Of course there is a real me, but I don’t value her so highly that I have to force her on people.”

- Carole Lombard

Divorce court in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, was crowded that August morning in 1933. Even the judge, normally a weary audience of one for the endless parade of attractive, recent Nevada residents seeking release from their husbands in the only state that then permitted it, seemed unusually alert as Mrs. William Powell stood to address the court. Her charges of “extreme cruelty” against her husband had been the source of much mirth in the show business press, but outright laughter erupted when Mrs. Powell accused her husband of “using foul language” against her, her own salty vocabulary having been a Hollywood tradition for some years. Furthermore, her marriage to William Powell had been marked, not by any unkindness from the always dapper and gentlemanly actor, but by sheer boredom. “It was a waste of time,” she later described her three years with Powell, “his, and mine.”  Before she could complete her official tale of woe for the court, the judge cut her off, banged his gavel, and declared Hollywood’s mistress of screwball comedy to be once again plain Carole Lombard.

The good grace and easy humor with which her first marriage ended was typical of her life in general. Carole Lombard was one of Hollywood’s best loved personalities, “filmdom’s best pal and good-time girl,” as one biographer wrote of her, “the one person in town whom everyone liked, the brightest and the best, and no mistake”. She never took her stardom very seriously, never threw scenes on sound stages, or never demanded a separate dressing room, being perfectly happy with a table and chair in a corner of a soundstage. She was ready for a scene at least twenty minutes before anyone else, often did her own stand-in work on her pictures, and was known for showing up on the set even on days when she wasn’t needed to trade jokes with the crew and watch the day’s rushes. She managed to maintain her equilibrium even when she became Hollywood’s highest paid star and  married one of its most glamorous leading men. “Most people can’t be flexible,” she once told an interviewer who wondered why she seemed so unaffected by her success. “I can, so I am.”

She had learned adaptability early on from her mother, Elizabeth Knight Peters, who had gone from being a society hostess to a movie mother without batting a carefully tended eyelash. Bessie Knight was one of the most eligible young ladies in Fort Wayne, Indiana before she married Frederic Peters at the turn of the century, a union that raised not a few eyebrows in Fort Wayne society. Bessie’s family was a wealthy and socially prominent one, while Frederic came from more modest roots. He would later prove himself, however, by building a small hardware store in Fort Wayne into a profitable statewide chain, providing a comfortable life for Bessie and their three children - two sons, Fred, Jr., and Stuart; and his youngest child, Jane Alice, born on October 6, 1908. Although Frederic suffered from ill health, particularly from crippling headaches that plagued him after a hunting accident, the Peters family seemed typical of the optimistic, progressive times of pre-World War One America. They clanked around town in a Tin Lizzie dubbed “The Weedburner”, spent summers with relatives on verdant country estates, and hosted parties during the social season that were the delight of Fort Wayne’s upper crust, Bessie being known as a superb hostess to her friends and as a consummate organizer and problem-solver to her family. The children especially remembered Bessie’s heroics in turning their home into a refugee center for flood victims when the St. Mary’s River disastrously overflowed its banks in 1913. Everyone noted that little Jane was growing up into a pretty young girl, much taken with the serials playing down at the “picture palace”. Her tomboy tendencies were remarked upon, especially by her older brothers, whom she browbeat into letting her play baseball and football with the other neighborhood boys.

Bessie Peters once again caught her hometown by surprise by announcing in 1916 that she and her children would be traveling to California for a vacation, leaving her ailing husband behind.  After the four-day train journey and a brief stop in San Francisco to visit relatives, the Peters sans pére arrived in Los Angeles, where Bessie promptly fell in love with the place and announced she would remain there permanently. For propriety’s sake, she took care to mention that Frederic would join them when his health improved; but the truth was that she and her husband had come to an amicable estrangement, although it would take more than ten years for a formal divorce to be announced.

Hollywood in 1916 was still mostly orange groves and farmhouses basking in the last moments of sunny isolation before the arrival en masse of “the picture people”. D.W. Griffith had just begun production in nearby Santa Ana on his epic Birth Of A Nation when Bessie and her children arrived. Thomas Ince was about to begin construction on the  first permanent movie studio in Culver City, on the southern edge of the orange groves; while to the north, in the valley on the other side of the rugged hills thrusting east from the Pacific, Carl Laemmle was buying up acreage for a studio complex he would call Universal City. In between them was the semi-rural tract of land which a Midwestern dowager who had settled there in the 1880's named Hollywood, after the estate she had left behind in colder climes. Bessie Peters bought a small bungalow with money sent to her by Frederic and set about acquainting herself with the locals, many of whom told her that her little Jane was pretty enough to be in the pictures. Their opinion seemed confirmed in 1921 when Allan Dwan, one of the most prolific and imaginative of early film directors, happened to be visiting a friend in the neighborhood and spotted Jane playing baseball (or boxing with one of her brothers, depending on which account one prefers). Bessie agreed to his suggestion that Jane take a part in his new film, A Perfect Crime, a melodrama in which Jane appeared in three scenes as the younger sister of the film’s star. It was Dwan’s opinion that Jane was clever enough to be an actress, prompting Bessie to take the child on a round of interviews which produced no results. It would be the first of three false starts to Jane’s hopes of a movie career.

