Interview with Robert Matzen, author of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3

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I received a review copy of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 from Goodknight Books and I have to say, I knew nothing about Lombard at all except a few things: she was very beautiful, extremely talented and she died young. So you might wonder why this book, which is not a traditional biography in any sense of the word, would serve as my springboard to learning about Lombard’s life. First of all, I am a big fan of old Hollywoood, so of course Lombard’s name appears here and there, and we all know she was married to William Powell, and then to Clark Gable. Matzen gives her story a unique approach; he uses the infamous plane crash to move the story along, interweaving facts from the accident, the build-up before she boarded the plane (everyone told her to use the train) and the characters she met before and during her journey. Don’t fret, this isn’t a story about aviation and its disasters (says she, who is afraid of flying) – the reader is treated to flashbacks from Lombard’s life, as she travels to her untimely death. I thought the entire book was paced like a documentary, and indeed it would make a fascinating one. Matzen also gives Lombard’s story a masculine edge, often his writing reads like a ’40s detective novel, which is entirely appropriate given her penchant for swearing and using rough language. A contrast to her Patrician beauty. All in all I adored this book, I read it in one day.

Click here to purchase the book. And here to read more about the publisher.

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(Note from author: I love these questions, by the way. RM) << Thank you, Robert!

Q. What inspired you to write the biography in this non traditional way? What gave you the idea to mirror her life with the tragedy of the plane crash?

The story of the plane crash moves at a mile a minute; the story of her life unfolds like a life, day by day. I wanted the reader to be plunged into the final moments right away and set the essential story in motion. Because the plane crash was a 70-year-old mystery, I’d build real and false clues into the narrative so the reader would make mental notes. Is this going to be important later? And then I set about answering the question, “Who was Carole Lombard and why should we care about this character?” By chapter 2 when we start to learn about her, there was already forward push to the narrative.

I have always liked the “you are there” approach to storytelling, and have applied it to biography in the past. Otherwise, you are covering largely familiar ground with a reader who knows about Carole Lombard. This happened, then that happened. Boring! But if you break the chronology up with a story that’s right in front of your face and being lived in the cold and the dark by heartbeats, I believed it would be effective. A few reviewers have hated this approach, but most of the readers I’ve talked to have mentioned it right away as one of Fireball’s assets.

Q. How long did it take you to write the book?

I had written an academic volume about Lombard 20 years ago and had a lot of accumulated research upon which to draw. Plus I am a goal-oriented, one-track thinker and once I start something, it becomes my passion. That said, the actual writing of Fireball from front to back took about a year, applying old research and conducting new research with the help of two very talented investigators.

Q. What methods of research do you use?

There are two answers to this question, and they overlap. When researching a person, I try to avoid relying on second-hand sources recounting familiar stories. I believe that an accurate portrait can only be created with primary sources—people who were capturing quotes through interviews with Carole Lombard and Clark Gable, or people who knew them. Not only had I interacted with people who knew them while writing the academic volume back in the day, but I also found a wealth of untapped material in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, and was able to find a few people still around who knew these people.

About the crash, I stuck to primary sources as much as possible, which to me means accounts of an event that were immediate and told by eyewitnesses. There is a core of such material about the crash in newspapers as related by reporters who actually climbed the mountain and watched the investigators at work. There is a tremendous wealth of information about the crash in Washington, D.C. that no one had ever reviewed, and my DC researcher found all that in no time. I never would have found it; she snapped her fingers and there it was. We’re talking 2,000 pages. She also pointed me to the TWA archives full of confidential information about the crash of Flight 3.

Lastly, I wanted to portray the others on the plane as living, breathing human beings with bright futures ahead of them, and this involved tracking down and speaking with relatives, and relying on obits and other documented information about their lives. A geneology researcher helped me with that part.

Q. Where do you think Carole’s career would have gone had she not died?

She was always taking the pulse of her own career. Always, always, the way a hypochondriac takes his or her own pulse. She had seen that dramatic pictures didn’t work for her and had completed one comedy and was about to make two more when she died. One of those, My Girl Godfrey, could have vaulted her back to the top as a screwball comedienne.

