A fireball burst from the mountainside into the night sky on the southwest edge of the Las Vegas Valley. A plane had crashed. It was a Friday night, Jan. 16, 1942, and the city was still a small enclave of sawdust joints on Fremont Street and a couple of new hotel-casinos on what would eventually be the Strip. The fire burned half the night, leaving a dark patch on the snow-covered Mount Potosi. By morning, the news spread: Twenty-two people died, including the beloved actress Carole Lombard.
When a plane smashes into the earth, it’s instantly shrouded in a sense of mystery. Part of that is our deep suspicion about anything so large flying in the first place. When the economy crashed 65 years later, we felt strangely similar suspicions—something about the ride seemed a little risky all along. Each crash had cultural effects that went way beyond either aviation or high finance, and in each era, Las Vegas had a special role at a moment in national history, as it often does. Lombard’s death contributed to a nation coming together, uniting Hollywood and the military in a time of war. The crash of the nation’s economy, if we look at cultural cues today, has left us ever more divided—which is made evident by, among many things, the bickering Republican presidential primaries making their way to Nevada next month. While the two are very different types of disasters, the way we responded as a culture is nonetheless intriguing on this 70th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 3.
Carole Lombard was a glamorous, outspoken celebrity, with blond hair and big blue eyes and a grip on the nation’s need for a laugh in the Great Depression. She starred in the hits My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, among other screwball comedies that lovingly lampooned the rich. She’d lured the biggest star of the era, Clark Gable, away from his second wife, and they became the hottest couple in Hollywood. Her sexy, plainspoken performances enchanted a nation. Lombard was a superstar—among the highest-paid and most-watched. She starred opposite Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, delivering her lines with what the novelist Graham Greene called “heartbreaking and nostalgic melodies.” In the wake of the Great Crash, those melodies captured the uncertainty of the 1930s, a decade that saw the sorrows of enormous poverty, the growth of the labor movement, the looming threat of fascism abroad, the golden ages of radio and Hollywood, and the thrilling rise of commercial aviation.
At the beginning of that decade, while the nation was tiring of Prohibition, Las Vegas was a small but growing saloon and gambling town. Thousands of workers flocked here to work on Boulder Dam, which was completed in 1935. By 1937, the dam supplied Las Vegas with the electricity it took to fuel Fremont Street’s gambling halls, which became known as Glitter Gulch; and it created Lake Mead, which became a tourist destination as well as a playground for celebrities.
“When did Hollywood find Vegas?” says Guy Rocha, a historian and former state archivist. “There were some silent movies here in the 1920s, but it was the 1930s when Las Vegas became Hollywood’s sandbox.”
In fact, Lombard and Gable were expected to marry in Las Vegas. But when Gable was on a break from filming Gone With the Wind in 1939, they were married in Kingman, Ariz., in what appeared to be a last-minute change in plans. “They decided they didn’t want all of that notoriety,” Rocha says.
If Nevada was becoming known for celebrity marriages in the 1930s, it was also becoming known for divorces. The Legislature had passed the most lenient divorce law in the nation, making the residency requirement just six weeks, which drew the unhappily married in droves and helped the state survive the Great Depression. Among those who came to Nevada to wait out their six weeks for a divorce were Lombard in 1933 (to divorce actor William Powell) and Ria Gable, Clark Gable’s second wife, in 1939—when Lombard and Gable’s longtime affair became public.
By late 1941, Las Vegas’ reputation as a party destination and an emerging do-what-you-will frontier town had grown even more. The western-style El Rancho and Frontier hotels were built on the embryonic Strip, then known as Highway 91. Add to those tourist draws some military-related industry—a magnesium plant in Henderson and the U.S. Army Las Vegas Gunnery School—and you had thousands more descending on the remote desert town.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,402 Americans, shocking the nation, sending it into the war, and creating a huge wave of patriotism. Almost immediately, Lombard went on tour encouraging citizens to support the military by buying war bonds. She took a train with her mother and MGM agent Otto Winkler from California to her home state of Indiana. On Jan. 15, 1942, she hosted a rally in Indianapolis—men wore suits and ties, women wore dresses and hats, and Lombard wore a full-length, strapless gown, indicative of the elegance of the era.
A huge sign in the back of the flag-festooned Cadle Tabernacle said, “Sacrifice, Save and Serve,” and Lombard sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” held up the “V for Victory” sign and issued autographed receipts for war bonds. It was a nation coming together in the face of an attack on its own soil, and—as evident by machine-gun nests around Boulder Dam—the threat of invasion. And one of its most famous celebrities was leading the call to unity. Life magazine’s photographer took what would be the last picture of her—not a movie glamour shot, but a war-bonds rally shot—an image, now fixed in our cultural memory, of a highly paid starlet responding to a national tragedy with personal passion. In many ways, it recalls the images of such stars as Brad Pitt responding to Katrina; but in other ways, it leaves us wanting greater outcry from the rich and famous about the more insidious tragedy of economic hardship so many are left with in the wake of the 21st-century economic crash.
