For five brief years, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the most dashing, glamorous couple on the planet. He was a manly heartthrob, the star of Gone with the Wind and It Happened One Night. She was the screwball comedienne and leading lady who lit up classics like My Man Godfrey and Twentieth Century.
Theirs is a tale so heart-wrenching that Warren G. Harris’s seminal 1974 Gable & Lombard often reads more like a made-for-tv movie than a true story. (In fact, it was made into a movie in 1976, starring James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh.) But even if it’s filled with vague conjecture, suspect conversations, and pat premonitions, this slight biography sucks the reader into the romance of these two stars, while hinting at the very real tensions boiling beneath the fairytale.
A more recent exploration of the couple, 2013’s Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen, often reads like one of Lombard’s madcap movies. But it also offers a highly detailed account of the crash that took Lombard’s life, and a more grounded view of the sainted star and her hardscrabble husband. “They were always way up in the air or way down,” Loretta Young once said. “They were real people.”
The night of the glamorous “White Mayfair” ball in Beverly Hills is part of Hollywood lore. Hosted by Carole Lombard on a January evening in 1936, it featured a who’s-who of the entertainment industry, including the undisputed King himself: Clark Gable.
That night, Lombard was reintroduced to Gable—and soused sparks flew. The two had co-starred in 1932’s No Man of Her Own, but according to Harris, they disliked each other on set. The calm, unflappable Gable was annoyed by Lombard’s boisterous behavior, while rapid-fire Lombard was irritated by Gable’s stoic reserve.
But four years later, opposites attracted. Harris paints this encounter way too cinematically —like a meet-cute in one of Lombard’s screwball romances. Gable asked Lombard to dance, and was allegedly so aroused (the basis for Harris’s claim here is unclear, an issue throughout the book) that an amused Lombard stopped dancing with him so he could cool down.
The night quickly descended into confused chaos, with Gable driving Lombard to his hotel and propositioning her. This led Lombard to quip, “Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?” An angered Gable quickly drove Lombard back to the ball, where he almost got into a fight with actor Lyle Talbot and she almost came to blows with Norma Shearer, who had dared to wear red to the all-white soiree.
According to Harris, Gable eventually drove Lombard home. When he realized that she had no interest in a sexual encounter, he claimed he had an appoinment and needed to leave. Lomabrd acidly asked if he had a date with Loretta Young (with whom he had recently fathered a secret child), and Gable left in a huff.
The next morning, a hungover Gable awoke to strange cooing sounds. Harris writes:
[Lombard] decided she’d been too hard on him, so she called up a pet shop and had them send over a pair of doves as a peace offering. She then bribed one of the hotel clerks to release the doves in Gable’s apartment while he was still asleep. Then he found a card attached to the leg of one of the birds, with the words “How about it? Carole.”
The Legend of Lombard
Although he was still married to his second wife, Ria, the King was soon falling in love with Lombard—just like almost everyone else who met her. “She was a lusty, rowdy, two-fisted, terrific dame, who knew all there was to know about life and love and temptation. Her philosophy was laughter,” one friend recalled, per Harris.
Both Harris and Matzen seem besotted with Lombard. In each book, the tenacious, big-hearted, unpretentious Lombard overshadows her more famous paramour. As Matzen notes, Lombard was also an incredibly savvy businesswoman, consciously building a brand as “America’s Madcap Playgirl Number 1.” Lombard’s rowdy parties and zany on-set antics were legendary, and she was soon on the charm offensive with Gable.
After Gable suffered a rare flop in the period drama Parnell, Lombard had leaflets distributed on the MGM lot reading, “If you think Gable is the world’s greatest actor, see him in ‘Parnell.’” She played Judy Garland’s fawning “Dear Mr. Gable” so much that, per Harris, Gable later told Garland, “Honey, I love you madly, but please don’t do ‘our song’ anymore.”
But as Matzen explains, Lombard’s true gift was her generous nature. “Carole’s Causes” included countless crew members, a broke Anthony Quinn, the actor turned designer William Haines (blacklisted for being gay), ex-husband William Powell, a young Robert Stack, tuberculosis-stricken tennis star Alice Marble, a skidding John Barrymore, and a floundering Lucille Ball. According to Matzen, Lombard never wanted attention drawn to her good deeds or donations, quipping, “Oh shit, forget about it!’” when someone attempted to thank her.
