Once upon a time, there was a king named Clark Gable. He sought a queen to live by his side, and found her in Carole Lombard. She wasn’t his first queen, and he wasn’t her first king, but they were each other’s favorite by far.
At least, that’s the way most people know them. The reality may have been a little more complicated.
Clark and Carole met in 1924, but didn’t work together until No Man of Her Own in 1932. At the time, Carole was still married to William Powell and Clark was married to his second wife, Maria Franklin Gable. It wasn’t until 1936 when Clark and Carole reconnected and became an item. Carole had been grieving the death of her previous lover, Russ Columbo, who had died by accidental gunshot in 1934, but by the time she met up with Clark, she was ready to start over. Meanwhile, Clark was coming off his affair with Loretta Young and the subsequent birth of their love child, not to mention juggling various other affairs, such as with Joan Crawford. Oh yeah, and he was still married to Maria.
Anyway, the party was at the Mayfair Club, and its president, David Selznik, asked Carole to organize it. The theme she picked was White Ball, which meant men in white tie and tails, women in white gowns, footmen with powdered wigs, white jackets, and red breeches, and white flowers everywhere. The cover charge was twenty dollars for each couple ($354.71 in today’s money), with a cash bar. The guest list was la créme de la créme of Hollywood royalty, such as Louella Parsons, Marion Davies, the Thalbergs, and Mr. and Mrs. Joe E. Brown. A few ladies wore pastels, but for some reason the only rulebreaker who irked Carole was Norma Shearer, who pulled a Jezebel and wore bright red.
Carole’s date was Cesar Romero, and Clark’s was voice double Eadie Adams. At first, things were amiable between Clark and Carole–they even sneaked out for a ride in Clark’s Duesenberg. Clark was evidently hoping he’d get lucky, because he asked Carole if she wanted to see his apartment. He might as well have asked if she wanted to see his stereo. Carole would have none of it, and teased, “Who do you think you are? Clark Gable?”
Clark zoomed them back to the party. Although he had been rebuffed, things weren’t too bad between Clark and Carole until she told him she was going to arrange for a waiter to accidentally-on-purpose ruin Norma Shearer’s dress. After an argument, Clark went to his apartment at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and drank half a bottle of scotch.
The next morning, Clark woke up with a hefty hangover. A white dove was perched on his chest, and another one on the chandelier. Clark was mystified until he found a note tied to the leg of one of the birds: “How about it? Carole.”
Clark called Carole and apologized, but he wondered what to do with the birds, and Carole arranged to have them picked up. Clark tried to use the opportunity to ask her out, which Carole refused. Clark couldn’t catch a break, so he started dating Merle Oberon.
At another party later in the year, Carole showed up to the host’s house on a stretcher, pretending to be injured. Clark spat nails when he found out he’d been had, and Carole said Merle was welcome to him. Later on, though, Carole borrowed Clark for a friendly game of tennis, even though both of them were in evening dress, and beat him eight games to zero.
It wasn’t until April of 1936 when things got good between Carole and Clark. Really good. Clark was now separated from Maria, and was all set to make Caine and Mabel with Marion Davies. When Davies had a brunch at her beach house, Clark brought Carole, and amazingly enough, the two of them had a great time, so much so that they went to an amusement park afterwards to ride the roller coasters. Once they both had a breather from filming their various projects, they became inseparable, and even when they were working again, spent as much time together as possible.
The two got married in Kingman, Arizona on March 29, 1939, when Clark was on a break from Gone With the Wind. Carole and Clark bought a house with acreage in Encino, which at the time was still pretty rural. The two of them had adjoining master suites, presumably because of their different schedules. The rest of the house was decorated to please Clark, and it was clear Carole wanted very much for him to be happy.
Their marriage seemed to be full of fun. Clark was famously a man’s man, and he enjoyed hunting fishing, and shooting, and except for the man’s man part, Carole learned how to do these things too. They also made their ranch a working farm, with chickens, horses, cats, and dogs. Even their names for each other were down-home–Clark was “Pa”, and Carole was “Ma,” pet monikers left over from No Man of Her Own.
Clark said about Carole, “You can trust that little screwball with your life or your hopes or your weaknesses, and she wouldn’t even know how to think about letting you down.” Unfortunately, Clark let Carole down pretty frequently. He was still promiscuous, and would sleep with anyone, from top actresses to fan magazine writers. Carole evidently tolerated this, but it must have been hard for her. Still, she and Clark had a good marriage partnership, and seemed to understand each other as actors and people. They wanted to start a family, but for whatever reason, Carole couldn’t conceive. Nothing helped, not even taking a year off.
