Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Death for Wacky Donald

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem Leone, age 18, graduates gunnery school.

My friend Walt Powell reminded me that 75 years ago today—today, mind you—the most amazing thing happened that I’ve ever been even remotely connected to. On February 24, 1944, my friend Clement Leone escaped out the top hatch of a burning B-24 Liberator named Wacky Donald 20,000 feet above the frozen Netherlands. The formation of B-24s in which Clem was flying had been jumped by German fighters and an FW-190 hit Wacky Donald aft with incendiary rockets. The fire blazed forward toward wing tanks still nearly full as Clem clutched the barrels of the top turret machine gun in a 200-mile-per hour slipstream. Then his impossible situation was resolved in a flash; the wing tanks caught and the ship exploded.

The blast knocked Technical Sgt. Leone out cold and blew him clear of the ship to begin a free-fall to earth. He fell maybe 10,000 feet while unconscious, and it’s a miracle he didn’t just keep on going to hit the earth at terminal velocity. Not feisty Clem. Clem came to with a face wet from blood and managed to keep his wits, locate an orange metal ring on his chest, and give it a yank. His parachute opened and he managed a controlled descent that ended with fractured ribs on impact.

You’d think that was enough adventure for a lifetime let alone one February morning, but it was just the beginning. Dutch people ran to him from the surrounding countryside, and he drew his .45 thinking they were Germans and would kill him. Instead they fed him and helped dress his wounded face and ribs. Then a member of the Nazi Green Police tried to arrest Clem, the Dutch intervened, and he took off into woodlands under the protection of the Dutch Resistance.

For historical context, Sgt. Leone was a participant in Operation Argument, which the flyboys dubbed “Big Week.” From February 20–26, 1944, the Eighth Air Force concentrated on bombing aviation-related targets in Germany. They had to take out the German Air Force before D-Day could be staged. That February week, spectacular aerial battles took place across Dutch and German skies, the Luftwaffe launching maximum effort to repel the American maximum effort bomber stream. I’ll let you read Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe to find out what happened next to Clem, but it just kept getting more incredible. The man was simply meant to survive and make it home to marry his sweetheart, raise four children, become a major in the Maryland National Guard, and shape thousands of young minds as a schoolteacher.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Clem (lower left) with his crew. Top center is Lt. Robert Blomberg, an up and comer with the 445th Bomb Group who died at the controls when his ship blew up. Others in the crew were also KIA. Notable in this team photo is the small man next to Blomberg, Lt. Donald Widmark, co-pilot and brother of future actor Richard Widmark. The co-pilot would grab a parachute and leave Blomberg behind 75 years ago today. Clem’s personal rule was to stay with the ship as long as the officers did, but when he saw Widmark bail out, he said, “It was time for this guy to go.”

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

The ring on his parachute became a wall decoration for Clem.

I met Clem in 2014 when he was a spring chicken of 90 and spent many hours on the phone and in his living room learning about the air war, B-24s, combat missions in the European Theater, his time with Jimmy Stewart in the 445th Bomb Group, and his adventures with the Dutch and Germans. In November 2016, Clem and I played a double bill in his hometown of Gettysburg, PA—before a packed house I lectured about Stewart and introduced Clem, who with humor and humility told his story. Afterward, we sat and autographed books side by side for an hour and a half, and I doubt either of us ever had a better time.

So let’s take a moment to thank Clement Francis Leone for his service, and marvel at an incredible life that barrels full steam ahead toward birthday number 95. Another wacky thing: B-24s were always catching fire, and Clem had bailed out of another one on a training mission in England and broken his leg. It hadn’t even healed before he was bailing out again, this time over Holland. So 70 years later his daughters decided it would be fun to buy their dad a ride in a vintage B-24 that was touring in an air show. When he heard about it, he said, “I had to bail out of two of the damn things when they were new! I’m sure as hell not getting into one that’s 70 years old!”

That, my friends, is the working mind of a survivor.

And oh, by the way, without Clem Leone, there would be no Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, because it was while following Clem’s trail south from the Dutch town of Gramsbergen that I made a stop in Arnhem, and the rest is history. So, thank you for the gift of Dutch Girl, Clem. If I ever grow up, I want to be just like you.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

We each signed more than a book a minute for 90 minutes as Gettysburg paid tribute to its hero.

Heroes

Buster Keaton, every inch a hero in The General.

I came upon a piece of writing the other week that moved me, a column on my colleague Sister Celluloid’s blog. It turns out this piece was written in 2015 and re-posted last month, which is when I had the good fortune to cross its path.

In a few hundred words Sister C. captured my professional admiration, and I know this piece is going to stick with me and become a touchstone, a thing that other things remind me of. Reading it took me back to my own childhood, to fears and phobias, to school and not being able to keep up, to the tricks that get a child through another day or difficult situation. When I was a little kid of 6 or 7 and had to do something scary out in the world, usually in school, my mom would hand me a button or a hair clip and say, “Here, put this in your pocket. When you get scared, hold onto this and everything will be OK.” Son of a gun, it always worked. Mom imbued inanimate objects with magical powers that managed to keep me safe.

Errol Flynn at age 30 as Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk, a character and picture that made a big impression on Gertrud Siepmann.

