March 29, 1939 – Gable & Lombard marry.
William Powell was married to Carole Lombard from 1931 until 1933. The much-loved Carole was an out-going, often outrageous woman, prone to wild partying, raucous behaviour, and the use of appallingly bad language, if the mood took her. When they first met, Bill was living at home with his mother, although he and his actor pals, Ronald Colman, Warner Baxter and Richard Barthelmess, enjoyed a rampant sexual life that saw them often utilising Bill’s ‘other place’, an apartment he rented under the name of ‘Mr. Thorne’, for their trysting. It was common knowledge that his ‘shag-pad’ came complete with an array of very explicit French photographs to add to the sensuality of the place. Bill thought Carole’s filthy jokes and appalling language were hilarious and he quickly became smitten by this exciting, but wild, young woman.
She was born Jane Alice Peters, in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1908. After her parents divorced in 1916, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles. In 1921, a film director named Allan Dwan was visiting a friend and spotted 12 year-old Jane playing baseball in the street with a bunch of boys. She was playing better than the boys in her team and he thought she might be ideal as the kid sister in his upcoming movie A Perfect Crime (1921). He spoke to her mother and signed the girl to a one-picture contract. It would be another four years before Jane appeared on screen again but she was on her way.
1928 – Carole in a short for Mack Sennett
In 1925, she passed a screen test and was signed by Fox. She soon ditched the less exciting name of Jane Peters and began calling herself Carol Lombard instead. She added the ‘E’ to Carol in 1930 and had her name officially changed in 1936. Once, when an interviewer asked what happened to catapult her into the top bracket of actresses in the 1930s, she famously replied (in her usual manner): ‘I think adding that ‘E’ was the fuckin’ difference!’
Carole’s life might very well have ended in 1926 when she was involved in a serious road accident. This happened in the days before shatterproof glass was invented and the young 17 year-old’s face was very badly lacerated. Plastic surgery was in its infancy back then, but she chose to undergo an operation to repair her features. At the time it was believed that the use of any anaesthetic during the procedure would be bound to leave worse scars, so she courageously opted to undergo the reconstructive surgery without the use of anaesthetic. Afterwards, the adroit use of make-up helped cover whatever scarring remained when she resumed her career. She told Garson Kanin of the accident in her own inimitable way:
‘Shows you how things go, huh? Another inch, half an inch maybe, a turn of the head and my whole fuckin’ career could’ve been over. There was this nice kid. A rich kid. Harry Cooper. His father owned a bank or something. And he had this sonofabitchin’ Bugatti roadster. And I was out with him one night, and he was showing off his god-damned car. You know how it is with some guys. They think a car is like a part of their body and they want to show you how hot it is. So all of a sudden, wham. And I remember how I thought it was just beautiful, like a fireworks explosion, glass in a terrific pattern, and I passed out…’
Bill & Carole – their wedding day – 1931
Bill Powell and Carole were married on June 26, 1931, but after just two years they agreed to call it quits. They were simply too different. Carole liked to party and go out on the town and had no intention of surrendering her career to become a ‘home-body’. Bill was a far less public person. He also expected a wife to stay at home. Carole’s acting career was the most important thing in her life so she chose to end their union before it dissolved into arguments and recriminations. Bill realised they had made a mistake, too, so it was an amicable parting. Carole dashed off to Reno for the divorce papers; neither party wanted any kind of settlement, and they remained close friends until the day she lost her life in that horrible plane crash of 1942, a tragedy that also claimed the life of her mother and 20 other passengers. Bill and Carole would regularly have long telephone chats post-divorce, confiding in each other as good friends often do. He was devastated by her death. He had lost the best friend he ever had.
Lombard & Gable in No Man of Her Own (1932)
After their divorce they moved on to other partners. Carole briefly found love with crooner Russ Columbo, but that relationship ended tragically when he accidentally shot himself in 1934. Close friends of Carole’s have always maintained that Columbo, not Gable or Powell, was the ‘love of her life’. A few years after Columbo’s passing she fell in love again, this time with the ‘King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable. They had met many years earlier when they co-starred in No Man of Her Own (1932). Some sources claim they met earlier than that as extras on the set of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). It is possible, although not proven.
Carole dining with Russ Columbo
In No Man of Her Own they shared some extremely torrid love scenes, scenes that possibly hastened the introduction of the Production Code. Nothing eventuated off-screen between the two actors at the time, however. Carole was in love with Bill and Clark was in love with Elizabeth Allan, (albeit being still wed to Ria Langham). Carole would marry him in 1939. They were still happily wed when she went off on that fatal trip, selling War bonds.
Bill Powell & Jean Harlow
Not long after he and Carole divorced, Bill became involved with Jean Harlow, an actress whose reputation and screen persona were not unlike Carole’s. Away from the public and the silver screen, however, Jean was not like her screen persona at all. She was a quiet and respectable woman who did not even swear! Bill was indeed the love of her life, but he was ambivalent towards her. Friends said he was most reluctant to marry her and had strung her along for three years, denying her the wedding she so desperately wanted. Perhaps, the speedy failure of his betrothal to Carole (she was his second wife, by the way) had made him gun-shy. His first trip down the aisle had also ended badly. Sadly, in the end it mattered not, for Jean suddenly died from uremic poisoning. She was only 26. After her death, Carole told her friend, Kay Mulvey: ‘I shall always consider Bill a friend, but even if I searched my mind from end to end, I would not be able to understand why he did what he did to Jean’. Bill would marry actress Diana Lewis in 1940, a union that would continue until his death in 1984.