The second came when Jane was named Queen Of The May at Fairfax High School in the spring of 1924, an honor normally reserved for the girl deemed to be the school’s prettiest and an event closely watched by talent scouts looking for fresh young faces. One of them got her a test for Charlie Chaplin, then casting the ingenue role for The Gold Rush. The diminutive Chaplin felt that Jane’s beauty, not to mention her height, would draw screen attention away from himself and declined to hire her, but the test found its way to Vitagraph Studios, which signed her to a one year contract and asked her to choose a screen name for herself. Jane chose Carol Peters, taking as her inspiration a tennis star she particularly admired, Carol Peterson.

Once again, however, it appeared her film career was not to be, for Vitagraph declared bankruptcy soon after her signing. Carol reluctantly returned to high school in the fall, although she had decided by now that her life’s desire was to be in pictures. Bessie’s peripatetic social touring had produced a friendship with Louella Parsons, who had taken a liking to her friend’s daughter and who suggested that an interview with William Fox might be arranged. Fox was just setting about building his new studio and a talent roster to go with it. Carol’s third attempt in films came in October of 1924, when she left high school in her junior year to sign a one year contract with Fox at sixty-five dollars a week. Fox suggested that ‘Peters’ sounded too weak for movie audiences to remember and encouraged Carol to come up with a new name. It was Bessie who suggested ‘Lombard’, recalling friends back in Fort Wayne of whom she had been particularly fond. By Thanksgiving of 1924, Carol appeared in the first of a number of the cheap, two-reel Westerns Fox cranked out to build his audience and his bank account. Carol was little more than decoration in the pictures and had little actual acting to do. Her only notable achievement during the period was beating Joan Crawford in the annual Charleston contest at the Cocoanut Grove, a popular jazz-age hangout for young movie hopefuls with money to burn.

Fox began to take Carol more seriously when the great John Barrymore asked to screen test her for an upcoming film, prompting the studio to move her into the cast of one of its A films when misfortune once again threatened to derail Carol’s career. Carol was sitting in the front seat of a racy Bugatti driven by one of her Cocoanut Grove cronies when the car ahead of them slammed on its brakes. The resulting impact shattered the car’s windshield and sprayed her face with shards of splintered glass, although there were no other injuries to herself or the driver. The resulting gash, running from her right cheekbone to her nose, was successfully repaired in a four-hour operation, leaving only a small scar that was barely noticeable - except, Fox feared, to a movie audience seeing a closeup of her face. The studio canceled her contract, citing a clause that made an employee responsible for the results of any alteration in appearance or physical condition. Friends noted the change in Carol’s outlook as she lay motionless for the four weeks she spent at home after the operation. “Carol...became very self-critical, ashamed of herself for having been so shallow,” one of them later said. “And while she became more jovial later on, you were aware of her depth.” Everyone predicted it was the end of Carol’s short film career, especially when Sam Goldwyn called her an imposter after not noticing her scar during an interview, but finding out about it later when he called William Fox to ask why such a beautiful creature had been fired. Carol had other ideas, however.

Mack Sennett had introduced himself to her at the Cocoanut Grove some months before the accident, and it was to Sennett that Carol committed the care of her future in films. Sennett was a Hollywood original, having established a beachhead early on with his Keystone Kops and a successful series of short films that amounted to little more than a genial ogling of young ladies in bathing suits. Sennett’s “bathing beauty” films were long on feminine pulchritude but cheerfully short on artistic technique, including closeups. Sennett cared nothing for Carol’s nearly invisible scar, although he had some suggestions for her as he welcomed her into his “chorus”, the members of which he preferred to be on the plump side. “We gotta get some meat on you,” he told her the first morning she reported for work, and his prescription was simple. “Carol, honey, you go right home and eat some bananas, a lot of bananas,” he said. “Just keep on eatin’ ‘em. That’ll fatten you up, especially in the tits.” Sennett may have had his ways (he claimed to get all his ideas while sitting naked in a steaming hot tub in the middle of his office), but Carol later said her two years with him taught her everything she knew about comedy. It was Sennett who pointed out to her that any situation could be funny or tragic, depending on the attitude of the actor. He advised her that the way to make a scene funny was to act as if she didn’t believe any of it for a minute, a talent much in evidence in her later films. For the next two years, Sennett put her to work in a string of his shorts, as well as loaning her out to Pathé, which distributed his films, and to her old studio, Fox, which used her in many of its “programmers” - cheap, quickly produced  films used as filler for movie audiences willing to spend an entire afternoon watching films.

