lombard plane crash

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.

https://www.goodknightbooks.com/titles/fireball-carole-lombard/

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.

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.

One Saturday morning

It’s funny how close you get to the people you write about in a book. Spend every day over a couple-year period with Carole Lombard, and you get to know her pretty well, then you go away and write another book and lose touch with your friend until something yanks you back, like the upcoming 75th anniversaries and release of the expanded trade paperback edition of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 , and suddenly you’re going, “Carole! Nice to see you! How you been?”

As I write this, it’s the morning of January 10. This day 75 years ago Carole was at home off Petit Avenue in quiet little Encino, California, packing for her trip east to sell war bonds. And packing and packing, trunks and trunks of carefully mapped-out wardrobe for whistlestop bond-selling opportunities, interviews in Chicago, and then multiple events in Indianapolis and more whistlestops heading west for home.

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

She had a lot on her mind this Saturday morning the 10th. She’d had a dust-up with her old man about his closeness with a certain younger woman. Now he was gone east to New York and here she was listening to the ticking clock and remembering all the words they had used to bloody each other. He wasn’t what you’d call an elegant or articulate fighter. He was quiet by nature and went from zero straight to rage, and she could match him and bring a lot more intellect to the battle along with an arsenal of four-letter words he just couldn’t match, and the result was carnage on both sides.

The larger issue: How could she compete with the endless parade of youthful flesh passing before his eyes? She had already maxed out on diet, exercise, and beauty creams. Personally she had no fear of aging and said so to the press and meant it, but aging in the context of holding her man was a different matter. To keep up, she had already met the man’s man on his terms and done the gun-moll bit. She did everything to please him, from hunting and fishing trips into the middle of nowhere to discreetly averting her gaze for his frequent dalliances. Now, to her horror, she could see him growing bored anyway. He had had a tough life and was not a happy guy despite his fame and millions, despite the fact that he was reaping all the many benefits of a beautiful woman offering him unconditional love. Despite everything, absolute power had corrupted him absolutely in just five years of being together, and less than two married.

Because this was such a slow-speed train wreck in the making, she had had time to try to prevent the collision, chief among them to get pregnant and present the king with an heir. But the skin she was so comfortable in had betrayed her and she kept miscarrying. Such heartache that caused. So frustrating for a woman who specialized in willing dreams into reality.

Tripping over the opened suitcases and trunks reminded her of a thousand details, and she got on the phone to her mother, nicknamed Petey, who would be going along on the trip. Petey grew up in the ice station known as Fort Wayne, Indiana, but had spent nearly 30 years thawing out in Southern California, so they kept reminding each other how cold Chicago and Indianapolis were going to be in January. Hats, coats, stoles, gloves, scarves—pack plenty of each. And relatives were suddenly coming out of the woodwork wanting to meet up with the Peters girls for reunions in Chicago or Indianapolis, and could they please stop off in Fort Wayne for a day? No, they couldn’t, because Carole had to be back home for a sneak preview of her new picture Monday, January 19, and she would be enslaved on passenger trains for days and days to her great frustration.

Otto kept calling because the schedule was a living thing even on a Saturday. Otto as in Otto Winkler, hubby’s PR man and best friend who was now hers for the trip. Men had no trouble packing even for a week, and she managed to kid him about that despite her mood. A few suits, a tux, some dress shirts and ties, and he was good to go, while the mess surrounding her looked like the contents of the Lusitania bobbing on the water after torpedoing.

The next nine days were going to be a blur, she knew, and yet it seemed like an eternity until she’d be able to see her man again and really patch things up. Carole being Carole, she had to do what she could to control the situation, and she’d come up with the idea of writing a series of notes that would be doled out to him one a day—intimate little reminders of good times past and future. He was going to be spending considerable time with that younger woman, and the notes might serve as the conscience of the king. She could hope, anyway. So she sat and thought and wrote nine notes and tucked them in envelopes and sealed them up with love.

That was life at 4525 Petit Avenue in Encino 75 years ago this morning.

The Killer

From the beginning, crazy things have surrounded the project that became Fireball. In October 2012 when I climbed the killer mountain to the site of the crash of TWA Flight 3, which had occurred more than 70 years earlier, I wasn’t prepared for the experience of the people who had died there whispering to me. I had climbed 4,000 feet pretty much straight up to see the spot where Carole Lombard met her fate and to examine the wreckage of the plane still on the mountainside. The last thing I expected was for the others to make their presence known; don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that I heard voices, but I felt the people around me, including in my ears, and when I held a human bone in my hand that day I wasn’t creeped out, because I understood what it was: communication.

