TWA Flight 3 Lombard

Pre-Code Carole

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

“Many men filled her life,” teased the poster in the lobby. Images of Lombard in negligee and Lombard showing leg added to the promise of a good show within.

I caught a couple of Lombard pre-Code pictures this past week, the hot-sounding Virtue (1932) and boring-sounding Brief Moment (1933), and only one lived up to my preconceptions. As you know, pre-Code refers to early talkies made prior to institution of the Motion Picture Code (read: censorship) when Hollywood was more like Dodge City and onscreen vice reigned. Virtue and Brief Moment ran 69 minutes each, with the former going fast and the latter an excruciating life sentence.

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

“Dump that bum!” I shouted at the screen; Carole didn’t listen.

Brief Moment only lifted itself above tedium when I was shouting at the screen for Carole to get over that bum Gene Raymond, but did Carole listen? No. She continued to refuse to come to her senses and ended up staying with him at fade out. She enacted a torch singer named Abby Fane and he was Rodney, the spoiled son of a vastly wealthy family, and their sudden marriage produced page-one headlines in major metropolitan newspapers. You know how the montages went—1930s screenplays advanced via the device of big headlines in newspapers that saved 10 minutes of exposition.

Brief Moment, another picture that Lombard made on loan out to Columbia, was one of those girl-meets-bum, girl-loses-bum, girl-gets-bum kind of pictures. Personally I was hoping that an apple would fall on Abby’s head and she’d take up with shady nightclub owner Toots, played by Steve Walsh. Toots is clearly nuts for Abby, see? But she doesn’t love him “that way,” so he goes all heart of gold and patches things up between Abby and Rod in the last reel.

How did Lombard survive pictures like this? Her agent, Myron Selznick, must have been one hell of a salesman is all I can say. Only a big star could have pulled this thing off—a woman with a set screen personality like maybe Ruth Chatterton, who was the prototypical long-suffering actress of the early 1930s, or maybe Kay Francis, who was still trending upward in 1933. I’m not saying Lombard wasn’t good; she knew her way around a script and the cameras by this time, but just when you start to believe her performance, she reverts to that deep voice and stilted playing that caused Howard Hawks to nearly fire her from Twentieth Century.

She’s actually much better in the other picture I watched, Virtue, made with Pat O’Brien on loan out to Columbia in 1932. I guess I had seen Virtue 30 years ago, but I have no conscious memory of the experience. All I knew going in was that Lombard played a prostitute and this was a pre-Code picture so I had high hopes of skin and smut—on the order of Joan Crawford’s Rain, made the same year—but after investing those 69 precious minutes as Virtue unspooled, I had experienced neither skin nor smut and found my innocence intact. The setup of the picture has Carole as Mae, a prostitute who is deported out of New York City, but gets off the boat before it sails and stays in town, where she meets hard-boiled, down-on-dames cab driver Jimmy (O’Brien). Oddly, the opening of the picture, with Mae sentenced to get out of town for prostitution, is audio only, with the screen black, so the audience never actually gets to see the actress as a hooker.

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

Judging by this image in Film Fun, Virtue was a must-see picture.

Mae and Jimmy get hitched in a New York minute, and he’s dim to the fact that she used to turn tricks. Personally, I’d wonder on my wedding night where my young bride got such talent and enthusiasm, but that’s just me. For the remainder of the picture Mae tries to fly right while we count the minutes until Jimmy gets wise to his wife’s big secret. Then he does find out and circumstances lead him to suspect she’s out turning tricks again, but since Jimmy’s already established as a cynic at heart, it’s not like he’s crushed or anything and at fade out (spoiler alert) they kiss and make up, and I could only hope he spent the next 50 years making the most of his wife’s earned-on-the-street abilities.

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

More Columbia Pictures enticement to go see Carole Lombard in Virtue.

I couldn’t make up my mind if I could imagine 23-year-old Carole Lombard as a pay-for-play babe and really, it’s ridiculous unless she was hopped up on opium or booze. But she’s as lucid as always and so we know going in this is a tidy little Hollywood fantasy. Aside from one bouncy braless scene on a city street, there wasn’t any skin, which was the biggest disappointment for me considering Virtue stills that made 1930s voyeur mags like Film Fun. Judging by these images Virtue was a smutfest with lesbian undertones, not a gee-whiz romance espousing, well, virtue. If this were a picture made after institution of Hollywood’s Production Code less than two years later, there could have been no happy ending and Mae would have lost her man as penance for life on the streets.

