lombard plane crash

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.

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.

Climbing Every Mountain

I met an author the other year who had written a successful book about a famous battle in U.S. history. In the course of talking about the book, he mentioned that he had never visited the ground, and I was surprised. No, I was shocked, and it changed the way I approach my own writing because, as I thought then and continue to think, how can a writer recount a true story without intimate knowledge of the setting?

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

Potosi was unlike any mountain I had encountered in the past. Only through the climb could I get to know it as a character in Fireball.

I climbed Mt. Potosi in part because of this guy and our chat. I knew Potosi was going to be more than terrain on which my cast struggled; Potosi was in itself a character in Fireball and in opposition—Man against Nature—with my heroes. In the past I’ve climbed in mountains, but they were lush eastern mountains, and I’d had no experience with desert mountains with cactus and Joshua trees. So, if I had never climbed Potosi, my inclination would have been to write eastern mountains and not desert mountains. And because I climbed to the site of the crash of Flight 3 over the first-responder route, I could speak of that particular experience up the dry wash and scrambling between the cliffs, then over rises and into hollows and then up into the final ravine. I could speak of every lethal danger because I saw and experienced them.

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

You’d think judging by this 1930s photo of the Café Trocadero on the Sunset Strip that these were flat lands. But the Troc was built into a hillside, with a sheer drop behind it–something you would only know from being there.

How can you write a book about Hollywood and its stars without visiting the place and learning that “Hollywood” doesn’t mean a city with defined boundaries? Hollywood is a chunk of Los Angeles, and Beverly Hills, and Century City, and extends toward Culver City and the ocean. Hollywood is ultra-green, overwatered lawns in a desert. It’s volcanic mountains jutting up out of nowhere and houses built into the mountains accessed by goat paths that no one ought to drive over. Hollywood pulses to the beat of its major arteries, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, which take you, block by block, from silent-era art deco to billion-dollar office buildings in gleaming gold, and from crumbling adobe apartments full of struggling actors to sprawling mansions of those lucky enough and talented enough to score big in show business. How could you write about the Sunset Strip of the 1930s without walking along that little piece of real estate with Ciro’s on one side of the street and Mocambo and Trocadero on the other? How could you even imagine how quaint it is? How confined and built on ledges? How packed in the stars were when they hit the town? Everybody had to know everybody just because of the terrain of the land they call Hollywood.

Now I’m heading into my next book about the Eighth Air Force in World War II, and my first inclination was to fly in the big bombers that conquered Germany in 1944 and 1945, so I booked myself into the cockpit of one of 10 remaining airworthy B-17s and went up. Up a grand total of 1,500 feet, but up nonetheless, and experienced something of what the boys of the Greatest Generation did in the airship known as the Flying Fortress. Now, I have a sense of the roar of four big Pratt & Whitney engines, of the confines of the cockpit, of the catwalk over the bomb bay, of the treacherous footing skittering around the lower turret, of the size of the bombs, and of feel of the waist machine guns. I know what it feels like to crawl into the nose of the plane in flight and where the bomb sight was and where the bombardier and navigator sat and what they could see out the observatory-style nose. Up those 1,500 feet I could begin to experience the terror of being a target for guns on the ground, knowing that a strike on the wing or the tail section meant sure death or bailing out at 10 or 20 times my 1,500 feet. I realized for the first time just how unpressurized the cabin was, and it hit me how vulnerable were the airmen, on oxygen at 30,000 feet with the temperature 30 below and anti-aircraft guns booming from the ground, and German fighters buzzing around rattling the ship with machine gun fire. Do you have any idea how big and heavy a .50 caliber machine gun shell is? I do, now, after holding one in my hand. It looks more like a small bomb than a bullet, and the machine gunners fired them in belts nine yards long. Hence the term, “the whole nine yards.” What’s the physics of firing shells that size out of both sides of a plane flying at 300 miles per hour, and out the tail and above and below? I couldn’t tell you, but after being aboard a B-17, now at least I know enough to ask.

There’s always another mountain to climb. I’ve got to find a B-24 and fly in it. I’ve got to go to where the bombers departed in England. I might have to go see where the bombs fell in Germany—who knows? It’s all part of telling authentic stories where the characters aren’t just people. Sometimes, they’re mountains, or airplanes.

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

Flying in a B-17 is research just like digging through federal records. This B-17 was built in 1945 and used in filming of the 1990 feature, Memphis Belle.

