Carole Lombard Gable died 73 years ago today, at the young age of 33. Her sudden death in a plane crash shocked the nation, stunned Hollywood and devastated her husband.
Gable was working on that fateful afternoon of January 16, 1942. He felt wonderful about it. He’d had five months lay-off since the production of “Honky Tonk,” the longest vacation he’d experienced since his first real click in 1931. It was swell to be back and he liked the new picture. It was called “Somewhere I’ll Find You.”
Gable had also, that afternoon, finished up his sixth day of separation from Carole Lombard, the longest time they two had parted since that flashing night in 1936 when they’d met at the white Mayfair call and had fallen hilariously in love. Now it was keen to be getting Carole back again. He had not known, until they went through that Monday-to-Friday stretch, how intensely he could miss her.
He was mighty proud of that vivid wife of his. She had been over in her hometown of Indianapolis, selling defense bonds for what she, typically, called “the best damned land there is.” And had she sold them! She’d hit the town in a blaze of glamour and nicked it for some $2,017,513 worth of patriotism.
Ever since the war began, he and Carole had been restless. Carole was really the family thinker. He was the natural doer and he’d had some lousy moments since the studio had told him that he simply could not enlist. He couldn’t talk about it generally. It looked like publicity stuff to let it be known how wild he was to get into service, so he had told the studio to shut up about it. They had had to do a lot of talking to dissuade him from joining up. Even when they had wished Lowell Mellett, out from Washington, on him and Mellett had said that Gable’s real job was to provide entertainment, to keep up morale by his comedy and his dame appeal, plus paying his gigantic taxes, he’d been only half-persuaded. Now Carole had scooped him on the bond-selling, but she’d also shown him the way he, too, could work for the government.
A publicity man stuck his head in at the Gable dressing room door.
“Ready to go to the airport?” he asked.
“And how!” Gable said. “Drive over with me, will you?”
The publicity man’s name was Larry Barbier and like everyone else at MGM, straight from the lowliest grip to Louis B. Mayer, there wasn’t anything he wouldn’t delight in doing for Gable. So, of course, he went to the airport and, on arriving there, he suggested the star stay in his car until he, Barbier, found out just when the plane was to arrive.
Thus it was that Larry was the first person at MGM to sense the tragedy that had happened against the wild sides of Table Mountain in Nevada.
Not that the airport officials told the truth. They themselves didn’t know it then, but they were evasive about where the plane was, when it was due to come in. Larry knew something was wrong, so, stalling for time, he went outside again to Gable in the car.
“Plane had to make an unexpected stop in Las Vegas,” he said. “Looks like they’ll be at least an hour and half late. Why don’t you go out to the ranch and the moment I get any definite news about its arrival I’ll call you and you can hop right over.”
“Fine,” said Gable. “I’ll go home and work up a few more gags.”
That was already an old family custom with Clark and Carole. Whenever they were separated for even a day, they gave each other presents, strictly goofy ones, strictly for laughs, like the ham she had originally sent him when he was courting her, or the cast-iron, life-sized statue of himself he had sent her. Now he had every nook of the ranch house loaded with such nonsense gifts and he could fairly hear the hoots of robust laughter that she would yip forth at sight of them.
It was an hour later that Larry phoned him and told him to come over to the airport quick. Larry didn’t add that meantime he’d engaged a transport plane to fly to Nevada and that he’d rounded up Eddie Mannix, the vice-president of Metro, and Don McIlwaine, a Metro publicity man who just happened to be dining at the airport and that Howard Strickling, the MGM publicity head and one of Gable’s closest friends, was speeding toward the airport, too.
The most popular man in the movie world got gaily into his car and turned on his radio to a record station to listen to some nice sloppy, sentimental tunes, right in key with his mood. Carole, who didn’t go in for that sentimental slush, who in contrast to his fans and other women he had known didn’t visibly adore him but who called him “Pappy” or “Mr. G”, Carole would kid the pants off him about that. But he didn’t care. He drove up to the airport in a welter of sweet swing. As he drew in smartly to the curb the voice of an announcer cut sharply in. “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an important news announcement,” the voice said. “The transport plane bearing Carole Lombard and twenty-one others has been found. They are all believed dead.”