I came away from these two pictures believing that prior to her big break in 1934, Carole Lombard was only as good as her director and whatever script she was handed. She could act OK, but she couldn’t transcend. Am I wrong here? In what pictures did Lombard rise above the material as a leading lady? It seems clear that it was through her social connections—married to William Powell at this point in her career and benefiting from her access to Powell’s superagent—that she positioned herself for the good fortune that would come with casting in Twentieth Century. Then the tutelage of Howard Hawks changed everything.

Umbrella Man

Josiah Thompson was a hero of my youth. Nicknamed “Tink,” Thompson is an Oxford-educated private investigator, former Navy man, and author who wrote the ground-breaking first “micro-study of the Kennedy assassination,” Six Seconds in Dallas. Super-cool guy. He’s the kind of guy that, when you’re thinking of writing a book about the crash of TWA Flight 3, causes you say to yourself, “What would Tink Thompson do?” WWTTD? Well, of course, he’d climb the mountain, so I went and climbed the mountain.

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

Josiah Thompson and his second book, Six Seconds in Dallas, which caused quite a ruckus in 1967.

Six Seconds in Dallas appeared in 1967, nearly 50 years ago, and now Tink is advanced in age, but he popped up in a fascinating YouTube video that had been forwarded to me, and I delighted in the concept he described—a concept developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike in response to reading Thompson’s book.

In case you don’t know, when JFK was murdered in Dallas, he was riding in an open limo along a city street. At the very point where bullets rained down on him, a man stood by the curb holding an opened umbrella on a sunny Texas day. Conspiracy theorists ascribed deep meaning to that man and his umbrella: obviously he stood at the spot where triangulated gunfire from the Book Depository, the grassy knoll, and God only knows where else would have deadliest effect. Obviously, Umbrella Man was there to direct the assassination of a president.

Six Seconds in Dallas merely identified that a guy was standing there holding an umbrella and wondered why, but a decade after it was written, Umbrella Man came forward and testified before Congress about why he was there and what the opened umbrella represented: He wasn’t killing Kennedy, he was protesting the 25-year-old actions of JFK’s dad prior to the outbreak of World War II! The umbrella represented Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, and Joseph Kennedy’s agreement with Chamberlain’s actions.

Thompson pokes fun at himself in the YouTube video, directed by Errol Morris, and discusses a concept that Updike introduced in a New Yorker think piece about conspiracy theories and the Kennedy assassination. Basically, Thompson says that you may think you know why someone did something in the context of an important historical event, but you don’t really know.

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

There he is in all his weird glory, Umbrella Man, encircled in yellow along with the head of a U.S. president.

Thompson’s first book, written prior to Six Seconds, had been on the works of Kierkegaard, so Tink’s philosophical musings on the Updike theory are well grounded: “In historical research,” says Thompson of the Updike position, “there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope, you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research, where things sort of obey natural laws and the usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen, and then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.”

Said Updike in The New Yorker in 1967, “The truth about those seconds in Dallas is especially elusive; the search for it seems to demonstrate how perilously empiricism verges on magic.” With hundreds of eyewitnesses in the area, with reporters nearby and photos being snapped and movie film being exposed, with law enforcement all over the place, there should have been one set of facts and an open-and-shut case developed about a very public murder. But then it got weird and to this day, nobody can agree who did the shooting, from where, why, who else might have been involved, or even how many shots were fired!

Seeing the YouTube video and reading Updike’s original think piece hit me like a pumpkin to the head because I had spent years trying to sort out the circumstances leading up the crash of Flight 3—circumstances that should have been sortable and explainable but read like Fiction 101. The crash of Flight 3 and the reasons why Carole Lombard died on the plane with 21 others fit perfectly with Updike’s subatomic realm because the more we apply the rules of man’s physical world, the less the story makes sense. Last weekend in Fort Wayne, for example, I spent roughly 45 minutes talking about what a wonderful person Carole Lombard was, how down to earth, empathetic, generous, and considerate. Then I was asked, “If she knew her mother was terrified to fly and the PR man had dreamt his own death on an airplane, why did Lombard force them to get on the plane?” It’s an excellent question—I complimented the woman who asked it. Then I gave her a palms-up shrug and said, “I have no idea.” In Fireball I call it the fatal flaw, Carole’s charge ahead at full speed manner of living life, and it’s the only answer I can provide. There were times when she let nothing stand in her way, including reason. Yet her actions on January 16, 1942, which shattered the emotions of her traveling companions and then shattered their bodies, don’t sound like Carole Lombard at all. They just don’t.

