indianapolis carole lombard

Last Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the belly of the beast in Santa Monica.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tucked Away

On the way to Fort Wayne for the Carole Lombard weekend, we stopped in Indianapolis for 90 minutes at a place I bet you never heard of and one that, if I ever compile a list of my top-10 most memorable experiences, would easily make the cut.

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

Nellie Simmons Meier, a scientist at heart and international sensation in the first half of the twentieth century.

Once there was a “scientific palmist” named Nellie Simmons Meier, who lived with her husband, fashion designer George Phillip Meier, in a bungalow tucked away on North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis. Because it sat back off the street and was modest in appearance, it acquired the name “Tuckaway,” and it was here that Nellie held court for many of the most powerful people of the twentieth century. I’m not kidding about the significance of her clients. We’re talking Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and an ardent pursuer, Adolph Hitler. Walt Disney was among her close friends and frequent visitors, to the extent that Nellie’s readings and Nellie’s home became instrumental to the creation of Disneyland.

Tuckaway looks like any old bungalow on any old street in the United States when you view it from a distance. Even people with an appointment drive right past it—I can tell you that from experience. When Ms. Garmin announced, “Arriving at destination, on right,” I groped to see anything on the right, let alone a destination shaped like a bungalow.

I can’t explain the physics of it, but Tuckaway is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, a yawning beast of Victorian design. We walked in to a vaulted-ceilinged parlor ablaze from a fire in the enormous fireplace. The walls were done in gold canvas because Nellie Meier had visited Coco Chanel’s gilded apartment in Paris and wanted her own home to be “dipped in gold,” like Coco’s. Cigarette smoke filled the yawning space, as (it sounded like) Marlene Dietrich purred torch songs from the walls themselves. Our host was Kenneth Keene, an impossible-to-describe raconteur who bought Tuckaway from the heir of Nellie Meier in 1972.

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

You’re saying, WHAT? There’s a home back there?

It’s forgotten today, but Nellie Simmons Meier was such a highly regarded professional at the scientific interpretation of palms that the brightest minds in the world sought her out. Rachmaninoff played piano in that parlor we walked into, and 80 years later it felt as if he were still there, trapped in time, along with all those other luminaries. Gershwin was a fan, as were Duncan Hines, Margaret Sanger, and Amelia Earhart. So prestigious was the library of palm prints and readings of Nellie Simmons Meier that President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that a portion of her collection be housed in the Library of Congress, where it remains today. When the president of the United States insists, what’s a girl to do?

The walls of the hallway and library downstairs hold dozens of framed portraits of the greats of the century past, every one inscribed to Nellie. Carole Lombard is there in a prime spot at the bottom of the stairs, the green-ink inscription on her photo attesting to the accuracy of Nellie’s reading.

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

The parlor of Tuckaway, as mysterious and compelling as an episode of The Twilight Zone. And what role in Carole Lombard’s life did the front door (seen at right) play?

I had come to Tuckaway to interview Mr. Keene about the connection between Lombard and Meier, based on a tip I had gotten while on the Indianapolis stop of the Fireball book tour. Local lore had it that Carole had stopped at Tuckaway the day of the bond rally and Nellie had warned her “not to take the plane.” I have more research to do beyond what I learned during the October 3 visit to Tuckaway, and by the time the trade paperback revised edition of Fireball goes to press after the first of the year, I believe I’ll have a definitive answer to the question: Beyond everything already described in Fireball, was there yet another chilling episode, tucked away in time since 1942, that compounds the mystery of the chaotic, improbable, and tragic last 24 hours of Carole Lombard’s life?

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

The inscription of Carole Lombard’s photo on the wall, signed as always in green ink, reads, “For Nellie Meier, In sincere appreciation of your Great Talent and kindness and truth of your reading. Cordially, Carole Lombard.”

At the Crossroads

When you enter the state of Indiana on President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, you see a sign that says, “Welcome to Indiana, Crossroads of America.” Further probing into the state reveals that Indianapolis is also known as the Crossroads of America, so you’re really at the crossroads when you reach Indiana’s capital city. On Sunday I spoke at a quaint bookstore on Mass Ave in downtown Indianapolis called Indy Reads Books talking about Fireball and on Monday morning I appeared on CBS affiliate WISH-TV’s Indy Style talking more Fireball in general and Carole Lombard’s last day of life in particular. For Lombard it was a blur of a winter’s day with appearances from downtown at the Capitol Building to the tony northern suburbs.