It was then that Gable paid one of the prices of fame, the inability to get even the most horrible news quietly and privately. He walked into the crowded airport that was sinisterly quiet. Hundreds of eyes hung on his haggard face, watched his every move. But he was unaware of them. He aged in that instant, aged incredibly, but all he said was, “Where’s the plane? When do we take off?”
Out on the runway, an agitated official was bustling about. Wartime regulations made a thousand new details necessary. “Gable must sign for the plane. Gable must sign for it,” the official kept insisting. Typically, he had never heard of Mannix, the million-dollar executive. Mannix tore the sheet from his hands and scrawled a signature. “This will be good for the price of the ship,” he said. He pushed Gable into the cabin of the plane and got in after him.
The plane taxied down the field, rose swiftly, while on the ground flags began fluttering frantically. Those were for Strickling who had just rushed through the gate, so the ship came down again and picked him up and then soared off again, that planeload of men and one woman, Mrs. Jilda Winkler, the wife of Otto Winkler, who was not only Gable’s press agent but a very dear friend.
It was not until the moment when the men sought to comfort the sobbing Jilda that they realized Gable’s double loss. Otto had been Clark’s pal. He had always been with him in everything. It was Otto who had been with Carole and Clark when they eloped in Kingman, Arizona, in March, 1939. Otto was Clark’s “front man”, his “other brain,” the one person who could most have helped him now.
But Otto was gone, too. He had been with Carole because Clark had sent him along on the Indianapolis trip to take care of her and protect her. Now Clark moved over to Jill and sat close to her, letting her sob her grief out against him. But he said nothing. The MGM crew in the background stayed silent. They knew that characteristic in him. Whenever anything bothers him, he becomes completely mute, and this was the most fearful thing he had ever had to face.
Two hours later they were in Las Vegas. Gable spoke then. “How do we get up to that mountain?”
They tried to dissuade him. They told him how the cactus-studded slopes of Table Mountain, strewn with boulders, sheer ridges and snowdrifts, was an almost impossible climb even for experienced Indian guides and hardened trackers. They told him how one tracker had already come back, the shoes torn from his feet by the rough wilderness. For an hour or so, while they told him there was still some hope, they persuaded him to wait in the Rancho Vegas for news.
Rancho Vegas is one of the gayest hotels on earth, a glittering, gambling casino sprawled in defiant luxury against the sterile desert. It’s like the setting of many a Gable film, of “Honky Tonk” particularly, but now it was chosen because of its nearness to the scene of the tragedy. They managed to hold Gable down there for nearly an hour, but then he revolted. “If those Indians can go on horseback and on foot, I can go on horseback and on foot,” he said and he went out and joined them.
It wasn’t until then that the MGM crowd, who all worshipped him, realized the triple loss Clark has suffered, the loss of the only mother he had ever known, his mother-in-law, Mrs. Elizabeth Peters, who had also been with Carole.
They did not abandon hope even when Friday night was gone and the cold, clear dawn of Saturday fell bright upon the desert. They toiled on through that impossible wilderness and the hours waxed and it was noon and still they climbed up and up and their hope flamed above their heartsick certainty. They went on until they began to see pitiful bits of wreckage of the plane scattered about them and then a merciful official stopped them. Just a little farther on, he said, were the bodies of fifteen brave young pilots who were en route West for war duty, and Otto Winkler, and Mrs. Elizabeth Peters and the ship’s pilots, and the stewardess and the gay young wife of an Army officer who had been speeding to his side, and Carole. You see, being wartime, you either had to be in the service or have an awful lot of drag to get on that plane. Somewhere, ahead, they were all lying, mingled in death, mingled in heroism, but the dearly beloved features that each of them had possessed were lost now to all save memory.
It was only then that Gable could be made to turn back. And then it was that his devoted friends knew the absolute devastation of his loss. For of course, being as devoted to him as they are, they all knew the story that up until now could not be told.
This was that, behind all their laughter, all their glorious love and warm compatibility, behind all their fame and wealth and the trips they had together and the sports they shared, Clark and Carole had one tragedy and one fear. They wanted children and they were denied them and they both worried about Carole’s increasingly frail health.
People told them to adopt a child, but they shook off that suggestion impatiently. They wanted their own. They couldn’t help knowing what a beautiful, amazing pair they were and they wanted their own youngsters to carry on those super-luxurious, super-sharp, super-glamorous characteristics. For this reason Carole went to doctor after doctor, tagged along when Clark had to go to Johns Hopkins for an operation for his shoulder and herself went under observation.