If it wasn’t weird enough that Carole turned a deaf ear to Petey and Wink; if it wasn’t weird enough that TWA’s most experienced pilot, the one who had trained bomber crews on how to fight a war, suddenly behaved like a rookie flyer and steered his plane right into a mountain on a clear night; if it wasn’t weird enough that Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti had been scheduled to fly on a DC-3 that crashed in 1940 and a DC-3 that crashed in 1942 and survived both—if all these things weren’t weird enough, I have learned of two more truly astonishing Flight 3-related incidents since Fireball went to press a year ago. Both easily qualify for the Updike Dimension, and then some.

As I mentioned to a reporter in Fort Wayne, I have now finally accessed the FBI files on the plane crash and, I kid you not, UFOs were seen in the Flight 3 airway on nights leading up to January 16. No, seriously, UFOs. Many people logically dismiss UFOs as Cold War paranoia, but we’re talking sightings of odd lights in the sky before the era of Roswell and the “flying saucer” by eyewitnesses that include a Civil Aeronautics Authority man. A fed. A trained observer equivalent to today’s FAA investigators who saw spherical lights in the sky that were not aircraft. (For the record, I don’t believe that UFOs had anything to do with the crash of TWA Flight 3. I am remarking on how bizarre it is to find UFOs in the official FBI investigation.) Then there’s the other incident that I’m still working on that’s no less odd. Neither solves the mystery of Flight 3. On the contrary, both make answers all the more elusive and demonstrate how sometimes evidence and logic go right out the window, and, suddenly, you’re in that other dimension where people are dead and nobody can figure out how they got that way.

Tucked Away

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.

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

Nellie Simmons Meier, a scientist at heart and international sensation in the first half of the twentieth century.

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.

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

You’re saying, WHAT? There’s a home back there?

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.

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

The parlor of Tuckaway, as mysterious and compelling as an episode of The Twilight Zone. And what role in Carole Lombard’s life did the front door (seen at right) play?

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?

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

The inscription of Carole Lombard’s photo on the wall, signed as always in green ink, reads, “For Nellie Meier, In sincere appreciation of your Great Talent and kindness and truth of your reading. Cordially, Carole Lombard.”

Woodstock on the Maumee

I don’t suppose there will ever be another weekend like this one spent in Fort Wayne, Indiana, at what became a Carole Lombard love-in, retracing her heritage as biological product of three great families, the Cheneys, Knights, and Peters, with wealth between them in the tens of millions of dollars. Considering the value of money in 1900, the vast fortune underpinning Elizabeth Knight Peters, the mother of Carole Lombard, was astonishing.

The weekend included a stop at the ancestral home of the Knights on Spy Run Avenue in Fort Wayne. A Knight had married a Cheney (as in the Cheneys of Wall Street) and settled on Spy Run, above the St. Joseph River, in the house where in 1902 Elizabeth Knight married Frederick Peters. Today the Knight building is home to Shepherd’s House, a shelter for homeless veterans of the U.S. military. Barb and Lonnie run the place as a taut but loving Christian ship and host more than 40 veterans at a time. Despite busy schedules they spent more than an hour showing us through many interesting spots within the massive structure.

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

The Knight mansion on Spy Run Avenue, now Shepherd’s House, home to more than 40 veterans.

We visited the Wayne Street mansion of John C. Peters, hardware mogul of Fort Wayne and “Gramps” to Jane Peters/Carole Lombard. Peters had his hand in all manner of construction enterprises and owned part interest in the Horton Manufacturing Co., which produced early automatic washing machines. Whereas the Knights and Cheneys were embedded nationally in big money, the wealth of J.C. Peters was homegrown in Fort Wayne. His mansion is a pure Victorian masterpiece.

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

The Victorian masterpiece John C. Peters mansion on West Wayne Street. An elderly woman once approached the owner with a memory of seeing baby Jane Alice Peters in this house.

Next, came a stop at the home of Elizabeth and Frederick Peters at 704 Rockhill Street, the place where Jane Alice Peters was born on October 6, 1908, 114 years ago today. You know you’ve found the right house because there’s a brass plaque on the front that was placed there as a publicity tie-in to the release of the David O. Selznick comedy, Nothing Sacred, in 1938. It was, at the time, pure cornpone to be putting up historic markers on the home of an actress not yet 30 years of age, but the type of flak that made Selznick PR man Russell “Birdie” Birdwell a living legend and perfect publicity partner for Carole Lombard. Whereas the Birdman dreamed up stunts like a plaque on Carole’s home, it would have been Lombard approving the message and assuring history would record that she actually drew her first breath within the walls of 704 Rockhill. It’s a deceptive house, modest in street views but another grand Victorian inside, as revealed on a tour led by the current owners, Rick and Cora Brandt. The place has a dark and mysterious past since some sort of physical and/or emotional violence within forced Elizabeth to leave her husband of 12 years in 1914 and flee to southern California with children Frederick, Stuart, and Jane.