Sister C.’s magic came from Buster Keaton. As I read her column I imagined how Keaton would have felt if he had had the opportunity to read it himself. I’m not going to cheapen this slice of genius by giving it Spark Notes treatment. In my mind Sister C.’s work already hangs in the Louvre with stanchions and velvet ropes keeping it safe for posterity. What came to mind as I read it was Errol Flynn, who could never come to grips with being anyone’s hero. He knew what he was, and it wasn’t a knight in shining armor. Except, in a way he was because he entertained uncounted millions, and for some, adoring Errol Flynn became a reason to go on living. I think of my friend Gertrud Siepmann, who I wrote about in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Gertrud survived World War II and its aftermath in Germany in part by being in love with Errol Flynn and keeping Flynn front-of-mind as a shining light in the blackness of those times. There he’d be every day, at Gertrud’s side, a square-shouldered protector, sword in hand to fend off any dangers she faced. As related in Errol & Olivia, Gertrud finally got to see Errol Flynn with his wife Patrice Wymore in the lobby of a hotel in Bad Soden, Germany, in the 1950s. Gertrud waited for hours, flowers in hand, for what she imagined would be a magical meeting. By then her Capt. Geoffrey Thorpe, protector of German maidens, was a bitter 45 and at first she didn’t recognize the real thing because “he was taller than I imagined, and much thinner—almost frail looking. His face was still beautiful, but so unexpectedly sad and weary that it shocked me—and broke my heart.” As he passed, he gave her a smile and she managed to smile back and then he was gone. She remained for a while rooted to the spot, still holding the flowers she’d intended to give him, and she wept at the sadness of the real Errol Flynn.

Gertrud Siepmann is known in today’s United States as Trudy McVicker, and if you asked Trudy if Errol was a real-life hero she would say an enthusiastic yes! That’s what came to mind when I read Sister C.’s ode to her protector and inspiration, Buster Keaton. That and the powerful, clear and clean craftsmanship of the piece.

________________________

 

Coming Soon: Columns about the research and writing of Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II.

Friends

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

Young pre-Hollywood Audrey.

I’m done. The fun part is over—the fun part being sitting alone night after night, figuring out the story and writing it. If you commit to 1,000 words a session and understand that some of the words will be good, some bad, and some indifferent, before too long you get a book. Following that process, along with three trips to the Netherlands and a year associated with Dutch researcher Maddie van Leenders, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, is written and weighs in at about 103,000 words. Release is set for April 15, 2019. As a workaholic introvert, I have enjoyed the experience of spending two years alone with Audrey Hepburn more than I can tell you. She’s been very pleasant company; in fact about the pleasantest ever, right up there with George Washington.

When you work on a biography that long and get so deep inside the heart and soul of your subject, he or she invariably becomes a friend, or at least a “work friend.” When I produced the three documentary films on George Washington, we became pals and I still miss him after more than 10 years.

I would call Errol Flynn a work friend at best because here I was working in the same office with a tortured soul for two books and along the way finally figured out what was going on in his chaotic, complex mind. Just yesterday I watched his finest acting job, in Elizabeth and Essex, and because I know him so well, my heart broke at the heroic effort this generally lazy hedonist put into one very tough job, to make sure the powers trying to defeat him would not prevail. Then there was the leading lady of his lifetime, Olivia de Havilland, who I had to figure out for the book Errol & Olivia (BTW, Belated Happy Birthday this past July 1, OdeH). We had been correspondents for a long time, and I studied her from Saratoga, California, on; in fact it was there in the concrete driveway of the Fontaine home that I laid my hand over the tiny handprints of Livvie and her little sister Joan. They must have been six and five at the time they pressed them into the cement, but it’s as if these two future Academy Award winners were already performing their own Grauman’s Chinese ceremony. I think in retrospect Livvie’s the most interesting person I’ve ever tackled. She remains at age 102 a closed book, a loner, and 100% pure badass. I have come to admire her tremendously.

Errol & Olivia by Robert Matzen

Loner Olivia de Havilland and complicated Errol Flynn.

I’ve documented Carole Lombard on these pages as well as in Fireball so I won’t bore you with more, except to say hers is a lively spirit to spend a couple of years alone with. There were a number of surprises on that project. Among them was Clark Gable, an interesting guy and, I concluded, an OK guy despite a flawed character. But then most of us are flawed characters one way or another. The second surprise involved the 15 Air Corps pilots on Lombard’s death plane who wanted their stories to be told. Who knew? One of these fellas even showed up a couple years ago, which introduced me to a new friend, Felicia Borla of the Clark County Coroner’s Office.

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

The lively Lombard and her cat-who-ate-the-canary smile.

Jim Stewart and I came to an understanding over the course of Mission’s development. During his lifetime, two things were sure about Jim: 1) he would not talk about his WWII combat career, and 2) he hated biographers. So what did I set out to write? His combat biography. You’d suppose that on the other side he wouldn’t be happy with me, but in describing Stewart in combat I put a spotlight on the great group of guys he commanded in battle. Those men deserved the kind of attention that their proximity to Jimmy Stewart the actor would have promoted, and Mission made that happen. So now Jim and I are OK; not tight, but OK.

And now we come to Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s another tough cookie for a simple reason: She had secrets she felt could not be revealed, which led her to turn down several seven-figure offers from publishers to write her memoir. Then she died much too soon, and biographers went to town writing about her life and they’re still at it, and now I’ve done it too.

My book’s different from the others because I went right after the secrets, and had to hack and slash through a lot of false leads, inaccurate reporting, myths, and subterfuge to get at the truth, or at least what truth can be determined when files have been intentionally destroyed. I’m not going to give you any spoilers here, so you’re going to have to wait and read Dutch Girl to find out what the secrets are and if she makes it out of World War II alive.

I wanted to use this photo on the cover of Mission but got overruled.

Like always there was a get-acquainted period with Audrey, and I came to see her as a pretty fierce introvert. Well, to be precise, she wasn’t an introvert as a ballerina, which is all she ever wanted to be. It was the acting and particularly the speaking that gave her the shakes. We got along very well and the good vibes grew, and now I’m associated and sharing information with her son, Luca Dotti. Luca’s now in the process of adding some pretty incredible details to the narrative, things only someone inside the family could.