Because of her business sense I firmly believe that Carole would have embraced television like Loretta Young did. In fact, the entire history of early television might have been changed if Carole had been on the scene and agreed to have a show crafted around her like I Love Lucy was for Lucille Ball. Lombard could have become the focus of early television instead of Lucy. But of course that’s idle speculation.

Q. Do you think she would have remained married to Gable?

Tough, tough question. I guess, no, I don’t think so. Under existing conditions, I believe it would have lasted a long time and that Carole would have hit the magical age of 40 or 42 and thought, What am I trying to do here? What am I building with this self-centered, emotional island of a man? The ultimate irony in Fireball is that Carole needed two things from Clark: communication and commitment. I think she could have accepted the occasional fling from him with anonymous actresses—it was a tradeoff for being the mate of the most famous movie star in the world. But he didn’t know how to contribute to a marriage. He didn’t appreciate what he had in Lombard until she was dead. Then, boy did he learn a lesson. If only he could have shown her what he learned, but he couldn’t. He had to live without her, and live with the knowledge that this was the woman for him.

Q. What lessons do you think the aviation industry learned following the crash?

Despite the great advances in aviation from 1930 until the time of the crash of Flight 3, this was still the era of seat-of-your-pants flying, and many of the airline captains were former Army or barnstorming pilots. Commercial aviation was still being invented, there just weren’t that many rules, and any crash taught investigators a lot, resulting in guidelines that became new rules. For example, there was a radio beam for planes to follow, but around Las Vegas the weather was always clear and the flight crews flew by “contact” with the ground—what they could see. They didn’t bother to use the radio beam. In the wake of the investigation, flight crews were ordered to use the radio beam at all times. Also, weight of the aircraft was an issue and there would be no more fudging of the numbers to make sure an overloaded ship was cleared for takeoff.

Q. Was the airline sued?

TWA was sued by the family of Alice Getz, the stewardess of Flight 3. But MGM, Clark’s studio, represented Carole and her traveling companions, Elizabeth Peters, who was Carole’s mother, and Otto Winkler, who was Gable’s press representative at MGM. We will never know what the under-the-table amount was in this matter. There is no written record of it. Most of the people on the plane were soldiers, and at the time, TWA and the War Department were working very closely together and so there weren’t going to be any lawsuits involving those cases.

Q. What type of projects can we expect in the future?

I have always been drawn to old Hollywood, and used to think only in terms of biographies. But Fireball was an eye opener, and I learned the power of looking at a significant event from all angles. I think I’d like to try that again.

Q. Can you tell the Margaret Lockwood Society a bit about yourself?

I was raised in the Pittsburgh area and still live there. My wife Mary and I are nearing our 20th anniversary. I used to be a big reader, back when there was time, and my heroes were Alexandre Dumas and Robert B. Parker. Both writers used elements of mystery in their stories, Parker much moreso, of course, and I always liked that.

I’ve been a professional writer for more than 25 years and a filmmaker for more than 20. My day job has always involved writing and editing, and I spent 10 years supporting communications efforts for NASA’s aeronautics program. That background came in handy when sifting through all the aviation-related information in the crash investigations.

Fireball is my sixth book. Two previous books have been about Errol Flynn—one about his infamous house and the other about his professional and personal association with Olivia de Havilland. I’ve been an on-air or on-mic expert about Flynn, de Havilland, Lombard, and Gable, for various documentaries over the years.

As a filmmaker, I’ve done lots of things as writer, producer, and director, but I guess my claim to fame is a documentary called When the Forest Ran Red about George Washington and the French & Indian War, which appeared on PBS and is still considered the classic interpretation of that conflict. It’s no coincidence that When the Forest Ran Red uses the same style of storytelling as Fireball: plunging the viewer into the middle of an unfolding story as a participant who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, really, the viewer does know, but it doesn’t matter because they’re hooked and must find out what happens next, and why.

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