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

The home of Frederick and Elizabeth Peters on Rockhill Street. Jane’s earliest memories were playing with her brothers in and around the house.

First thing yesterday morning I reported to WANE TV-15 for a short but punchy on-camera interview with Gina Carano. Four hours later came the main event: an exhibit of a couple dozen Carole Lombard-owned items at the Fort Wayne History Center, and an accompanying lecture by yours truly about the book Fireball. My initial doubts about attendance vanished as the crowd poured in. We ended up with a near house record of 133, including Rick and Cora Brandt of the Lombard house, Barb and Lonnie Cox of the Knight (Shepherd’s) House, and Bill and Janet Heffley, owners of the Peters house—making it a clean sweep of Lombard-related homes.

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

Operating on three hours of sleep but ready for action on WANE-TV with Gina Carano.

Other VIPs included three third cousins of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, all named Peters, along with Fireball researcher and Carole Lombard expert Marina Gray and Carole Lombard Archive Foundation director Carole Sampeck. My lecture was followed by a lively Q&A, a book signing, and then a well-attended tour of the Lombard house on Rockhill Street.

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

Lecturing in the spectacular Fort Wayne History Center.

I heard many stories of the supernatural over the course of the weekend. Not Halloween bump-in-the-night ghost stories but interesting real experiences by sober inhabitants of these and other classic Indiana homes. I guess that’s fitting for October.

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

Lots of books signed.

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

…including one for Fort Wayne patron of the arts Anita Cast.

I want to thank the Fort Wayne History Center for booking me into that fantastic venue, particularly Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director, and Nancy McCammon-Hansen, marketing director, and also Steve, Randy, Bob, and Carmen for their help onsite. Thanks also go to Anita Cast for her help in lining up the lecture, Kevin Kilbane of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel for his print pieces heralding the event, and Gina Carano and Natalie Wagner of WANE for one of the smoothest TV appearances of the whole Fireball tour.

Special thanks go to partners in crime Marina and Carole for a wild ride this weekend. From the two of them—and I’m sure all of you—I want to say directly to the cosmos, Happy Birthday, Carole Lombard. Fort Wayne loves and remembers you.

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

Displays included a clutch purse, monogrammed handkerchief, and jewelry owned by Carole Lombard.

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

Another case featured snapshots of Gable hunting trips, a Gable duck call, a handwritten note from Lombard to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and a bond receipt from Indianapolis.

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

Also at the History Center, a display of material from the Flight 3 crash site, including partially burned mail and melted aluminum–reminders of the ferocity of impact and daunting task facing investigators in 1942.

 

Dynasties

I like to tell the story of the time I was subpoenaed to testify as an eyewitness to a car crash. Afterward, my co-worker Amy asked, “When you were sworn in and put your hand on the Bible, did it burst into flames?” Anyone who knows me would not be surprised at this question. However, in my time I have indeed opened a Bible or two, and during the confirmation process many years ago I read about all that “begetting” that started in Genesis, and I was never more bored in my life. All these people begat all these other people and so on and so forth. I don’t even much care about my own genealogy as it extends back into the distant Bavarian past…unless of course I’m somehow connected to rich Matzens and vast European fortunes. Then, by all means, sign me up for genealogy classes.

So, I had mixed feelings when a couple of weeks ago my friend and Fireball researcher Marina Gray sent me a thorough, 12-page document containing years of her expert research on Carole Lombard’s genealogy, the story of the Knight and Peters families, which combined their gene pools into the begetting of three children: Frederick Peters II, Stuart Peters, and Jane Peters. Marina sent me the fruits of her genealogical work, which turned out to be a fascinating history, as prep for my upcoming lecture on Fireball in the hometown of Jane Peters/Carole Lombard, Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday October 5. Click here for an article about the event published September 28 in the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel.

As you may know, Fort Wayne is the second-largest city in Indiana and was named after Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, known as “Mad Anthony,” after he chose this spot on the map for one of several forts to defend white European settlers from the Miami Indians—who had every right to be “mad” themselves after a bunch of white people started to claim Native American lands.

