The Jan. 16 entry at "Carole & Co." traditionally is the toughest entry to write each year, as it comes on the anniversary of the death of Carole Lombard, her mother Elizabeth Peters, MGM publicist Otto Winkler and 19 others (including 15 Army Air pilots). However, this difficult task is made somewhat easier this year by the release of a new book:
"Fireball: Carole Lombard And The Mystery Of Flight 3," officially released today, is written by Robert Matzen, whom Lombard fans know as author of a bio-bibliography on Carole that remains a helpful research resource some 25 years after its issue. (He's also written several other Hollywood history books, including "Errol & Olivia," on the famed Warners duo of Flynn and de Havilland.)
I have yet to read "Fireball," though I hope to soon. The reviews at amazon.com and Goodreads have been overwhelmingly positive, as the book notes all the chance aspects that led to the tragedy on Mount Potosi, while examining the lives of all 22 victims -- not just Lombard, but those on board that fateful flight and those who, by luck, left Flight 3 at earlier stops; their stories are equally poignant. (They include one woman still alive at the time Matzen was researching the book, and he interviewed her shortly before her passing.) A word of warning: It should also be noted that some sections of "Fireball," dealing with the gruesome task of recovering the victims, apparently make for difficult reading.
GoodKnight Books, publishers of "Fireball," have issued a Q & A with Matzen regarding the book:
1. Why did you write "Fireball"?
It always struck me that the crash of Flight 3 was considered an afterthought: Carole Lombard lived and this is how she died. But to me the story is how she died and the decisions she made that led to a death in this fashion, and the aftermath and all that involved. When I began to research the crash and the others on the plane, I found I had not one great story here but 22 great stories because everyone on the plane was a flesh-and-blood human being with a past, present, and future, and it just so happened that on this night, their number was up.
2. Is "Fireball" a biography of Carole Lombard?
Yes and no. Newspaper reporter Larry Swindell wrote a biography of Carole Lombard called "Screwball" in the 1970s. However, for a book focused on the manner of Carole Lombard’s demise to be important, the reader in 2014 has to know about her life, so I attempted to tell that story using all the latest information, and tell it concisely and engagingly. She’s a fantastic real-life character, as warm and winning as any you will find. But she had a fatal flaw, as identified in the book. The first half of the book tells her story and all the little things that led her to be on this particular plane on this particular evening with all these other interesting people. The back half looks at Gable’s reaction and the investigation to discover how all this happened and make sense of the insensible.
3. Why does "Fireball" have such an unusual construction?
To me, biographies can be tedious. This happened and then that happened, which caused some other thing to happen. In telling this story about Carole Lombard, I wanted to begin at the end: the final chaotic hour of her life, and then go back over the preceding 33 years and how she came to be in Las Vegas on a cold, black night in January. The chapters alternate stories, one in Las Vegas on the fatal night, and the next looking back at a hurly-burly life, until the stories converge in a burning funeral pyre atop Potosi Mountain.
4. "Fireball" has a number of aviation themes. Are you a pilot?
I am not a pilot. I have had a lifelong interest in aviation, and it’s no coincidence I spent 10 years working in NASA aeronautics. I have flown a fair amount in the right seat in private planes and loved every minute of it, but the way my life unfolded, I didn’t go for a pilot’s license.
5. Many people today don’t know who Carole Lombard was, so why is this story important?
This book tells the story of a remarkable person who lived fast, achieved a great deal, and died very young. Her achievements and position in life led Lombard toward a feeling of invincibility, and her subsequent death had such tragic consequences for her husband, Clark Gable, and for the people around her. She was very influential in her time and spoke passionately about equality for women in the home and workplace. She also went out of her way to help people. For example, as you will see in "Fireball," without Lombard there may not have been a Lucille Ball, who so greatly changed television. There wouldn’t have been an Alice Marble, Wimbledon tennis champion, who has been identified as the first modern woman professional. Marble went on to teach her brand of tennis to Billy Jean King, who was the most influential woman player in history. These are just two examples of the impact of Carole Lombard’s life. In many ways hers is a timeless story, and I’m confident it will resonate for a modern audience. "Fireball" also tells other stories, of the evolution of aviation, for example, and Hollywood at the outbreak of World War II.
6. Clark Gable remains today a movie icon. What did you learn about him in writing "Fireball"?
I started this book having no sympathy for Gable. To me he seemed a cold and calculating person who was interested only in marrying up for the enhancement of his career. But by the end of the story, I had tremendous respect for Gable and sympathy for what he went through. He was a remarkable and courageous person, as it turned out, and I was as surprised as anyone to find this out. Walking several miles in his shoes through the writing of "Fireball" wasn’t an easy thing. As you will read, Gable carried guilt about her death, and with good reason. He was having an affair at the time of her death and she was rushing home because they had quarreled over his affair before she left on that last trip to Indiana to sell war bonds.
7. Why are you so sympathetic to the pilot of Flight 3, Wayne Williams?
Imagine you are a pilot and you die in a plane crash. No matter your outstanding record, the crash is labeled “pilot error” due to a lack of conclusive evidence otherwise, and for all time you are painted as a failure. In this case Wayne Williams had 13,000 hours of left-seat time for TWA, which in the early history of aviation is a staggering amount of experience. My review of the records shows that Williams was an exemplary pilot, and we need to look a lot deeper to find the real reasons why Flight 3 crashed.
8. Why was it important to you to make the difficult climb of Potosi Mountain to the crash site?
I had to do it. I had to be there, to experience how rescuers got there, to feel the ground, to be where the remains of the passengers were — and in some cases, still are. As a person interested in history and reading as much as I have, I find it evident immediately when a writer has not been to a site he or she is writing about. It’s fraud to do that, so I had to climb and be there, or my viewpoint on the rescue and recovery efforts would have been invalid.
9. This book is grisly in places. Why did you include so much detail?
The responders to this crash faced a brutal scene, as did the investigators. To do them honor, I felt I needed to include detail about what they encountered. My own experience with human remains on Potosi drove home the catastrophic nature of the crash.
10. Why do you spend time telling the stories of the others on the plane? Carole Lombard is the only important person who died.
I disagree! Of the 22 who died on the plane, 20 were under 40 years of age. These were young people, many with brilliant futures ahead of them, and the stories of how they came to be here are interesting and speak of lives cut way too short. Every passenger on the plane was traveling that day because of the war. There were 15 Army Air Corps fliers on board; Carole Lombard was traveling to sell war bonds in Indiana, and her mother and Gable’s MGM press representative were traveling with Carole; the other civilian passenger was the young wife of an Air Corps pilot. In the year leading up to world war, pilot Wayne Williams, an Army veteran, had been involved through TWA in training Air Corps flight crews on the handling B-24s. To me those on the plane are all the “Heroes of Flight 3” and their stories are worth telling. I also take a close look at the first responders — the Nevadans on the ground who witnessed the crash and had to invent ways to reach the scene on this desolate mountaintop where there were no roads, no trails, no nothing. All these people on the plane and the responders were part of what Tom Brokaw labeled the “Greatest Generation” and they truly were important people.
Matzen will appear at two events in southern California this week in conjunction with the book. From 8 to 10 tonight, there will be a book launch and Flight 3 crash commemoration at the Museum of Flying, 3100 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica. From 4 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Matzen will discuss "Fireball" at Larry Edmunds Bookshop, 6644 Hollywood Boulevard in downtown Hollywood.