Flight 3 Las Vegas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Wishing They’d Go Bump

I want nothing so much as to run into a ghost face to face. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I just don’t get it when grown men say they saw a ghost and ran away. What’s a ghost going to do to you? Rattle a chain? Go, “BOO”? I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, I’d put two things on it for sure: I want to see a ghost, and I want to see a bear. I don’t mean like a bear in the zoo, I mean a bear in the wilds. A bear rooting through my trash. A bear on the porch. Or a ghost anyplace at all. I’d turn interviewer at once. I’d want to know all about that ghost. Name, year of birth, occupation, address, year of death, manner of death—the works. With all those questions I’d likely bore that ghost to d… Well, not to death certainly. But far from running away, I’d be interested.

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

Here I am sitting on Errol Flynn’s diving board. On my return trip, all alone, I felt the ghost.

I felt Errol Flynn’s ghost, as described in Errol Flynn Slept Here. I stood at his deserted home, Mulholland Farm, and I was all alone, and I felt him watching me to the point the hairs stood up on my arm. I told no one about my brush with the ghost at the time—I thought I was imagining things—and it wasn’t until 15 years later that I started to hear other, much more startling personal encounters with the ghost of Mulholland Farm. Tracy Nelson, for one, saw Flynn’s ghost up close, as did her brother Gunnar.

I felt Jean Harlow while visiting Forest Lawn Glendale a long time ago. I felt her reaching out to me, quite distinctly, and what I sensed was, Write about me. I sensed great loneliness; great sadness. A soul alone. Circumstances prevented me from doing it at the time, but I felt a heavy sense of obligation. I carried it around for years. Finally David Stenn wrote Bombshell and Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira wrote Harlow in Hollywood and whatever needs the Baby had, these books must have satisfied because they are both fantastic—and very different—approaches to telling her complete story.

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

From a distance it even looked haunted–Errol Flynn’s Mulholland Farm.

Another time I was on a ghost hunt in an old house near Pittsburgh and something touched the back of my neck as I walked down a narrow hallway. I saw nothing, but I felt a hand on my neck. Not a cobweb. Not a draft. A hand.

The most frequent question people ask me related to Fireball is, “When you were at the crash site, did you feel anything?” By that they mean, did you feel, did you see, did you experience ghosts? I wondered if I would at this spot where 22 people died in one second. I felt the sadness of the place; I held a human bone in my hand. More than anything, I felt obligation to those souls.

When you explore as much history as I do, you walk well-worn paths and you feel things. I’ve had my fair share of “stranger than science” incidents, but I haven’t seen nearly as much as I want to. One of my best friends lives in a very haunted house that’s full of residual energy. He can lie in bed in the early morning and hear commotion downstairs that’s clearly his family going through their routine from 50 years earlier. Imagine hearing noises of busy family life coming from your kitchen and knowing it’s your mother in there cooking; it’s 10-year-old you and your brothers and sisters sitting down to eat and then scraping back chairs and rushing off to school. That house also has at least one ghost, as proved by dozens of odd little incidents.

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

Imagine, if you can, Flight 3 flying into the middle of this scene and crashing against the cliff. Ghosts here? I felt close to the crash victims; I knew I had to tell their story.

A few weeks ago I walked through several homes from the pre-Civil War and Victorian eras and felt the presence of the former inhabitants. I heard others describe ghostly encounters, but I had no encounters of my own. I’m also helping to restore a Victorian home these days and will spend tomorrow there alone. It’s a hundred years old but do you think I’ve heard one thing out of the ordinary? I’m afraid not. Maybe I need to walk in tomorrow and challenge the ghosts to show themselves. I haven’t tried that yet and who knows, maybe it will kick something up.

Do you want to make me jealous? Tell me about an encounter you had with a ghost, or an odd experience that you think may have been ghostly. Something you can’t explain. It’s the perfect time of year for a ghost story, and I want to hear some.


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.