Fort Wayne sits in the northeastern corner of Indiana and it was here that a whole lot of wealth congregated. On Carole’s mother’s side, the Cheneys were already on the level of “magnates” when they joined with the Knights, who were Wall Street wizards. On Carole’s father’s side, John C. Peters, or “gramps” to Carole, pretty much owned Fort Wayne. Among his businesses was the Horton Manufacturing Company, which introduced the first automatic washing machine to the world and offered replacement to back-breaking manual labor in the cleaning of clothes. It was quite the revolutionary device and that alone would have made any family a fortune, but to the Knights and Peters, the income from washing machines was pocket money. Chump change. All this is why I say in Fireball that money grew on trees around Carole Lombard all her life. This girl was lucky enough to be rolling in dough long before she became the highest-paid actress in Hollywood in the late 1930s.

Part of the fun of visiting Fort Wayne will be the ability to get a glimpse of the three-story home of John C. Peters at 832 West Wayne Street. It’s so big that it was converted to an apartment building. The elegant brick home of the Knights, in which 26-year-old Elizabeth wedded 27-year-old Frederick before begetting the three children (including Jane/Carole), still stands at 519 Tennessee Street and is now known as “Shepherd’s House,” a shelter for homeless veterans. The house built for Frederick and Elizabeth Peters in 1902 still stands at 704 Rockhill Street. It was within these walls that Fred exhibited such dark, violent behavior that Elizabeth, known later as “Tots” and “Petey” to daughter Carole, had to gather up the children and flee to California.

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

Elizabeth Knight Peters sits for a portrait with her three children in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1911. From left: Stuart, Frederick II, Tots, and Jane, who would grow up to be Carole Lombard, and already looked the part.

Sunday, October 5, is going to be a big day for any Carole Lombard fan. It really starts on Saturday evening at 8 (Eastern) when Turner Classic Movies shows Carole Lombard’s Twentieth Century on The Essentials with Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore. The following morning, Sunday the 5th, I’m appearing as a guest on WANE-TV to talk about Fireball and the day’s events. Then at 2 P.M. I’m speaking at the Fort Wayne History Center. Before and after, you will get to see a once-in-a-lifetime collection of personally owned Carole Lombard items on display at the History Center, including jewelry, purses, hats, a cigarette lighter and cigarette case, compact, documents–including the hunting licenses of Lombard and Gable, a letter handwritten from Carole to MGM VP Eddie Mannix, and the 11×14 Hurrell portrait that Carole inscribed to Clark, “Pa dear, I love you, Ma.” There will also be movie memorabilia and rare photos on display, including candids from the Myron Davis set taken in Indianapolis the day before the crash of Flight 3. At the conclusion of the History Center event, at approximately 5 P.M., attendees will get to tour the Rockhill Street house to see the room in which Jane Peters was born and slept, and the streets she roamed with her two big brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootey.” [Note: the Lombard house is not a working bed and breakfast at this time.]

As I understand it, the History Center event is free to the public (but I can’t swear to that); I know for a fact that the tour of the Rockhill Street house that will be hosted by Rick and Cora Brandt is free.

Special guests on October 5 will be Carole Sampeck, director of the Dallas-based Carole Lombard Archive Foundation and consultant in the development of Fireball, and the aforementioned Marina Gray, one of two Jedi Ninja researchers who helped to make Fireball a book that has drawn praise for the comprehensive nature of its information. [DC-based Ann Trevor is the other Jedi Ninja.]

I’ve had some terrific experiences speaking about Fireball around the United States, and met many people I now call friends, but I can’t imagine there’ll be anything to top this celebration of Carole Lombard in her own home town and on the day before her October 6 birthday. I hope to see as many of you there as possible.

And, for the record, no, the Bible did not burst into flames that day.

Immortality Lost/Immortality Found

I had a shock a few moments ago. I was browsing through my Facebook news feed and came upon a story entitled, “Actress Betty White, 92, Dyes Peacefully in Her Los Angeles Home.” The thoughts that went through my mind, Baby Boomer-like, were of having lived with Betty White all my life in one incarnation or other, all the way back to Password and Alan Ludden, and I thought to myself how sad for her cast mates from the current show, Hot in Cleveland.

Then I thought, Oh my God, we’re all mortal. If Betty can go, then, holy shit, I can go too! My bid for immortality, my aging portrait in the attic—poof! Gone in a puff of smoke. Nothing was sacred at that moment because Betty is our bid for immortality, the one that may yet get out alive, working past 90, funny as the Catskills, extra sharp like cheese, and if she can keep going, I can too. We had an unspoken pact, Betty and me, and I’m sure Betty and a few million other Boomers: if you’re all in, I’m all in. We go through life together, and we’ve got each other’s backs. And now she’s gone? Peacefully in her Los Angeles home?