I don’t know if I inadvertently trod on 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue that autumn day four years ago because I don’t know exactly where they found him. Come to think of it, was it Donahue who took the time to hover around me? Who knows, but found he was, in April 2014, by people exploring the site as once I had explored it. There were twenty-two souls aboard Flight 3 when she hit that Nevada cliff at 180 miles per hour after dark on January 16, 1942—a flight crew of three, four civilians, and fifteen Army personnel. Three of those fifteen couldn’t be identified because of the horrific nature of the crash, and Donahue was one of them. When remains were found at the site last year, the coroner’s office sent out a team for recovery, and the starting point for DNA testing was that list of three lost men, which was obtained by reading Fireball. This being the coldest of cases, finding family members and securing DNA samples took more than a year, but finally a positive match confirmed that this was Second Lieutenant Donahue, a native of Stoughton, Massachusetts, and copilot of heavy bombers in the Army Ferrying Command.

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

One of the 15 Army flyboys that perished aboard TWA Flight 3 was 2nd Lt. Kenneth Donahue, a co-pilot in the Army Ferrying Command.

Here’s the crazy part. The trade paperback edition of Fireball is about to go to press in time for the 75th anniversary of the crash, and I just barely have minutes to get Donahue’s story in there. It reminds me very much of dear Mary Johnson Savoie, the “human computer” who flew across the country with Carole Lombard and became a survivor of Flight 3 when she was forced off the plane in Albuquerque—so Kenneth Donahue and his mates could climb aboard. Through an improbable series of circumstances set in motion by my pal Tom Wilson, Mary popped up at age 92 in a retirement facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and I interviewed her at length and rushed her story into Fireball just before it went to press. Mary lived long enough for me to sit and read her every passage recounting her story, and then passed on two months later. Her story was meant to be told, and now Kenneth’s story is meant to be told and will be told in the expanded trade paper version of Fireball.

As Lieutenant Donahue’s niece Maureen Green told me last evening, “Kenneth hung out until the right person and the right technology came along and he could make it home. I think that’s how things work.” The right person was Clark County Coroner’s investigator Felicia Borla and a team of experts, whose part of the story was reported in Biddeford’s Journal Tribune. The right technology was DNA testing that confirmed a match from a simple cheek swab. Confirmation set into motion events that took the small casket containing Donahue’s remains from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, where Delta arranged an honor guard that transferred the lieutenant from one plane to another. Then he flew to Logan in Boston where another honor guard saw the casket safely into a hearse for one last commute to Biddeford, Maine.

No one alive today in the Donahue family remembers Kenneth, but his niece Maureen has always felt a special connection. Maureen’s mother Rita was Kenneth’s younger sister and Maureen heard stories of Kenneth’s life and death, and grew up with a portrait of the young serviceman in her home. Rita passed on in 1999, but the connection between Maureen and Kenneth remained strong, so strong that when the Clark County Coroner called in February 2015, she said, “I knew it was him.”

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

Thirty-six hours after the crash of Flight 3, body recovery has begun.

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

The same place in 2012, still guarding its secrets.

As recounted in Fireball, in 1942 most of the crash victims were positively identified, but the coroner had parts of some bodies and these were cremated and divided into three urns for shipment home to the families of the Army fliers who couldn’t be identified. That’s what was buried in Biddeford’s St. Mary’s Cemetery in 1942, and Maureen’s mother used to talk about what a tough moment it was when they played “Taps” at the graveside.

Well, on August 12, Kenneth came home to a formal military graveside service that Maureen and her older sister Peggy found emotional. Then, a soldier in formal dress blues stood under a tree and began to play “Taps.” It was quite a moment for Maureen, who felt the connection to Kenneth, and to her mother and that story of a lone bugler in 1942. “I got it right then,” she said. “I understood.”

Survivor

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

The couple at their Encino ranch in spring 1939.

I’ve been thinking about Clark Gable lately, since he got all that attention for “date raping” Loretta Young on a train in 1935. Even though they weren’t on a date. Even though no evidence exists that there was any sort of rape at all. Mark Alan Vieira wrote an excellent open letter on the subject that I am hoping you will read and share. To my mind it stabilizes the poisonous atmosphere around the memory of Clark Gable.

