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

TWA’s Flight 3 , a Douglas DC-3, crashed one evening in January 1942 on Mt. Potosi, Nevada.  The commercial flight carried twenty two passengers including the famous Hollywood actress, Carole Lombard, wife of  the reigning “King” of Hollywood, Clark Gable . Until this day how this crash took place remains shrouded in mystery. Author Robert Matzen explores all aspects pertaining to this crash in his exciting new book, “Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3”. Matzen is well known for his series of books centred around Hollywood.

It is ironic that the feisty actress Lombard, often described as a “fireball” in the super-competitive world of Hollywood, should have come down in a fireball of flames following that ill-fated flight. 

The way a book is structured gives you an inkling to the mind and approach of the author. Matzen writes in a journalistic style tracking several stories simultaneously all through the book. You are therefore reading about the background stories of Carole Lombard (originally Jane Alice Peters of Fort Wayne, Indiana)  and her husband Clark Gable ( with many other important Hollywood personalities thrown in) just as you are following the steps of the rescue team that set out to find the crash site on top of Mount Potosi, which loomed over the desert west of Las Vegas at an altitude of 8,200 feet above sea level.

Carole Lombard made a huge impact on the lives of many people. She was a “natural”. The book describes her early struggles in Hollywood, a car crash that almost ended her acting career, and her marriage to a major star, actor William Powell. By the late 1930s she had become the highest paid actress in Hollywood. She later married Clark Gable in 1939 who was then at the peak of his illustrious career. They made the most glamorous couple of that era.

Matzen’s extremely well researched book gives you many insights into the life and personality of the actress who was the first in Hollywood to lend a hand to the War Effort by the selling of War Bonds. The air crash took place sadly when she was rushing to be back with her husband in California after an unprecedented success in Indianapolis. That day she had been responsible for over $2,000,000 worth of War Bonds being sold when the target had been just $50,000.

The book also traces the life and career of Clark Gable who was ruggedness personified in Hollywood, but had many complexities to his personality which can be traced back to his early infancy.

Matzen does not restrict himself to following the story of Carole Lombard. He writes of the many airmen, most of them in their early 20s who died in that air crash. They too had their dreams, aspirations and challenges which Matzen chronicles.

Why did the DC-3 crash take evening in 1942? Was it pilot error, though the pilot Wayne Williams was a seasoned veteran? Was the co-pilot Gillette at fault? Was it an act of sabotage? After all the United States had only then entered the Second World War following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. In January 1942, there were supposedly still quite a number of Americans living in the United States who opposed the War or supported Nazi Germany and Japan

As always is the case in such stories, we have no idea what fate has in store for anyone including the rich and the famous. Lombard’s mother and her agent were dead against taking a flight. They had planned on a train journey. Lombard, full of life,  challenged her agent and the toss of a coin decided they would fly! The Government had at that time laid down strictures against civilians flying on military flights. Flight 3 had virtually been commandeered by the US Army Air Force. Lombard and her companions were to be boarded off the plane but she fought back arguing that she too was contributing to the war effort and managed to stay on the plane.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would not hesitation to recommend it to readers who like me would enjoy an interesting combination of a biography, action thriller, and mystery novel.

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