A few months ago, at the bookstore, my favorite hangout, I flipped through a copy of a book that had just been released called My Lunches with Orson by Peter Biskind. The Orson in question was Welles. When I chanced upon a passage saying that Orson claimed the plane crash that killed Carole Lombard in January 1942 was the act of Nazi saboteurs, I became intrigued at once. I’d always loved the stories of Carole Lombard, Hollywood’s “profane angel,” a girl so beautiful she learned to swear like a sailor to put off the advances of all the men who wanted her. She also was the highest paid female star in old Hollywood, had a savvy business acumen, knew how to promote herself, and married the most desirable man in Hollywood, Clark Gable of MGM Studios fame, the “King of the Movies.” She became his Queen.
She perished in a plane crash on the way home from an appearance where she sold two million dollars’ worth of war bonds in her native state of Indiana. She’d had a fight with Clark Gable, who was appearing in a movie with Lana Turner, right before the bond appearance, and was desperate to get home to him. Too desperate. She decided to fly, rather than take the train, and get home sooner.
The woman’s star burned perhaps a bit too brightly – and was doused too early. The plane crashed into a mountain near Goodsprings, Nevada. No one aboard survived. It was said that Clark Gable was never the same again.
I had always heard it was a tragic accident – until I saw that line in My Lunches with Orson, and began to wonder. Could it be? Might that plane have been sabotaged?
The other day I went into the bookstore again, and this time I found FIREBALL: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen which seeks to answer the question of what happened to that poor plane. I cannot say enough about how much respect I have for Robert Matzen. His book is so well-researched and rich with details about Carole Lombard’s life and death. He handles the subject of the grisly crash without “amping it up” and making it any worse than it has to be, though it’s still not for the faint of heart. His description of a Nevada local, Lyle Van Gordon, who was one of the first rescuers up the mountain after the crash made me wish Mr. Van Gordon were still alive since somebody should have given that good man a medal for his valiant efforts.
Fifteen Army Air Force men were onboard the same plane as Lombard, her mother and publicist that night. They were ferry pilots who flew warships to Europe and other points, and, let’s face it, such a group might have seriously been a Nazi target. But were they?
Was the crash an accident? What really happened to the plane? Go out and get a copy of this page-turner and you’ll find out!