TWA Flight 3 Lombard

Marathon

Here we are on Sunday, January 18, 2015. Seventy-three years ago today, Sunday, January 18, 1942, recovery teams were combing the unforgiving mountainside of Mt. Potosi, Nevada at the site of what one Civil Aeronautics Board investigator called “the most completely destroyed airplane I have ever seen.”

This year of 2015, the events covered in the book Fireball occurred on the same days of the week as they did in 1942, which led me (after the germ of the idea was hatched by Carole Sampeck) to launch a Twitter effort to replay key events in Carole Lombard’s last days in real-time, as they happened, beginning at 1:35 P.M. Central on Thursday, the moment Lombard and her party—including her mother Elizabeth Peters (“Petey”) and press man Otto Winkler–were greeted at Union Station, Indianapolis, by the Indy mayor and other officials. I then followed her progress through the day, which included five big events and interactions with at least 20,000 people, and her sudden decision made on Thursday night to fly home instead of take the train.

This past Friday, two days ago, the Twitter reports transitioned to updates from TWA as Flight 3 progressed across the country.

I learned a couple of things through this Twitter campaign. First, I learned how many people still care. The effort drew many new Twitter followers who were eager to participate. Second, I was struck by how fast events transpired for 19.5 hours, from the moment she stepped off the train to the moment Flight 3 struck the mountain. She was in almost constant motion one way or another. For example, from the train station at 1:35 she was driven to the state capitol for a speech and flag raising at 2:00, a bond sale from 2:30 to 3:30, another flag raising at the Claypool Hotel at 3:45, more driving to the governor’s mansion for a tea and reception from 4:15 to 5:30, private dinner with VIPs back at the Claypool at 6:30, a bond rally in a local civic center before 12,000 at 8:30, and a private reception for her friends and family once more at the Claypool at 10:30. Then did she retire for a long sleep? No, of course not. After midnight, Carole, Petey, and Otto packed up for a trip to the airport to wait for a flight that came in late, and you know how easy it is to catch a few winks in an airport terminal. The travelers didn’t board until 5:00 A.M. and then proceeded through a day of hops from city to city on a DC-3 (an uncomfortable plane to fly in) that ranged from the shortest of 1 hour, 11 minutes to the longest of 2 hours, 56 minutes in duration. During the Lombard portions of Flight 3’s intercontinental progress, the plane took off seven times and landed six. Get off the plane, climb on board. Get off the plane, climb on board. For any of us today, one layover is too many and two is torture. But six?

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

Detail of one of Myron Davis’s photos for Life, this one taken at the governor’s mansion, shows Carole Lombard with her guard down for a moment and already exhausted–hours before beginning her cross-country trek. Was she capable of rational decisions by the time she ordered Winkler to book plane reservations?

The first landing out of Indianapolis was into a bad weather situation in St. Louis that caused a two-hour delay in a crowded terminal. Living that in real-time was difficult (because I wanted to get on with the story), but I was sitting at my computer after a good night’s sleep. Imagine those two hours when you’re on Coca Colas, snack bar sandwiches, and upright naps all night and through the morning. Another weather delay followed at the next stop in Kansas City and this one made the local papers because of so many delayed flights and stranded passengers. From there the plane dragged its passengers to Wichita, then Amarillo, then Albuquerque where what was left of Carole Lombard was told she must vacate her seat and wait for another flight.

As I tracked events real-time, I realized that any human—even good-hearted, down-to-earth Carole Lombard—would snap. She must have been seeing polka-dotted koala bears by this time when all she wanted to do was get home.

Many have asked the unanswerable questions: Why was she in such a rush? Why did she drag her companions on a plane when both expressly wished to avoid the dangers of air travel? Was it all about her husband Clark Gable cheating on her? Or was there something more than this? It’s been hypothesized that Carole believed, or had it confirmed in Indianapolis, that she was pregnant and wanted to rush home to tell Gable. This explanation would solve the problem of obtaining the buy in of her companions to get home ASAP. But after at least two miscarriages and a procedure at Johns Hopkins to “clean her out” in efforts to get pregnant, would she put her reproductive system through this particular 19.5 hours of hell? We will never know the answers, assuring that this aspect of the mystery of Flight 3 will remain.