Then I started to read the obit and realized I’d been had. That wasn’t a typo in the headline (and who among us hasn’t cringed at the magnitude and frequency of typos in news headlines and leads these says). She dyes her hair peacefully at home. I was looking at the most clever PR gag in recent memory timed to push new episodes of Hot in Cleveland.

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

Betty White: Quotes George Washington that the news of her death has been greatly exaggerated.

The obit is written like a press release, dead pan, and discusses the fact that “she rarely likes to discuss the fact, at least in public, that she is actually a brunette.” It goes on in this vein, and the piece works specifically because we’ve seen so many of these stories of late: James Garner, Richard Kiel, and this morning Denny Miller. We expect bad news—we just didn’t expect it of Betty because of, you know, the pact.

Leave it to Betty to sanction a stunt like this one, because the woman knows funny, even when it strays off the radar grid into the offbeat and to some, off-putting.

But you know what the result will be. Too many people scan these things with one eye, or with one lobe tied behind the backs, and there is going to be one hell of a rumor that Betty White is dead. It’s going to boomerang around the world and come sailing back and land at the feet of Betty White’s still-vertical body that she’s no longer with us. She’ll have that twinkle in her eye and smile that dimpled smile at the thought that she pulled a fast one, or that some hack somewhere wrote a piece about her that circumnavigated the earth.

Personally, the instant I knew this was a PR stunt, I felt like the governor had just sent over a reprieve on my walk to the gallows. Betty White lives! Which means I live! On and on, with the vigor of youth, and funny as cheddar. Just like Betty.

Climbing Every Mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irresistible

Who’s up for another live-event hurrah for Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3? How about coming to hear me speak at the Fort Wayne History Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sunday, October 5, 2014, at 2 p.m? I’m an introvert and a cranky pain in the ass, and yet I’m told I’m a good speaker when I get going on the topics contained in Fireball. I make no bones about this: Audience members have been known to pull out wallets and shower me with cash after a lecture. I guess it’s possible they are using money to shut me up, but I choose to believe that they’re moved to purchase based on the many compelling themes in Fireball. As a result, I think it would be worth your while to book plane reservations or get in your car and commute to Fort Wayne and incur all the expenses such a weekend would entail just to step in the middle of this incredible story and visit the place of Carole Lombard’s birth.

Before and after my lecture, tours will be conducted of the Peters family home on Rockhill Street where Jane Peters (who would become Carole Lombard) was born on October 6, 1908 and lived to age six. Her father continued to live there after his wife and three children had split for California. Two special guests are already confirmed for the October 5 lecture and house tours: my very good friend Carole Sampeck, director of the Carole Lombard Archive Foundation and Hollywood historian who was quoted at several points in the Fireball narrative, and Marina Gray, Lombard expert and one of my two Jedi Ninja researchers on Fireball. Carole is flying in from Dallas and Marina from Seattle, so you begin to understand what a special weekend this will be.

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

My Indianapolis triumph: turning around a disgruntled teen. I never did get their names, but it was a positive experience for the three of us.

I’ve talked previously about the many lectures and signings that comprised the tour, starting in Santa Monica and Hollywood, California, and moving on to locations in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and culminating in Indianapolis, where Lombard spent what was the most intense, satisfying day of her life, and Las Vegas, Nevada, where that life ended 24 hours later. I especially like focusing on the skeptics in the audience—people dragged to the event, like the teenaged girl in Indianapolis who had been brought to a Sunday afternoon lecture by her enthusiastic dad. How sullen she started out; I felt bad for her. But by the end, I had her in the palm of my hand. Poor kid didn’t know what hit her as she took in this story of love, romance, betrayal, sacrifice, patriotism, tragedy, and grisly post mortems. This story is irresistible.

The most recent lecture was to 75-or-so people at a film convention in Columbus, Ohio, and here I found both aviation buffs and Hollywood authorities and that’s the best part for me—the Q&A. The people who raise their hands for questions test my knowledge and challenge my assertions. They bring new information to the table, like the woman who tipped me off to a significant and forgotten incident in Indianapolis, or the woman in Las Vegas who possessed deeply buried information about Carole Lombard’s faith. This is all new information worthy of the revised trade paperback second edition of Fireball due out next spring.

Oh, yeah, by the way, the first printing is nearing sellout and demand is still strong. A second printing of Fireball is in order, so why not add in some more facts where possible?