There’s nothing like the experience of positive energy aligning on a great project, and that’s what Dutch Girl has been—the most enjoyable adventure of my career thanks in large part to a wonderful group of Dutch people who love history, or lived it, or knew Audrey, or had some sort of expertise they were willing to provide to a clumsy American. They include Maddie along with Gety, Annemarth, Clan, Rosemarie, Ben, Herman, Patrick, Johan, Dick, and Robert, Luca in Rome, and Marina and Ann, my stateside researchers. They all have made collaboration a joy—even for a guy who likes nothing better than to sit alone and write.

Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II by Robert Matzen

In June 2017 with the help of Dutch historian and author Gety Hengeveld-de Jong, I interviewed Ben van Griethuysen, Annemarth Visser ‘t Hooft, and Rosemarie Kamphuisen, who lived in the village of Velp with Audrey during World War II. All provided information critical to the Dutch Girl narrative.

Spy vs. Spy

Kasteel Zijpendaal tricked out as Nazi headquarters for the film Betrayed in 1954. It had indeed been taken over by German command in 1943 and must have looked pretty much just like this.

Here it is in 2015 on our first visit.

There was a high body count of Germans for the run of Betrayed. Here members of the beret-clad Dutch underground shoot their way out after rescuing Gable and take off.

One more, 2015 again, showing the side of the house scaled by “the Scarf” as he rescued Deventer. In real life, 11-year-old Audrey Hepburn loved to explore these grounds in 1941. She would read here on the lawn and play with the animals, which she preferred to people.

 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I had a hankering to watch Betrayed the other night, Clark Gable’s last picture for MGM, made in 1954 and about the Dutch underground in WWII. I never much cared for later Gable pictures—he didn’t seem to care so why should I? But these days everything Dutch is important so there I was, watching Gable as Deventer, code-named “Rembrandt,” a Dutch CIA-type fighting the Nazis in his home country, which had been invaded and occupied by the Germans in May 1940. The first sequence in the picture was shot at Kasteel Zijpendaal—a locally famous Dutch castle built in the 18th century on a little lake at the edge of the city of Arnhem. It was “the ancestral home of the Baron van Heemstra,” Audrey Hepburn’s maternal grandfather who was once Arnhem’s mayor.  As a girl of 10 and 11, shy Audrey communed with nature in the lush grounds surrounding the castle.

So there right in front of me was Kasteel Zijpendaal dressed up as Nazi headquarters, and there was Victor Mature as the notorious Dutch underground leader “the Scarf” rowing across the little lake and climbing in a window and helping Clark Gable to escape right before Deventer was about to be tortured and made to talk. There were fake hand grenade explosions inside, Germans mowed down by the machine guns of the Scarf and his men, and then Mature burst out the front door with Gable on his back, stole a Nazi staff car, and escaped. I was dumbfounded because Mary and I had been to this castle multiple times. The rest of the picture played out almost entirely in the Netherlands with Lana Turner parachuting onto Dutch soil as a spy planted by the Allies. She is in love with Gable but quickly gets mixed up with Mature amidst spy vs. spy shenanigans. And so on and so forth.

Something you don’t see every day: Lana Turner parachuting into hostile territory. To lessen your concern, I can report that she didn’t break a nail, let alone an ankle.

The depiction of Mature and the Dutch underground is hilarious. They were bumping off Nazis right and left in all these raids that never happened. At one point he and his men barge into a Luftwaffe base and annihilate a great number of Germans having a party. In truth, I love you dearly, Dutch people, but I terms of violence, you were only good at blowing off an occasional hand or foot—usually your own. When you outwitted a German, which you did all the time, it was by making an illegal radio the size of a matchbook or sending your kids out to steal dinner from the soldiers or hiding forbidden leaflets in the fake tummy of a fake pregnant lady. That was the way you won the war. One woman told me that when she was a little girl, a German officer came to their house and while he was in another room, she picked up his hat and spat in it. Classic Dutch mischief.

But they also did deadly serious stuff, like hiding thousands of Jews just before they would have been sent to Auschwitz, along with American and British fliers who fell from the skies after their bombers and fighters were shot down. One of these was Clem Leone, a friend of mine whose incredible story is chronicled in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. Thanks to many courageous Dutch people across the country, Clem evaded capture for four months as he made his way south through the Netherlands–it was a lousy Belgian that turned him over to the Nazis in Antwerp.

I did some reading in Lyn Tornabene’s Long Live the King and Jean Garceau’s Dear Mr. G. after finishing my viewing of Betrayed. Gable spent a month in the Netherlands shooting at various locations and was treated like his royal self everywhere he went. He was mobbed and it made all the Dutch newspapers. The location work was fantastic and everything you’d expect—lots of windmills, and dikes, and water, water everywhere. You just can’t replicate that stuff on a soundstage, and the lushness of the production, in Eastman Color no less, really surprised me given the dire straits of MGM at that time—TV drowning the studio’s books in red ink and most of its stars cut loose as a result. ‘Mr. G.’ went freelance at the end of production and never again walked through the gates of the studio that made him famous over the course of more than 20 years.

In a very cool finish, survivors of British Airborne shuffle past our beleaguered heroes.

The ingenious payoff to the plot of the picture is that Gable provides information allowing 3,000 besieged British Airborne paratroopers to escape after the September 1944 “Bridge Too Far” battle of Arnhem. The title Betrayed refers to one of the three leads leaking the plans for Operation Market Garden to the Germans, which causes them to roll in two panzer divisions in anticipation of the Allies dropping 10,000 paratroopers behind Nazi lines to capture the Arnhem Road Bridge. The whole thing was a real-life disaster for the British and 7,000 of their boys ended up dead, wounded, or captured. The very last shot in the picture shows the Airborne survivors limping out of the fog after they had crossed the Rhine along an escape route mapped by heroes Gable and Turner.