Shooting Star

Bruce R. Medici said some very nice things about Fireball in a recent comment. He also said, “Carole would have most likely enjoyed it, and perhaps she may have had some choice words about it too.” I wondered every so often as I was writing Fireball whether Miss Lombard would approve of what I was doing. I knew I had found the real person, that I was uncovering the soul of this woman and artist, and does anyone really want to be laid bare before the world?

My friend Steve had a strong reaction to the Carole he read about in Fireball. Steve had known Gable, as discussed here previously, and had heard time and again from Clark and all the other MGM players wonderful stories about this glorious, perfectly remembered, bigger-than-life personality, Carole Lombard. Said Steve in his critique of Fireball, “I was surprised to find out that she was so spoiled and willfully stubborn and strong-headed. To have bullied her way thru life as it appears is surprising to me. Yes, she was attractive and full of joy and fun and laughter. But if you read between the lines, she was also so determined to do as she pleased, that at times I didn’t like her and wondered why so many others liked her. It also killed her.”

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

Gable and Lombard are adored as American royalty wherever they go.

This is a bulletin to many: Carole Lombard lived a mortal existence and had shortcomings and frailties like we all do. She never wanted for money because she came from it, and so “spoiled” is a fair term. She did what she wanted with her life and if necessary could lean back on her heels and put up her dukes with any man who wanted a fight, including Hollywood moguls. She also most decidedly did put her own insecurity and self-interest ahead of the feelings of her traveling companions that last night in Indianapolis, with fatal results. So “willfully stubborn” certainly fits. Carole did bully Wink and Petey onto the fancy Sky Club that had taxied into the Indianapolis Municipal Airport. And she did it because of a very human, irrational, insecure, unLombard-like reaction to Lana Turner, a girl more than 10 years younger, petite, gorgeous, needy, and husband hunting. Ma was an intuitive creature, and could sense that Pa was hearing this siren’s song and liking the tones. She felt his distraction like she had never felt it in the chorines and bit players that had queued up previously for 15 or 30 minutes of the King’s time.

It was imperfect of Carole Lombard to react this way and force her mother and Otto Winkler onto a plane after promising both repeatedly that they would not have to fly on the bond tour. She strong-armed Petey onto the plane even though Petey knew the numerology was all wrong and she begged her daughter not to get onto the plane. Imagine, your mother begs you. And poor Otto had dreamt he would die if he got on a plane on this trip. It gives me chills even now to write that sentence.

Luckily, Carole found a writer who is also an apologist for human frailties. I don’t hold her stubbornness against her. I don’t hold Gable’s roving eye and “swordsman” tendencies against him. How could we do either? How dare we do either? It’s easy for us to sit here all these years later and tsk-tsk as we turn the pages and say how we would not have done these things and conveniently look past our own imperfect lives and the things we’ve done less than optimally. It wasn’t easy to be a Hollywood star. They worked six out of seven days a week at the whim of their studios and were forced into the limelight almost every night of the week. Imagine everywhere you go you’re assailed for autographs and people tear at your clothes. The first hour would be awesome; after that, not at all. Imagine you have total power over everyone you meet. How would it warp you? Not at all? Forgive me if I have my doubts. So, yeah, Carole Lombard threw her weight around and got on that plane and then in Albuquerque she refused to give up her three seat assignments even though the law required it. That’s willfully stubborn and a half! In her own mind there were compelling reasons why she needed to do what she did, just as there were compelling reasons why Clark needed the attention of every female in sight.

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

Hollywood-struck Hoosiers press in on Carole in Indianapolis the day before she will die.

I told Carole Lombard’s story without passing judgment on Carole Lombard and knowing her as I do, she wouldn’t give me as much as a “You can kiss my ass” about it. Somewhere on the other side of that cliff she ran into is an understanding that the train would have been better. There’s remorse over the fate of Petey and Wink and sorrow at letting her brothers and friends down, people she wanted to continue to see and love and cherish and support. Sorrow at deserting Clark and the ranch. Lessons always come at a price, and brother the price she paid. The price all these characters in Fireball paid for getting mixed up with dynamic, charge-straight-ahead Carole Lombard. Sure she was imperfect, but on balance no one ever quite got over her loss, not her husband or closest girlfriends or the grips on the pictures she made or anyone in between. All they would ever allow when they remembered the girl who lit up the sky as she streaked across it and then hit a granite cliff at 7,700 feet was, “That was Carole for you.” Human? Hell yes. Which is what made this a story, and why people can’t get enough of it.