Meanwhile, in an Alternate Reality…

For Immediate Release


Actress vows to ‘come clean’ in Putnam hardcover

HOLLYWOOD, May 1, 1961/AP —G.P. Putnam’s Sons announced today that the publisher will release the autobiography of motion picture and television actress Carole Lombard. The would-be author had stated previously that her book would be entitled, “Just One of the Guys.” Last week, Miss Lombard, who will turn 50 in October, made a public appearance after months of seclusion following the November, 1960 death of her ex-husband, Clark Gable. It is speculated that her memoir will discuss life with the one-time “king of the movies,” as well as their 1946 divorce, continued close friendship, and recent reuniting as co-stars of the romantic comedies, “Teacher’s Pet” and “But Not for Me.”

Miss Lombard’s career began in silent pictures for the Fox and Sennett studios and then continued in the sound era at Paramount. But it was the 1934 Columbia Picture “Twentieth Century” that shot her to the top. She solidified her status as “queen of screwball” two years later with an Academy Award-nominated performance in “My Man Godfrey.”

Miss Lombard and Mr. Gable began their association in 1936 and once comprised the most famous couple in Hollywood. They were married during production of the highest grossing motion picture of all time, “Gone With the Wind.” They enjoyed status as the most prolific and profitable stars of the World War II years, and, despite rumors of marital turmoil, their separation at war’s end caught Hollywood by surprise.

Miss Lombard said she has been working on the manuscript for more than two years. In describing its title, she said, “It was the men who ruled the Hollywood roost, and I had to make room for myself in the ‘boys’ club.’ Then I had to do it again when I decided to produce some pictures, and especially when I wanted to direct features and then serve as executive producer of my TV series.”

That series, “Carole of the Belle,” features Miss Lombard as Carole Simpson, a divorced newspaper reporter raising her daughter on a Seattle houseboat called the “Puget Belle.” Now in its 11th season on the National Broadcasting Network, “Carole of the Belle” was second in popularity in the last decade only to the CBS smash hit “I Love Lucy,” which starred Miss Lombard’s friend of more than 20 years, Lucille Ball.

In addition to her groundbreaking work in motion pictures and television, among the topics to be remembered by Miss Lombard are a car crash that nearly ended her career in 1925; her marriage to suave leading man William Powell; the strange death of Russ Columbo, a 1930s singer with whom she was romantically linked; a long-time friendship with tennis star Alice Marble; a brush with death when an airliner on which she had been traveling crashed in Nevada after she had disembarked; and her battles with HUAC and unwillingness to “name names.”

Famous for her salty vocabulary and known as one of the most down-to-earth of Hollywood’s elite, Miss Lombard said she would “pull no punches” in her book, although she was coy when asked if she would discuss her post-Gable romances with actor/director Orson Welles, and then her most controversial relationship of all, with actor Paul Newman, a man 15 years her junior.

Putnam anticipates an autumn 1962 release for “Just One of the Guys.”



How this came about…

A colleague of mine, Wendy, is reading Fireball and said to me yesterday, “The whole thing is such a tragedy because if anyone should have lived a long life and produced a great memoir, it’s Carole Lombard.” Wendy paused and said, “She’d have made a great old lady.”

Which got me to thinking. Suppose she hadn’t died on that mountaintop. Suppose she had lived a normal lifetime and worked the length of a normal career. What would have happened? Of course it’s pure fantasy, but when you have spent as much time in someone’s head as I have in hers, you get to a point where you can draw conclusions. Here they’re laid out. Somehow or other, the marriage would have ended, but Lombard didn’t hold grudges and after a time she and Gable would have been friendly. Without the tragedy of her death hanging over his head, three things would have changed: 1) Gable’s ambition wouldn’t have been snuffed out and his brand would have thrived; 2) the public would have been spared seeing Clark Gable as a mortal and he wouldn’t have aged prematurely, and 3) at age 41 and then 42 and 43, he wouldn’t have gone to war; he would have made very popular pictures from 1943 through 45, during the biggest boom in Hollywood history.