All this got me to thinking about how Gable survived the loss of his wife of less than three years and companion for six, Carole Lombard. It’s a central theme in Fireball—you expect your partner home any minute but she doesn’t come home, ever, and how do you deal with that? How do you cope when the love of your life leaves you? No goodbye, no legal papers, no separation, no divorce. Just. Gone. Of course every partner in every relationship is unique, but what about if you’re married to vivacious, mile-a-minute, down-to-earth, beautiful, sexy, over-caffeinated and over-nicotined Carole Lombard? How do you survive the loss of that? Of a person you know is smarter than you? Of a force of nature, a dynamo with too much energy, a challenge and a handful every minute of the day? A person you loved body and soul and fought with like there was no tomorrow?

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

The irony and sadness of the story is captured in this photo and caption from the Indy Star. (Thank you, Marina Gray)

The fact is, he did survive it. He didn’t want to survive and tried not to but he did anyway. He endured that Las Vegas weekend and the funerals the next week. He endured life on the profoundly quiet ranch in Encino and on the Culver City MGM soundstages Lombard once visited to be near her husband.

He survived. What strikes me about his survival is the grace I saw at every turn looking back through first-person accounts of Clark Gable’s struggle to keep going. He never lashed out, never once that anyone saw. He just kept moving, for a long time as a facsimile of Gable the movie star, hollow-eyed and emaciated but ramrod straight, going through the motions, staring at nothing, not hearing what was said to him, and then he decided something in an agreement with himself, something that reconciled this with that. He seems to have accepted that she was gone and never coming back. After that, he reappeared as something resembling his old self and also as a prophet of Carole Lombard’s life and legacy, spreading the good word about her, telling stories about her antics, her good deeds, her studio smarts, the gags she pulled, the fights they had, most of these stories beginning with the words, “Remember the time…”

This Clark Gable, the one buried next to Carole Lombard at Forest Lawn Glendale, is not a predator. I can’t say one way or the other what he was in 1935, but I know what he was in 1942 and 1943, and that’s a guy struggling to survive and doing it with a dignity I admire. I’ve always said frankly that I didn’t start out liking Clark Gable but grew to admire him, and I stick by that because he did endure that weekend and went on to finish his career and his life without the girl, with other women in his life but most decidedly without the girl. It speaks to the character of a survivor, which also may explain his approach to that child he sired by Loretta Young: little Judy Lewis threatened his survival, and nothing must be allowed to do that. So there are the two sides of the sword, the dignity of a survivor and the ruthlessness of a survivor. Whatever you want to say about Clark Gable, he was human, complete with his fair share of human failings but also dignity among other qualities. And he survived.

A Facebook Fourth

A couple months ago I mentioned that I was writing a film treatment of Fireball. It wasn’t my idea to create a movie version—it was suggested by my accountant, who’s a good man to keep happy. As I noted in my column about the idea of a Fireball film, the subject keeps coming up and I’ve been writing to satisfy what you might call popular demand.

Since mid-May I’ve had some conversations with Hollywood insiders and they’ve convinced me that I’m better off developing not just a treatment, which is the equivalent of an outline of the story of a film, but a complete screenplay. I got started working on the screenplay as time allows, basically when I’m not writing Mission: James Stewart and World War II. But a couple of Facebook conversations on the Carole Lombard page [login required for FB link] put spurs to my efforts and I’ve been working hours a day to get the screenplay done and out there.

On July 2, a member of the Carole Lombard group, Brian Lee Anderson, posted on the CL page, “I got asked today what actors I hope portray Carole and Clark in the film version of Fireball … Who would you like to see?” That question prompted 88 replies, many with photos of prospective Lombards and Gables. Vincent Paterno then picked up the conversation and moved it to his Carole & Co. website.

The next day, I mentioned on Facebook that I’m working on a screenplay of the story, which generated 79 replies on its own. I hesitated to post anything because, as I feared, a by-product of doing so is that now there are people out there counting the days until Fireball is released to screens nationwide.

It’s not quite that simple. Granted, a Hollywood management type and a Hollywood producer are interested in seeing the script when it’s done. Granted, I have a couple of other irons in the fire as to how to circulate the script, but make no mistake, this is a spec script. It’s not a work for hire at this point. There’s no guarantee Fireball will ever become a major motion picture, or a feisty indie for that matter. That said, I have never seen such a groundswell of interest, energy, and positive push for an idea before. It’s practically risen to the level of a grass-roots campaign to get this thing made.

