Garden by myself with the attendee’s question firmly in my mind. I find the museum to be very well laid out and full of items that tell the story of the fliers and their planes, down to uniforms, radio sets, control panels, bombsights, machine guns—the whole nine yards. There’s even a room that was built around a complete B-17 Flying Fortress.

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

History under glass. For WWII buffs, no problem. For school-age groups? Bring those items out from under the glass or create replicas and let the kids experience up close.

Groups of school children troop through daily—there were two large groups there while I wandered around, and a volunteer was talking to them about the whats and whys of the air war against Germany. The place is staffed by dedicated, articulate people volunteering their time to keep the history alive, and they want so badly to engage young people and let them in on this incredible story.

And I couldn’t help but think as a fly on the wall listening to the volunteer and watching the fidgety kids that the would-be educators are shoveling sand against the tide of time, and now here comes this latest generation for whom Hitler is some weird guy and yeah yeah yeah when can I get back to my texting? I worry that history under glass and docent lectures don’t work anymore, not with this and succeeding generations of ever shorter-attention-spanned generations. Maybe history under glass can be step 2, but heading into a difficult future, step 1 has to be to somehow, some way engage the imaginations of the 12 year olds who walk in the door expecting boredom and worse, torture.

In this particular case, the conclusion I came to in answer to the attendees question was that the kids have to walk a mile in the fliers’ boots. And I mean that literally. Ask for one of the students to come up for a demonstration. Get them to acknowledge that what they’re wearing now is the equivalent of the uniform shirt and pants of an Army flier—the first layer of a flying outfit. OK, now…

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

Visitors examine the bust of Jimmy Stewart in the museum rotunda.

Have him or her struggle into a “blue bunny” heated flying suit. Do you know why it’s heated? Because it’s going to be 30 below when you’re at 20,000 feet, which is almost 4 miles up. Think about that…30 degrees below zero, 4 miles above the earth. And oh by the way there are open windows in the plane and the wind really gets to howling inside at 200 miles per hour.

Now strap on your parachute harness. “Wait, what’s this for?” Well when the Germans shoot your plane full of holes and it’s not going to fly anymore, you have to jump out of it. The parachute straps onto this harness.

Now here’s your Mae West. “My what?” If you land in water, you need something to help you float.

Don’t forget your oxygen mask. “What the…” At 4 miles up and 30 below, without oxygen you will pass out in about a minute and die a few minutes after that.

And here’s your sidearm. “Why do I need a gun if I’m in an airplane full of machine guns?” Because if you manage to hit the ground alive after you’ve jumped out of your airplane, there are people who will want to kill you, and you may need to defend yourself.

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

The B-17, roped off in the name of preservation. Instead of signs that read, PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH, maybe the approach should be, BY ALL MEANS, TOUCH!

You’ll need your escape kit. “What’s an escape kit?” It’s got a map, coins, medicine, fake travel documents, a translation card, and other things you’ll need while you are running for your life in enemy territory.

Here’s your flak jacket and steel pot helmet. “Jeez, so heavy!” Yes, you need sturdy armor to protect you a little from the flying bullets and shrapnel—but just a little.

And here’s your flying helmet with headset, and goggles. And your sheepskin boots and gauntlets because every inch of skin has to be covered to prevent frostbite. And, oh, let’s strap on your parachute.

And with every question comes an answer that makes this story personal for these kids.

Pretty soon your volunteer is unrecognizable under 40 pounds of stuff and having trouble even standing there. You say, OK, now you’re ready to climb into the airplane!

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

The 1942 Jimmy Stewart short recruiting film Winning Your Wings plays nonstop on a monitor under the wing of the B-17. As related in Mission, Stewart initially refused to participate but then relented to create one of the most important tools for recruiting in the war.

What you’ve done is set the stage for life or death in German airspace. You’ve invested 20 minutes of the tour to make these kids think about the mortal danger of every flier from a personal perspective—fliers that weren’t much older than the school children themselves.

Pass around a .50 machine gun shell, which looks like a bullet on steroids and weighs a pound. Then show them a belt loaded with these shells and imagine a) how heavy and b) how devastating was that gun!

