Search

Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter

Entries in FBI (2)

Wednesday
Aug292012

The FBI's File on Carole Lombard

Last month I wrote about the FBI's file on the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a post that attracted many readers. Now I'm putting up my notes on the FBI's file on the movie actress Carole Lombard, a contemporary of Wright's who — owing to a mysterious airplane accident — enjoyed a much shorter life.  Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred

Carole Lombard
Name at birth: Jane Alice Peters
Born: October 6, 1908, Fort Wayne, Indiana
Occupation: Actress
Accomplishments: Acclaimed performances in Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), To Be or Not to Be (1942), with appearances in 45 other films
Died: January 16, 1942
FBI file thickness: one-half inch

Background to the file

At the time of America’s entry into World War II, Carole Lombard was one of the country’s best-known and most popular movie stars. Married to the actor Clark Gable, she represented romance, sass, and brains.  

All those qualities made Lombard a natural promoter of United States Defense Bonds (later called U.S. War Bonds) when the war effort was underway. On January 15, 1942, she launched the·nation’s first full-scale bond drive in her home state of Indiana. At the state capitol in Indianapolis, she led a daytime bond rally in which she signed autographs and urged the crowd to buy bonds. That night she appeared on stage with Governor Henry Schricker before a crowd of 12,000, sang the national anthem a capella, and roused the audience to a frenzy.
Her quota for bond sales was $500,000, but Lombard inspired Indianans to contribute an astounding $2,017,513.

After her successes that day, Lombard wanted to immediately return home to Southern California because she was soon scheduled to appear at a preview screening of To Be or Not To Be, and production was about to begin on her next film, He Kissed the Bride. She declined an invitation to lead another bond rally on January 16 at a department store in Indianapolis and booked passage for herself, her mother Bess Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler on Transcontinental and Western Airlines Flight 3 to Los Angeles, departing early on the morning of January 16.  Her mother had never flown before, was apprehensive, and pleaded to take the train, but Lombard won a coin toss that settled the matter.Lombard in Vigil in the Night

At Indianapolis Municipal Airport, Lombard and her party boarded the 21-seat Douglas Transport that was scheduled to bring them to Los Angeles 17 hours later. Many of the other passengers were military personnel, fliers in the Army Ferry Command. At a scheduled stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group of additional fliers with military orders to board awaited the plane — which meant that several civilian passengers had to surrender their seats. Lombard raised a fuss and protected the seats of her party, but the Hungarian-born concert violinist Joseph Szigeti, en route to Hollywood to perform in the film Holiday Inn, was bumped, along with three other passengers.  

Later that day, Flight 3 made an unscheduled fueling stop in Las Vegas. The plane took off again at about 7 p.m. for Los Angeles.  After a short time in the air, the plane slammed into the peak of Double Up Mountain, about 11 miles north of Goodsprings, Nevada.  Everyone on board — 19 passengers and three crew members — died.

Lombard's FBI File

The first entries in Lombard’s file merely mention her in connection with the FBI’s brushes with Hollywood. A memo from the FBI’s Los Angeles bureau to J. Edgar Hoover, refreshes the director’s memory on a visit he paid to Paramount Studios on September 13, 1937. There he met several Hollywood celebrities, including Lombard, Cecil B. DeMille, Frederic March, Edgar Kennedy, director Wesley Ruggles, and producer Albert Lewen. An entry dated April 9, 1940, is a letter from L.A. bureau special agent R.B. Hood to Hoover, describing the bureau’s efforts to establish contacts and informants in the movie industry. Hood notes that the bureau built a relationship with Russell Birdwell, a publicist for Lombard and Clark Gable, who in several investigations was “most cooperative with this office...and he has rendered every assistance to the Agents.”

Most of Lombard’s file, however, concerns the investigation of the plane crash that killed her and the FBI’s attempts to determine whether sabotage caused the accident. Agents researched the background of the pilot, Wayne C. Williams, and the co-pilot, Morgan A. Gilette. They interviewed an eye-witness to the crash (name redacted) who said he saw flames streaking out of one of the motors. A Clark County, Nevada, deputy sheriff [name redacted] who had been among the first people to reach the crash site on January 17, told agents that “the passengers had been literally thrown through the side of the cabin, which had practically disintegrated after the crash. It appeared to [name redacted] that the nose of the ship had gone up after the crash, but the rest of the ship had fallen back down several hundred feet after the crash into a small ravine.... Further, there were parts of bodies, mail, luggage, and parts of the plane scattered over a wide area.”