I ended my Twitter effort on Friday night with TWA Control cutting off any further public information about Flight 3 when it was clear that the plane had crashed. Several people confirmed for me later what I already knew: Those last moments are chilling to re-live, no matter how often we do it.

Some people heard of the real-time Twitter feed and signed on after events had transpired, so I have been issuing sporadic updates about goings-on at the scene and thinking about the fact that when Carole Lombard’s marathon ended, Clark Gable’s began. With no warning what was coming or how brutal it would all be, Gable never had a chance.

Carole Lombard: As It Happens

Attention readers of this column and Carole Lombard fans everywhere. Join me on Twitter tomorrow and Friday for a very special event: “Carole Lombard: As It Happens,” with live Twitter feeds as we follow her realtime through her planned day in Indianapolis selling war bonds. We will then follow her home for a reunion with Clark Gable. Coverage begins early tomorrow morning, Thursday January 15, and continues Friday January 16 on Twitter. Join me at @Robert Matzen. For those of you not currently on Twitter, here’s your chance to sign up and get acquainted.

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 Year of Fireball

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen dust jacketI’ve told this story often: When I climbed Mt. Potosi with my guide, Jim Boone, on a cold October day, I stood at the site where TWA Flight 3 struck rock cliffs and exploded, and I felt an electric connection with the people who died on January 16, 1942, all 22 of them. It’s easy to feel a connection with Carole Lombard, the movie star that you see in the movies and in thousands of photos on the internet. But I also experienced a direct link to the pilots and stewardess, to Carole’s mother, to her press representative, to a quiet war bride, and to soldiers whose names I didn’t even know at the time. They were all there on the mountainside—I mean vividly there—and they communicated to me that once they had been alive, and they were important, with stories to tell.

I came back from the mountain and started putting their stories together, sitting in my office all alone writing Fireball week after week, month after month, researching Carole Lombard and these people and thinking to myself, Will anybody care? What if nobody cares?

Fireball has been out almost a year now, and there are at least four people who truly don’t care. If you go to Amazon and look at the reviews you will see all four there, with comments like, “interesting to someone who lived during that era, but the author spent too much time writing about people and their lives who were killed on ill fated flight.” Set against this view are tens of thousands of people who eagerly consumed the book and now know the story of how Carole Lombard lived and died. So many readers have said to me, “I didn’t know anything about Carole Lombard when I started.” If they didn’t know Lombard, they probably didn’t know Gable, and none would have known Carole’s mom or Otto Winkler, or pilots Wayne Williams and Morgan Gillette, or stewardess Alice Getz, or Lois Hamilton the Army wife, or soldiers with names like Barham and Nygren and Varsamine.

I knew up on the mountain that this book would be different and not what a reader of Hollywood biography might expect. It’s a mile-a-minute story, so why would I want to pound it into a standard format? These people lived and breathed and so must their story, and so I told it on two parallel tracks: The story of the crash, and the story of the passengers in life. Mostly it’s Carole Lombard’s story of course; she was as memorable a character as lived in the twentieth century, and people want to know about her. They want to know about Clark Gable as well, and the dynamics between Carole and Clark as lovers and spouses. The trick was to weave all the other characters into the story, the people Carole knew and loved, and also the other passengers, the rescuers, and the crash investigators. So many cool, competent, heroic people for one book, and I got to be the first to tell their story.

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

Best broadcast media coverage: six TV and three radio appearances in Las Vegas.

I am sitting here on the last day of 2014 looking back at the year of Fireball, a book now in its second printing, feeling such a sense of satisfaction that people do care about this story and these people. I know because I met them at lectures and book signings. I looked into the eyes of veteran television interviewers who couldn’t learn enough about the story; I heard interest in the voices of radio personalities who had invited me on the air. There are so many angles to pitch—Carole Lombard’s trail-blazing career as a liberated woman in Hollywood; the tempestuous love of Carole and Clark; his infidelities and how they contributed to his wife’s death; Otto Winkler’s premonition that he would die on a plane; the mystery of how TWA’s most experienced pilot could steer a perfectly running airplane into a mountainside on a clear night; the fact that all 19 passengers were traveling on government business related to the war; my own trek up the mountain and what it was like to find the last thing I expected: human remains at the crash site after all these years.