Pull a B-17 or B-24 fuselage out of mothballs or build a new one and outfit it, and let school groups roam around inside, from the nose to the cockpit to the waist and the turrets. Then rev up the noise and shake that fuselage until their teeth are rattling—and tell them this is what they’ll hear and feel for the next six or eight hours, which was the length of a mission. If, that is, they don’t get shot down first.

Create a simulation that lets them look through a bombsight over a target and maybe let them release some sort of bomb to see how they do as a bombardier. Or figure out a way to let them shoot a virtual-reality machine gun.

Maybe some of these ideas are already practice at the museum because I didn’t follow a student group from beginning to end.

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

The Chapel of the Fallen Eagles is a replica of the kind of English country church located near all the bomber and fighter bases. Behind it rest some veterans of the Eighth Air Force who chose to be buried at this focal point of their history.

I came away from my experience at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth with a deepened appreciation of what Jim Stewart and the other flyboys did and with admiration for the mission and staff of this wonderful facility. After spending two years with the young men of the Eighth as I was researching and writing their story for Mission, I needed no context for the museum and its goals. I already know what the boys went through and what they sacrificed. The challenge for any American-based WWII museum is that there’s no battlefield here, so World War II can’t be interpreted in the United States the way the Civil War can be at Gettysburg or Antietam. No, the volunteers show up every day fighting ever-increasing odds to keep the heartbeats going for men who fought in foreign lands more than 70 years ago. I salute this noble effort and strongly urge that these outstanding young fliers were humans and that the human experience will never change. Therefore, find ways to connect the youth of today with the youth of 1943 so that when your school-age visitors walk back out into the light of a Georgia afternoon, they appreciate these brave men so much that maybe they take an extra couple of minutes thinking about it…before they remember to reach for their cell phones.

And maybe, just maybe, a precious few will catch the history bug, and become the volunteers of tomorrow.

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

I didn’t expect to see a memorial dedicated to Stewart–he’s in good company in the rotunda with statues of the founding generals of the Eighth Air Force.

More Than Mrs. Robinson

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

The best scene in The Graduate: Mrs. Robinson, pressed to talk and not just have sex, reveals the disappointments in her life and lack of respect for her lover and herself.

I can’t say I ever appreciated The Graduate—not until last evening, and I’m trying to figure out what changed to “let me in” to understand the brilliance of this picture. I’m pretty sure it’s because now I view it through the lens of World War II, which is the way I look at everything going on around me anymore, and WWII, the Big One, provided context I’d been lacking.

For the two of you out there who haven’t seen it, not-quite-21-year-old Benjamin Braddock comes home from college contemplating his life; he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it and he’s already drifting. The night of his big coming-home party, one of his parents’ friends, the enigmatic, married Mrs. Robinson, makes a pass at Benjamin and soon they begin a torrid love affair. By the midpoint of the picture Benjamin has grown weary of the assignations and quite by accident falls in love with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, Elaine, which proves problematic.

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

This is the view of the adults in The Graduate: boorish clowns who are far from the romanticized Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw. Why, they don’t even have the depth to understand the problems of a baby boomer coming of age.

What hit me over the head last night was the depiction of the ruling generation of 1967, the year of release. They’re bizarre, vacuous people, all of them, rich and white and shallow to a man and woman. This surprises me given that Buck Henry was in his mid-30s when he wrote the screenplay for The Graduate, and Mike Nichols was about the same age when he directed it. They were a pair of pre-War babies telling a story from the perspective of the boomers now reaching maturity. Both hold the aging Greatest Generation up for ridicule and condemnation for what they’ve become: smug, self-satisfied, deeply unhappy elites who are drifting through life like Benjamin, but while he does it symbolically in a sun-drenched swimming pool, their drifting takes place down a river of booze.

There’s never a hint of the backstory of, say, Mr. Braddock hitting the beaches of Normandy or Mr. Robinson in the South Pacific. I think back to my own pilots in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, kids of 20 and 22—highly competent hotshots with their lives in front of them and possibilities as endless as the horizon … if only they can survive the war.

But the fathers we see 20 years after the end of WWII are not the hotshots extrapolated 20 years. They’re bloated, self-important, brooding, superficial has-beens. Maybe PTSD accounts for their addle-headed behavior. That’s not even hinted at; they’re just boors.

