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.
Name at birth: Jane Alice Peters
Born: October 6, 1908, Fort Wayne, Indiana
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.
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.
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.
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.