In the meantime, Lombard would have made He Kissed the Bride (retitled They All Kissed the Bride) and My Girl Godfrey, and from there, she would have been off to the races as an independent, enjoying good roles with her contemporaries until 1950. I could see her producing and directing by, say, 1948, and not comedies either. I think Lombard would have gone for gritty film noir as a form of artistic expression. She had wanted to succeed at drama but never broke through, so it’s clear she wanted the challenge of meaty work. She would have been out front with Ida Lupino as a woman director and by this time she would have amassed fortune enough to finance A-pictures as an independent.

Imagine Carole Lombard called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Always a liberal Democrat, Carole would not be the one to rat out a colleague and it was likely she’d lean into the microphone on Capitol Hill and state clearly for newsreel cameras, “Senator, with all due respect, you can kiss my ass.”

In 1954, when MGM severed with Gable, Lombard would have been there as his biggest supporter and sooner or later she would have made pictures with him to give her ex a boost—returning a favor done for her by William Powell in 1936. I picked Teacher’s Pet because I could see Lombard in the Doris Day role, and But Not for Me where she would have been perfect in the cynical ex-wife part played by Lili Palmer.

Carole would not have spoken about Clark during his lifetime, but because she was indeed a “ham” and because she loved to tell stories (never letting the truth get in her way), I could see Miss Lombard following the trail blazed by Errol Flynn and publishing a scorcher of a memoir.

Romantically, she may well have slipped into a romance with Robert Stack, a premiere Hollywood stud and nice guy who was in love with her. The problem was that Bob didn’t need rescuing, and Carole was a rescuer/nurturer who went for powerful men. Always powerful men. Who fit the bill at this time? Obviously, Orson Welles, who would have been available after his divorce from Rita Hayworth. I asked Carole Sampeck to play along and it was she who labeled Welles a likely candidate, and also young Paul Newman, the next big thing in the late 1950s at a time when Carole would have just been turning 50 but, knowing her, still mindful to play the field.

And finally, I believe Lombard would have turned to television, the rival medium. In a White 1950s America dominated by traditional family values, the formula was for aging female movie stars to play wives and mothers, but not Lombard. Carole would have scratched and clawed to play a woman with guts, a divorcee and career-minded mother. A woman making her own way and suffering romantic misadventures week in and week out, making jokes at her own expense and guiding an onscreen child in lieu of the one she could never produce in life.

Notice that the press release gets Lombard’s age wrong by three years. She had already shaved a year off by 33 and sleight of hand would have killed another couple by the early 1960s. Nobody enjoyed pulling a fast one more than Carole Lombard.

So this is my version of the alternate reality wherein Lombard lived out her lifetime–what’s yours?

Fireball in Las Vegas

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

Las Vegas features a giant that dwarfs even the mightiest casino. That giant is Mt. Potosi, which looms high in the southwestern sky and can be seen from nearly every vantage point in town. You can’t see it if you’re standing behind the Luxor, or Caesar’s, or the other casinos, but if you’re out and about, Potosi can’t be missed. Potosi is where life ended for Carole Lombard and where life began for Fireball. Each year when I’d visit Las Vegas on business, there would be Potosi, never an inviting sight, but always a compelling sight. I knew the wreckage of Flight 3 was up there, and I knew that one day I would go see it. This is not new information to anyone who has read the book, but I bring up the subject of Potosi again because I just returned from my most important visit yet to Las Vegas after four TV interviews and two on radio, and a Saturday lecture at the impressive Sahara West Library on Sahara Avenue.

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

On Las Vegas NBC affiliate Channel 3 with Tom Hawley talking about the 1942 plane crash near their town. [Clicking on the image takes you to the TV segment.]

Sahara is a street that’s important to the narrative of Fireball, because at the intersection of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, Clark Gable spent the longest weekend of his life, waiting in a bungalow under heavy guard at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel for word on the fate of his wife. Back then the El Rancho stood alone in desert as the southernmost point in town and the first of the modern casinos. Now the site of the El Rancho is one of the last remaining empty lots in that stretch of the Vegas Strip. Nothing’s been there since the main building, the Opera House theater and casino, burned to the ground in 1960 during a Betty Grable appearance (Betty reportedly lost $10,000 in costumes that night). The owner tried to keep going on just the cluster of bungalows around the casino-in-cinders, but it didn’t work.

