Deja Vu Tuesday: The Carole Lombard Mystery

Written by on August 2, 2016 in DeJa Vu - 4 Comments
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“Every picture tells a story don’t it,” Rod Stewart famously sang in the early 1970s, the same decade that brought us other grammatical atrocities in song titles such as “Baby I’ma want you.” But sometimes the story told by a photograph is not the truth, but an artful work of fiction that gets repeated every time the photo is reproduced. Or as British journalist Harold Evans wrote in 1978, “The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth.”

Hollywood celebrities are especially adept at using the camera to paint a tale of their lives that may not be entirely accurate. Hoosier-born actress Carole Lombard was no exception, relying on lighting and photo retouching to mask the scars on her face from a catastrophic automobile accident in her teens.

But on January 15, 1942, Lombard may have pulled off the biggest photo scam of her career by tricking news photographers, local dignitaries, and hundreds of fans and bystanders into believing that she had just arrived via train at Union Station to headline a WWII bond drive when in fact she had flown to Indy the evening before to secretly meet with a palm reader who would warn the star of her imminent death.

Pages from Lombard

The Indianapolis News, January 15, 1942

I first learned of the possible staged photo two months ago, when I received an intriguing email with a subject line that read, “Libby, I have a very cold case.”

The out-of-the-blue message was from Robert Matzen, author of Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, a haunting look at the Hollywood star’s final days and her ill-fated flight from Indianapolis that ended in a fiery crash on a Nevada mountainside on January 16, 1942.

When Matzen visited Indy in 2014 as part of the Fireball book tour, he learned for the first time that according to local lore, Lombard met with a famous Indianapolis palm reader in the final hours of her life who predicted Lombard’s impending death. Matzen is now working on an expanded paperback edition of Fireball to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Lombard’s death, and is trying to verify the story.

The_Indianapolis_Star_Sun__Mar_9__1913_

The Indianapolis Star, March 9, 1913

If you’re an Indianapolis history buff, you’ve probably heard the story, which was repeated with frequency and flair by Ken Keene, the late owner of an historic Meridian Park bungalow built in 1910 by famed Indianapolis palm reader Nellie Simmons Meier and her husband, fashion designer George Meier.  During her remarkable 40-year career, Nellie Meier read the palms of hundreds of famous actors, writers and politicians, many of whom visited Tuckaway, the Meiers’ charming home at 3128 Pennsylvania Street.

Keene purchased Tuckaway and most of its contents from Meier’s niece in 1972, thirty years after Lombard’s death. In 1977, he told The Indianapolis Star that Meier that had warned Lombard of imminent danger when the actress visited Tuckaway during the war bond drive in January 1942.  Lombard was killed a few hours later.

Although it’s unclear how Keene may have obtained this information, he repeated the story frequently and with great relish.  I even heard him tell it once, on a summer evening about 20 years ago, as we sat in Tuckaway’s dimly lit parlor and listened raptly to Keene’s stories of the bungalow’s famous occupants and the ghosts they left behind.

Claypool Mansion

Two sites that Carole Lombard visited during the war bond drive

Lombard, who at the height of her career was the highest-paid female star in Hollywood, spent the day before her death in Indianapolis launching a war bond drive that sold over $2 million in bonds to aid the war effort.  According to newspaper reports, Lombard boarded a train in Chicago on the morning of January 15 and arrived at Union Station at 1:35 p.m., where she was met by Mayor Reginald Sullivan and other dignitaries. She then embarked on a jam-packed day of activities that included a bond drive at the Statehouse, a flag raising at the Claypool Hotel, tea at the Governor’s Mansion and a patriotic rally at Cadle Tabernacle.

After the rally, Lombard returned to her suite at the Claypool Hotel, visited with some Indiana relatives, and then left the hotel shortly after 2 a.m. to board a plane to Los Angeles, where she shared a home with her husband, Clark Gable.

Given her frenetic schedule of public appearances, Matzen believes that the only way Lombard could have found time to meet with Meier was if the star secretly flew to Indianapolis the evening before the bond drive, stayed overnight at the Claypool Hotel, and then met up with the rest of her traveling party that afternoon at Union Station to make it appear as if she had just arrived with them via train.

Lombard mystery

The bed from the Claypool suite where Carole Lombard stayed the night before her death. The Propylaeum acquired the bed and other furnishings from Lombard’s room at an auction in 2000.