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

Biggest crowd: more than 130 in Carole Lombard’s hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

It was a fantastic year for Fireball, from the book launch in Santa Monica, California, in January to all those lectures across the country to the featuring of the Fireball trailer at www.bookreels.com just two days ago. Some dude named Pitbull even wrote a song about Fireball. Personally I can’t hear any mention of Carole Lombard in the lyrics, but I guess he liked the book anyway. I’m pretty sure Carole would have liked his song.

I don’t know what 2015 holds, but I’m excited to find out. Happy New Year everybody; may 2015 be a spectacular year for you—a Fireball kind of year.

The Weaver

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

Carole Lombard loved the secular side of Christmas, as demonstrated by the number of surviving letters, cards, and notes attached to or referencing various gifts presenting by Carole to friends and acquaintances over the years. Examples can be seen at the fine Carole & Co. web site. Much less is known about her religious beliefs, which was a topic she kept private. A glimpse into Carole’s belief system is found in the poem entitled The Weaver that she wished to have read at her funeral service. I am not a religious person by nature; I would label myself as spiritual, so this column is by no means meant as an endorsement of any religion. The poem, by Grant Colfax Tullar of Bolton, Massachusetts, was abridged in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Many variations exist online and in religious tracts and emblazon many plaques hung on many walls, but this version of The Weaver seems to be the full original. It reads:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me;
I cannot choose the colors
He worketh steadily.

Oft times He weaveth sorrow
And I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper,
And I the under side.

Not til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

He knows, He loves, He cares,
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives His very best to those
Who chose to walk with Him.

The mother of a friend of mine, upon reading Fireball last summer, was struck by Tullar’s verse to such an extent that she raved about The Weaver to her husband. When this woman passed on unexpectedly last week, her husband requested the full version of the poem so it could be read at her funeral service. At this sad time, I was struck by the fact that these words chosen by Carole Lombard and read over her casket would now, almost 73 years later, provide comfort to another grieving family.

Carole made no bones about the fact that she was a fatalist. She believed, as she told an interviewer in the 1930s, that, “When your number’s up, your number’s up.” She achieved fame at a time in U.S. history that was dominated by European Protestants—remember, not even a Catholic was elected president of the United States until John Kennedy in 1960. Interviewers of the 1930s expected Carole to deliver quotes reinforcing a Protestant belief in the New Testament, but the profane one would not oblige; she refused to make her religious beliefs public. She would acknowledge a belief in God and then brush aside any further probing. In fact Carole was, like her mother, Elizabeth Peters, of the Baha’i faith, becoming Baha’i in 1938. Confidential Baha’i documentation reveals a spiritual side to the earthy, madcap Lombard that would surprise many, yet her alignment with some of the teachings of Baha’i reflects her nature as a generous person who helped the little guy whether it was a friend down on his or her luck or someone just starting out in the business. She also gained a reputation for promoting freedom of expression as well as a tolerance for a variety of lifestyles—religious and otherwise.

Yes, Christmas was big to Carole Lombard. She took it seriously and spent liberally on presents each year. In the spirit of the fireball herself, I would like to pause on this Christmas Eve and wish every visitor to the site a Happy Holiday season, whatever that may entail for you and your family and friends.

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

A naughtier Christmas celebration, this one at the Mack Sennett Studio in 1927 with leggy Lombard at right (back in the days when Mack ordered his actresses to have some meat on their bones).

