The dedication read: "To Second Lieutenant Stuart L. Swenson, Forever Young and Gay and Brave." My wife found it in a 1943 mystery novel, "Eleven Came Back," by Mabel Seeley. Such memorials catch my eye, especially when directed to members of the armed forces during wartime.
Then I heard the echo of my high school history teacher, the late Mr. Lynn: "Perhaps, Telly, a little digging is in order."
So I grabbed a shovel.
To start, Mabel Seeley (nee Hodnefield, 1903-91) from Herman, Minn., was a mystery writer during the mid-20th century. Her family moved to St. Paul, Minn., when she was 17. Barely known today outside of crime writing circles, in her time she was prolific: 10 novels in less than two decades.
Records indicate she was on the first board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America. Seeley’s trademark was the strong female who solved crimes, but wasn’t necessarily a detective. Rather, her protagonists were everyday Midwestern women: housewives, librarians, etc. They fought to preserve those things in life they found sacred.
In the early 1950s, Seeley left writing to focus on her second marriage, and never looked back. So why did she dedicate this book to Lt. Swenson? That was a question to which I never found the answer. But the more I dug, the more "dominoes of history," as Mr. Lynn called them, began to fall.
Military files show Stuart L. Swenson (1916-42) died on January 16, 1942, in the crash of TWA Flight 3 on Mount Potosi, Nev., along with 21 others. Swenson hailed from St. Paul, Minn. When he died he was a husband of four months -- though conflicting reports had him single -- and a co-pilot in the Army’s Ferry Command. He was a passenger on the flight. St. Paul. There’s a connection between Seeley and Swenson, but nothing more I could find in short order. They were 13 years apart in age, so their link was unclear. Did the families know each other? Did Seeley babysit the young Swenson? Her inscription suggested a high regard and possibly intimacy for the young officer, or maybe she was moved by a native son’s untimely death.
But that’s not the end of it. An examination of the flight manifest revealed that along with the Army Air Corps passengers and TWA crew were civilian travelers returning from a major war bond drive. They included actress Carole Lombard, the wife of Clark Gable.
At the time of her death, Lombard (1908-42) was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Ind., she began her career in silent movies and had appeared in over 60 feature films. One of them is a personal favorite, the classic 1939 comedy, "My Man Godfrey," in which she co-starred with first hubby William Powell.
Period news reports described second husband Gable (1901-60), from Cadiz, Ohio, as inconsolable after Lombard’s death. He joined the search teams in the snow of Mount Potosi following the crash. During the war, to honor Lombard’s memory, Gable went on to serve in the Army Air Corps.
The irony of this entire affair -- which I stumbled upon while reading reports on Flight 3 -- was that Lombard wasn’t supposed to be on that DC-3. Rather, she forced her way on it, not once, but twice. The first time, in Indiana, she convinced her mother and press agent via coin toss to fly back to California, instead of taking the train.
Then, in Las Vegas, her party was to be bumped from the flight as "non-essential," in favor of Swenson’s military group. But Lombard was able to persuade authorities that her war bond effort -- she had just raised $2 million -- made her as vital as the flyboys, so three other civilians were sent packing to the tarmac.
While Gable married twice more, upon his death he was laid to rest by Lombard’s side in Los Angeles. And to come full circle with yet another twist, the original object of my curiosity, Lt. Swenson, was also buried in L.A.
One middling novelist. One obscure Army Air Corps officer. Two movie stars. All four Midwesterners. And all connected by one cryptic remembrance in a long-forgotten mystery book.
Coincidence? Probably. Dominoes of history? Absolutely. I closed the cover of Seeley’s novel, with my original question still unanswered. In the process, however, time had asked and answered several others. Maybe one of these days I’ll find that last domino.
Somewhere, with shovel in hand, Mr. Lynn was smiling.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. E-mail him at: email@example.com