Dustin Hoffman was already nearly 30 when he played Benjamin Braddock, and the extraordinary opening credits show Hoffman riding a people mover before a white wall through LAX in a crazy-long dolly shot that symbolizes the blank slate of Benjamin’s character as he embarks on the storyline of The Graduate.

The shallow people awaiting him at home, the pre-war people as white as that wall in the airport, see him as a success-in-the-making at whatever he sets out to do. They’re in “the club” and he’s about to join it, and as we see him resent them and struggle to keep his distance, I wondered if young men in 1940 went through similar existential meltdowns. I just don’t know the answer to that, culturally speaking. There were still elites in 1940, the sons of old money, and I guess that at 20 they didn’t know if they wanted to turn into dad or escape to Tahiti to paint sunsets. But mostly they had just come through the Depression and knew they had to work damn hard just to survive. And that’s not Benjamin’s mindset by 1967.

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

Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson

The heart and soul of The Graduate is Mrs. Robinson, the sultry, cynical, unhappy 40-something who latches onto Benjamin so she can infuse her alcoholic life with physical sensation and ego gratification. When they meet for sex, she doesn’t want to talk. Benjamin is there for one purpose. And when he can’t take the endless sex for sex’s sake anymore and demands that they talk, wow, what a sequence for Anne Bancroft, then 35 and playing older. I’m shocked she didn’t win the Oscar for this performance (she was nominated), especially for the moment when Benjamin confesses to Elaine that he’s been sleeping with her mother. It’s an incredible cinematic jolt, and Bancroft plays it silently, her face taut and tortured.

The Graduate was born in an era when the Production Code still meant something and it slid through mostly with innuendo. But its depiction of adultery, rampant in American society then as now because of the mythos and failure or monogamy as the norm, is knowing, sophisticated, and European, and it titillated viewers in first run. The entire picture plays rather gently now, especially considering how ugly things were about to get in the turbulent 1960s. It also plays sexy thanks to Anne Bancroft, who would go through the remainder of her career resentful of the fact that she couldn’t help but stand in the shadow of this one dynamic, brilliantly drawn and acted character.

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

This Italian poster hangs in the dining room, because even before I got The Graduate, I got her.

So of course The Graduate is the boomer generation firing a shot across the bow of its elders. I’m not breaking any ground when I tell you that. All I’m saying is that I finally get it (I can be a little slow sometimes). I finally appreciate all that this picture was trying to say, not just the naughty parts, which I always got and appreciated. I now savor the irony of this depiction of the coming of age of the first of the boomers, so young and so disenchanted  and full of themselves back then, and look at the boomers 50 years later in retirement or close to it. Once the rebels and now the establishment. Once the ones hiding in their bedrooms to avoid adults and now the ones yelling out the window for the kids to get off their lawn.

And how about that last shot, when Benjamin and Elaine have fended off the vicious adults and escaped? They sit at the back of a bus silently, breathlessly, and in their faces we see not two triumphant heroes but two kids who suddenly realize they have no idea what to do next. They’ve beaten the adults, but to what end? That’s real life for you, as drawn by two people (director Nichols and writer Henry) in their mid-30s and just beginning to come to grips with the fact that adults don’t really have any answers. They just have an escalating number of questions, and a whole lot of “I don’t know.” In real life, adults, particularly young ones, rarely have any idea what to do next. Benjamin didn’t have a plan at the beginning of the movie, and he doesn’t have a plan at the end. He just has a girl, and I couldn’t help but wonder as credits rolled how long Benjamin and Elaine stayed together. I have a feeling it was far, far less than a lifetime. I give them three years of happiness, 15 of growing isolation, and then a fresh start for each with a new partner. Actually, I think there was a sequel: Kramer vs. Kramer.  Then again, that’s a jaded baby boomer talking.

My Mind’s Eye

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

A mile from where I’m sitting: site of the world’s first armored car heist in March 1927.