One of those bungalows had been Gable’s, and I have stood at the spot and pondered what he went through that weekend as he stared at Potosi, what his MGM handlers went through, and Gable’s friends, who rushed to his side by the carload when they heard that Carole’s plane was down. My appearance on that street, in that city, with Potosi visible just to the southwest, was what I can only describe as meant to be.

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

The first modern Las Vegas casino complex, the El Rancho Vegas, along Highway 91 just south of town. Here Clark Gable endured the longest weekend of his life.

On Saturday the story poured out of me to the assembled crowd of locals; I showed two videos and then came the Q&A. It was fantastic to get the perspective of people who have lived with the story all their lives. One woman remembered as a little girl looking at Potosi and seeing the polished aluminum of the wreck gleaming in the sun. TWA had tried to dynamite the mountainside to cover over the site, but their plan failed and locals for years afterward remembered the eerie, reflective glow of the right wing against the cliff wall.

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

Attendees of the Sahara West event watch one of the GoodKnight Books videos.

Attending on Saturday was well-known Southern California poet Lee Mallory, whose father and stepfather were pilots. Lee’s Uncle Harry grew up in Goodsprings and learned about the crash and aftermath from people who lived it. In fact, those eyewitnesses passed on relics from the crash to Harry, who had them built into a shadow box with brass name plates, and this incredible history display is now in Lee’s possession. Lee hadn’t yet read the book but was able to pepper me with questions that hit on many key facts and myths related to the event. Another attendee firing impressive questions was named Dennis. He had visited local spots connected to Flight 3, like the site of the El Rancho and the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, where Gable supposedly drank his way through the weekend. No doubt the Pioneer was a player in the tragedy, if not Gable’s home base, because it was here that reporters congregated during days of rescue and recovery. It was a practical matter: in an area so remote, the Pioneer featured the closest telephone and the best way for reporters to get their stories out.

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

Signing books after the lecture and Q&A.

The Sahara West Library is a state-of-the-art facility. I haven’t seen better audio and video capabilities anywhere, and I want to thank Marci Chiarandini for fantastic support throughout the planning and execution of the event.

We also snuck down to L.A. for a couple of days. I paid my usual respects to Carole, Clark, and Petey at Forest Lawn, and we stopped in at Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Encino, which is currently featuring a Fireball tie-in. Patrons bringing a copy of the book into the store receive a discounted meal. The crazy thing is that Maria’s is located near the corner of Ventura Boulevard and Petit Avenue, and Petit Avenue was the address of the Gable ranch. George Healy of Maria’s, who read Fireball and has become one of its leading proponents, wasn’t aware that one of the key locations in the book was less than a quarter mile away! It’s just the latest in a thousand weird little coincidences and ironies around Fireball, which is a very special book to me and, as I’m finding, to a growing number of people around the country.

Crossing Over

When the idea of Fireball came to my attention, the seed planted in my head by pal John McElwee, and I started investigating elements of the story, I couldn’t believe that some writer hadn’t already turned it into a book. The more I looked at the event, the more angles I found, so many in fact that when I talked to writer Scott Eyman about the idea, he sat there stunned and murmured, “That’s commercial. That’s commercial.”

Considering that Scott had written the bestseller Lion of Hollywood about Louis B. Mayer among many other successful biographies, and experienced the publishing landscape from a lofty perch, that reaction affected me. I realized then that I was writing something that had the potential to cross over into the mainstream. It’s one thing to write a niche book about Errol Flynn’s house, a book you know will appeal primarily to Flynn’s fans and secondarily to Hollywood buffs in general and perhaps fans of Rick Nelson, the last owner of the house. It’s something else to find a concept with the potential to jump niches and find a broader audience.