If you know the history of this battle, the plot of Betrayed is a perfect fictional backstory that fits hand in glove with real-life events. Another surprise is that there’s very little explanation for what’s going on, meaning that Hollywood expected everyone in the 1954 audience to have the facts of Market Garden top of mind. It’s a level of sophistication that would never be anticipated by movie producers today.

I had no idea I was going to get to go back to Holland on a frozen Friday night in Pennsylvania and watch my Dutch friends do a whole bunch of crazy-heroic stuff to a whole bunch of hapless Germans. Oh, the Dutch were heroic in World War II all right. Much more heroic than simply wielding a machine gun. Come to think of it, Clark Gable had Dutch roots and his character in Betrayed is very Dutch indeed. He’s not a gun toter; he uses his brains at every step to outwit the thugs who hijacked the 20th century on their way to a thousand-year Reich. “Not on my watch,” was the response of the crafty, and ultimately liberated, Dutch.

Santa Claus and the Cold Hand of Death

Fox poster art for the June release dismissed the Christmas angle, which was known to be bad box office.

On Thanksgiving morning I was watching a bit of New York City’s Macy’s parade on television, which inspired me to revisit one of my favorite seasonal touchstones, Miracle on 34th Street. I try to watch it every year, but this time what really hit home was the scene when the woman brings the adopted Dutch girl to see Santa. Lately, I’ve been deep-diving into all things Netherlands—the language, the culture, and especially the history of life in Holland during the Nazi occupation of 1940 to 1945.

If you were living in the Netherlands when the Germans marched in on a pleasant May morning, there was a decent chance you would not be living when they were driven out in 1945. If you happened to live in Rotterdam, you could have died in the German bombing of the central city that forced the Dutch surrender four days after the invasion. If you were a Jew, you would have been given a one-way ticket to a concentration camp. If you were deemed an enemy of the state, you might have been shot. If you got caught up in the combat of 1944 and 1945 when the Allies came in, well, either side could have gotten you. If you made it as far as the Hunger Winter just before war’s end, you might have starved. And if you happened to be standing under an Eighth Air Force bomber, well, duck, cover, and pray.

When Miracle on 34th Street was released in June 1947, its audience knew all too well the horrors that Holland had weathered. So, when the Dutch girl’s adoptive mother explains to Santa that the girl comes from an orphanage in Rotterdam, it would have sent chills through many. The girl’s parents clearly had died in the war, and the child is emotionally scarred as a result. She has only one wish, and that’s to connect with Sinterklaas, the Dutch St. Nicholas who each November sails by ship from Spain and lands in some obscure part of the Netherlands with his sidekick, Zwarte Piet the Moor, who lugs a sack full of presents and candy for the good children. After stepping ashore like MacArthur in the Philippines, Sinter sets out on a white steed to make his way through the lowlands while poor Piet goes afoot. In many Dutch households, Sinterklaas knocks at the door and comes in for a December 5 sit-down that amounts to a performance review for the children living there. If you’re good, well, you don’t have to fear the bearded man with the lethal staff, scary mitre, and lurking strong-arm man. You get gifts and candy in your wooden shoes placed neatly under the Christmas tree. If you happened to be a bad kid, however—and this is where it gets a little weird—Zwarte Piet manhandles you into the sack and carries you back to Spain.

The forlorn look of a refugee from the world’s darkest days.

I always loved the Miracle on 34th Street scene between Santa and the Dutch girl for the elemental conflict presented. Her poor caretaker doesn’t want to expose this little war orphan to a department-store Santa who can’t possibly understand her language or needs. I always understood her culture shock at being in New York, U.S.A. What only became clear on this viewing after my Nederland immersion is the aura of death surrounding the child and what motivated her forlorn look when she first interacts with the Macy’s Santa. The girl, who seems to be about seven years old judging by the missing front teeth, lights up when Santa suddenly begins speaking to her in Dutch and she gets the confirmation she needs: He really is Sinterklaas.

I have to hand it to Edmund Gwenn for doing as well as he does with what is truly a tough language to learn, even if it’s only a few lines. Marlene Lydon does as well with her Dutch impression as any seven-year-old California girl with missing front teeth possibly could. And at plot point one, when Natalie Wood as little Susan watches the interaction between Santa and the orphan and begins to suspect that Santa is more than a department-store stand-in, it’s the best moment of all—her jaw drops and she experiences real magic for the first time in her very sensible life.

In my experience, horses don’t do the roof any good, but there is Sinterklaas on his white steed, while poor Zwarte Piet ends up with the short end of the stick. In modern appearances Piet is usually played by a Caucasian in blackface, and there has been a formidable social backlash in the Netherlands.

There are so many things to love about Miracle on 34th Street (the original–I refuse to accept more recent substitutes). I’m not the biggest Maureen O’Hara fan, but as Mrs. Walker she underplays beautifully throughout, like when she tries to tell Susan that Santa isn’t real even though, as Susan points out, he can speak Dutch. “I speak French,” Walker reasons, “but that doesn’t make me Joan of Arc.”

O’Hara, Wood, and Gwenn, part of a perfect cast in a perfect film.

I’m not breaking new ground here when I go on and on about this perfect film, a triple Oscar winner, I don’t have to tell you, one for Gwenn and two for the writing. I just wanted to take a moment to call out that scene and the all-new effect it had on me after a lifetime of viewings. And if I don’t get another column up in the next little while, Happy Holidays, one and all, from the Netherlands salt mines where I toil, pretty much night and day.

P.S. Don’t forget to order Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, which has proven to be the perfect holiday gift for active-duty service members, veterans, armchair generals, and lovers of everything Hollywood.

