Clark Gable and Carole Lombard: Hollywood’s Greatest Romance

February brings Valentine’s Day and a plentitude of great romance movies: Wuthering Heights. Now, Voyager. Dark Victory. Casablanca.  Not that Hollywood hasn’t had it own great romances. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

I would add another, which I remember because I’m 93 (94 next month) and a longtime movie buff — Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Perhaps, the greatest of them all.

Equally big stars, she was reportedly the highest paid actress in Hollywood and he was so popular he was dubbed “The King.” A beautiful blonde, the equal of any star then (or since), Lombard played dramatic parts but was best known for her roles in the zany comedies of the mid-’30s, the cinematic antidote to The Great Depression. She had a comedic touch perfect for such classics as Nothing Sacred and My Man Godfrey. Gable, who starred in such films as Test Pilot and Boom Town, was the only actor American readers and movie-goers would accept for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

They co-starred in the film No Man of Her Own in 1932, but no romantic sparks were sparked. Both were married at the time (although that has not stopped a lot of budding romances in Hollywood). A chance meeting at a party four years later — she was now single again and he was separated from his wife — and the spark was struck. His wife did not want to give him a divorce, but he prevailed, and it was finalized in March 1939. Taking advantage of a break Gable had in filming Gone with the Wind, they eloped to Kingman, Arizona.

One of my most vivid memories of movie stars when I was growing up were the photos that appeared not only in the movie magazines of the day but newspapers across the country of them shortly afterward, at his ranch in Encino, California. I can still see them, smiling happily. And later that year, at the world premiere of Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, in formal dress for the occasion, she is on his arm as they arrive, and he pauses at the microphone to address the crowd and nation through the newsreels of the time, saying, “This is Margaret Mitchell’s night.”  But I remember Carole Lombard and Clark Gable.

Photo of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard during their honeymoon
Lombard and Gable after their honeymoon. (Wikimedia Commons)

Undoubtedly, there were other photos and stories.

Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt asked the Congress for a Declaration of War. And, like the rest of the nation, Hollywood and its stars mobilized for the coming fight.  In mid-January, between pictures, Carole Lombard went back to her native Indiana on a War Bond Tour. Her mother went along, as did Otto Winkler, Gable’s friend and publicist, whom Gable had asked to accompany Carole on the tour. The tour was capped off by a dinner in Indianapolis the night of January 15, 1942. Carole Lombard had raised more than $2 million. Today, that would be more than $32 million.

Two photos of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in Indianapolis.
Lombard in Indianapolis in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

They were supposed to return home by train, as the government preferred that stars on bond tours not fly. Also, her mother and Winkler were afraid of flying. But Lombard was anxious to get back to her beloved “Pappy,” her name for Gable, and reportedly didn’t want to face three days on the “choo choo train.” They decided to flip a coin. Lombard won. And they booked a flight on a commercial airline. TWA Flight 3, a transcontinental flight out of New York, made a stop in Indianapolis, at or about 3 a.m. It would get them home late that evening.

It should be remembered that commercial flights were in their early years back then — stagecoaches, if you will, compared to today’s flights. No jets. Propeller driven. No pressurized cabins. Passengers huddled under blankets to keep warm. Frequent stops. Not only for passengers to board or depart but to refuel. During the stop at Albuquerque, New Mexico, Carole and her party were almost bumped to make way for military personnel, who took precedence in wartime. But Lombard pleaded her case, and they were allowed to fly on.

What follows has come to be known as “The Mystery of Flight 3.”  It’s known that the plane made a refueling stop at Las Vegas, then a small town. It may be that the pilot mistakenly set a course used for takeoff from Boulder, Colorado, which he and the co-pilot had flown recently. Or the pilot mistook a beacon light to the right of the runway as being at its center and flew to the right, instead of going left. Or that beacon lights that would normally have been used had been turned off, due to the war, lest they attract enemy planes.

Never disputed, the pilot did not realize he had not reached the altitude needed to clear the treacherous Mount Potosi. And there were no air traffic controllers to tell him.

The plane flew into the side of the mountain, killing all 22 aboard.

“Gable rushed to the city, first hoping for a miracle,” as the Las Vegas Review Journal put it, looking back on the 75th anniversary of the crash, “and then keeping a grief-stricken vigil until rescue teams recovered his wife’s remains.”

It’s said he never recovered.

Certainly, the loss is plain to see in the photo of The King being sworn in to the U. S. Army Air Force, as a private after enlisting, August 12, 1942. The pain on his face and in his eyes is seared into my memory. Not the pain in TV shows when someone is trying to get someone else to talk, divulge a name or meeting place. The pain that comes from somewhere deep inside — dare I say the soul? — and stays with you the rest of your life.

The Air Force sent Gable to Officer Candidate School, assigned him to a film unit in Hollywood, to which he brought great credentials, then overseas to film “Combat America,” a propaganda film about air gunners. Official records show he flew five combat missions, but fellow veterans say he flew more.

He may be seen in uniform January 15, 1944 — the second anniversary of the dinner capping Carole Lombard’s War Bond Tour — watching actress Irene Dunne break a bottle of champagne against the bow of a Liberty Ship. The ship was christened the Carole Lombard in recognition of her contribution to the war. The Carole Lombard would go on to rescue hundreds of survivors of sunken ships in the Pacific.

Whether officially or unofficially, the mountain on which she died came to be known as Carole Lombard Mountain.

After the war, Clark Gable returned to Hollywood, resumed his career. In his first film he co-starred with Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver), prompting the ad line, “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him.”  He would make movies for some 15 years, co-starring in his last, The Misfits, with the new blonde star of Hollywood, Marilyn Monroe.

In one of those twists of fate worthy of an O. Henry story or Alfred Hitchcock movie, it would be the last film for both Gable and Monroe. Two days after filming ended, Gable suffered a heart attack, sufficiently serious that he was not only hospitalized but held for further care and observation. There were those in Hollywood who thought it was his frustration with the famed tardiness of  Monroe that had driven him to passing the time wrangling the wild mustangs that were part of the film — in the heat of the desert yet — and had brought on the heart attack. And his popularity cast a cloud over Monroe that some say never ended before her death two years later.

Gable suffered a second, fatal heart attack while still hospitalized and died November 16, 1960.

Although he had married twice in the postwar years, and was happily married at the time to a woman about to present him with a son, he chose to be buried alongside Carole Lombard in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

If, unlike Romeo and Juliet, years passed between their passing, their romance may well rank up there with Shakespeare’s classic.

Certainly, the romance has those twists of fate, moments of “what might have been,” thread of tragedy, that make you wonder what The Bard would have done with Clark and Carole.

Featured image: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable in a movie still from No Man of Her Own (Wikimedia Commons)