The new book project is starting to suck me in, but there’s work to be done on Fireball first. I owe it to the 22 souls aboard Flight 3, people I bonded with on the mountain and people who haven’t left me since. I could feel them about me that first night in Santa Monica, and they’ve been nearby many times since. I’ll be curious to see if I feel anything special when I’m standing in the room in which Carole Lombard was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It’ll be a special weekend and I invite you to join me there, so save the date: Sunday, October 5, 2014.

Hedge Hopping

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

This postcard, circa 1940, shows TWA airships at the gate of the Allegheny County Airport. On its last voyage, TWA Flight 3 taxied into position here; 18 hours later it crashed in Nevada.

Understanding the nature of commercial aviation as it existed in January 1942 proved to be, for me, one of the eye openers of the Fireball narrative. In Q&A following my lectures, people often assume that the plane on which Carole Lombard died along with her mother Elizabeth Peters and MGM press rep Otto Winkler was a charter, and they’re surprised to learn it was a regular commercial flight, and a transcontinental flight at that.

We think of transcontinental air travel today as five tedious hours spent motionless in a first-class or coach seat, headphones on, dozing the time away, or working on laptops or reading. New York to L.A. in upwards of six hours, depending on headwinds. L.A. to New York in about five. In 1942 the term “transcontinental” was a lot different. Instead of a nonstop or perhaps a stop for a connector, it took 10 or 12 stops to reach one coast from the other. Up and down, up and down endlessly, landing one or two times per state as the plane progressed cross-country with stops to refuel and/or pick up and drop off passengers and all-important airmail.

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

The Allegheny County Airport, unchanged in outward appearance from its 1936 expansion.

The DC-3 itself was a fabulous plane and so dependable that a few still fly today, almost 80 years since they first rolled off the assembly line. Passenger versions seated up to 22 comfortably, with the word “comfortable” being entirely subjective. In an unpressurized cabin, which the DC-3 featured, you were at the mercy of a) the ambient air temperature—except for a cabin heater controlled from the cockpit and b) the roar of two very loud engines just three feet on either side of the fuselage. The glamour and luxury of transcontinental travel in Carole Lombard’s day, in fact, hurt. It hurt your flesh; it hurt your back; it hurt your ears. Cruising altitude would be 9,000 feet above terrain if they could get away with it or 12,000 in mountains. Think of the ear popping in that unpressurized cabin. Think of the climate as you would routinely be subjected to temperatures 30 or 40 degrees colder at altitude than on the ground.

After a couple of hours in the air, you were begging for relief, and you knew it was coming; it was always coming with all the takeoffs and landings. And that’s our story for today, boys and girls, the state-of-the-art airport terminal of 1942. I am lucky enough to live about 20 minutes from just such a building, the one that used to service Pittsburgh until being replaced by a much larger facility in 1952. Because the new Greater Pittsburgh Airport was placed 15 miles west of the city, there was no need to tear down the old terminal located closer to the heart of Pittsburgh. Instead, it became a secondary hub of aviation activity and continues to serve Southwestern Pennsylvania today.

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

Vintage 1930s touches like stainless steel trim remain in place.

I’m no architect, but to me, the Allegheny County Airport terminal is an Art Deco masterpiece, built in 1931 with wings added in 1936. Many original design features remain intact, from intricate tile work to stainless steel accents and art deco lettering for the Waiting Room and Office. The original wooden benches are still in place along with the original compass set into the floor. Can’t you see men in suits and women in furs sitting there waiting to board the next flight out? I wish I could find vintage interior views to glimpse the restaurant, ticket desk, and souvenir stand as they existed in 1942, but I haven’t been able to locate any.

Readers of Fireball may remember that this airport was a stop for Flight 3 on its last voyage. The plane had taken off from LaGuardia and stopped at Newark before landing here and taxiing to the gate. From Pittsburgh the TWA airship headed west to Columbus, Ohio, and after that Indianapolis, where Lombard’s party boarded. At each stop stood a facility just like this one, offering temporary sanctuary from the rigors of air travel.

Upon completion in 1931, Pittsburgh’s airport was the most modern in the world and boasted by far the most paved runway area. Presidents and movie stars roamed this floor and the place buzzed with activity in World War II. Literally. All dignitaries and celebrity traveling from the American heartland to and from New York City stopped and stretched their legs here. It’s a building that’s drawn my eye from earliest memory—every time my parents would drive by, and then every time I would as well. I certainly hope the building is haunted. Then again, how could it not be given all the history it holds?

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

Original lettering for the Waiting Room and Office evoke a bygone era.

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

A single room served passengers for several major airlines. In an alcove to the right was the small restaurant. Original 1930s wooden benches remain in place, including one that looks out on the tarmac.

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

Passengers always knew which was way up–as well as north, south, east, and west, at the Pittsburgh air terminal.