The Bear

My best friends in elementary school were John, nicknamed “Skip,” who lived a couple blocks away in one direction, and two brothers, Bobby and Ricky, who lived a couple blocks away in the other. We lived in a college town where my dad taught physics, and Bobby and Ricky’s dad was a big deal in the music department. He was also a wonderful guy and a WWII veteran. That made him into something like a mystical character to me. A lot of the fathers of my friends were in “the war”—my dad wasn’t because he was color blind. Talk about seeing the world as many shades of gray—that was my dad.

Skip’s father was what you might call the opposite of Bobby and Ricky’s. He had also been in the war, and my memories of this man are vivid through the passing decades. He lived in the darkened bedroom and was rarely seen. I heard him many times, snarling at his wife, a very nice lady, and yelling at his son over some misdemeanor. Skip never talked about the abuse that he and his mother were taking, but he didn’t have to. He wore the sadness everywhere, especially in school where he started to have trouble as the years passed.

To me as a kid, Skip’s father was a snarling bear in a cave. Skip and I never went near that part of their little ranch house; the basement door was near that bedroom, and we tiptoed so as not to poke the bear. There’s no one left to ask why he was like this; Skip died of a heart attack in the 1990s at a very young age because, I guess, if you lug that amount of sadness around long enough, it’ll wear you out. He was such a nice guy, probably because he knew how it felt when people weren’t nice. I wonder if Skip had any idea where his dad had seen action. Did he hit the beaches of Anzio or Normandy or Iwo? Was he ground crew for the heavies in England? Was he caught in the slaughter of the Bulge? Whatever had happened to him over there had left a wreck of a human back here, and laid waste to a family unit that deserved better.

I thought about that snarling bear for the first time in a couple generations because I’m involved in a project that’s analyzing 1945-46 in the life of Jimmy Stewart as he returned home from war and contemplated his future. He was one of 11,000 G.I.s who stepped off the Queen Elizabeth on August 31, 1945—maybe Skip’s father and Bobby’s stepped off with Jim, who knows. But all these guys who had just stared into the face of the most horrific war in human history now returned home to something just as terrifying: All had to make their way in a world that was different from the one they left behind. Now they actually had to live with the brides they had married in haste. They had to find jobs because the ones they had left had been filled by younger men or, in some cases, by women. Did you know that one of the greatest shortages of 1946 was the one for dress shirts for job interviews?

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

One day after stepping off the Queen Elizabeth, Jimmy Stewart condescended to hold a press conference after keeping the press at bay for the better part of four and a half years. That day he said he just wanted to make a comedy, “if anyone will have me.”

I am amazed at the bravery of these men. In Jim’s case, as detailed in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, he had flown 20 combat missions over France and Germany and survived many close calls. I can’t imagine you’re ever quite the same again after a German fighter has flown straight at you-as-pilot and fired wing-mounted machine guns at the cockpit of your bomber. Or after an anti-aircraft shell has hit your plane over the heart of Germany and blown a hole in the flight deck between your feet. Or after you’ve seen the planes under your command break up in the air or explode in a fireball. That was Jim’s tiny little corner of the war, and most of the 11,000 others on the QE had lived through their own little corner, whether it involved bullets or shells or some psychological evil that was even worse. And there were hundreds of passenger ship dockings, each unloading 11,000 more men. And more and more and more.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I have always been drawn to this shot as we first see Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s playing a young man of about 20 and we suspend our disbelief, but if you look closely, the face that had stared into the face of war is clearly visible under heavy makeup.

It’s easy not to really think about what combat soldiers see in any conflict in any spot in the world. Whatever that is, they can never unsee it, and it becomes part of the veteran’s mind, and in some cases a handicap that inhibits performance at home and on the job.

For the World War II veteran, it had to take tremendous courage to start over in a civilian world where the men you had counted on to have your back, the ones who had been part of what Jim called a “grand thing,” were now your competitors for jobs. You knew another vet by the look in his eye, and you resented the ones who didn’t have it because you knew they had spent the war at home for whatever reason. The veterans had also changed physically. Many had left as wiry 18-year-old boys and come home as square-shouldered men to the surprise of mothers and siblings. In Jim’s case, as noted in Farran Smith Nehme’s excellent Village Voice piece, going into the service at age 32 and serving four-plus hard years had left Jim “so careworn that no studio would cast him.”

Jim must have lived right because the one call that did come resulted in It’s a Wonderful Life, and that rollercoaster picture with the happy ending contains a tour-de-force Stewart performance that mirrors the crisis in his post-war personal life. He stood at a crossroads like so many million others and displayed courage enough to push his way forward. He survived. He thrived. He lived 50 more mostly wonderful years while consciously tamping down an ongoing loop of black memories. He controlled them; they didn’t control him. For Skip’s father and I’m sure millions of others it didn’t go so well, and I think I could make a case for poor Skip being another casualty of World War II, once removed.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Director Frank Capra chose to throw Jim in the deep end and shoot this scene first. Jim was suffering PTSD and his confidence was shot, all of which is imprinted in celluloid for posterity. The scene is full of clumsy energy and some very strange kisses between stars who, Jim would claim later, had no chemistry.

Lost and Found

I always understood the cult of Somewhere in Time without ever considering myself to be a part of it. I first saw this picture on its HBO release, probably in 1981, because of course no one saw it in theaters on wide release, where it bombed because Christopher Reeve’s star was already descending, and because an actors’ strike kept the two main players from hitting the road to talk up their new release.