The sadness that many a queen of old experienced hung over the bright spirit of this golden queen of a modern world. With her whole passionate soul, Carole hoped for the maternity she could not know. Perhaps that was why Carole always laughed so much, laughed to hide this deep sorrow of hers. Perhaps it was why, in the last few years, she had sought for deeper meanings in her films, even essayed tragedy in “Vigil in the Night” and “They Knew What They Wanted.” The last couple of years she had taken the most faithful care of her health, but it had not improved. Always precarious, it was made more delicate by the continual recurrence of one of those persistent fevers travelers frequently pick up in Mexico and which Carole had contracted when down there on a hunting trip with Clark.
Motherhood was the only thing she had ever wanted in her thrill-packed thirty-two years that was denied her. She got her way about everything else. She even got about returning to Hollywood by plane.
Otto Winkler tried to talk her out of it, begging her to go by train. She finally tossed a coin with him and Otto lost. Her mother tried to talk her out of it. Otto had offered good sound reasons against flying in winter; her mother had admitted she was merely superstitious. She had good reason to be, for on Monday, the day they had left Hollywood, she and Carole had decided to call upon a fortuneteller they often consulted, just for the fun of it.
The psychic read Mrs. Peters’ hand, then read Carole’s. She shook her head. “Keep out of planes in 1942,” she ordered. “There is danger in them for you.”
On January 15 in Indianapolis, eager to get home, Carole never thought of that remark.
The memory of it, however, haunts Gable. When, finally, Saturday and Sunday he had to accept his heart’s devastation, he shut himself up alone in his hotel bungalow. Spencer Tracy drove out the three hundred miles from Hollywood to try to comfort him. A doctor stood by wanting to prescribe sleeping tablets. The entire MGM group stayed close, wanting desperately to do anything from working miracles merely to getting meals for him. But Gable stayed alone, appearing only once in a long while, on the bungalow porch, striding grimly back and forth. To all the solicitous attentions, he had only one answer. “I don’t want to go back to an empty house in Encino. If I had gone with Carole on this trip all this might have been avoided.”
Even when the broken bodies were finally brought down from the mountain, he could hardly be persuaded to leave. It was not until the following Wednesday at the burial service for his wife and his mother-by-marriage and his dear friend that he finally seemed able to gain some strength and courage to go on with life from the very heroism of Carole’s death.
It was only then that he comprehended the shrine in the world’s memory that she will forever occupy, this laughing tomboy, this Sennett bathing beauty who rose to make the highest salary any girl star ever earned, who married and divorced Bill Powell and then married the most sought-after man on earth, this girl who, through death, became the first heroine of the Second World War. She was all flame and passion and generosity, this Lombard girl, and she died as she had lived, gallantly, heroically, doing her duty by her country.
Meanwhile the Encino house is up for sale. Jessie, the cook whom Carole had had for years, Miss Garceau, the secretary, are devastated. The little gag presents have all been destroyed and even the very horses in their stalls and the hand-groomed cows and the cackling chickens seem to sense that desolation has enveloped them.
Shooting on “Somewhere I’ll Find You” has been suspended indefinitely.
At MGM and in Hollywood you will find those who say there will be no tying Clark down to acting now, that he will insist upon going into direct war service. In Hollywood they are talking about “The Carole Lombard Memorial Bond Drive” and some argue that Gable will go on tour, selling bonds in her name.
But the other half of Hollywood, those who know Clark best, argue that he will do both, war work and his own work, and I, personally, side with them.
Clark has long been very aware of his duty to his public and in this loss he will be doubly conscious of the loss in millions of homes today. He will be conscious that that one plane, which destroyed his heart’s security and rent asunder twenty-one other families, is only one small incident in days that are darkened with the memory of Pearl Harbor, and Manila, and the siege of Singapore and the blood on the snows of Russia.
Clark Gable has in him the power to make people forget these things for a little while. That is his responsibility—and his cure.
He will, I am convinced, go on with it after a little while, go on with his handsome head held high and with Carole’s beautiful, heroic image locked within his heart. And may God bless him and keep him while he walks this lonely road.