Tag Archives: carole lombard

The First Female Casualty of WWII

Carole Lombard 1908 - 1942.

By mid-January 1942, America had been fighting World War II for just over a month and had already suffered the loss of thousands of men during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these casualties were unknown outside of their units and families.

It was a far different story when America lost it first woman in the conflict. Her name was Carole Lombard, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and the wife of superstar Clark Gable.

Lombard, one of the most gifted screwball-comediennes at the time of her death, was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Indiana. Young Carole moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was six after her parents divorced. She began her acting career in silent films at the age of 12 after a director spotted her playing baseball. She would retain a tomboyish personality spiced with bawdy humor that contrasted sharply with her classic beauty.

She co-starred with future husband Clark Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own in 1932 and saw her career take off in 1934’s Twentieth Century. She was nominated for an Oscar two years later for her role in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey in which she co-starred with her ex-husband William Powell (awkward!).

Later successes included Made For Each Other, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and To Be Or Not To Be, which was released after her death.

Lombard began an affair with Gable while he was still married to Rhea Langham. Louise B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was able to land Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind by giving him a contract that would pay him enough money to divorce Langham and wed Lombard. The couple was married during a break in filming in Kingman, Arizona, with Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent, in attendance. They lived together on a ranch in Encino for the next three years.

In 1942, Lombard, accompanied by Winkler and her mother, flew to Indiana on a mission to sell bonds for the war effort. The trip was very successful, with Lombard selling over $2 million worth of bonds in a single day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, the plane they were in crashed into Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas, killing all 22 people on-board.

A grief-stricken Gable, who was rumored to have been engaged in an affair with Lana Turner at the time of Lombard’s death, flew to the crash site. He purchased three adjoining crypts in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery for the couple and Lombard’s mother, where all three are now interrred.

Lombard’s final film To Be Or Not To Be (1942) was in post-production at the time of her death. After the crash, the producers cut out a line of dialogue in which her character rhetorically asks, “What could happen in a plane?”

Lombard was posthumously honored by the U.S. government with the launch of a Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard, and with the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war.

The question arises: Was Lombard really the first American woman to die as a result of World War II?

Most certainly not. There were previous civilian female casualties at Pearl Harbor, but like their male counterparts, they were unknown to the general public. As a well-known personality, Lombard’s death was used by the media and the War Department to personalize the conflict, and to strengthen America’s resolve.

This plaque at Lombard's crash site was stolen in 2007.

Long Live the King! – Part One

Fifty years ago today, a generation of Hollywood royalty watchers awoke to the news that their king was dead.

Clark Gable died on this date in 1960, less than two weeks after completing The Misfits, which was also the final screen appearance of Marilyn Monroe, another iconic movie star.

Gable was born in rural Ohio in 1901 and his mother died of a brain tumor before Clark was a year old. He originally had the name Goebel, which the family changed around World War I because of the anti-German sentiment of the times. He left his father’s farm behind while in high school to work in a tire plant in nearby Akron. It was here that he caught the acting bug, and set out touring the country as a member of several theater stock companies.

Gable eventually found himself working as a tie salesman in Portland, Oregon, when he met acting coach Josephine Dillon, a woman seventeen years his senior. The two became lovers while Dillon set about re-creating Gable from the ground up. He emerged from the makeover with a new set of teeth, a different hair style, a deeper voice, and a more masculine physique. Gable returned the favor by making Dillon his first wife.

The two migrated to Hollywood in 1924 where Gable got parts in several silent films before returning for a time to the stage. He returned to Hollywood in 1930 and tested for the lead in Little Caesar the following year, but Warner Bros. production head Darryl F. Zanuck, in one of his – and Hollywood’s – greatest whiffs, rejected him by commenting that “his ears are too big and he looks like an ape.”

He became a major star a short time later when he was loaned out from MGM (which had him under contract) to “Poverty Row” producer Columbia to star in It Happened One Night, opposite Claudette Colbert. Gable won the Oscar that year for the role, and his mannerisms in the film were said to be the inspiration for Bugs Bunny.

By this time, the philandering Gable had dumped Dillon to marry a Texas socialite. He was again nominated as Best Actor for his role in Mutiny On The Bounty the following year and was nicknamed the “King of Hollywood,” acting opposite (and usually sleeping with) the biggest actresses in Hollywood.

But it was all just prelude to the main feature.

In 1939, Gable had his most-enduring success in the iconic role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind, by far the highest-grossing film ever up till that time. The role earned him his third Best Actor nomination and provided him with one of the industry’s most famous lines: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Gable next married actress Carole Lombard and enjoyed the finest years of his personal life at her side. Tragically, she was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas in 1942 returning to Hollywood from a war bond rally.

Gable and Lombard.

Gable swallowed his grief by joining the Army Air Corps, flying missions over Germany. It was said that Adolf Hitler was a huge fan of Gable and offered a large reward for his capture and safe transport to Berlin.

Gable returned from the war to find Hollywood a changed place and many of his films over the last fifteen years of his life failed at the box office. By the time he made The Misfits, decades of drinking and heavy smoking had taken their toll. His health suffered on the film due to the stifling heat, difficult stunts, and the stress of dealing with Marilyn Monroe’s unprofessionalism. He suffered a major heart attack two days after the production wrapped, and died less than two weeks later.

Gable was almost as famous for his womanizing as for his acting. He went through wives like the real king Henry the VIII (he eventually had five) and had dozens of affairs throughout his life. One long-standing rumor claims that he was in bed with a starlet when he heard the news report of wife Carole Lombard’s death on the radio.

Clark Gable packed a ton of living into only 59 years, leaving behind one of Hollywood’s most enduring legacies.

Hollywood’s king was laid to rest in a crypt in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery alongside Carole Lombard, his favorite queen.