Anyone who has ever loved and lost can relate to Somewhere in Time and the blackness, the despair of going on alone. There’s a desperation for happiness among the characters, a happiness so fragile every minute. I have to pause here and thank Matt of MattsRadShow on Youtube for his video that I stumbled upon stream of consciousness-like the other day, because Somewhere in Time was, right then, somewhere near the last thing in the entire world on my mind. I ‘got’ Matt instantly and wondered if we were twins separated at birth the way he and his wife, Ashley, traveled to Mackinac Island to track down and record key shooting locations—cleverly so!—and produce a video that I’d argue is as haunting as the picture it honors. [My aside to Ashley: I know you’re long-suffering because I have a better half who has similarly endured wild, improbable adventures in support of her man. Well played, my friend.]

I didn’t mess with superlatives for Jane Seymour in this column, but, boy, she gives the role of Elise depth beyond the words on the pages of the screenplay.

So inspired by Matt’s work was I that I headed for OnDemand on a Saturday night and consumed this picture for the first time in decades. I loved it. Truly savored it. My reservations are still my reservations, but Somewhere in Time has three things going for it that simply overwhelm its drawbacks. The assets are, in no particular order, Jane Seymour, Mackinac Island locations, and John Barry’s score, which went through my head all night and is still there now. In fact, what the hell, let’s play it in the background while I write this.

Nice. Very nice.

Cutting to the chase, speaking just for me, Christopher Reeve almost ruined this picture. I was never a fan. I tried my best to like his Superman and succeeded for a while because the press kept telling me he was good. But OMG is he not good. He thought he was an actor but was simply too quirky, too unaware of how he was coming off, and proved it in picture after picture. Yes, he had his good moments here and there. But too many bad ones. I like to think if he had remained healthy, he would have gotten the right coach and really developed the talent that was inside him.

That said, I still remember exactly where I was when I heard the news he had suffered a catastrophic injury during an equestrian event. It shook me up; I never got over it. I’m still not over it. For a vital, successful young person to endure such a fate… The agony of Chris Reeve adds a layer of pathos to Matt’s video transposing Reeve at Mackinac locations with those locations today. It tears your heart out knowing what happened later on. I have to wonder if Reeve’s spirit doesn’t live on at Mackinac, so effective is Matt’s technique.

Somewhere in Time begins with young drama student Richard Collier being visited by an elderly lady who puts a pocket watch into his hands and pleads with him out of the blue, “Come back to me.” He stands there stunned, having never seen her before, and has no perspective on what’s happened. He goes on with his life and eight years later, as a successful playwright suffering writer’s block, gets out of his native Chicago and heads for a getaway on Mackinac Island, off the coast of Michigan. At plot point 1 he finds, and falls in love with, the portrait of a young actress on the wall at the majestic Grand Hotel. He learns her name, Elise McKenna, and that this photograph of such timeless quality was taken 68 years earlier, in 1912. Library research reveals “the last photograph taken of Elise McKenna” and it’s the old woman who had put the pocket watch into his hands eight years earlier!

Academy Award-winning actress Teresa Wright only has one meaty scene, but it’s a honey as the nurse of elder Elise who helps Richard Collier begin the journey into his future…in the past.

OK, you’ve got me. A perfect first half hour of cinema. Now just don’t blow it. Reeve borders on being pretty good in this first half hour. He’s got all these fidgety, self-conscious mannerisms he thought people needed to see, but he largely keeps them in check during the set-up.

The way he gets back in time is preeeeeeeeeetty iffy. Not Reeve’s fault at all—it’s the device of the novel, Bid Time Return, by Richard Matheson. But eventually he does get back there and his meeting with young Elise on the beach by some trees is one of the sweetest, most effective scenes I’ve ever experienced. That location, that music, that woman, the intrigue of that moment and of his struggle to get to the bottom of the mystery but more importantly to get close to this face he’s fallen in love with. Reeve’s uncharacteristic, unbreathing stillness on the dolly approach helps the scene along as well.

In case you were wondering.

Yadda yadda, they spend time together despite her pill of a manager (there has to be a bad guy) and it’s 45 minutes of standard romance with an obligatory sexual coupling before his iffy time-travel device comes a cropper, and he’s catapulted back into 1980 as she screams his name and witnesses his dematerialization.

I hated the ending 36 years ago and I hated it last night. It’s almost as if, “Welp, we’re outta money, folks, so let’s go home.” Red River comes to mind—90% of a winner of a picture with many touches of brilliance poisoned by an erring final plot twist. But as I murmured while experiencing the last 60 seconds of Somewhere in Time at 11:30 last night, James Cameron must have been one huge fan because he ripped it off down to single genomes for the ending of Titanic. I simply never put 2 and 2 together. Yikes.

Granted my misgivings, I’m urging you to set your disbelief on a shelf and spend 104 minutes on the journey of Elise and Richard. In fact, watch Matt’s rad video first and then consume Somewhere in Time. This world crumbling around us needs more romance, more lush scenery, and more pretty music. Somewhere in Time has all three, and my shout-out goes to Matt: Thanks dude for helping me re-find a lost treasure.

Jane Seymour returns to Mackinac Island for the traditional “Somewhere in Time Weekend” in 2015.

Curves and Straightaways

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

I know I’m not the first to make this realization, but while scanning 1950s articles about Hollywood the other day, I stumbled across a piece comparing and contrasting two stars on the rise in 1953, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

As the evil Rose in Niagara, Marilyn was dressed in several outfits to show off her feminine curves, and director Henry Hathaway gave her long, lingering walking-away shots to leave the boys in the audience panting.

It had never occurred to me that this dichotomous pair, arguably the two most iconic, recognizable, still-relevant Hollywood stars ever, burst upon the scene within months of each other. Yes, Marilyn had already appeared in many pictures as a supporting player from 1947 through 1952, but it was her role as the would-be husband killer in Niagara (released in February 1953) followed in quick succession by the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (August) and comedy How to Marry a Millionaire (November) that launched her to superstardom.