This scene of devastation was similarly described by an inspector for the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), who told agents that “he had viewed numerous airplane accidents but he felt that this was the most complete wreckage that he had ever viewed.”

Espionage was foremost in the minds of the FBI agents investigating the crash. The file contains a letter that the agency received, dated January 24, from a citizen who speculated that the pilot of Flight 3 may have been slipped “dope or knockout drops” in a drink before the departure from Las Vegas. Another letter, postmarked in Cincinnati, Ohio, on January 27, offered an apparently imagined scenario for the downing of Lombard’s flight by a German agent. “There was a fight in the cockpit,” the letter writer narrates.  “He made threats to some men at airport[;] that’s why they put pilots [aboard], to stop him but he carried out his threats.”

The FBI could hardly take these speculations seriously, but the file also includes a report dated February 2, 1942, describing statements from an unnamed communist informant that “investigators should concentrate their attention on the Hungarian violinist who gave up his seat on the plane to the soldiers. He probably left something on the plane, probably a violin case which contained something which affected the plane’s instruments. He is a member of the ‘Peteci,’ Hungarian Gestapo and previously gave up his seat under similar circumstances to soldiers who were also killed in a plane crash.” Several file letters from citizens echo the suspicion that Joseph Szigeti could have caused the crash.1930 concert poster for Szigeti

The FBI did investigate this possibility.  It checked out rumors that Szigeti relinquished a seat on Pennsylvania Central Airlines Flight 19 on August 31, 1940, before that flight crashed near Lovettesville, Virginia, after takeoff from Washington.  Killed in that accident were U.S. Senator Ernest Lundeen (R-Minn.), an FBI agent, and others. Agents in Richmond, Virginia, found no evidence that Szigeti ever had a seat reserved on that flight, however.  In a report titled “Undeveloped Leads,” agents in the El Paso Field Division were directed to determine if Szigeti was forced to surrender his space or did so voluntarily, and whether he might have left any baggage on the plane. The file does not reveal what, if anything, the agents learned.
 
But the file tells how agents did follow up on another lead: UFOs, reported by several eye-witnesses, that may have played a role in the crash. One of those witnesses (name redacted), a CAA employee, explained in a letter dated February 23, 1942, that he saw “a strange light” on the night of January 12 or 13.  At about 7 p.m. that evening, he and another employee were driving a CAA truck towards Baker, California, on the Death Valley Highway.  “I glanced to the west and we both noted a light above the crestline of the mountains, which was about 15 miles distant,” he wrote.  “This light was a white bright light similar to an 18 inch course light, stationary and suspended against the sky as a background, and never moved or varied as long as we could see.... It looked round, more like a ball.  I am satisfied it was not a star because we drove back to the station approximately an hour later and the light was gone.”  In addition, the light was much larger and brighter than any star.  “We dismissed it from [our] minds because we could give no reasonable explanation for it.”

The letter goes on to explain that a few days later, while helping in the search for the plane wreck, the CAA employee recalled the sighting when he met a local rancher named Willard H. George, who described a similar light he saw just a few minutes before the crash. The file contains a copy of a long letter George wrote to a CAA panel that was investigating the cause of the accident.  George, a native of Las Vegas, had owned a cattle ranch in the nearby hills for 15 years. “[I] have ridden this territory [on] horseback both when I was a boy and in later years...and know the territory in which this plane fell probably as well as anyone in that country,” he wrote.

On the evening of January 16, the letter explains, George and his wife were driving home from the El Rancho Hotel in Las Vegas. About six miles west of the city, they saw above a mountain ridge “a reddish-yellow glowing light which seemed suspended in the air.” The Georges continued to see the light as they drove west.  “We first thought it was a big bonfire in the mountains, but looking more closely at it saw that there was no flicker to it. As we drove along watching it, I made the remark that if it were forty years back, I would say that it was the Indians building fires in the mountains gathering pine nuts which was their custom in those days.”

After arriving home, George saw an airplane approaching — presumably the plane carrying Lombard.  He observed that it “went into dives known perhaps as the movements of a [porpoise] leaping in and out of the water. These dives and climbs I would judge were at least two hundred feet and each time that one of those dives and climbs were made, the plane seemed to gain a little altitude.” After recovering from a flat spin, the plane proceeded southwest in the direction of the Portasee Mountains. "Being an American boy, raised on a ranch and having a great deal of experience in hunting and killing of hawks, the plane appeared to me like a hawk that might be shot while soaring in the air — he hesitates and flutters around, then gains strength and flies off, then ducks and dives in the air and gains his strength and sails off somewhere to die,” George wrote.