Early in March 1927, 500 pounds of black powder was stolen from a mining company south of Pittsburgh. A few days later, an armored car proceeding through my community on Brightwood Road, then a dirt path, was blown into the air and flipped over by an IED constructed from that black powder. Although neither guard was killed, rifling of the armored car netted the notorious Flathead Gang $103,834.38 in cash and coin, and off they sped in a blue Sterns Knight.

This event occurred about one mile (as the crow flies) to the northeast of where I’m sitting, and every time I drive over that stretch of roadway I think of the overturned armored car and the ingenious killer Paul Jawarski and his Flathead Gang.

About two miles in the other direction is the site of a plane crash. A TWA DC-2 airliner that had taken off from Newark was on final approach to Allegheny County Airport when apparent ice buildup on the wings forced it down in a patch of land off McMurray Road near Route 19 on March 25, 1937. All 13 on board (10 passengers and a crew of 3) died on impact. Every time I go past that spot I glance down and imagine the wreck as it was first reported—nose buried in the swampy earth and bodies littering the landscape.

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

Two miles from where I’m sitting: site of the crash of TWA Flight 15A in March 1937.

In a world of short attentions spans, political upheaval, and of course zombies, I can’t help but live in the past because history is everywhere, all around us, and I am there as much as I can manage. My brain isn’t sapped by reality television or hour dramas and particularly not by what passes today for “sitcoms.” I spend my evenings lost in World War II, learning about the rise and rule of Hitler, or in movies made before I was born. To me the past is endlessly fascinating; it’s the present that exasperates me.

One of my best friends emailed me this week concerned because I haven’t written anything on my blog of late and wondering if I was suffering from post-partum depression following the release of Mission. His message reached my body in Pittsburgh, although my brain has been wandering around 1944 Europe for a few months now as I’ve been conducting research for my next book. I assured him that I haven’t written anything recently not because of depression; rather my one-track mind is consumed by this new project, the third and final installment of my Hollywood in World War II trilogy. As much as I love Mission for its slam-bang excitement and as much as I love Fireball for its stoicism and romance, this next one already has me hooked and I haven’t yet written a word. It’s my tried and true process, learning more and more and more as the story builds and builds in my head until it comes spilling out night after night in marathon writing sessions.

When I go to Holland this June, I will be armed with enough preliminary research that my mind’s eye will see a landscape not as it exists today but rather what stood during the war when Nazis ruled. That spot over there? Well, you can’t see it but a three-story hotel occupies that corner lot. It was the nicest in town until the S.S. took it over as its local headquarters. A P-47 Thunderbolt saw the red S.S. flag on the front of the hotel and blew it up with rockets in April 1945, but in my mind’s eye it’s still standing as handsome as ever. And over there? Well, that was a sturdy cut-stone bank building that the Wehrmacht converted into a jail to imprison subversives—that is, those subversives they didn’t shoot outright. It was razed in 1972 for an office complex, but in my mind there is no modern building, only the old bank.

I do that a lot, and I do it everywhere. I suspect I’m not alone, because you wouldn’t be reading my books or this column if you didn’t love history. If you go that far, then you probably use your imagination to picture things as they once were.

As for the Flathead Gang and what became known as America’s first armored-car robbery, well, unfortunately for them, one of the guards got their license number, and they were rounded up after a manhunt. Gang leader Paul Jawarski led police to $38,000 hidden in milk containers and buried on a nearby farm, but the other $65,800+? Well, Jawarski promptly busted out of jail and remained on the lam for another two years, so maybe he retrieved that loot, or maybe it’s still buried within a mile or two of my house. Who knows, but I’d much rather spend my driving-around time thinking about the romance of the 60-foot hole blown in Brightwood Road, that lost treasure, and those Roaring Twenties bandits than anything labeled news and entertainment in 2017.

The Texan

I have no interest in bucket lists because I’m not a faddist. If I were to maintain a bucket list, jumping out of an airplane would not be on it. So when I decided to go up in a single-engine AT-6 Texan built by North American Aviation in 1943, it was with some mixed feelings that I was strapped into a parachute by veteran pilot Dan Fordice of Vicksburg, Mississippi.

I sat in the back seat of the Texan as Dan strapped me into the parachute, and then pretty much stapled me onto the back seat of the plane by four straps. I was mighty harnessed at this time. The basics as he described them were that a 74-year-old plane sometimes breaks down, and “a crash landing is preferable to a bailout,” and we’d only bail out if the engine was on fire.