One gets the sense that Lombard’s giving sp
irit was a tonic to the motherless Gable, whose hardscrabble childhood had left him tight-fisted and emotionally vulnerable. As he once said, per Harris, “You can trust that little screwball with your life.”
Ma and Pa
So, what exactly did Lombard see in Gable? According to Harris, she saw a charming, solitary, equally unpretentious, gentle man who loved to laugh and calmed her down. “[Clark] had my number so fast, it was terrifying,” Lombard told a friend, per Harris. “He told me what I was—a screwy, neurotic, miserable fool—and he was right. I’ve never been anything else… I just fooled people. But I couldn’t fool him, and I knew it.”
But as Matzen, not quite as starry-eyed as Harris about Lombard, notes, the highly competitive actress also saw Gable as a prize to be won. The fact that an angry Ria Gable refused to divorce Clark infuriated Lombard, and one night she shockingly broke into her rival’s home. “Lombard padded quietly to the doorway, cleared her throat and yelled at the startled Mrs. Gable, ‘Hi, you old witch. If you want to call me a home-breaker now, it’s your fucking privilege,’” Harris writes.
For feminist readers, the lengths Lombard went to make Gable happy—her “Clark comes first” attitude- are heartbreakingly eager and regressive. The thoroughly cosmopolitan comedienne transformed herself into an outdoors woman, practicing fly fishing with Claudette Colbert, learning to hunt, skeet shoot, and braving countless camping trips with Gable while nestled in a sleeping bag lined with her beloved fur coats.
She bought a ranch in Encino, dubbed “The House of Two Gables,” where the two stars lived in contented seclusion, cosplaying as rustic ranchers—riding tractors, raising chickens, and calling each other “Ma” and “Pa.”
In a particularly affecting passage (despite the fact that it seems a bit too pitch-perfect to be true), Harris describes a particularly happy night on the deck at the ranch:
“Gable said, ’Ma, we’re lucky people. We’ve got this ranch… … we’ve both got good jobs, friends, money in the bank and our health. God’s been good to us. Can you think of anything you really want that you haven’t got?’ Lombard sipped on her Coca-Cola before she answered. ’Pa, to tell you the truth, I could use a couple of loads of manure if we’re going to do any good with those fruit trees.’”
Enter The Sweater Girl
Despite Lombard’s Herculean efforts, there were some things her love and care could not fix. Throughout Gable & Lombard, Harris subtly points out that the couple had very real problems, even after they finally married in 1939. According to Harris, Lombard was particularly bothered by Gable’s miserliness. His selfish nature was also exhibited in the bedroom, leading Lombard to quip, “My God, you know how I love Pa, but I can’t say he’s a helluva good lay.”
This deficiency didn’t stop Gable from straying—prodigiously. According to both Harris and Matzen, Gable cheated on Lombard frequently, something the practical Lombard put up with because she felt his status as “the King of Hollywood” made infidelity inevitable.
But Lombard’s real feelings came out in her frequent visits to his sets. She was particularly wary of the infamous Lana Turner, who claimed to have had a “a wonderful chemical rapport” with Gable. According to Matzen, the acerbic Lombard showed up on set so much during the filming of the 1941 film Honky Tonk that Turner once fled to her trailer.
As the United States entered World War II, the Gables were increasingly under strain. Lombard, desperate for a child, was unable to conceive; Harris is at his most dated writing of her inability to “give” Gable a child. The progressive, patriotic Lombard was also obsessed with helping in the war effort and encouraged a reluctant Gable to set an example by joining the Army.
To make Lombard happy, he became head of the Hollywood Victory Committee. When told that the government was looking for a star to sell war bonds in Indiana, he offered up his wife, a native of Fort Wayne. According to Harris, Lombard begged Gable to go with her. But he was set to start shooting *Somewhere I’ll Find You—*with Lana Turner.
What happened next is muddled, and one wishes that the insightful Lombard had lived long enough to write her own version of the story. According to Harris, on January 12, 1942, the Gables had a vicious fight over his infidelities before she left for the tour. When she arrived at the train station, Gable was not there. As a gag, Lombard had left a naked mannequin in his bed to keep him company.
The Coin Toss
Lombard’s tour of Indiana was a rousing success. With her beloved mother, Bess, and MGM publicist Otto Winkler accompanying her, she stormed the state, raising over $2 million in U.S. Defense Bonds.
But according to Matzen, Lombard was obsessed with getting home to Gable by nightfall. Although the group was supposed to travel home by train, Lombard pushed to take a plane.
PROC. BY MOVIES