Clark Gable — dubbed ‘The King’ — married five times. Two of the marriages were of convenience, two were blissful and one was an utter mismatch. Yet it was always understood that Carole Lombard, Gable’s third wife, was the one and the eternal love of his life. Accepting this, Kay Williams –his fifth spouse and the mother of his only son—allowed him to be buried alongside Lombard at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Glendale, in November 1960. 

Then Hollywood’s greatest leading man, Clark Gable remained Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. “He had the eyes of a woman and the build of a bull,” to quote screenwriter John Lee Mahin And ‘The King’ and Carole Lombard were dubbed Hollywood’s most mythic couple. Even soaring above the likes of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton because their romance was cruelly cut-short. In January 1942, Lombard was killed in a plane crash. The untouchable golden duo hadn’t even celebrated their third wedding anniversary. 

Like Jayne Mansfield, the Princess of Wales and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy who died in equally shocking circumstances, Lombard was young, blond and beautiful. However, unlike the other three women, the 32-year-old Lombard was an Oscar nominee, one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses and travelling in service to her country. She died a heroine, hence being termed as America’s very first WWII victim by President Roosevelt.

Accompanied by her mother Bessie Peters, Lombard was selling defence bonds in Indianapolis. Smashing expectations, the sassy star of screwball hits such as Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey and Nothing Sacred sold $2 million dollars. “Carole was perfect, really she was MAGNIFICENT,” telegrammed William Hays. Alas, Lombard was impatient to return home. She and her mother joined twenty passengers on the DC3 plane and after refuelling in Las Vegas, their plane crashed into Nevada’s Table Rock Mountains behind. 

Wearing a sombre suit and the darkest sunglasses, Gable had to be restrained from seeing Lombard’s body. “She wouldn’t want it,” advised his friend, the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns. And Lombard’s charred remains were recognized via a diamond and ruby clip that ‘The King’ had given her at Christmas; their final one together. 

The Lombard tragedy stunned Hollywood. Comparisons might be made to the demise of Diana, the Princess of Wales in 1997. Considered one of their “favourite daughters,” the premiere of Lombard’s latest film, Lubitsch’s To Have and Have Not was cancelled, the sound stages were hushed, a WWII rescue boat was eventually named after her while regrets and accolades were universally expressed. “Our deepest sympathy goes to Clark Gable and Carole’s two brothers,” said William Powell, Lombard’s co-star and former husband. “So little can be put into words,” said Spencer Tracy, Gable’s screen rival while Ginger Rogers said the world had lost a star “who bought joy to millions,” while her associates had “lost a wonderful friend.” 

Clark Gable and Carol Lombard at Tennis
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard attending a match at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, US, 1937.

It was interesting that the image-obsessed Ginger was speaking out. Clearly a sign of her professional respect because although their dressing rooms had been adjoined at R-K-O studios, the actresses were defined differently. Off screen, Rogers was a practising Christian Scientist and fervent teetotaller. Her guests were treated to ice cream from her soda bar. This contrasted with the mischievous and foul-mouthed Lombard who got bombed on cocktails, danced up a storm and enjoyed provoking. “Cock-a-doodle-doo, any cock will do,” she’d cry, punctuated with an angelic smile. When lunching with newcomer Jean Howard at Paramount’s commissary, Lombard produced her new toy, a vibrator. “She whirled it around, shaking with laughter,” said Howard. And when David Niven shared a beach house with his debauched bachelor pals, Lombard nicknamed it Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea. 

Regarding politics, both Rogers and Lombard were both involved but diametrically opposed. Ginger was vocal about being a conservative-minded Republican (A sneak, she sunk Dalton Trumbo’s reputation during the McCarthy hearings) whereas Lombard was vocal about being a true-blue democrat. This was demonstrated when meeting Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own (1932), their first and only film together. When he appeared sporting a ‘vote for Hoover’ badge (Herbert Hoover, the Republican candidate,) Lombard ripped the pin off his lapel and told him to shove it up the ass of Louis B. Mayer, a stalwart Republican. Considering the power of MGM and the fact that it was in front of journalists, it was courageous. 

On set, there had been friction and an exchange of sarcastic barbs between the actors. After shooting wrapped, Gable gave her a vast pair of ballet slippers, to match her outsized prima donna ego whereas Lombard, never one to be outsmarted, presented Gable with a large ham, pasted with his face, implying his acting abilities. That either of them had bothered, suggests that a flame was gently flickering between the two. 

page67image14093360Clark Gable as Gary Langland wrestles with a bucking horse in the film Misfits (1961). By Cornell Capa.
Magnum Photos.

Two motion pictures capped ‘The King’s’ career—It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind: two movies that he resented making. It also helped in the ending on The Misfits co-starring Marilyn Monroe. Nevertheless, up close, Lombard was more sophisticated and multi-dimensional. Her clownish antics clearly seduced Gable. And sure Lombard goofed it up on screen and in public but she was also authentic—proud to be born a Hoosier, as the natives of Indianapolis refer to themselves—and self-possessed. Her early life as a movie actress began with Fox studios who cancelled her contract after a car accident and fourteen stitches on her face; a wakeup call to the cruelty of her world. Fortunately, Mack Sennett, the comic genius, felt differently; swooping Lombard up for thirteen short films, resulting in her Paramount contract. 