As implausible as that may sound, Matzen does have some evidence to support this theory.   Life magazine photographer Myron Davis was assigned to cover Lombard’s trip to Indiana, and was at Lombard’s side most of the time during the final three days of her life. In 2009, Black & White magazine interviewed Davis about his Lombard photographs, which are among the last ever taken of the actress who charmed America with her beauty and mad-cap wit.  Davis said:

Lombard didn’t like flying, and had taken a train from Los Angeles that was bound for Chicago. The train made a brief stop in Salt Lake City on January 13, where she spoke to people waiting on the platform and sold some war bonds. Then she got back on the train and proceeded to Chicago, where she sold more bonds and did some interviews. From Chicago she flew to Indianapolis on Wednesday evening, and met her mother at the train station the next morning.

In researching the expanded edition of Fireball, Matzen found flight schedules from 1942 that show flights arriving in Indy from Chicago on the evening of January 14.  He’s now looking for any evidence that Lombard stayed at the Claypool or another local hotel the evening before the bond drive, and contacted me after he ran across an HI article I wrote several years ago about the huge sale of artifacts from the Claypool when the hotel was demolished in 1969.  Matzen was hoping that I might know what happened to the guest registers from the Claypool.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any information about the guest registers, but am hopeful that an HI reader may know if they were spared from the trash heap when the Claypool was demolished.  During the hotel’s heyday, it was common practice for guests to sign a register, which means that if the guest registers survived, they bear the signatures of hundreds of celebrities and politicians who stayed at the Claypool during the storied hotel’s nearly 70-year history.
Nussbaum
I did find an interesting tidbit in The Indianapolis Times. On January 16, 1942, Times columnist Lowell Nussbaum wrote:

[T]he glamorous star almost lost the official reception committee at Union Station yesterday. Manager Otto Winkler grabbed Carole by the hand and started waltzing her right through the crowd as soon as they got off the train. He had elbowed and shoved her past the police guard and the committee… and they were about 50 yards in the clear when a newspaper photographer managed to tackle them. Carole blushed and hurried back to be photographed with the committee.

Although Nussbaum’s column lends credence to the theory that Lombard flew to Indianapolis the evening before the bond drive and then staged a fake arrival by train, it doesn’t shed any light on the question that has been nagging at Matzen: Did Nellie Simmons Meier predict Lombard’s death? As Matzen wrote in an email to me, “This is such a chilling story, if true, and adds to a truly macabre set of events that led up to the plane crash near Las Vegas.”

It’s been nearly 75 years since Carole Lombard’s death, and all of the people who had first-hand or even second-hand knowledge of the events at Tuckaway in January 1942 are dead.  Nellie Simmons Meier died of diabetes in 1944. Her niece, who was living at Tuckaway in 1942 and who sold the house to Keene, died in 1973. Myron Davis, the Life photographer who chronicled the last days of Carole Lombard’s life, was killed in a house fire in 2010. And Ken Keene, the longtime caretaker of Tuckaway and its myriad secrets, died in 2015.

Tuckaway has been empty since Keene’s death last year, but a 1930s photograph of Carole Lombard still hangs on the wall. The handwritten inscription from Lombard to Meier reads, “With my sincere belief of your greatness, and your sweetness in helping me.”

Tuckaway summer

Tuckaway, July 2016

For more information about Tuckaway and its famous occupants, George Philip Meier and Nellie Simmons Meier, check out local historian Connie Zeigler’s latest work, Life By Design: The Meiers of Tuckaway. It’s beautifully written and filled with amazing photos of the Meiers and their home.

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About the Author

Libby Cierzniak is a partner at Faegre, Baker & Daniels, LLP, practicing primarily in the area of government affairs. A native of Kokomo, she became fascinated with historic preservation and Indianapolis history in the 1990s while working in the newly renovated Statehouse. She's an avid collector of "old Indianapolis"--books, photographs, advertising and other items--and loves to research and share information with others about the city's rich and colorful history. Libby, her husband and their two chronically misbehaving dogs live in an 1894 home in the Old Northside, where she serves on the board of the neighborhood association.