Everybody Comes to Ricks–Even Today

Show of hands—who here hasn’t seen Casablanca? If you’re a regular who’s been drawn to my columns by the explorations of old Hollywood, I know you have seen it, but if you stumbled upon Fireball and were surprised by the story and content and haven’t lived and breathed Hollywood’s Golden Era, then maybe you have not seen Casablanca and all I can say in that case is, invest 110 minutes. You won’t be sorry. In a nutshell, a multi-national cast of characters with competing interests meet up on the neutral soil of Casablanca, French Morocco, in the middle of World War II, at Rick’s Café Americain. Many of these people are seeking to flee North Africa for freedom from Nazi oppression and they wait, and wait. Letters of transit have been stolen from a murdered Nazi and these are carte blanche documents guaranteeing free passage out of Casablanca for any bearer.

On Monday November 24 Bonhams New York is auctioning off a collection of items related to Hollywood’s Golden Era. Included are a number with ties to Casablanca, most notably Sam’s piano, the one actor Dooley Wilson played when he performed As Time Goes By and other numbers in the film. The letters of transit were hidden in that piano, you know. For, oh, what, a million—three million?—you can buy Sam’s piano and hide stuff of your own inside it. Sam’s piano would be a pretty cool thing to possess, and I know just where I’d put it, in the great room by the fireplace. I’d invite my piano-playing friends over to try it out. But I’m not buying big stuff these days so I plan to stay out of Monday’s fray at Bonhams.

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

Rick and Ilsa during their mad fling in Paris; the only time he was ever truly happy?

I think it’s possible the auction-house experts are crazy given the values placed on some of the Casablanca-related items to be offered on Monday. There’s the first script that reached Warner Bros. called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” along with the studio reader’s comments. That’s a unique item, all right, but would you pay $40,000–60,000 to own it? If the low-end estimate is $40K, does that mean bidding opens at $20K? I’ve been around Hollywood collectibles since high school, and scripts have never been that highly prized. Even when director or star notes from classic pictures are written in the margins, scripts haven’t gone as high as $40K that I’m aware of. I’ll be curious to see if this one meets reserve, especially since Warner Bros. bought the concept and then tinkered and rewrote, resulting in an endless stream of blue pages (last-minute revisions were always done on blue paper so all would be alerted to the new material—particularly the actors who had just memorized the old material).

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

Rick looks at Ilsa, who has just walked into his gin joint, as Capt. Renault and Victor Laszlo observe.

How can the preliminary script command $40K and producer Henry Blanke’s production file only rate an estimate of $12–18K? I don’t get that one at all since the file includes Lenore Coffee’s suggestions for darkening the storyline by having Rick betray Victor and Ilsa. As noted in Errol & Olivia, Coffee was a brilliant script doctor employed by the various studios; she was doing a lot of work at Warner Bros. in the early 1940s. Censor Joe Breen’s Production Code criticisms are contained in the Blanke files too, and I’ve always wondered about two aspects of the final picture that survived the censor: 1) all the references to Capt. Renault’s trade of sex with young girls for police favors; and 2) 18-year-old bride Annina’s willingness, even eagerness, to make the sex trade with Renault and, by implication, with Rick. Perhaps the answers can be found in these documents; it seems to me that the salacious aspects of Casablanca must have really perked up first-run audiences at a time when other studios were offering up virginal product with the likes of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, and Deanna Durbin.

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

Barely legal, but not what Rick is after. Just-18 Annina will pay any price to get out of Casablanca.

I wrote a column a few years ago on my late, lamented Errol & Olivia blog opining that Ilsa had never loved Rick and was using him and knew all along she’d stay with Victor. Recent viewings have made me second guess myself; the ambiguity of the characters and their motives is one of many qualities of Casablanca that keeps people coming back for more. Consider them for a moment…