But in establishing the parameters of the Lombard story, I felt I had something akin to A Cast of Killers, Sidney Kirkpatrick’s account of the 1922 murder of silent-film director William Desmond Taylor. After its 1986 release, A Cast of Killers reached an audience far broader than those interested in old Hollywood. It’s been 25 years since I read it, but I remember I couldn’t stop turning the pages of a spooky mystery that felt so authentic I could smell the must of an aging Mary Miles Minter’s home. I aspired to take the readers of Fireball to a similar place where the pages had minds of their own and demanded to keep on turning as the complex story unfolded.

And Fireball is complex. It’s a juicy dual biography of two juicy people, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. It’s about Hollywood’s glamorous golden age in the time of My Man Godfrey and Gone With the Wind. It’s about scandal for what Gable did with Lana Turner and what Carole felt compelled to do in response. It’s about 21 other people—all the souls aboard Flight 3 with Lombard as it lifts off one last time in Las Vegas on a course for Burbank, California. It’s about lives interrupted on the ground in Vegas when a fireball suddenly appears on the southwestern horizon and about heroism as brave men rush to the spot of the fireball in hopes of finding survivors of what they know to be a plane crash. It’s a true crime story as victims are plotted and the scene is scoured for evidence. It’s a mystery as investigators try to determine how in the world TWA’s most experienced pilot controlling its most reliable aircraft on a clear night could fly straight into a mountainside. It’s about aviation now in adolescence after a childhood spent barnstorming, and of how they still can’t quite figure out how to make air transportation run. It’s the story of a world war newly begun for the United States, of sacrifice for the cause, of a great call to action. Perhaps most of all it’s romance—a king, a queen, a love lost.

I had the equivalent of a basket of parts and looked at the basket and wondered how to make this story work. Should I tell it as straight biography? Carole Lombard’s life from birth to death, from stem to stern, from 1908 to 1942? I couldn’t imagine it that way because lives are experienced chronologically, but stories are not. This needed to be a story, like A Cast of Killers. One scene kept playing in my mind, on an endless loop: Night in the flat basin of desert. Cold, lonely, quiet night. A plane flies overhead. I hear it more than see it. Then I spot running lights. The plane flies right over me and off into the distance, and the growl of its engines spreads out and echoes and then goes away.

Carole Lombard Flight 3 crash site, Potosi Mountain, Nevada

Flight 3 slammed into Potosi just below the ridge line at right center, in the saddle of the mountain.

A plane flies over. No big deal, right? We all experience planes flying over at all hours. But Flight 3 flying over? That’s a hook. That, I realized, was where the narrative of Fireball had to begin. The plane flies over, people who witness it go back to the task of the moment, and a little later a fireball is seen on Potosi Mountain in the distance. If the chapter ends there, tell me you don’t have to turn the page.

Then and only then, with the forward push established, could I flash back to start telling the story of Carole Lombard’s life and how she got to be on that plane and in that fireball. Flash back to a portion of her life. Flash forward to those moments on the ground in Las Vegas. Back. Forth. I knew this was risky because the reader would be jarred every time, practically a fender bender each time it happened. But it’s a jarring story anyway for so many reasons, so why not go with it? So I did.

One of the first reviews of the galleys was from Library Journal and I awaited it the way a political candidate awaits the votes. Guess what: the LJ reviewer made it a point to hate this construction above all the other things that annoyed him about Fireball. He didn’t damn it with praise, faint or otherwise, he just damned it. And then he recommended that Fireball be added to library collections. Go figure.

I won’t lie; his criticisms stung, and I had to wonder if I had miscalculated. He also said I “did the writerly thing” and presumed to know what was going on in people’s heads. I took umbrage at that one because I did know what was going on in people’s heads. I had researched this thing so thoroughly and found so much detail that I didn’t have to make up what people were thinking, saying, and doing. I had it in 2,000 pages of official testimony about the crash. Plus I had dug up so much on Lombard and Gable that I knew their characters inside and out and from every other angle.

There were a few other pans of Fireball, but just a few. Praise for the book poured in from the start, from the time it hit NetGalley in September, and by now I’m feeling vindicated by the positive comments in reviews and by those I’ve heard in person at book events. I don’t prompt people to talk about the story construction; they can’t help but tell me they love the way the story unfolds and often it’s the first thing they have to say about the book. I guess the lesson is, trust your gut. If it feels right, go with it.

