Carole Lombard: a star on and off the screen

Robert R. Garnett is a professor of English at Gettysburg College

On a clear moonless night 75 years ago this week, TWA Flight 3 took off from Las Vegas, bound for Los Angeles. Fifteen minutes later, it flew into a sheer rock wall high on Potosi Mountain. All 22 aboard died.

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Among them was Carole Lombard, one of film's most luminous actresses. She was also Mrs. Clark Gable.

It was Jan. 16, 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor. Fifteen of Flight 3's dead were Army airmen.

Lombard, too, had been doing war work. With America jolted into war, many of its highly paid entertainers stepped up. Some enlisted, others hit the road to entertain troops or sell war bonds. Hollywood director John Ford would be wounded while filming a documentary during the Battle of Midway. Others besides Lombard would die, like bandleader Glenn Miller and Gable's Gone With the Wind costar Leslie Howard.

"Celebrity" was not yet a job description in itself; Hollywood was a movie factory, and few worked harder at the business than Lombard. Only 33, she had acted in more than 50 films.

Born in Indiana, she was 7 when her family moved to Southern California, where her mother took up numerology and Bahai theosophy, such as "Woman will abolish warfare among mankind." If Lombard herself embraced such notions, she discarded them on Dec. 7. She was fiercely patriotic.

In January, Gable, unrivaled King of Hollywood, was invited to preside at the country's first war-bond rally. Averse to public speaking, he declined. His fearless, uninhibited wife stepped forward. Some reckoned that attractive women could sell more bonds anyway. Traveling by train to Indianapolis, Lombard attracted and stirred large crowds. The goal was to raise $500,000; she sold more than $2 million.

There could have been no better salesman for war bonds than the lovely, high-spirited Lombard.

She began making films as a teenager, overcame a setback when an auto accident scarred her face, survived the transition from silent to talking films, and excelled in the "screwball" comedies of the 1930s.

Astute and energetic, she ingratiated herself with gossip writers and studio cheeses, danced her way about town, and hosted flamboyant parties. Publicity photos blazoned her sleek figure draped in elegant gowns. "You could throw a bolt of fabric at Carole, and whichever way it landed, she looked smart," her favorite designer observed. In 1937, she was Hollywood's highest-paid actress.

Despite her ambition and success, she was universally liked. She was down-to-earth, good-natured, and generous. After filming a movie, she gave gifts to everyone in the crew, even the humblest grip. "I live well because I can afford to," she said, "but I don't think I'm any happier for the money I have. If I were making $75 a week I could live on it and be happy. Hell, I did . . . and I was happy."

Her wisecracking ribaldry became legend. She was "very beautiful and very feminine," Myrna Loy recalled, but she "could swear like a stevedore." Alfred Hitchcock reminisced: "I liked Lombard very much. She had a bawdy sense of humor and used the language men used with each other. I'd never heard a woman speak that way. She was a forceful personality - stronger, I felt, than Gable."

Looking back, he remarked wistfully, "We need ladies on screen. We used to have plenty" - and his first example was Lombard.

"She was a woman to delight men's hearts," another director recalled. She, in turn, liked men, but with Gable she settled down as a devoted lover and then wife. She abandoned her partying: He disliked Hollywood society. His friends were hunting and fishing pals. The chic, glamorous Lombard took up skeet shooting and went out duck hunting with the boys.

They married while Gable was filming Gone With the Wind and bought a small ranch outside Los Angeles. Renovating the house, she set aside a large room for his gun collection but omitted a guest room. He relished privacy.

After keeping vigil during a friend's difficult labor, "I'd go through it," Lombard said, "I'd endure all the pain and all the embarrassment of looking like Oliver Hardy. It would be worth it." It was not to be.

Impatient to return home from her Midwest war-bond mission, she elected to fly. As Flight 3 took off from Las Vegas on the last leg of its cross-country itinerary, its pilots failed to notice that they had plotted a dangerously wrong course. Nor did they notice, looming ahead in the night, Potosi Mountain. Pieces of the wreckage still litter its high, rocky slopes.

Two years later, actress Irene Dunne christened the SS Carole Lombard, a Liberty ship. The nautical pack-mules of the war, Liberty ships cost $2 million to build - just the sum Lombard had raised selling war bonds.

"God bless Carole Lombard," Dunne said, swinging the champagne bottle with purpose, "and good luck."

rgarnett@gettysburg.edu