On the way to Fort Wayne for the Carole Lombard weekend, we stopped in Indianapolis for 90 minutes at a place I bet you never heard of and one that, if I ever compile a list of my top-10 most memorable experiences, would easily make the cut.
Once there was a “scientific palmist” named Nellie Simmons Meier, who lived with her husband, fashion designer George Phillip Meier, in a bungalow tucked away on North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis. Because it sat back off the street and was modest in appearance, it acquired the name “Tuckaway,” and it was here that Nellie held court for many of the most powerful people of the twentieth century. I’m not kidding about the significance of her clients. We’re talking Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and an ardent pursuer, Adolph Hitler. Walt Disney was among her close friends and frequent visitors, to the extent that Nellie’s readings and Nellie’s home became instrumental to the creation of Disneyland.
Tuckaway looks like any old bungalow on any old street in the United States when you view it from a distance. Even people with an appointment drive right past it—I can tell you that from experience. When Ms. Garmin announced, “Arriving at destination, on right,” I groped to see anything on the right, let alone a destination shaped like a bungalow.
I can’t explain the physics of it, but Tuckaway is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, a yawning beast of Victorian design. We walked in to a vaulted-ceilinged parlor ablaze from a fire in the enormous fireplace. The walls were done in gold canvas because Nellie Meier had visited Coco Chanel’s gilded apartment in Paris and wanted her own home to be “dipped in gold,” like Coco’s. Cigarette smoke filled the yawning space, as (it sounded like) Marlene Dietrich purred torch songs from the walls themselves. Our host was Kenneth Keene, an impossible-to-describe raconteur who bought Tuckaway from the heir of Nellie Meier in 1972.
It’s forgotten today, but Nellie Simmons Meier was such a highly regarded professional at the scientific interpretation of palms that the brightest minds in the world sought her out. Rachmaninoff played piano in that parlor we walked into, and 80 years later it felt as if he were still there, trapped in time, along with all those other luminaries. Gershwin was a fan, as were Duncan Hines, Margaret Sanger, and Amelia Earhart. So prestigious was the library of palm prints and readings of Nellie Simmons Meier that President Franklin Roosevelt insisted that a portion of her collection be housed in the Library of Congress, where it remains today. When the president of the United States insists, what’s a girl to do?
The walls of the hallway and library downstairs hold dozens of framed portraits of the greats of the century past, every one inscribed to Nellie. Carole Lombard is there in a prime spot at the bottom of the stairs, the green-ink inscription on her photo attesting to the accuracy of Nellie’s reading.
I had come to Tuckaway to interview Mr. Keene about the connection between Lombard and Meier, based on a tip I had gotten while on the Indianapolis stop of the Fireball book tour. Local lore had it that Carole had stopped at Tuckaway the day of the bond rally and Nellie had warned her “not to take the plane.” I have more research to do beyond what I learned during the October 3 visit to Tuckaway, and by the time the trade paperback revised edition of Fireball goes to press after the first of the year, I believe I’ll have a definitive answer to the question: Beyond everything already described in Fireball, was there yet another chilling episode, tucked away in time since 1942, that compounds the mystery of the chaotic, improbable, and tragic last 24 hours of Carole Lombard’s life?