The Szigeti and UFO leads never yielded any useful information.  The FBI’s field report on the crash, dated January 21, contains the opinions of a CAA official who said “there had been no evidence of sabotage as yet, and it did not appear as though there was going to be any such evidence to appear, although the [CAA’s] investigation had not been completed.”  Apparently, the FBI eventually agreed with the verdict of no sabotage.

Postscript

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt publicly mourned Lombard’s crash by declaring her “the first woman to be killed in action in the defense of her country in its war against the Axis powers.”  

Joseph Szigeti (whose birth name was Josef Singer) seems in retrospect a highly unlikely suspect of pro-Nazi sabotage. A Jewish refugee from Europe, he had been prevented from giving a live performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto on German radio May 7, 1933, a month after Joseph Goebbels took control of the country’s broadcasts. Szigeti did not again perform in Germany until after the war. His providential departure from Flight 3 had a strong effect on the violinist. In his autobiography With Strings Attached he described how he had been en route to his new house in California when he lost his seat on the flight. Szigeti called the day of the crash his “second birthday” and noted that giving up his seat on the plane “made a deep mark on me and heightened the feeling of Bindung [connection] between the soil and myself.”  He outlived Lombard by 29 years.Spring Mountains, near Las Vegas. Photo by Stan Shebs

Williard H. George was a well-known Hollywood furrier who lived at Spring Mountain Ranch for fifteen years.  He long championed the chinchilla fur industry and died in 1956. His son, Hampton George of Carpenteria, California, was only three years old when Lombard’s plane crashed, but he remembered his father’s stories about the tragedy. “He didn’t embellish much when he told stories,” George recalls. “He was from the old school.” His home at Spring Mountain Ranch later passed through the hands of several different owners before becoming a Nevada state park in 1974.

 

Sunday
Jul082012

The FBI’s File on Frank Lloyd Wright

When I researched a project years ago with Freedom of Information Act expert Michael Ravnitzky, he showed me a copy he had acquired of the FBI’s file on the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It included a wealth of detail on several themes (real or imagined by the FBI) in Wright’s life that I found fascinating. So here, for what it’s worth, are some of my notes from that FBI file on a couple of the investigations that the FBI initiated against Wright. 

First, though, a bit of background. In 1923, Wright married Miriam Noel, an actress and artist. They proved to be a wretched match. Just three months after their wedding, Noel left Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and refused to return.

Wright in 1926, when the FBI was dogging him for Mann Act violationsWright sued for divorce. Soon he struck up a relationship with Olga Milanov, a 28-year-old Montenegrin mystical dancer and the mother of a 7-year-old girl. Milanov moved in with Wright at Taliesin in 1924 and bore him a daughter, Iovanna, the following year. Noel heard stories about this new woman in her husband’s life, ended their divorce negotiations, and vowed never to free Wright. Throughout 1926, she harassed Milanov, tried to break her way into Taliesin, and finally swore out a warrant of adultery against Wright at the courthouse in Baraboo, Wisconsin. 

Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

The charge of adultery led Wright to flee Taliesin with Milanov and the children. They headed for Minneapolis. Using false names, they briefly stayed in that city before renting a cabin on the shore of nearby Lake Minnetonka. Two months passed peacefully, but on the night of October 20, 1926, county deputies appeared at the cabin and took the entire family into custody. Wright spent two nights in the Hennepin County Jail and was charged with violating the Mann Act, a federal statute prohibiting the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes.” Wright told the press: “Legally, I am wrong, but morally I am right, just as right as Jesus Christ ever was.”

From Wright’s FBI File

Investigating adultery

After federal officials charged Wright with violating the Mann Act, Bureau agents attempted to track Wright’s movements from Wisconsin to Minnesota to establish that he crossed state lines with Milanov. At the Nicollet Hotel in Minneapolis the agents obtained testimony from the staff that Wright and Milanov had spent a night in adjoining rooms after registering as F.W. Wilson and Anna Richardson of Madison, Wisconsin. Continuing to follow the trail, agents found that the pair had spent the next night at the Old Orchard Hotel near Lake Minnetonka before renting their lakefront cabin. 