To play along with Brian Lee Anderson’s July 2 question, a problem well beyond who’s going to option the Fireball screenplay and get a production in gear is who would play Carole Lombard? Who would play Clark Gable? They were true originals and we’re familiar with their faces, voices, and mannerisms because their movies are available today on DVD, TCM, Netflix, and any number of cable channels. Leo DiCaprio made a good Howard Hughes in The Aviator specifically because the audience didn’t know Howard Hughes that well. What did the shy, reclusive Howard look and sound like? Who the hell knows? Like Leo DiCaprio, I guess. But Gable and Lombard? We know them to a T and good luck with casting.

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

When you look at Henry Cavill, do you see Clark Gable?

At the same time, my brother-in-law Michael Rothhaar and nephew Will Rothhaar are Hollywood actors, really accomplished actors, and I’ve seen them do remarkable things with the characters they’re playing. I’ve directed actors giving performances that made my jaw drop—How do they do what they do? How do they become other people and recite pages of dialogue memorized the night before as that other person? There are enormously talented actors out there, and I can’t rule out the fact that the perfect Lombard and Gable exist—actors capable of playing these two from the inside out.

Casting today’s stars as Hollywood legends is the stuff of endless debate. For the sake of argument, here are the results of the Facebook threads of last week:

Lombards mentioned include Kate Hudson (most votes), Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Jennifer Garner, Cameron Diaz, Reese Witherspoon, Maggie Lawson, Amy Poehler, Kelly Rutherford, Amy Adams, Michelle Williams, Amber Velletta, Dakota Fanning, Melissa Joan Hart, Blake Lively, Kate Winslet, Melanie Laurent (who’s French), Kristin Chenoweth, Charlize Theron, and Naomi Watts.

For Gable, George Clooney ran away with the voting, and then came Henry Cavill (multiple votes); Leo DiCaprio (“Yes definitely!” and “Not in a million years!” votes), Robert Downey Jr., Colin Farrell, Anson Mount, Jeffrey Dean, Chris Pratt, Hugh Jackman, and Brad Pitt.

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

George Clooney during production of The Monuments Men. Pass the hair dye and let’s get this thing going.

I don’t like to wade into such frays, but I can’t resist. Personally I always thought Gable was George Clooney’s part to give away. He’s got the movie-star presence of a king of Hollywood, and as affected as Gable always played Gable, well, Clooney would be all over that. A growing problem is Clooney’s age, given that Gable was 41 at the time of the crash, and Clooney’s past that now. Still, I think he could do it if only because it was difficult to pin Gable’s age down back in the day and he was always playing younger and older. Blacken his hair and he’s 30; gray his temples and he’s 50.

I’m always looking at actresses to see if they’re Lombard candidates. Whoever it is better be funny by nature. Charming as hell. Jill Clayburgh (God rest her soul) was neither, and a lack of connection to who she was playing helped sink her rendition in Gable & Lombard, made way back in 1976. I could see Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, or Anna Faris in the part and my dark horse—my literal dark horse because she’s part Brazilian with raven hair and dark eyes—is Jordana Brewster of D.E.B.S. and four of the Fast & Furious pictures. She’s capable of charming your pants off and she’s got the Lombard square jaw that could evoke CL to those in the know.

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

Jordana Brewster. Coloring’s wrong but personality’s right.

Most intriguing of all the casting opinions:

  • NC 1945 the restored TWA DC-3 in Kansas City to portray its sister ship, the doomed NC 1946, better known as Flight 3. They were on the assembly line at the Douglas plant in Santa Monica at the very same time in February 1941. Thank you, Michael McComb, for that idea.
  • Kate Hudson as Carole and Goldie Hawn as Carole’s mother Petey, as pitched by Brian Lee Anderson. Yes, Brian, that would be cool as hell.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Goldie and Kate as Petey and Carole?

So that’s how I spent my Fourth, writing like mad while keeping an entertained eye on Facebook.

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

The sister ship of the doomed Flight 3, now being refurbished in Kansas City and awaiting its big break in Hollywood.

Time Machine

I imagine that time travel would be a pretty cool thing to experience. This past weekend I flirted a little with time travel at “World War II Weekend,” staged at the Reading Regional Airport in eastern Pennsylvania, not far from Philadelphia. There, several hundred living historians (a.k.a. “reenactors”) got together to represent American G.I.s, German infantry, French resistance, and many other groups for the benefit of the history minded of this millennium. The authenticity was astonishing to the extent that the very sight of the “Krauts” in person and up close produced in me a chill—broken only when these 1940s apparitions, precise in every detail, tall, square shouldered, in gray-green uniforms and helmets, would sneak a peek at a smartphone.