4 Comments on "Deja Vu Tuesday: The Carole Lombard Mystery"

  1. donna mikels shea August 2, 2016 at 2:00 pm · Reply

    Libby: More detail than I can type here but if you want more details of CL stay at Claypool (told directly to me by Bryan, Pauline, Paula Karr–Claypool mgr.family who lived in hotel, were my lifelong friends and for whom I set up the benefit Propylaeum Auction to help last living member Paula dispose of Claypool memorabilia at a bad time in her life. I had Tony Stuart pro bono bring furniture, artifacts from storage in Denver, got dear friend to underwrite Prop purchase of best items. Hence, I became the repository of “unknown “details. Back story is that in ’43-50-ish period, Claypool was my “beat” for Indpls Times, plus my home away from home -best friends until her death with Paula (radio name Paula Carr WIRE live daily “Breakfast with Paula” live from C’pool coffee shop and interview shows.) Her father Bryan Karr was big downtown booster, one of creators of 500 Festival, doting Daddy to Paula. Few ever knew details of Lombard stay there–or Clark G. secret visit after Lombard’s death. What became the Lombard Suite, (later Presidential Suite where Eisenhower stayed and I worked as “housemaid” until recognized) . When Gable was notified of her death (siebar: his gossiped-about carrying-ons with Lana Turner (I think) is what set green-eyed Carol into sudden return.) Gable asked suite be left as is, it was, and Mr.Karr later in life said Gable came secretly, either saw or stayed in room. That’s just gossip. But what is fact is that when the housemaids did clean, make up the suite, one of them cleaning down beneath a couch pillow found a gold ring with a single pearl in it. She turned it in as was required and Karr in turn contacted Gable who said to give it to the maid…(no one knew if it was hers or perhaps from one of many locals who she hosted while in the suite–) It was customary when lost-found items were not claimed to give to finder. But when Mr. Karr tried, the maid, perhaps as superstitious as the star, shied away and said she did not want it, opting instead for the $50 reward Karr paid. He gave the ring to Paula. She still had it when she died a few years ago in the Park City home of her only surviving daughter–again, one of our closest friends. But FYI, former Channel 8 staffer and author Dave Smith is the Bible on CL–has written great articles, book. Do not have his current contact, he is retired from Ball State, great guy.

    • Libby Cierzniak August 2, 2016 at 3:14 pm · Reply

      Thanks! Great info as always, Donna.

  2. donna mikels shea August 4, 2016 at 3:31 pm · Reply

    Libby–I am a klutz–and a dumb one at that. As we have in the past and more recently touched upon the Claypool, I have sent dribs and drabbles of information. And I noted your recent wish that you could have access to more things–like register–(so would I!) and more details….I don’t know what IHS might have but there was an “interruption” (year uncertain but maybe mid to late 50’s, in management. The longtime mgr. and downtown business dynamo who ran, lived in, lived and breathed Claypool W. Bryan Karr had beginnings of health issues, getting serious, and the absentee ownership of the time, a “Christian” foundation, fired him summarily uprooting not just his life but his home. His wife Pauline, who had put genius into decorating, restoring, re-purposing artifacts that were to be pitched and his daughter were devastated–and they started packing up their lives including many many things that but for her would have been trashed–the Lombard furniture, the drawer in which they found Dorothy Poore’s body, tables she had created from old discarded wrought iron (I have one) ahead of a massive tear out and destroy. For years after his death and later hers, these artifacts were stored in Denver or used in only daughter’s home (she married Indiana golf legend Fred Wampler Jr. and they moved in the PGA, golf pro circles–but after his death, that is when the financial squeeze as well as emotional one hit her–and she turned to me tfor help—hence the sale for the Prop. But–what I started out to tell you–there was a period before my linkage to Claypool in which there was a massive inside re-do—with artists, architects, decorators going all out–including creating, publishing a sketch book of the new finery. And, I have the original sketches–always meant to have framed in a sequence but there are a dozen or so detailed bw sketches. So, if you ever want copies..I will oblige. Plus I did a little book about the event so if I can find a copy I would mail to you., I live 7900 north–but still have great deco home (you should do a column on Sol Bodner’;s homes) with Claypool artifacts like brass shield–elevator indicator made into cocktail table…so depending upon your geography and when I get thru next month I would welcome sharing with you. FYI

    • Libby Cierzniak August 4, 2016 at 6:25 pm · Reply

      Donna – we definitely need to get together. I would love to see your Claypool artifacts and talk Indy history with you. Can you email me some dates/times when I can visit with you? I’ll send you an email with my contact information.

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