Indianapolis is laid out crazily around a downtown circle much as Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed Washington DC, with diagonal streets laid over a city grid, and the diagonals intersecting in roundabouts here and there. I guess it’s no coincidence since L’Enfant disciple Alexander Ralston co-designed the street pattern of Indianapolis. It’s easy to argue that these guys were geniuses…or that these guys were just plain nuts. Indy’s got six-way intersections and more pedestrians that you can shake a stick at. Jaywalking seems to be a sport in Indianapolis, and some streets have bike lanes but all streets seem to have bicyclists—who don’t always behave predictably. Downtown motorists had better be on their toes all the time because fancy driving doesn’t just happen on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; it happens all over Ralston’s complicated downtown system.

But I digress. I asserted on Indy radio, TV, and in person that Carole Lombard enjoyed two especially stellar days in a stellar life: her March 29, 1939 elopement with Clark Gable to Arizona, and her January 15, 1942 day selling war bonds in Indianapolis. Carole had to love everything about her time in Indy, where thousands of people treated her like a queen from the first instant to the last in a slate of appearances that ran like clockwork.

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

Getting started at Indy Reads Books.

An excellent Indianapolis Star feature by Will Higgins that heralded my lecture looked exclusively at the local angle on Lombard’s Indy trip, which was orchestrated by local businessman J. Dwight Peterson. I had seen the name in my research but didn’t call him out in Fireball, so Higgins’ article dovetails nicely with the narrative. I quickly learned in my Indy Reads lecture just how much the locals claim Lombard and how magical her day in town has remained over the decades. Attendees were very much into it, and included a rare father-daughter combo with the young lady maybe 13 and not too enthusiastic at the beginning, but the story is irresistible and before long she perked right up. I also met longtime Lombard-Gable fan Patricia Kennedy, who filled me in on some local particulars about the Lombard visit. It was a wonderful give and take of information—my national view and their local view, and I learned some things that will certainly make a future edition of Fireball.

My TV segment the next morning on Indy Style was more magic, as host Andi Hauser found herself engrossed in a copy of Fireball while prepping, and when I offered the exclusive Myron Davis Indianapolis photos as roll-ins with the segment, Brian, the director, snapped them up. How’s the saying go—Print anything you want about me; just spell my name right? I found out afterward that they spelled my name wrong in the super, and if you click the link it’s hideously misspelled still, but only because TV people live in a world where everything happens fast and the next thing is important and the thing that already happened isn’t. The meeting before airtime was maybe three minutes and the host, producer, and director asked brief questions and I knew to give brief answers because of the general state of hurry. But they treated me and Fireball very well, so Robert Matzum it is!

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

With Andi Hauser on CBS Channel 8’s Indy Style.

Afterward Mary and I sped down to the Capitol for a private tour of the Lombard hotspots, using Davis’s photos for visual reference. Jennifer Hodges and Rose Wernicke of the Tour Office helped us triangulate where Carole stood and handed out war bond receipts imprinted with her photo, personal message, and signature. It was near the office of Indiana Governor Henry Schricker, which made sense in terms of logistics. But Lombard and party were tucked away in a corner behind a makeshift wooden counter, outside a doorway. I asked Jennifer why that would have been. She thought a moment. “That’s the governor’s business office, so they would have been able to take her out that way afterward, down the stairs and outside without having to go out through the crowd.” Like I say: clockwork.

The 2014 view inside the Indiana State Capitol Building showing a glimpse of the same spot in 1942. The building was refurbished in the 1980s, so some of the appointments have changed–but not much.

Outside the building Mary and I easily found the spot where Carole stood on a makeshift platform for her speech that was covered by all the newsreel companies and by national radio. It was at the bottom of the steps near the east entrance, with the facade of the building unchanged today from what the Davis photos showed in 1942.

Our tour of Indianapolis was a clear success, and I can only hope the stop in Las Vegas next week goes as well. It will include some TV early in the week, followed by a lecture and signing on Saturday, April 12, at the Sahara West Library, with Potosi Mountain in full view. I know from writing the story how special Nevadans are; I’m hoping to meet some whose parents or grandparents participated in the search and recovery in 1942. Or maybe there are a couple hardy first responders still with us who can teach me a thing or two like the people of Indianapolis did just yesterday.

Carole Lombard delivers a speech outside the Indiana Capitol Building in 1942.

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

The same spot today.