He explained the steps of a bailout to me, and I listened attentively because my life could sort of depend on it in another few minutes.

To take a step back, the AT-6—AT standing for advanced trainer—is a plane dear to my heart because it appears in chapter one of Fireball, and also in Mission as the plane that 2nd Lt. Jim Stewart landed at Moffett Field to confront director Owen Crump of Warner Bros. in a story detailing just how much Stewart did not want to participate in filmmaking during his military service. If you look at the Warner Bros. short subject Winning Your Wings, the first thing you see is an AT-6 sputtering to life and then Stewart tooling around in one and coming in for a landing. It’s a powerful airplane known as the “pilot maker” because every pilot in the war effort, tens of thousands of them flying everything from Warhawks to Liberators, mastered the Texan or washed out.

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

2nd Lt. Jim Stewart with an AT-6 backdrop in Winning Your Wings.

My ride in a Texan was a thank you by Patty Mekus, Dan Fordice, and the Southern Heritage Air Foundation for a series of successful and well-attended appearances I made talking about Mission in Tallulah, Louisiana, last week. I learned firsthand the definition of “Southern Hospitality” from residents of both Louisiana and Mississippi ,and now here I sat in the Texan as Dan drawled, “If you hear me call ‘bail out’ three times, the second two are echoes because I’ll already be gone.”

Sobering. During the briefing he related the procedure for bailing out as follows:

  • Roll open and lock the canopy
  • Release your shoulder harness
  • Climb onto the seat and stand up
  • Aim for the trailing edge of the left wing
  • Jump
  • Grab the ring on the parachute and pull it straight out

“The earth will be below,” said Dan in his Deep South accent. “You can’t miss it.” He gave the harnesses one last tug and said confidently, “Let’s go fly!”

It’s a terrific thrill to ride in an aircraft like this. Compared to the Cessnas and other small planes I’ve spent time in over the years, the Texan is a real beast. Dan took off and zoomed into a left bank and we headed for downtown Vicksburg at about 150 knots and 1,500 feet. He wore a headset and so did I, and communication was fine even above the roar of the 600-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine. He said something about a “strafing run” and suddenly he banked hard and we were zooming earthward and then leveling off above the deck of the Mississippi Delta and I heard myself say the first of several “oh shit”s as the G-forces took over and I surrendered to the fates.

Wait, what was that bailout procedure again? Roll open and lock the canopy…

I realized that at 1,500 feet, if the engine suddenly flamed, even if I did manage to roll open and lock the canopy, unlatch the safety harness (which has four straps BTW), waddle up onto the seat and into the slipstream at something like 150 knots, and even if I did manage to aim for the trailing edge and jump into the heavens with the pilot long gone and flames licking about me, I’d only be a few hundred feet above the ground by that time and when my parachute opened, I’d be bug guts on somebody’s windshield or the pavement of a Vicksburg street. There’s something liberating about such knowledge. It allowed me to enjoy the rest of a terrific flight. Suddenly Dan climbed to about 3,500, and we punched through the cottony cloud deck and he did some fancy flying that included an aileron roll, my first—although I knew and appreciated the fact he was taking it easy on me.

In a little while we were back on the ground where we had started, and I’d had the thrill of riding in a vintage warbird far different from the heavy bombers I knew from past experiences, a warbird that had served as a living, breathing character in not one but two of my books, and a plane that was vital to the winning of World War II.

I unlatched the harness of my parachute and thought to myself that whenever I’d next be in one, I planned not to have to use it. To hell with bucket lists.

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

Bob Sauls of Houston, Texas, and I did a lot of work for NASA together in the old days. On Saturday March 25 Bob drove up to surprise me in central Louisiana during my last appearance in Tallulah. Here we are in front of the Texan I rode in Friday and he rode in Saturday.

Pass the Graw-VAY

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

Flashback Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a little Sunday something on the verge of spring.

Visiting with the people of Flight 3

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Stretch of Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pinnacle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gracious.

Radiant.

Genuine.

Humble.

Warm.

Vibrant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Windswept

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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