Everything got derailed with the coming of the Second World War. Clark was the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and a lot of its members were going on war bond tours. The original idea was that Carole and Clark would do a tour together, but Clark was shooting Somewhere I’ll Find You with Lana Turner. Clark had his eye on the young ingenue, which irritated Carole to no end.
Sadly, she and Clark had a spat right before her tour, and he wasn’t at the train station to see Carole and her mother off. Even so, as a joke, Carole left a life-size blonde dummy in Clark’s bed the morning she left, and entrusted a series of letters to a secretary, Jean Garceau to be given to Clark at intervals. It is thought that Carole wore a pair of ruby and diamond earrings Clark had given her during her trip, plus a matching heart-shaped ruby pendant, so, difficulties aside, she may have wanted Clark with her in some way.
Carole’s tour was a huge success–one day of selling bonds in Indianapolis, for instance, netted over two million dollars. She and Clark made up over the phone, and even though Carole was still concerned about Clark’s involvement with Lana Turner, all seemed well.
On January 16, 1942, however, the worst happened. Carole was in a hurry to get back to California, and despite her fear of flying, got on a plane with her mother and her entourage. Outside of Las Vegas, the plane hit heavy fog and collided with Mount Potosi, or, as residents call it, Table Rock Mountain. MGM chartered a plane to Las Vegas, where Clark spent an agonizing night in a bungalow at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel. He wanted to go on the recovery expedition, but Eddie Mannix talked him out of it and went in his place.
Clark visited the crash site on another day, but was advised not to climb to the wreckage because it was a grisly scene and he was in enough agony as it was. According to the papers of the time, Eddie Mannix and Ralph Wheelwright identified Carole’s body.
After he got home, Clark secluded himself for months. Carole’s room was kept exactly as she had left it–even after cleaning, the staff were to put everything from perfume bottles to a book open to a certain page right back where they had found it. Clark occupied himself by riding his motorcycle up and down the streets of Encino. Friends recalled him plaintively saying “Why, Ma? Why?” when he thought no one could hear.
Clark’s chair in the MGM commissary was propped up against the table. When he did finally go back to the studio, the entire lunchtime crowd stood up and applauded. Dancer Dorothy Gilmour Raye remembered later that there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
However, Clark’s return was brief. He joined the Army Air Force, which accepted him as an aerial waist gunner by special arrangement, since he was forty-one at the time. This was no cushy job, either–waist gunners were in the biggest danger of anyone on a bomber, because they were the most exposed. I don’t think Clark cared all that much, though; in the footage of his swearing-in ceremony, he has the look of a man who doesn’t care if he comes back alive.
After the war, Clark continued to live in the house he had shared with Carole. There were other wives; one in particular, Kay, was the closest Clark got to finding another Ma. Kay likely had an inkling that she was a stand-in, but she and Clark cared about each other enough that it didn’t matter. When Clark died in 1960, Kay had him interred next to Carole at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
In the years since, some have speculated that Carole and Clark weren’t the passionate lovers they were portrayed as. One site has even gone so far as to say that Russ Columbo was Carole’s great love, and that she had daggers for anyone who tried to question her. It is a matter of public record that Carole asked to be buried near Colombo, and we know losing him affected her deeply. Columbo had been very devoted to Carole, and in the absence of similar attention from Clarke, she may have been wishing to be with Columbo in any way she could.
It’s also clear that Carole threw herself into her marriage to Clark. She was the one who changed up her life to suit him, but he didn’t seem to do the same for her. The two of them did like being together, or at least the photos give that impression. In the end, we may never know for sure. Even what we think we see may not be real, because back then the studio publicity departments were famous for tweaking stars’ lives in order to give a certain impression, even if the reality was different.
Honestly, when it comes to these two, it might be best to leave them as the stuff of legend, which, knowing how legends can be, means that everyone may have different interpretations. My personal belief is that Clark and Carole loved each other in their own way, and they will always have a place in the annals of Hollywood history.
For more Clark Gable, see Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Michaela, and for reading, everyone, and see you Wednesday with our first “Page To Screen” of 2018!
Clark Gable: Tall, Dark and Handsome. Director: Susan Walker. Narrator: Liam Neeson. TNT, 1996.
Harris, Warren G. Clark Gable: A Biography. New York: Harmony Books. 2002.
MGM: When the Lion Roars. Director: Frank Martin. Narrator: Patrick Stewart. Turner Entertainment, 1992.