Winkler Bonhams

Hammer Time

Just call me Robert Matzen, influencer. A person of influence. One of the influential.

It’s like this: the TCM Hollywood auction conducted by Bonhams New York on Monday included several Fireball-related items of Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, and others in the storyline. These came from two sources: some were given by Clark Gable’s widow, Kay, to a World War II collector who consigned them to the auction. Others were consigned by the family of Otto Winkler and became available after the passing of Jill Winkler’s niece, Nazoma Ball, with whom I worked closely to understand and develop the characters of Otto and Jill. This group of material included a portrait of Clark Gable inscribed to Jill, several notes written by Carole Lombard to Jill or the Winklers, a handwritten postcard from Clark to Jill, and some personal candid photographs of Clark and Otto taken at the MGM studios.


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

The portrait that Clark Gable inscribed to Jill Winkler.

As readers of Fireball know, Otto Winkler was Clark Gable’s personal publicist at MGM. Gable entrusted Wink with the well-being of Carole Lombard, Clark’s wife, during the bond tour to Chicago and Indianapolis. Gable wasn’t close to many people and realized after the crash of Flight 3 and the passing of Lombard and Winkler that Otto had been his best friend in spirit and deed.

It was Otto who drove Clark and Carole to Arizona for their elopement at the end of March 1939 while Jill stayed back in Hollywood and pretended to be Carole for a day, driving Carole’s car and running Carole’s errands. After that the couples became pals, and along with Wink, Jill lived a storybook life with King of the Movies Clark Gable and his queen, Carole Lombard Gable. These were characters that had been all but lost to antiquity; few knew Otto Winkler from Adam or Jill from Eve. In fact, if I hadn’t been able to spend so much time with Jill’s niece, a woman who at age 93 also remembered Otto in life, I wouldn’t have been able to access these characters from the inside. The narrative of Fireball brought them to life once again and made their story so human and so important.

I was a phone bidder for the Bonhams auction on Monday and placed bids on five lots: the Gable-Winkler candids; the Lombard correspondences to the Winklers, the Clark-to-Jill candid, and the handwritten postcard. I also took a flyer and managed to place one bid on the worn 14k wedding band that—according to documentation from Kay Gable—was given to Clark by Carole. But bidding got out of hand mighty fast and hammered at an astonishing $40,000.

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

A candid photo once owned by Otto Winkler shows Otto and Clark Gable at MGM in 1937.

Afterward, I sat there with new awareness of the impact of Fireball, because I had lost out in a furious wave of bidding on all the lots except the postcard from Clark to Jill, which was the most significant item and one that will factor into the revised edition of Fireball. The other items all went at prices that were, to me, beyond practical. I felt then, as the dust was settling after my involvement in the Bonhams auction, that Fireball had affected the value of the Winkler-related items. And that was a good feeling.

The auction was, for the most part, about what I expected. It is a rare bird who wants a costume worn by Lisa Gaye in 10 Thousand Bedrooms. But the items from Casablanca that I mentioned in my last column blew the roof off of Bonhams, as reported in the New York Times. The playscript Everybody Comes to Ricks, which was the basis for the Casablanca story and which I pooh-poohed for its pre-auction estimate of $40,000-80,000, hammered at $85,000 (take that, Mr. Influencer). The battered front doors to Rick’s Café Americain, rescued at some point from the Warner Bros. prop department, fetched $92,000 ($115,000 with buyer’s premium); the prop-department-created letters of transit hammered at $95,000 ($118,750). And Sam’s piano hammered at a smart $2.9 million—or $3,413,000 with add-ons. Also of note, Aragorn’s sword from Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), hammered at $360,000, and the elaborate Cowardly Lion costume worn by Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz (1939) hammered at $2.6 million, topping $3M with buyer’s premium. Watch out I don’t write a book about these pictures, or the values will go up still further. After all, I am an influencer.