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no country for middle-aged starlets

here's a thing*: carole lombard, at the age of thirty-three, was returning to california from her home state of indiana after raising funds for war bonds.she was traveling with her mother, elizabeth peters, and an mgm press agent, otto winkler. her party had initially been scheduled to return to los angeles by train, but lombard was anxious to reach home more quickly and wanted to take a plane. her mother and winkler were both afraid of flying and insisted they follow their original travel plans. they begged her to take the train. being the fair person she was, carole said they would flip a coin: heads the train, tails the plane. the coin came up tails. apparently, due to wartime aviation restrictions, the only transcontinental flight available had several intermediate stops. when the plane landed in albuquerque it was pressed into service for the transport of 15 army pilots. lombard's party was asked to give up their seats, but she insisted that her war bond efforts gave her priority, and other passengers gave up their seats instead. a new flight crew took over and though a refueling stop had been planned in winslow, arizona, because of the higher loads and forecast headwinds, the captain decided to skip winslow and proceed directly to nevada. the plane was due to stop at boulder city, nevada, but the aforementioned wartime restrictions meant there were no landing lights there and so the pilot instead headed for las vegas. after a brief refueling stop in las vegas, the plane took off on a clear night for its final leg to burbank. fifteen minutes later, flying almost seven miles off course, it crashed into a near vertical cliff of potosi mountain, killing all on board. in the investigation, it was determined that the pilot failed to adjust his flight plan after the switch from boulder city to las vegas. had the plane left from boulder city, the coordinates used would have taken the plane safely around the mountain. the story of the coin flip was apparently reported by witnesses in indiana, since an article the next day in the eugene, oregon register-guard, before lombard's death had even been confirmed, stated: "hollywood heard that winkler preferred to make the trip by train but that the actress insisted upon an airplane trip. they tossed a coin. miss lombard won--and presumably lost her life."

a life at the mercy of a flip of a coin...
and yet, a chance to avoid the ill-fated flight...
why should it be?

and, though it may not seem to be much to you, get this: among the four passengers who gave up their seats in albuquerque and thus survived was virtuoso violinist joseph szigeti. in 1939, to escape the war and nazi persecution of the jews, szigeti emigrated with his wife to the united states, where they settled in california. (a year later, bartók also fled to america, and just two days after his arrival, he and szigeti played a sonata recital at the library of congress in washington, d.c.) though this performance had already occurred prior to that flight in 1942, it wasn't until 1947 that he published his memoir, with strings attached. in that memoir he ever so briefly mentions the flight:

"when, walking my dogs in the company of some friend on the golf links adjoining our home, i catch myself making that widely sweeping, slightly comic gesture toward the almost neapolitan blue of "our" bay (a gesture implying that i have proprietary rights in all this beauty surrounding us), i have to smile inwardly. barely five years ago the whole region was unknown to us, and now this feeling of having our roots here. ... a summer vacation that perpetuated itself. a california interlude between a spring and a fall tour that became a thing of permanence. a thing of permanence in which, now, the tours have become the interludes in the real business of living.

that proprietary gesture of mine would be so much more fitting coming from my wife. for she, giving so much of herself to the soil surrounding our house - planning, digging, planting our garden by the sweat of her brow - can rightfully have a feeling of earth-nearness and of root-taking. indeed, i myself never saw this home of ours (which my wife had bought and furnished while i was on tour) until one memorable day in january 1942 - memorable because, only five hours before my arrival, i had left the plane at albuquerque in order to make room for some ferrying pilots; and that was the plane that crashed shortly afterward, carrying carole lombard and all those young pilots to their deaths! rodzinski, in his telegram of congratulation, called this day my "rebirthday" -- as indeed it was. inevitably the coincidence made a deep mark on me and heightened the feeling of bindung between the soil and myself.

anything that helped one to overcome the depression that followed and persisted after may 1940, that helped one to bear the torturing uncertainty about one's kin in europe, about one's home and belongings, all at the mercy of the invading oppressor, becomes a part of oneself in a very special way. settling down somewhere in happier days, with the choice of the whole world spread out before one's greed, could never have this quality of inevitableness that persists even after one is free to roam the world again."

and it would be still more years before he wrote szigeti on the violin.
ah, chance. why should it be?


*i recently watched the movie to be or not to be (1942) which starred lombard and while the script has its flaws, it's very interesting to see a movie about the polish underground resistance against the nazis which was written, filmed, and published before the extent of the nazi crimes was public knowledge. it's a weird dynamic with a comic farce taking place in such serious surroundings. i naturally liked the use of hamlet and its play within a play device as well as the use of merchant.

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