Hepburn on the other hand had found Hollywood via Broadway, where she’d earned raves for Gigi in 1952. Just to show how stars are born, Marilyn clawed and scraped her way up the ladder, while Audrey lucked into break after break. A couple of bit parts had earned Hepburn a pair of supporting roles in European pictures. While making one of these, the playwright Collette stumbled upon Hepburn in a Monte Carlo hotel lobby and knew instantly that this was the girl to play her title character, Gigi.

Faster than you can say Air France, Hepburn was jetting to Broadway in 1952 and earning press that made Hollywood a logical next step. And who should snap her up but William Wyler at Paramount for Roman Holiday, a picture tailor made for a pretty, young European unknown with a mostly British accent. In other words, it had taken Marilyn six years, many nude modeling assignments, and by my count 20 motion pictures and however many casting couches to get where Audrey Hepburn found herself overnight in September 1953.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

This is a face that had stared into the face of war. Despite no formal training, the life she’d lived gave Audrey tremendous depth as she starred in Roman Holiday at age 24

What struck me about the late-1953 article taking a first look at Monroe and Hepburn was its question posed to the American public: Which do you prefer: curves or straightaways? Marilyn was already well known for bombshell curves the likes of which Hollywood had rarely seen. She was like a crazy-deluxe combination of Mae West and Lana Turner. Then out of nowhere comes this Hepburn girl from Holland by way of London and New York. Hepburn was described out of the gate as “boyish” and “elfin.” Wyler even called her a strange combination of “pretty and ugly.” In retrospect this seems outlandish but in context, Audrey had lived through World War II and spent months emaciated from lack of food. After the war, she grew chubby from overeating. And all the while her face was transitioning from nothing special to drop-dead arresting. When she hit Broadway and then Hollywood, nobody had seen anything quite like her before, and that which has become a modern standard for beauty took consumers in the United States some getting used to.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Publicity shots at this stage of Marilyn’s career sold sex, sex, and more sex.

It’s amazing to me that IMDB lists 33 film and TV credits for Marilyn Monroe and 34 for Audrey Hepburn. Neither had a long career for vastly different reasons, and both left us wanting much more. As humans, they couldn’t have been any more different. Insecure Monroe became a super-sad super diva, while Hepburn retired from the screen for her two sons and for Unicef. Monroe coveted accolades as an actress and studied under Lee Strasburg; Hepburn spent her later years feeling she was never an actress and kept apologizing for it. Monroe was notorious for missing her call times by hours and half-days and Hepburn never showed up anywhere late even by a single minute. Yet today, given that Marilyn died 55 years ago and Audrey 24, they are the most famous of Hollywood icons, these two who hit the bigtime in 1953, one famous for curves, and the other for straightaways.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Audrey spent most of her career covered up. She always considered herself a ballet dancer and not an actress, but her lack of curves could be traced back to the war and long stretches of hunger.

The Chain

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

The mountain that called to me.

In the course of my career, I’ve been inspired many times to create, almost always by looking at an aspect of history and wondering why. Where it gets interesting is when what I’ve created inspires others in something of a chain reaction.

Knowing that the wreckage of a DC-3 still littered a remote Nevada mountainside, that you can see the site of the crash from every part of Las Vegas, had been pulling me toward that spot for years. Finally I yielded to the siren’s call and got the shock of my life when after a four-hour ascent, 22 dead people whispered in my ear. Suddenly I was inspired to tell many stories instead of just that of Carole Lombard—and I think it was these souls who had been calling to me all along.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenI guess inspiration is a baton that’s passed from person to person. Reading Fireball served as inspiration for Las Vegas-based artist Kim Reale. First, I have to show you an incredible photograph—Kim displaying superpowers during her ice-skating career. The last time I saw her, she surprised me with a piece of giclée art of a most ethereal Carole Lombard that now hangs on my wall. “The book filled me with such empathy and compassion, I created a painting from it,” said Kim. “I felt Carole’s spirit rising from the horrific plane crash ascending to the heavens above with a dreamlike sadness of what might have been.” I’m pretty sure that prints of this painting–the word ‘haunting’ comes to mind–are available through Kim’s website.

Fireball reader Brian Lee Anderson had to learn more about Carole Lombard after finishing the book, and his quest led him to such rare finds as a previously unknown audio recording of her Cadle Tabernacle speech in Indianapolis the evening before she died. Brian also climbed to the crash site with FAA investigator Michael McComb and planted flowers at that desolate spot. I asked Brian to describe the role of Fireball in his life. “Your book jump-started all things Carole for me and my mom,” he responded. “I have always been a fan of Carole but in the fall of 2013 I took my mother on vacation to the beach for a week and we talked a lot and she told me the story of exactly how much her mother, Rosalie, was a fan [of Carole’s] and that she went to Indianapolis to meet her and how Carole’s death affected her. It all triggered my quest for more information. After we got home from the beach, I found your book on Amazon and ordered two copies, and Fireball answered so many of our questions and led to my finding the speech and trekking up Mt Potosi.”

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

Brian Anderson in the Nevada desert and about to climb to the crash site in April 2017.

Knowing that Jimmy Stewart took his wartime secrets to the grave inspired the writing of Mission. I saw only the challenge of getting at this long-hidden story, which turned out to be one of courage and dedication, of overcoming fear and fighting the good fight. I’ve done several dozen interviews promoting the book since its release, including a recent one with Daniel McCracken, a podcast journalist for a website called the 10th District. As we chatted before the interview began, Dan revealed that reading Mission had inspired him to pursue his pilot’s license. “Reading Mission was the initial push that drove me to research the training programs offered in Chicago,” said Dan. “I’ve read other aviation books but was never drawn to anything like Jimmy in Mission. His courage and humbleness was so endearing and the timeline you constructed helped me envision myself in his world. My training is going well now and the moments of discouragement are balanced by my new instinct to look back on how difficult being a pilot was during the war and at the dawn of aviation.”