During a time when befriending homosexuals posed a problem, Lombard was the self-proclaimed ‘Queen of the Fag Hags.’ She was also one of the first to hire the decorating skills of Billie Haines who had bravely chosen his gay partner over his wildly successful MGM film career as the former William Haines. Uninhibited, Lombard wandered around nude when Haines was choosing jewelled shades of velvet for her home. 

Lombard’s tall, athletic figure was flawlessly turned out. (Her choice of clothes, often designed by Paramount’s brilliant Travis Banton wouldn’t look amiss now.) Her classical American appearance contrasted with her zany character. Seasoned, she realised that Hollywood wouldn’t tolerate her looking weird. A clever ploy, Lombard epitomised contemporary elegance but was one of the boys who swore like a trooper and revelled in practical jokes. 

According to Bret’s Tormented Star, the Gable-Lombard romance began in January 1936 when she organised the Mayfair Club dinner-dance. “Hi Baby, I’m in charge of this fucking party,” was how she greeted Gable and then mid-dance grabbed his crutch and said, “so Pa’s got a hard on.” Some insist that he whisked her away in his customised Duesenberg automobile. Unlikely since Lombard was the hostess and surrounded by gossip columnists.

No question, Lombard wanted ‘The King.’ “They were completely happy in each other’s company,” wrote David Niven in Bring on the Empty Horses, his second autobiography. Chivalrous of Niven considering Lombard dumped him from their social circle. Gable’s powerful status must have attracted because it certainly wasn’t about his lovemaking. “In real life, Gable was frankly no Gable,” many lamented.

Nevertheless, sparks flew between them. Initially, Gable swung from being turned on to exasperated. Impish and fiercely independent, Lombard excelled at playing hard to get. It explains his sudden affair with the exquisite Merle Oberon. Sensing danger, Lombard appeared at the house of their millionaire host—Jock Whitney—in an ambulance. Sirens screeching, the ambulance driver and his paramedic assistant needed somewhere to “park the stiff” until the police arrived. The stretcher was marched into Whitney’s salon where, to the surprise of the guests, the supposed corpse sat bolt upright and removed her shroud. It was Lombard, wearing a Travis Banton gown, naturally.

Clinching their romantic bliss, Lombard bought a ranch in Elcino, allowing them privacy and a place for Gable to hunt, shoot and fish. True, she continued to publicly jab Gable about his virility and false teeth—her way of dealing with his serial unfaithfulness. (When Gable planted handprints, Lombard teased that it would be an imprint of his “uncircumcised cock.”) But she also woke up at 4am, making sandwiches for everyone. “After she met Gable, I don’t think she had a mind except to fulfil what Gable wanted,” opined Rogers St. Johns. On Lux Radio Theatre—reputed for its 35 million audience—Lombard readily admitted, “I know nothing about farming but I think it’s a swell idea.” 

Carole Lombard and Clark Gable with their horse Bon Pepper and her colt.

A bucolic existence—replacing her Banton wardrobe with hacking jackets and corduroys—might allow Lombard to become pregnant. After their marriage in 1939, she suffered a miscarriage and then visited fertility experts in Baltimore. Gable wasn’t bothered—he already had an illegitimate daughter via Loretta Young—and was busy being ‘The King’ and conducting extra-marital affairs with the likes of Lana Turner. The latter vexed Lombard. Just as it annoyed that she wasn’t cast as Scarlett in Gone With The Wind. (Hence her description of Vivien Leigh as “that fucking English bitch.”)

However, this hadn’t stopped Lombard from glowing at the film’s première in Atlanta, wearing Travis Banton’s gold lamé gown. 

After Pearl Harbor, Lombard was seized by patriotism, even threatening to fly to the Pacific and kill the enemy with her bare hands. Her plan was to join the Red Cross and return to movies, post WWII. Gable was equally gung ho, promising to enlist after his film, Somewhere I’ll find you. To his dying regret, it was Gable who encouraged Lombard’s war-bonds promotion. Nor had he seen his wife off at the station. The official reasoning being that it was her moment, not his. But according to Tormented Star, the Gables had had a humdinger argument about his philandering ways, particularly with his co-star Lana Turner. 

But this hadn’t stopped Lombard writing several billet doux, instructing her secretary to give one per day to Gable. Ever the prankster, she had also sneaked “a large-breasted love-doll wearing a Lana Turner wig” into his bed with an attached note that read, “so you won’t be lonely.” Gable, in turn, had arranged a male dummy, customised with a 12-inch erect penis for his wife. 

Final footage of Lombard shows her leading the war bond crowd in Indianapolis, encouraging them to cheer “loud enough to be heard in Tokyo and Berlin.” Carve Lombard’s name with pride and Clark Gable did until he died. He seduced a series of Lombard carbon copies while her bedroom at their ranch became a shrine. The tragedy also led to his enlistment as an aerial gunman, to the horror of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer. “After Carole went, Gable was never the same,” said Adela Rogers St John. Nevertheless, he remained ‘The King.’ For the public, Gable represented the greatest male star of Hollywood’s golden era, appreciated for his knowing look and smile. There were men, women and Clark Gable. And no one disliked ‘The King.’