After the rally, an exhausted Lombard just wanted to get home fast, so the next morning she flew instead of taking the train. Her group boarded a twin-engine TWA airplane to head back to Burbank, Calif. The plane made several stops: one in St. Louis, one in Albuquerque, N.M., and one at the Las Vegas Army Airfield, now Nellis Air Force Base. At 7:07 that night, TWA Flight 3, carrying 22 people, including 15 members of the Army Air Corps, took off into the clear but moonless night sky. Less than a half hour later, it crashed into the side of Mount Potosi, an 8,500-foot peak towering over the Las Vegas Valley.
Gable was notified of the crash and immediately chartered a plane to Las Vegas, where he rented a room at the new El Rancho Hotel and awaited word from the search-and-rescue parties. But the crash site proved too difficult to access at night—steep drops and heavy snow made it treacherous for the rescuers to reach even at dawn. When they did, they found no survivors. Lombard was 33.
Upon news of her death, Gable was devastated—reportedly suicidal. In the next months, he drank heavily while completing his film projects, and in August he left Hollywood, joined the Army Air Corps as a gunner and went to war. While some of his military assignments were geared toward making war films, he nonetheless flew five combat missions, earned two medals and was honorably discharged in 1944.
Lombard was a liberal Democrat; Gable, a Republican. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed his condolences to Gable after her death—she was cherished not only as an actress but as a patriot, now almost martyred. The nation was coalescing—rich, poor, red, blue—in the face of war.
Amid anxiety after Pearl Harbor, conspiracy theories about TWA Flight 3’s crash began to brew: Was Lombard’s plane attacked by the enemy? Was there a bomb onboard? The Civil Aeronautics Board, and later the FBI, investigated. One theory was that a Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti, who deplaned in Albuquerque, left a bomb on board. Still other theories charged that the government was covering up something—in the angst following Japan’s attack, it seemed unfathomable that the United States could be caught so off-guard, and so it was perhaps strangely more bearable to think the government faked Lombard’s crash or covered up the causes.
Other theories factored in the wartime prohibition of mountaintop navigation lights, or proposed that the pilot left the controls in the hands of the co-pilot, who’d never flown out of Las Vegas.
But in the end, the CAB concluded it was simply a navigation error by the pilot and crew. They failed to follow industry standards for using the radio navigation equipment, and relied only on their vision. Because of this, the CAB concluded, they’d failed to see a mountain that stood directly in front of them for miles.
Nobody likes this answer, and to this day it leaves people clamoring for someone or something else to hold accountable, because sometimes our tragedies are too banal to believe.
Today’s national challenge—a stagnant economy now lingering into its fifth year—is in many ways more slippery than aeronautics or warfare. Our starlet, who would set aside riches and fame for a moment to rally us to unite in tough times, seems absent. Where a generation in the 1940s rose from war to be known as the Greatest Generation, today we seem unfocused, divided and paralyzed.
There are many contributing factors. Maybe it’s in part due to the income gap—the biggest since the Great Depression. Maybe it’s partly because of the propaganda-fueled ideological divide between political parties, a divide so massive that it’s brought Congress to a stalemate and resulted in its lowest approval rating ever.
And maybe it’s in part because much of the nation doesn’t understand the complex causes of the crash, which makes our attempts to fix it and prevent it from happening again a bit absurd.
That’s not to say everyone in 1942 understood either war or airplane crashes. But in Lombard’s time, communication technologies were centralizing American culture: Hollywood talkies and radio shows held much of the nation’s united interest. TV had not yet invaded American living rooms, and newspapers, while regional and subject to publishers’ biases, were generally accepted as reliable papers of record—a concept that’s disintegrating today. It seemed that Americans enjoyed a generally agreed-upon cultural reality, which made it easier for them to unite and take action in times of national crisis.
Today our attention, and our beliefs, are so fractured by the addiction to infinite information sources that we are without even a set of agreed-upon facts on which to act. When we cannot agree on basics—the ballpark age of Earth, the existence of life before humans, a state license plate—it’s almost impossible to craft intricate, urgent economic policies.
Rather than relying on central cultural tropes, which do have their drawbacks, we’re at the other extreme—custom-designing our information intake from thousands of niche sources and dividing cultural consumption according to demographics and biases, each confirming independent versions of America’s past and present.
Diversity is good. Freedom of ideas is excellent. But as we sit here year after year in the wake of our crash—particularly in one of the hardest-hit cities— it seems we also need to agree upon some common ground and take consistent action.
The Lombard crash and our economic crash are, of course, incongruous in many ways. And it’s clear that our era is different from the early 1940s. But what we can draw from the memory of that moment in history, on its anniversary here in Las Vegas, is the connection between challenging times and a shared sense of national character.
Ever a city of the moment, Las Vegas doesn’t spend much time thinking about martyred starlets and timeworn tragedies. But atop Mount Potosi the last, immovable, rusted bits of an airplane, and an era, endure.
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