Dearborn Station, Chicago, was where the stories of the three Super Chief deaths began and ended. They started with Dale L. Lawrence, a Private, slipping through a back door of the station crew’s ready room and moving to Track 7 and then alongside the Super, as admirers called the Santa Fe Railway’s famed streamliner.
Lawrence followed closely a porter named Ralph to a vestibule door, then up into a still- empty sleeping car. Ralph had been reluctant to do business with this man, mostly because of his appearance. Not only was he sickly, his clothes were wrinkled and unclean. And he had no luggage. But the price was right, less than a full fare but better than nothing. Thirty- five dollars in cash was cheap for a ride from Chicago to Los Angeles on America’s most luxurious all- sleeper train. In the workaday language of the Super there were four categories of passengers—Privates, Strays, Regulars and Stars. A Private was a person who traveled as the result of a one- on- one deal with a sleeping car attendant. This longtime practice had begun during the travel conditions of World War Two. Cash money had a way of finding room on the most crowded of trains.
Now, in this April of 1956 with fewer passengers and plenty of space available, the attraction was a fare cheaper than the official one.
“This is yours,” said Ralph, pushing open the door to a small roomette. “It will not be made up as a bed in case I need it suddenly for a Stray—you know, a passenger who pays a conductor for an upgrade or wants to change bedrooms.”
Lawrence nodded to Ralph. He understood. But instead of speaking, he coughed. Ralph had heard the man, who appeared to be in his late forties, do little else but cough since they first met at Dearborn Station and made their business arrangement. “Remember now, there could be conductors around at almost any time looking at tickets, so you must stay right here in this bedroom, sir,” Ralph said. “I’ll bring you a sandwich or something to eat after we leave the station and a roll with coffee in the morning. You do cream and sugar?”
The man shook his head but said nothing.
Ralph took a closer look at him. His brown suit, though to Ralph’s trained eyes an expensive Nash Brothers’, was slack and stained, his flowered tie away from the collar, his white shirt soiled, his heavy blond hair uncombed, his face, drawn and gray, with at least a day’s beard.
Ralph said, “Well, if anyone but me should happen to knock on the door, hide in the bathroom and don’t answer.” He hit a knuckle on the door, then followed with two quick knocks. “That’s my signal. One knock, pause, then one- two.” He did the three knocks again. “You follow me?”
Lawrence nodded—and coughed again.
“You’re going all the way to Los Angeles, right, mister?”
Ralph asked as he prepared to leave the roomette, the smallest of the accommodations available on the Super. There were also bedrooms, drawing rooms and compartments of varying sizes, but mostly, every space was referred to as a compartment. “At least until Kansas City,” the man said.
Ralph shrugged, closed the door and went on with his other non- Private duties.
Here now was Clark Gable, a Star, coming down the station platform toward his sleeping car. A redcap named James was taking care of him and his luggage. Darwin Rinehart, a Regular, felt a flash of joy and wellbeing— for the first time in months.
“Hey, King Clark!” he called out.
The King of Hollywood, as they called Clark Gable, jerked his head in Rinehart’s direction but after only a glance turned back away. The message was unmistakable. But Rinehart chose to ignore it.
“Gable’s not going to talk to you,” said Gene Mathews, another Regular who was Rinehart’s associate in the movie business as well as his best friend. “Don’t humiliate yourself, for god’s sake.”
“Go ahead and get us settled,” Rinehart said quietly to Russell, his own redcap. He and James would be handsomely rewarded for providing this special treatment of boarding the Super Chief early and privately—before all the other passengers. Rinehart had no idea, of course, that a Private had preceded even them a few minutes earlier.
Rinehart approached Gable while Mathews and James headed to the first car, half sleeping accommodations and a bar- lounge at the end of the Super Chief, which was backed into the platform for loading.
While the Super was still known and celebrated as the Train of the Stars, some of its Hollywood glitter had switched to airliners. Errol Flynn and his pair of lion- sized dogs that often traveled with him were long gone from the Super. So were William Holden, Cecil B. DeMille and Grace Dodsworth. Gloria Swanson, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson and Judy Garland were the major remaining Stars. Recently Judy Garland had even had a mock wedding ceremony performed by a Super engineer during a brief stop someplace in Arizona or New Mexico.
But the real Super fan, among the Stars, had always been Clark Gable. There wasn’t a porter, steward, barber or conductor on this train who didn’t have a Clark Gable story to tell, most of them concerning booze and/or women.
Gable was handing out cash to James when Rinehart got there. “Hey, King Clark, how are you, pal?” said Rinehart. He started to thrust out his right hand but decided against it once he saw that both of Gable’s hands—known as the largest in Hollywood—and full attention were involved in the dispensing of money.
Barely flicking his head in the direction of Rinehart, Gable said, “Fine. I’m fine.”
Rinehart said, “We came on the Broadway Limited from New York. Didn’t see you. You must have come on the Twentieth Century—or another train. Right?”
Gable didn’t throw even a glance.
“Maybe we could get a drink, maybe have a meal together tonight or tomorrow?” Rinehart persisted. “We’ve got forty hours ahead of us here on the Super before LA.”
“I’m not going to get out much this trip. Got work to do.” Gable stepped on the stool and up into the vestibule of his car, still without making direct eye contact.
Rinehart fell back a step, as if he had been physically pushed away.
Charlie Sanders, an assistant general passenger agent for Santa Fe, asked, “How many times have you ridden with us on the Super, Mr. Wheeler?”
Otto Wheeler, a Regular, sat in a wheelchair, no longer having the strength in his legs and lower body to take more than a few difficult steps on his own.
Sanders was there with the redcaps and attendants helping carry Wheeler up and into a drawing room in “Taos,” as the rounded- end combination car was named.
How many times have you ridden with us on the Super, Mr. Wheeler?
Wheeler heard and understood the question. This nice young railroad man deserved an answer. Wheeler’s first trips on this train of stainless steel silver beauty were when he was still a kid. His parents took him and his sisters to Kansas City and Chicago or, a few times, west to Albuquerque or Los Angeles. Then there were at least two or three times a year when he was at the University of Chicago and, later, at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. Since then, on business or pleasure, there were so many travels on the Super that Wheeler’s friends had begun to refer to the train as his second home.
His trips had become almost obsessively frequent in the last four years.
Wheeler suffered from a terrible cancer that had begun as a sore throat. His face, once tanned and round like a happy pumpkin, was the color of white starch and resembled the face of an ancient ghost. His 205- pound body now weighed 135. “One thousand four hundred and sixty- two,” Wheeler replied. His voice was weak but still audible.
Sanders laughed. “I believe it, sir, I believe it—and then some. They tell me that if there was a world’s record for riding the Super you’d hold it, that’s for sure.”
Wheeler was forty- two, single, religious and wealthy. His money and religion came from his family, who owned most of the giant grain elevators that were the economic and geographical centers of the cities and towns in the wheat country of central Kansas. Wheeler lived in Bethel, a major Santa Fe Railroad division point between Wichita and Kansas City; its residents were mostly Randallites, a sect of early settlers escaping religious persecution in Europe.
Otto Wheeler was on his way home to Bethel now on the Super Chief. From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Super by Jim Lehrer. Copyright © 2010 by Jim Lehrer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.