It’s funny; each of these people found a unique means of self-expression from the printed page and a way to take the stories to places I never imagined. Brian not only added to the historical record but brought the beauty of flowers to a scene of grim disaster. Kim captured the sweet soul and transcendent energy of Carole Lombard through paints. And Dan now has the ability to soar above the clouds and experience, as Jim Stewart once said, “more than liberation…the ultimate experience of being in control.”

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

In the foreground: pilot Daniel McCracken. In the background: the wild blue yonder.

Who will take the baton next, for instance finding inspiration in a flower-shrouded mountainside, or in Brian’s research finds about Carole Lombard (thanks to his work, the entire speech Carole gave in Indianapolis can be found in the trade paperback edition of Fireball)? Who will stare at Kim’s painting of Carole and write a song or another book? Where will Dan’s career as a pilot take him, and who will he inspire to become a pilot in the future? All I know is, once the energy begins to push in a forward direction, the chain reactions seem to continue, and I can’t wait to find what comes next in the Lombard and Stewart stories.

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

Prominent spot for a precious piece of art.

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

Zero Hour

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Here is Lt.-Col. Jim Stewart one month after the D-Day landings. I chose this image for the cover of Mission because it reflects the toll of war on a man so recently thought of as youthful. He had by this time flown 14 combat missions, earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and supervised his bomb group’s D-Day bombing missions. The photo was found in Jim’s personal collection, which he had donated to Brigham Young University.

 

One of my favorite chapters in Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe concerns the run-up to D-Day, which Maj. Jim Stewart had a hand in, as did just about everyone in the Eighth Air Force. I well remember sitting in a Brigham Young University library looking at records from the 453rd Bomb Group at Old Buckenham and feeling chills along my spine as I read a rare history of the 453rd written during the war. It described “invasionitis”—the endless speculation over when and where the attack would take place—as it reached its peak, and then suddenly, after weeks and months of anticipation, the base went on lockdown. No one in or out. All leaves cancelled. No phone calls. All fliers on alert. Imagine how those guys felt—the invasion of Europe was at hand. It was Zero Hour, and they were literally on the front lines.

Now I’m researching my next book and looking at the impending invasion through the eyes of civilians in Nazi-occupied countries. As they felt the iron fist of Hitler’s Germany close around their throats, as Jews were sent away and innocent civilians were executed in reprisal for partisan raids, as young men and women were kidnapped off the streets where they’d lived all their lives and sent to Germany as slave labor or worse, the only hope of entire populations was an Allied invasion. Every day and every day and every day they waited and hoped and prayed, and it kept not happening. On the continent as in England and the U.S., rumors filled the vacuum of information as top-secret preparations continued. Loose lips could do a lot more than sink ships in May 1944—loose lips could result in a repulsed invasion and a prolonging of a war that had already killed tens of millions of human beings.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The landing craft that the B-24s couldn’t see as D-Day commenced.

Seventy-three years ago right now as I sit here in the New York time zone, B-24s took off from Old Buck to hit targets immediately behind the beach code-named Omaha on the Normandy coast. Jim Stewart briefed his bomber crews that they would be able to look down and see the mightiest fleet ever set to water, but upon return hours later, the pilots and bombardiers complained bitterly to Stewart that they had seen nothing because of heavy cloud cover. Among the things they didn’t see during those early June 6 sorties were their targets (Wehrmacht barracks and gun emplacements), which the bombardiers missed, and badly. Eisenhower had ordered a ‘Go’ to the operation despite continued lousy weather, and so shortly after dawn, tens of thousands of young men hit beaches that were supposed to be neutralized by bombing but hadn’t been softened at all. We know the result: Omaha was a bloodbath.

As the years pass by and the veterans of that day’s assault pass to glory, it becomes increasingly difficult to appreciate the gravity of D-Day, the shock of the headlines, the importance of the news to simply everyone in the world: to soldiers throwing up in landing craft in heavy seas knowing a storm of lead awaited; to parents across the ocean fearing for their sons in harm’s way; to oppressed civilians in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands desperate for liberation; to Jews heading for concentration camps or already there; and, yes, to Germans who could see their empire and dreams of a unified Europe slipping away. They knew that if the Allies got a foothold in France and headed toward Germany on one side with the Russians moving in on the other, the Reich was doomed.

For Baby Boomers (defined broadly as the children of service men who returned from WWII), D-Day is represented by The Longest Day, made by Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox in 1962 over the course of 10 months at more than 30 locations in France. It’s an occasionally brilliant, mostly ham-handed, decidedly G-rated version of a brutal 24 hours in world history. If anything, The Longest Day trivializes what really went on as it lays on globs of irony that’s supposedly clever and amusing and gives us some of the more unusual casting in Hollywood history. Everybody who was anybody got a cameo to the detriment of what this epic picture might have been. Even 18 years after the event when The Longest Day was released, there was no way to convey what D-Day meant to the world. So many decades after that, it’s downright impossible to do justice to this day and these people on all sides, particularly all those men who stormed the beaches code-named Juno, Sword, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. All I can say is, I salute each and every one of them for what they gave the world—a chance for an end to the most catastrophic war in history. And beyond that, a chance for a peace in Western Europe that remains to this day. Stated plainly, the accomplishments of the men of D-Day will always dwarf any and all acts of terror, for it infused the continent with a steely resolve that I’m convinced will endure forever.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

John Wayne and a bunch of guys who looked nothing–NOTHING–like the generation of young Americans who participated in D-Day. Press materials noted “an unusually large and attractive cast.” Um, agree about the large part, at least in the Duke’s case.