  • Rick Blaine, the cynic with a past who allowed himself to fall in love once, just once, with the mysterious Ilsa. Rick invested himself in the relationship and knew happiness—perhaps never was Rick truly happy except with Ilsa. But she dumped him. Dumped him cold. Dumped him in the rain. And forced him to go on with only memories of happiness and a determination never to stick his neck out again.
  • Ilsa Lund, the icy closed book of a woman who gives herself to Rick when she believes her husband is dead. But he’s not dead, and this news is what causes her to dump Rick cold. In the rain.
  • Victor Laszlo, husband of Ilsa and world-renowned devil to the German empire. He sports a dashing scar and an air of high competence. He knows his wife has had a fling with Rick, but Victor has got his sights set far higher than any affair of the flesh.
  • Louis Renault, corrupt prefect of police but a man of great charm and, above all, utter pragmatism. We feel like we can trust Louis because he makes no bones about the fact that he is corrupt. He’s impossible not to like.
Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Major Strasser and Capt. Renault observe the goings-on at Rick’s Café American, primarily the effect of newcomer Ilsa on previously impervious Rick.

The sets are overrun with character actors, each with a few lines here and there. But all these actors are memorable; they all get a moment of great dialogue and they all become real. The wretched city of Casablanca is a character too, recreated modestly on the Warner backlot but teeming with “scum and villainy” (George Lucas would use Casablanca as the inspiration for his Mos Eisley spaceport 35 years later).

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

You bitch! Look what you’ve done to poor Rick.

I’ve directed a picture or two in my life, and the introduction of the city of Casablanca as the setting for this morality play is jaw-dropping. Director Michael Curtiz establishes a pesthole packed with desperate humans in just a moment. It’s a hot, uncomfortable place overrun with predators and prey. Inside Rick’s the camera dollies in, dollies out, and the shots are static when they need to be, or close, or distant, each one perfect from a director who was always good and here, never better.

Oh, the dialogue. Ilsa comes back into Rick’s life after dumping him and she’s on the arm of a larger-than-life hero. What does Rick do? Late at night we find him inside his closed bar, drinking, alone, in the dark. Ilsa has walked back into his world and ripped the scab, a scab still fresh, right off of his soul. Sam comes in and finds Rick and knows what his boss is going through. Sam knows all about Rick and Ilsa—he was with Rick in the rain for the dumping. It’s clear that Sam is scared and worried.

“Boss, ain’t you going to bed?” he asks.

“Not right now,” grumbles Rick into his glass.

“Ain’t you planning on going to bed in the near future?”

“No.”

“You ever planning on going to bed?”

“No!”

“Good,” says Sam. “I ain’t sleepy either.”

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

“You ever plannin’ on going to bed?” asks Sam to Rick. “No!” he snaps.

African Americans at this time were, as a rule, used for comic relief, but Sam is a friend, an equal, and a character deeply drawn. But they all are in this picture. Well, except for Major Strasser, the hard-core Nazi and the guy we love to hate.

I wish Bonham’s and the consignors well in Monday’s auction. We will see soon enough if bidders are willing to shell out tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars for this hodgepodge of props, costumes, scripts, documents, and movie posters connected with classic film. I wonder if the letters of transit have expired—they might come in handy someday and one of them is for sale in this auction, at an estimated $100–150K. One thing seems clear—Casablanca has stood the test of time as well as any picture from the Golden Era, and shows no signs of slowing down. Because it is still so popular, I wouldn’t be surprised to find Sam’s piano on display at a Vegas casino sometime soon.

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

Sam plays the famous piano as a moribund Rick looks on.

Man’s Man

Fifty-four years ago today, Clark Gable died. He had been hospitalized for days after having suffered a heart attack at the ranch in Encino and was thought to be recovering, but succumbed suddenly on November 16, 1960. He passed out of this world as the logo of the Golden Age of the motion picture. His face, toothy grin, and jug ears were IT for Hollywood. He made only two features that stand the test of time, It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, but two were enough. Oh, sure, he made other big pictures and many movie buffs will remember Red Dust and Honky Tonk, but by the time Gable’s wife Carole Lombard died on Flight 3 in 1942, Gable’s best work was behind him. He went off to fight in World War II and came back to a huge box office return in 1945 when he made Adventure with Greer Garson, but this was a bad picture and would be followed by many other pictures that were, if not bad, then indifferent.

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

On top of the world, Ma! Or so Clark Gable thought, seen with Carole Lombard here at the announcement of their wedding in March 1939.

