Lombard Keene

Mystery Within the Mystery

News of the death of my friend Kenneth Keene has hit me hard. I mean, come on, I’m not telling tales out of school when I say the man drank liquor a quart a day and knew the word exercise only as a theoretical experience. But he was one of the most extraordinary humans I have ever met, and his passing has left a hole in my heart.

As you will recall from a post dated last October, Ken Keene owned Tuckaway, an Indianapolis National Landmark and a home tied to the death of Carole Lombard. Ken Keene insisted, Ken Keene swore to me, that Carole Lombard stood at the front door of Tuckaway the day before her death and was warned by scientific palmist Nellie Simmons Meier “not to take the plane.” Ken learned this from the lips of Nellie’s niece Ruth, making it more than legend. It was oral history. But the fact of the matter is, I have not been able to find evidence that Lombard managed to sneak off to Tuckaway, located on the north side of Indianapolis, on the hectic day of the bond sale on January 15, 1942. If you followed my Twitter campaign of January 15 and 16 of this year, when I recounted Lombard’s day selling war bonds minute by minute, you know how frantic was her time in Indianapolis.

I would say to Ken that I needed evidence of her Tuckaway visit, and he would respond, “You don’t believe me!” I assured him that yes, I did believe him, but I needed verification to put it in print. But Ken had heard it from Ruth, and Ruth had heard it from Nellie, so it was incomprehensible to Ken that I needed more than that.

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

The dark and mysterious interior of Tuckaway. Ken is barely visible at center of photo, beside the lamp.

Now, about Ken. He was a dark-haired man with a puppy-dog-sad face. According to the feature obit in the Indianapolis Star, he was 69 or 70. He mentioned that he was the son of Army Air Corps Brigadier General Ken Keene, although the subject only came up because he asked me what I was working on and I told him a book about James Stewart in World War II. He said, “Oh, my father knew him and used to tell stories about the two of them in the war.” It was then he showed me a picture of Gen. Keene and his wife Gigi, the stunning woman who was Ken’s mother. But knowing the unorthodox Ken, I sensed that there was a lot of discontent among parents and child, because he was the last guy to be thought of as a chip off the ol’ block of Gen. Keene. Another sign of problems was the fact that Ken had no interest in recounting his father’s experiences with James Stewart.

Ken was often bombed from all the scotch, but a brilliant conversationalist at all times. He tracked every word that anyone said and had an immediate response, even after a full tumbler of scotch. I mean a big glass of scotch and ice. He might slur a word or two, but the man had his faculties and his brain processed like a NASA supercomputer.

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

The “other” Lombard autographed portrait that I found on Ken’s wall.

Ken’s passion was Tuckaway, and Carole Lombard was among his favorite Tuckaway topics. He would point out the autographed portrait of her hanging at the bottom of the stairs, which had become famous over the years through newspaper coverage. As Mary and I wandered through the house, I found another Lombard inscribed and framed portrait hanging in the library, which didn’t really look so much like her so it was no wonder it had been overlooked. It was taken off the wall and handed to Ken, who fixed his hazy eyes on it and said, “Oh yes, I had forgotten about this one.”

It turns out that I spoke to Ken by phone within a week of his death on February 18. He had asked me when I would be out for a visit—he always asked that—and I promised to get there in the spring. I was thinking about planning that visit the day I learned about his passing, just hours after thinking about him, this past Tuesday.

I interviewed Ken extensively about his connection to the story in Fireball, this incredible missing piece of the Fireball timeline, so it’s not as if his death has affected the historical record. But I so admired this guy for being gracious, and brilliant, and determined to show visitors to Tuckaway the time of their lives. I admired him for his warmth at all times, whenever I’d call. Above all he was a brilliant individualist who lived life on his own terms and never compromised. He never skimped on the liquor bill and never condescended to see a doctor even when it was obvious he should. What good does it do now to scold the guy? I’d rather celebrate this life brilliantly lived, and pursue the clues he left me about what is potentially a chilling moment in the last days of Carole Lombard’s life when she was warned what was ahead and for some reason ignored the warning and hurried to her doom.