During the November 1926 federal hearings in which Wright was charged with the crime, an enterprising Bureau agent attempted to interrogate Wright at his temporary residence in the Minneapolis Athletic Club. Notes the case report: “Agent asked him whether or not he cared to talk. Subject replied, ‘Sure, I will; what kind of questions are you going to ask me? The only thing I have done is to bring [name redacted by FBI] over from Wisconsin, to earn them a living.’” After phoning his lawyer, Wright refused to say more.

Finally, says a later case report, United States District Attorney LaFayette French, Jr., ultimately declined to continue the Mann Act prosecution, deeming the evidence insufficient to warrant further action. 

Postscript

Frank Lloyd Wright married Olga Milanov in 1928, and they remained married until Wright’s death 31 years later. “You know, in 1926 I landed in jail here,” he said during a public appearance in Minneapolis in 1956. “Nothing came of it, though. It was just meant to embarrass me — and it did.”

A charge of sedition

Wright next fell under the FBI’s scrutiny in December 1942, when federal judge Patrick T. Stone publicly accused him of obstructing America’s effort to fight World War II by persuading his architecture apprentices to apply en masse for conscientious objector status. Judge Stone had sentenced one of those apprentices, Marcus Earl Weston, to prison for refusing to report for induction. In a memo dated December 17, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover asked his Milwaukee bureau to look into the judge’s charges. 

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. 

The FBI already knew about Wright’s sentiments on international affairs. A citizen informant warned Hoover that Wright “has been sounding off in the worst possible fashion and ought to get his knuckles severely rapped. He’s been making speeches to the effect that we ought to let Japan have what she wants in Asia, they’re really nice people, etc.”

Agents from Milwaukee converged upon Spring Green to examine Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship. Taliesin from the air. Photo by Jeff Dean, from Wikimedia CommonsAccording to a clipping from the New York Herald Tribune preserved in the FBI file, 19 young architects were then studying Wright’s concepts of organic architecture as part of the Fellowship, which had been founded in 1932. The apprentices paid $1,100 a year for their experience, and they were also responsible for helping farm Taliesin’s 200 acres, making wine and bread, and maintaining the property. 

An agent noted in a case report dated March 3, 1943, that two years earlier 26 Taliesin fellows had petitioned the draft board in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, for conscientious objector status. “Petitionists claimed their work as architects in a constructive field was more vital to interior defense than service in the army,” the agent wrote. The draft board denied the request.

Interviewed by the agent was a member (name redacted) of the Dodgeville draft board, who observed that Wright “was regarded by members of the fellowship as somewhat of an idol, a tin god, or a master, who could do no wrong. They believed in his ideas of organic architecture and felt that as long as they were together, serving under this master, they could do no wrong and were more or less immune to local restrictions and laws.” 

Finally an FBI agent interviewed Wright. “Subject vehemently denied in any way influencing, counseling, or aiding members of his fellowship to claim conscientious objection and opposition to military service and pointed out that members of his group were serving in the armed forces at the present time,” the agent wrote. “He readily admitted his influence in the environment of the Fellowship necessarily had a great deal to do with the boys in their claims.... [The draft law] was in reality destroying their Fellowship, scattering them throughout the world, and completely destroying the one thing in which they believed most sincerely.” 

Hoover received this report and forwarded it to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge. On April 6, 1943, Berge replied: “It is our view that the facts do not warrant prosecution under the Sedition Statutes and we are requesting no further investigation at this time.” Hoover would not let go of the case, however. On July 17 he received a report from Special Agent in Charge H.T. O’Connor containing new evidence damaging to Wright. An informant (name redacted) had revealed that Wright once declared that “none of ‘his boys’ would have to go to war under the conscription act except over his dead body.” Hoover sent this information to Berge, who again declined to prosecute Wright.

Postscript

Marcus Earl Weston, one of three Taliesin Fellows who received prison terms for refusing conscription into the armed forces, served six months of a three-year sentence at Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota and then was assigned to work with conscientious objectors in the hospital kitchen at the University of Michigan. During the 1990s, as a retired architect living in Spring Green, Wisconsin, he acknowledged that many people believed that Wright influenced him to resist the draft. “Mr. Wright was opposed to the war, there was no question on that,” he said. “But he didn’t try to influence the boys to become conscientious objectors. When the draft was first passed, a couple of the boys got together one evening to compose a letter to send to the local draft board, asking that we be left alone. It was passed around and practically all of the fellows signed it, including myself. It went to the draft board, and it was like waving a flag in front of a bull. After war was declared, most of the fellows went into the service. I was the first one who stood by my convictions and refused to go.”