Why didn’t the Gable brand endure? Simple. When Carole died, Clark died. He would go on roaming the earth for 18 years as a guy in a Clark Gable suit, but the essence of what made Gable Gable, the swagger, the growl, the I’ll-smack-you-around-and-you’ll-like-it, were gone. Once his character Rhett Butler had thrilled the world by saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and then life imitated art and he didn’t give a damn after his wife died on an airplane on a freezing Las Vegas night.

I was chatting in Detroit with my new friends Joe and Marsha the other day about Fireball, and about the Clark Gable that emerged from the Flight 3 disaster. Joe admires what Gable did with the rest of his life, just as I admire it. Clark learned from tragedy; he appreciated what he had lost; he put one foot in front of the other; he kept breathing; he endured. Gable was never the same man, but he was a man—he was called a “man’s man” and proved it. He gave himself a month to grieve; he went back to work; he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and he went to Europe to fight. He was 41 then, and served with men 20 years younger. He asked for no special favors and ran the obstacle course just like anyone else. He went up in B-17s and secretly wished to go down in flames so he could experience Lombard’s last moments and then lie with her at Forest Lawn.

But, goddammit, he lived. And he kept on living, always haunted by the woman who blew into his life like a tornado, challenged him, adored him, cast her spell…and then was gone. She haunted him every day, her face, her voice, her perfume, the things she said, the way she said them, always there. But not there, because she was gone.

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

Just killin’ time, waiting for his ticket to be punched in 1951.

The self-righteous among us will condemn Clark Gable and say from the soap box, “If he loved her so much, why wasn’t he faithful? Why did he carry on with Lana Turner and cause Carole to rush to her doom?” I always go all biblical at that point and advise that those out there without sin should cast the first stone.

There’s nothing in this world quite like sitting with Clark, Carole, and Petey in the Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn. The three of them and me, sitting there, in utter peace and quiet in a sequestered corridor. It brings so much to mind, first and foremost the sadness of it all, the way Carole and Petey died, and the way Clark, in his way, died with them. Three crypts side by side by side, with simple faceplates and dates of birth, dates of death. There’s a story of a million words there in that tiny little 10 feet of corridor. He purchased three crypts in January of 1942, two for his wife and mother-in-law, and one for himself. He married twice more, but his wishes were ironclad: place me next to Ma.

On this date 54 years ago, Clark finally got his wish. After years of smoking too much, years of drinking too much, years of enemy flak, fast cars, fast motorcycles, eating food too rich for him, he finally, finally got his wish. He punched a ticket to see Ma. He returned to the only human companion who ever made sense to him. This day, 54 years ago.

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

I wonder if Spencer Tracy (left) is thinking about spending two days with Gable at the El Rancho Vegas awaiting word of Carole’s fate. Here the greats, including Robert Taylor and James Stewart, gather for the King’s funeral at Forest Lawn in November 1960. At this same Church of the Recessional, Gable had endured the funerals of Ma and Petey 18 years earlier. In this shot, Air Force Chaplain Johnson E. West accompanies Kay Williams Gable, widow of the actor, after the service.

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.

Don’t Call Him “Jimmy”

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

In 1952 James Stewart played a doctor wanted for murder in The Greatest Show on Earth. Through the course of picture, he never appeared without clown makeup.

It’s happening again: I’m on the trail of an elusive subject, trying to figure him out, following clues leading to deconstruction of his personality to the elements, then examining them and reassembling the human. This time, I’m finding the exercise frustrating. Well, as frustrating as usual.

The subject is James Stewart, Hollywood leading man from 1937 to the early 1970s, not to mention war hero, political conservative, and deity to what seems to be an entire demographic of the U.S. population. One of the first things I learned: He didn’t favor the familiarity of “Jimmy.” I interviewed his movie and television co-star Julie Adams recently and picked up on the fact that she called him not “Jimmy” but “Jim.” Said Adams, “I always called him that, and so did everyone else; I don’t think he liked Jimmy.”

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

The biggest heartbreak about the only picture Carole Lombard and James Stewart made together was the amount of money this contrived melodrama lost at the box office.