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

Even the planters flanking the building’s entrance tie into the aviation theme. The green tile work matches inlaid tile accents on the building exterior.

Scratch

Almost every day since the book’s release in January, somebody somewhere has commented on the extensive research in Fireball, and I’ve been gratified to learn that my dumpster dive into federal records accomplished its goal, as did long hours spent sifting through existing histories and biographies, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts and interviews, birth and death records, military archives, and conversations with participants and relatives of participants in the story. Oh, and a day spent eating dirt, getting stuck on cactus, and bouncing off boulders on Potosi Mountain. And other days spent walking in the footsteps of people in the narrative. When it was over I understood Carole Lombard and Clark Gable at the molecular level and also had learned about others critical to the story, from the stewardess on Flight 3 to the miner and ex-football star who led the charge up the mountain.

But that was then. It’s a good thing when you are the author of a book that gets positive reviews and that people really like. There’s gratification; there’s also pressure every time somebody says, read Fireball, loved it, big fan, what’s next? Well, thanks! And, uhhh, I dunno.

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

Oh, great, another mountain to climb. In case you are wondering, the Flight 3 crash site is along the ridge line, dead center from left to right, a few hundred feet below the crest.

It’s all organic, man. It comes from luck, or inspiration, or usually from a particular friend saying, “You know what would make a great idea for a book?” And that friend did it again two months ago, planting this seed in my brain. At first I think, no, that’s no good. It’s been done, or I can’t get at that story, or something similar, but then the damn seed starts to sprout and before long I’m believing that, yes, he’s right again. This is a story. I’m going to tell this story.

Friends, readers, I’m starting my next book. It’s a new day and a new ballgame. It’s not even the top of the first inning and the umpire isn’t about to shout, “Play ball!” [Reference to American baseball, global readers.] It’s not even time for spring training, really, because first comes determination of the theme of the book, what I’m writing to, what tone to set, how the narrative will sound, and even more basic to that, who are my characters? I’m in that nebulous period where I’m learning about the world I’m going to be inhabiting for a year or two. I’m reading existing works and visiting web sites. Just now I was reading a biography on the couch and Francois, my ten-week-old black kitten, jumped up on me and asked, “Whatcha readin’, Dad?” and before you know it, we were both asleep on the couch. So I can report that this phase is rather pleasant so far.

I’m not ready to announce what the book is going to be about, except to say it’s another World War II story with an aviation theme and part of it is set in Hollywood. (Tom, you’re a bright fellow. If you guess what the story is, please don’t blurt it out.) It’s nonfiction because to me the best stories are true stories where I say to myself as I unearth the facts, “You couldn’t make this stuff up.” Research is going to put me back in D.C. and back in Hollywood, but it’ll also require a trip to England and possibly to France and Germany and this time I’m going to have to be sifting through German records and lots of them. Sprechen sie Deutsch? My high school German teacher, Miss Diamond (who I had a crush on, but, don’t tell), would be the first to report, no, Robert does not speak German. That’s going to be a handicap to my enterprise because one thing I’m certain of is, this story is going to include a civilian’s-eye view of life on the ground in Germany during the latter phases of World War II. It’s one story line in what will no doubt be many story lines.

It’s daunting to be at this point in a book. Way down the road, I know I’m going to be holding three pounds of bouncing baby … hardcover, but in the meantime everything is squishy and Unknown. I have no idea where I’m heading. I don’t know how I’ll get there. I don’t know what I’ll discover along the way. Worst of all, I don’t know what makes my main character tick. I hate not knowing, and there’s so much mythology grown around this character that I already have a healthy dislike. Just like I had with Gable. I tell myself that it’s OK, the Gable thing worked out, and now he and I are friends and I pay my respects at his grave and everything.

Today’s confession is that I hate new people. My lifelong friend and former co-worker, Helene, would tell you that. Oh, Robert hates new people. Anytime somebody new came on staff at the company where we both worked, there was a period where I didn’t like them until I got a handle on them and then it was usually OK, except of course when it wasn’t. So now I’m at the stage where, based on everything I know so far, I don’t like this new person I’m going to write a book about. But when you’re in close quarters with someone for a long period, the ice gets broken somehow, and I’m counting on the fact that it’ll happen here. We even have some things in common, so what the hell am I worried about?

There, I’ve said it: I’m starting a new book. Monkey off my back. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, this autumn I’m back in the saddle pitching Fireball and so coming and going, it will be an interesting time. Keep your eye peeled for dispatches from the front, which will all be delivered here at this address a couple times a week.