CAROLE LOMBARD (1908-42)
The inimitable Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in October 1908. She was eight years old when her folks divorced and her mother chose to settle down in Los Angeles. At twelve years of age Carole was spotted by film director Allan Dwan while she was playing baseball in the street. He signed her to a one-picture contract in 1921. Three years later she quit school and joined a theatre group. In 1925, Fox Films signed her to a contract, but a couple of pictures later she was badly scarred in a traffic accident and her contract duly cancelled. She appeared in nineteen ‘shorts’ for slapstick comedy director Mack Sennett in the late 1920s, but it was the coming of sound pictures that revived her career. As others with dubious vocals foundered, her light breezy and sexy voice struck a chord with audiences and she was soon on her way. After making Man of the World with William Powell in 1931, the couple married that same year. They divorced a couple of years later. She was twenty-two, carefree and foul-mouthed – he was thirty-eight, sophisticated and intellectual. It could never hope to last. ‘We were just two completely incompatible people’, she said later. Nevertheless, they remained friends until the end of her short life.
Carole & husband William Powell
By 1932 Carole was contracted to Paramount where she played opposite Clark Gable in No Man of Her Own. She was Oscar-nominated for My Man Godfrey (1936), but lost out to Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld. Three years later Carole wed Gable. By then she was making $35,000 a week, an astonishing sum for the times. Tragically, she did not live to see the release of her final film, To Be or Not to Be, opposite Jack Benny, in 1942. One of her lines in the film, ‘What can happen in a plane?’ was reputedly removed from the final print, although there is no proof it was ever in the picture in the first place. Benny was a close friend and great admirer of hers. Grief-stricken by her loss, he cancelled his scheduled appearance on the Jack Benny Radio Show two days after her death. No explanation was given by the network and the time slot was filled with music instead.
With Jack Benny in To Be or Not To Be (1942)
Gable was, of course, also shattered by her death. The happily married couple had bought and lived in a 20-acre ranch in San Fernando Valley. Neither was a Hollywood socialite, both preferring a simple life away from the spotlight. (They called each other Ma and Pa.) Part of their honeymoon was spent at the Willows Inn, in Palm Springs, California. The Inn is still in operation and anyone can stay in the same room, (the ‘Library Suite’), that they occupied over eighty years ago. It is largely unaltered. During a tour of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, visitors are today shown a second-floor bedroom where, so the story goes, Gable and Lombard spent their wedding night.
Carole and her husband Clark Gable
The plane crash that claimed the life of Carole Lombard took place on January 16, 1942, less than a month before the Oscars. She was reputedly in a rush to return to Los Angeles, having got wind of an alleged affair between her husband and Lana Turner who were filming Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942) at the time. Carole’s mother had accompanied her daughter on the bond-selling tour, but had experienced a premonition of disaster and wanted to take the train home. She and Carole decided the issue with a coin flip. Carole won the toss, they boarded the plane and it crashed into a vertical rock cliff near the top of Potosi Mountain in the Spring Mountain Range, Nevada, killing all twenty-two souls aboard. The official accident report blamed ‘pilot error’.
Carole’s automobile accident back in 1926 demonstrated both her courage and her determination to get back before the cameras. At the time the belief was that the use of anaesthetic during the operation to restore her face would leave even worse scars, so she endured the reconstructive surgery without an anaesthetic! Some advanced plastic surgery, the adroit use of make-up, and use of clever camera angles and lighting, covered the scars and her acting career resumed. Carole was driving with her date, professional PGA golfer Henry ‘Harry’ Cooper, at the time. She is believed to have also been romantically involved with actors Anthony Quinn, Gary Cooper, David Niven, Fredric March John Gilbert and James Stewart at one time or another. Other non-actor lovers are said to have included Howard Hughes, Preston Sturges, Robert Riskin and David O Selznick. It was rumored that she may have been intimately involved with both Joe Kennedy Junior and his father Joe Senior, but sources vary on this.
With ‘the love of her life’, Russ Columbo
Late in 1934, Carole and crooner Russ Columbo were at the zenith of their romantic relationship when he accidentally shot himself in the eye whilst examining a friend’s Civil War gun collection. Later, she revealed to Mirror Magazine that she and Russ had briefly been engaged. They were both aged just 26 at the time of his death and Carole always said that he was ‘the love of her life’. That is not to suggest she did not care for Gable. ‘He’s a lousy lay’, she once told a reporter when questioned about the ‘King of Hollywood’s’ reputation in the sack. ‘A few inches less and they’d be calling him The Queen of Hollywood.’ On another time, however, she stated, ‘I’m nuts about him. Not just nuts about his nuts’, she added in her inimitable earthy way. The couple tried to start a family but Carole miscarried twice, eventually being informed by fertility specialists that she would be unable to ever have children.
Carole and George Raft
Actor George Raft recalled visiting Carole in her dressing-room one day, when she suddenly stripped naked and began peroxiding her pubic hairs as they chatted! ‘Relax, George’, she said. ‘I’m just matching my collars and cuffs.’ On another occasion she was asked who she thought was the best lover in Hollywood. She replied without hesitation, ‘George Raft…or did you just mean on the screen?’ She was a ‘down to earth’, no-nonsense woman who swore like a trooper and enjoyed life to the full. She was also much-loved by her peers and audiences alike.
Thank you, Dan!
I didn’t realize just how “active” Miss Lombard was off-screen. Anytime you add a Kennedy to the mix, frankly, the sleaze factor ratchets up considerably. Most of old Joe’s apples didn’t fall far from the tree. I’m hopeful that the speculation that she was involved, even briefly, with either of those guys is just that–speculation.
It makes me sad to think she might have sped up her return from Indiana over anything to do with Lana Turner.
Finally, Catmac, if you can only see one of her movies, I recommend “My Man Godfrey”. Hilariously screwball, touchingly earnest (in the Hollywood manner) about social issues, and an outstanding supporting cast with some fabulous character actors, both well-known (Franklin Pangborn AND Grady Sutton for Heaven’s sake), and not-well known but still recognizable (Andrea Leeds, Selmer Jackson). My goodness, a young Jane Wyman even pops in briefly. Just describing it makes me want to watch it again. Powell and Lombard work perfectly, and Eugene Pallette practically steals the show. I hope you get to see it, and maybe “Nothing Sacred” and “To Be Or Not To Be” as well.
I haven’t seen Carole Lombart’s films but she must be one of the most beautiful Hollywood actresses. Beauty and a sense of humour!