This is a tough nut to crack, this chasing down of a deified figure. There are a thousand stories out there of good deeds done by James Stewart, and I’m finding nothing juicy, nothing to humanize him. It takes me back to trying to decipher the real George Washington—not the capital city, not the university, not the bridge. The man who started it all. Eventually I got at this guy, who was in youth an ambitious, hot-tempered (did you know he was a redhead?), self-educated natural athlete who dearly loved the ladies. A theme of one of my documentaries was that GW pursued the married Sally Fairfax—which earned the video a ban by a major Christian DVD distributor! George Washington loved freedom, all right—the freedom to make an untaxed fortune, and it was self-interest, not altruism, that started him down the revolutionary road. Eventually, he was willing to give up everything for the good of his fellow Americans. Everything. And believe me, he had a lot to lose. The courage of convictions that grew within him, the awareness to know what was required of a leader, and a pre-existing and unshakeable self-discipline, all combined into what became the most admired man in the world. All that said, it was interesting that he had a violent temper; it was interesting that he pursued the wife of his best friend. It was all part of the same package.

In the end, I figured out George Washington, and I admired his human failings because he fought these parts of himself on his way to immortality. So now I have to learn the failings of James Stewart. He’s practically got the Knights Templar guarding his image; to me their protection harms his legacy rather than protects it. Isn’t a subject of biography interesting precisely for what he or she overcame in life? The inner conflicts? The failings? The handicaps? The demons?

The next book will be about a lot more than James Stewart, but he’s the focal point like Carole Lombard was in Fireball. I’ve been busily watching Stewart pictures of late, most recently Broken Arrow with Jeff Chandler and, as Stewart’s love interest, 16-year-old Debra Paget, nearly unrecognizable sans trademark heavy eye makeup. Yes gang, I said Stewart had a 16-year-old love interest to his 41! Today, they call that statutory rape, and even in the context of a picture made in 1950, I grew a little fidgety looking at their clinches.

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

James Stewart with Debra Paget.

I’m blazing a trail of pictures I never gave a hoot about. Another one I caught recently was The Naked Spur co-starring Janet Leigh and Robert Ryan and before that Strategic Air Command with June Allyson. I could always take or leave James Stewart as an actor, which, really, makes me a match as a biographer because I’m starting out neutral. No image to protect. No axe to grind. Oh, sure, he’s perfect in It’s a Wonderful Life and I really liked Harvey—although I never bought him as an alcoholic in that picture. His ingenuousness and his playing against cynical Henry Fonda worked beautifully in The Cheyenne Social Club. His body of work is simply outstanding and the more you think about the variety of his pictures, the more impressive Stewart becomes. He was much more the chameleon as an actor than he appears at first blush. Like when he played a clown in the circus and on the lamb from the cops who stayed in makeup throughout the film. This wasn’t John Wayne or Errol Flynn playing 17 variations of his public persona; Stewart could be a man with a past, a killer, a voyeur, or an obsessive-compulsive. Throughout the 1950s you never knew which James Stewart you’d meet in the dark.

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

James Stewart picks up his mail at a rented Brentwood home in 1936, soon after arriving in Hollywood.

What the hell made this guy tick? He played the accordion and built model airplanes as a pastime during years most young men his age spent getting laid, or trying to. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps nine months prior to Pearl Harbor at a time when a majority of Americans were staunch isolationists trying to look the other way from an inevitable war. Instead of cashing in on celebrity and spending the war in his crisp uniform stateside, getting laid some more, he itched for combat and finally got an overseas assignment that landed him smack in the middle of hell. He sounds too good to be true, and maybe he was.

I’ve already got some great clues about the real James Stewart and how he got that way. For the record, I’m determined to confine my book to a particular theme and not encroach into the territory of a writer also developing an aspect of Stewart. I don’t feel that my book on Stewart will be competing with anybody else’s because I think one will complement the other and demand for both will be heightened.

I encourage all of you to help me write this book. What do you know about Stewart that can help me grasp his character in the way I ultimately understood others I’ve chronicled? Your opinions, insights, and clues are welcome as we embark on this grand new adventure into the past.