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

U.S. paratroopers check an all-important equipment check before their jump.

What makes a guy enact a paratrooper jumping out of a plane at 1,500 feet to provide an audience of thousands a sense of what it was like to see a flock of C-47s overhead if you were in France in 1944? The sense I got from it was, these guys of the Airborne Demonstration Team love the history that much. I also realized that the 1944 fellas were up in the air for several minutes over enemy territory as they floated to earth and impersonated clay pigeons for marksmen on the ground. There’s bravery, and then there’s paratroopers.

You learn things by experiencing history up close that you wouldn’t or couldn’t from reading about it in a book or watching a movie. You know me: I don’t feel I can write about a physical location without being there; this time the physical location was inside a Consolidated B-24 Liberator, a 74-year-old heavy bomber of the type that pulverized Germany from 1943 to 1945. James Stewart and other characters in my new book flew in these growling monsters so I had to too. Thank God I’m not writing about those paratroopers.

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

The last flying B-24 Liberator, Diamond Lil, and crew wait on the tarmac.

It’s always sobering to fill out a form that asks for “next of kin” before one of these adventures, but the truth is these planes crashed when they were new, and Diamond Lil is the last of her kind, the final flying Liberator in America. I love to fly in vintage bombers. The cabins are unpressurized because of the gun ports, and the engines are louder than you can possibly imagine. It rides like a 20-ton bucket of bolts, just as it did through the war. It is magnificent!

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

For luck.

Which brings me to the topic for today, which is not Diamond Lil but another gal. It’s about a chance encounter, the kind where you glimpse someone and feel a primal rush and think to yourself, I’ve been waiting for you my whole life. Well, it happened right there on the runway during my pre-flight briefing as I stood by the wing of the B-24. I turned around and saw her and thought to myself, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m committed to Diamond Lil, because there she is.” Across the runway, a vintage gleaming silver DC-3 had just landed and taxied to a stop. Right. Over. There.

The conflict raged inside me as the captain of Diamond Lil went on with his safety briefing. Yah, yah, sure, skipper. Whatever you say. I was too busy replaying in my head a DC-3 landing in Las Vegas, weary passengers, a final takeoff and ascent. Eyewitnesses seeing and hearing a plane on an unusual heading…

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

Helloooo, beautiful! First glimpse of the Douglas DC-3 that had landed right behind me.

You’d be proud of me, people: I got my head together and wrung every minute out of my flight inside Diamond Lil, from engine run-up through an airborne exploration of the ship, from flight deck to tail gun and then a landing that felt like the worst pothole you ever hit in your car.

An hour later I was inside that DC-3, which was configured as a C-47—the design most used in helping to win World War II. But whether used for passengers or cargo, they were all stamped out the same and so stepping inside this 1945 model was exactly like stepping inside TWA Flight 3.

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

Looking forward from the tail of the Douglas DC-3/C-47.

Passengers had to be made of sterner stuff back then. Today, I grouse if an infant is on my flight on a 737 or Airbus—and I’m talking if an infant is anywhere inside the roomy cabin so its screaming little voice will bounce off the fuselage and disturb my experience. Well, not a problem in 1942. You’d never hear the little bastard with two 1200-horsepower engines five feet from you, one pressing in from the left, and one pressing in from the right. You wouldn’t hear anything in the unpressurized cabin but an urgent, purposeful growl at somewhere around 110 decibels. It’s not like Carole Lombard could chat with her afraid-to-fly mother during the trip west to offer consolation. Even screams from mouth to ear wouldn’t convey a message, so you sat there in a cabin smaller than your average trolley car, stuffed Kleenex in your ears, and took it.

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

Inside the DC-3 (here configured as a C-47 for cargo). For passenger travel there were three seats across, two on the left and one on the right, with an aisle between. Not exactly roomy. Folks, this is the entire cabin.

So, I went inside the DC-3, talked to the people, took some pictures, exited, came back again, took some video, walked all around it… I knew my followers would find the experience interesting so I tried to document to give you the best look you may ever have at the plane that hit the mountain. One of the many benefits of time travel.

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

Landing gear as it’s supposed to look.

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

Landing gear (right) with other pieces of DC-3 on Mt. Potosi in 2012.