I knew as I was writing Fireball that it was the book of my lifetime, to date at least. I dreamed about the characters, received break after break, met great, helpful people, and Fireball became an inferno in my computer. That doesn’t happen many times in a writer’s career. Will it cross over? It shows signs, but since GoodKnight Books isn’t Simon & Schuster, the headwinds remain strong, and only time will tell.

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

The Girl Who Lived

I have done a lot of public speaking in support of Fireball, most recently this past Sunday at Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio, just south of Toledo. I looked out on a large and enthusiastic crowd, especially for a snowy Sunday afternoon in the middle of the worst winter anyone can remember.

In case you don’t know, Fireball is the irresistible story of Carole Lombard’s hurly-burly life and the circumstances that led to her last fatal trip aboard TWA Flight 3 along with 21 other souls, which ended in catastrophe just west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. Reviewers are calling Fireball a thriller, a page turner, a heartbreaker, and a book that’ll make you cry. It really is. I didn’t realize it myself until I reviewed the audiobook and heard the story performed by national voice talent Tavia Gilbert.

But there are some smiles in Fireball too. On Sunday in Perrysburg I told the crowd that I had found a survivor of Flight 3, a woman who had flown cross-country with Carole Lombard on January 16 and lived to tell the tale. You should have seen their faces. Mouths hung open. There were even some gasps. I always liken this survivor to hundred-year-old Rose Dawson whose memories form the basis for the plot of Titanic. Mary Johnson is my Rose Dawson, and at age 94 the unknown survivor of a catastrophe.

Mary was, of all things, a young aviation researcher working for the feds and NACA (the precursor to NASA) at Moffett Airfield, California. She had been on assignment in Washington, DC, and was heading for home that fateful day. To show you what a small world we live in, I worked in the same wind tunnel (the 7×11 wind tunnel) at Moffett Field in 2007 and 2008 during my NASA years that Mary had worked in during World War II.

Mary Anna Johnson Savoie 4
Mary was in her seat on Flight 3 when Carole Lombard, Elizabeth Peters (Carole’s mom), and Otto Winkler (Clark Gable’s publicist) boarded in Indianapolis. Mary then flew all the way to Albuquerque sitting two rows behind Carole, enduring stops in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, and Amarillo. These weren’t fun stops either. There were weather and cargo delays for the plane and Miss Carole Lombard was anything but happy.

In Albuquerque a big clot of Army Air Corps personnel needed to fly west and all seven civilians on Flight 3 were ordered off the plane to make room for these priority passengers. Mary Johnson and three others gave up their seats; Carole Lombard refused to surrender her three tickets, so she stayed on the plane, and Mary Johnson’s dream of seeing Clark Gable up ahead in Burbank ended in what was the worst moment of her young life. Then the unthinkable happened and, said Mary Johnson, “Suddenly Clark Gable didn’t seem that important.”

I caught up with Mary Johnson Savoie near the end of the Fireball project. She’s right up there with the most interesting people I’ve ever met—smart, funny, and possessing vivid memories of that winter’s day. Just a couple of weeks prior to seeing Carole, Mary had been at the White House where she laid eyes on FDR and Winston Churchill, and after living through the crash of Flight 3 she went on to a rich full live with a husband and kids and became a world traveler. Hers is one of the central storylines in Fireball and yet another of a hundred layers of irony in its pages.

For me it was the biggest kick in the world to hand deliver a copy of the book to Mary this past December, and it was clear to me by the wonderful people surrounding her that Mary is a wonderful person herself and glows with an attitude that embraces life. She has been known to say, “I’ve always been lucky,” but isn’t luck really about the decisions a person makes that sets the stage for magic to happen?RM-MJS

Right now, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Mary is having some health challenges, and I hope you will take a moment to send some positive energy her way. The world needs Mary Johnson Savoie to be up and around and setting an example for all of us to follow, keeping it positive, showing us how to set the stage for good things to happen, and in general making the most of every single day because we just don’t know how many there’ll be.