 

 

Wishing They’d Go Bump

I want nothing so much as to run into a ghost face to face. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? I just don’t get it when grown men say they saw a ghost and ran away. What’s a ghost going to do to you? Rattle a chain? Go, “BOO”? I don’t have a bucket list, but if I did, I’d put two things on it for sure: I want to see a ghost, and I want to see a bear. I don’t mean like a bear in the zoo, I mean a bear in the wilds. A bear rooting through my trash. A bear on the porch. Or a ghost anyplace at all. I’d turn interviewer at once. I’d want to know all about that ghost. Name, year of birth, occupation, address, year of death, manner of death—the works. With all those questions I’d likely bore that ghost to d… Well, not to death certainly. But far from running away, I’d be interested.

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

Here I am sitting on Errol Flynn’s diving board. On my return trip, all alone, I felt the ghost.

I felt Errol Flynn’s ghost, as described in Errol Flynn Slept Here. I stood at his deserted home, Mulholland Farm, and I was all alone, and I felt him watching me to the point the hairs stood up on my arm. I told no one about my brush with the ghost at the time—I thought I was imagining things—and it wasn’t until 15 years later that I started to hear other, much more startling personal encounters with the ghost of Mulholland Farm. Tracy Nelson, for one, saw Flynn’s ghost up close, as did her brother Gunnar.

I felt Jean Harlow while visiting Forest Lawn Glendale a long time ago. I felt her reaching out to me, quite distinctly, and what I sensed was, Write about me. I sensed great loneliness; great sadness. A soul alone. Circumstances prevented me from doing it at the time, but I felt a heavy sense of obligation. I carried it around for years. Finally David Stenn wrote Bombshell and Darrell Rooney and Mark Vieira wrote Harlow in Hollywood and whatever needs the Baby had, these books must have satisfied because they are both fantastic—and very different—approaches to telling her complete story.

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

From a distance it even looked haunted–Errol Flynn’s Mulholland Farm.

Another time I was on a ghost hunt in an old house near Pittsburgh and something touched the back of my neck as I walked down a narrow hallway. I saw nothing, but I felt a hand on my neck. Not a cobweb. Not a draft. A hand.

The most frequent question people ask me related to Fireball is, “When you were at the crash site, did you feel anything?” By that they mean, did you feel, did you see, did you experience ghosts? I wondered if I would at this spot where 22 people died in one second. I felt the sadness of the place; I held a human bone in my hand. More than anything, I felt obligation to those souls.

When you explore as much history as I do, you walk well-worn paths and you feel things. I’ve had my fair share of “stranger than science” incidents, but I haven’t seen nearly as much as I want to. One of my best friends lives in a very haunted house that’s full of residual energy. He can lie in bed in the early morning and hear commotion downstairs that’s clearly his family going through their routine from 50 years earlier. Imagine hearing noises of busy family life coming from your kitchen and knowing it’s your mother in there cooking; it’s 10-year-old you and your brothers and sisters sitting down to eat and then scraping back chairs and rushing off to school. That house also has at least one ghost, as proved by dozens of odd little incidents.

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

Imagine, if you can, Flight 3 flying into the middle of this scene and crashing against the cliff. Ghosts here? I felt close to the crash victims; I knew I had to tell their story.

A few weeks ago I walked through several homes from the pre-Civil War and Victorian eras and felt the presence of the former inhabitants. I heard others describe ghostly encounters, but I had no encounters of my own. I’m also helping to restore a Victorian home these days and will spend tomorrow there alone. It’s a hundred years old but do you think I’ve heard one thing out of the ordinary? I’m afraid not. Maybe I need to walk in tomorrow and challenge the ghosts to show themselves. I haven’t tried that yet and who knows, maybe it will kick something up.

Do you want to make me jealous? Tell me about an encounter you had with a ghost, or an odd experience that you think may have been ghostly. Something you can’t explain. It’s the perfect time of year for a ghost story, and I want to hear some.