Like most beautiful but inexperienced young actresses, Carol was subjected to the usual pinchings and gropings from male actors and crew members; but unlike her peers, Carole decided to do something about it, asking her brothers to teach her every dirty word and sexually descriptive phrase they knew. “She memorized all the terms and our definitions like she was studying for a test,” brother Fred remembered. “And from then on, if some guy made a pass at her or tried to, he’d hear such talk as he just wouldn’t expect to come from such a beautiful girl.” Thus was established Carol’s well-deserved reputation for exuberantly earthy language, to the shock of some and the delight of others, like writer and director Garson Kanin. “She used the full, juicy Anglo-Saxon vocabulary,” he wrote of her, “yet it never shocked, never offended, because she was clearly using the language to express herself, and not to shock or offend.” She put her homework to an early test during an interview with the famously vulgar sexual predator, Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures, to whom Carol was often loaned out by Pathé and, later, Paramount. Her stream of invective at his expected, and not particularly subtle, propositioning was sufficiently bombastic to impress even Cohn and establish a long-running relationship that became a strictly professional one from then on.

Carol had landed at Paramount after Pathé went bankrupt, and it was for her new studio that she first came to wide public notice as an elegant, sophisticated “orchid lady”, so-called because of her sensual adornment of such lightweight films as Safety In Numbers, Fast And Loose, and It Pays To Advertise. Paramount was sufficiently impressed with her to cast her opposite one of its most popular leading men, William Powell, in Man Of The World and in Ladies’ Man. Powell was one of the few character actors from the silent era to have survived the transition to sound and was known around the business as a thorough professional. Powell responded to Carol’s equally workmanlike attitude, to say nothing of her physical attractions; while Carol was smitten by Powell’s aristocratic bearing and sophisticated manners. The two were married at Bessie’s Rexford Drive house on June 26, 1931, Powell being thirty-nine at the time and Carol twenty-three. Always fond of nicknames, Carol marked Powell as “Philo” (after Philo Vance, the detective character on which Powell had built his early career in a series of mystery films) and settled down to the sedate married life Powell preferred. “That’s how I learned to put a house together,” she later told Garson Kanin, “and have everything supplied, and how to take care of his clothes. I mean, I was the best fuckin’ wife you ever saw. I mean a ladylike wife, because that’s how Philo wanted it.” But two years of quiet domesticity was enough for Carol, while Powell was gentlemanly enough to realize that his talented young bride’s future should include more than he could offer. Their 1933 divorce was a friendly one, despite the required performance Carole gave in Lake Tahoe that August day. The two were often seen in public together for some years afterward, and it was Powell who, three years later, would insist on playing opposite Carol in what would be one of her most successful films, My Man Godfrey. There were rumors that Carol would marry a second time when her passionate affair with singer and bandleader Russ Columbo became public early in 1934. Columbo, a smooth baritone who was being groomed as a rival to Bing Crosby, had even taken Carol to meet his family in Philadelphia before he was tragically killed at the age of 26 when an antique rifle accidentally discharged, sending a bullet into his brain. One of the few times the public saw Carol Lombard cry was at Columbo’s funeral.

On screen, however, all was light and laughter. 1934's Twentieth Century was Carol’s breakthrough picture and the film that first made Paramount realize it had a major comedic actress on its hands. It was also John Barrymore’s chance to make good on his earlier promise to put her in one of his pictures. Barrymore had specifically requested her for the role of Lily Garland, the renegade actress who is pursued by Barrymore’s Oscar Jaffe, a theatrical producer. Barrymore’s request was somewhat of a backhanded complement, for his drinking was making the studio nervous, and more famous actresses who had been approached for the role refused to work with him. But it was Barrymore’s histrionics as Oscar Jaffe that seemed to act as a catalyst for everything Mack Sennett had taught Carol back in her bathing beauty days. Although Barrymore said she was the greatest actress he had ever worked with, Carol’s brilliant portrayal of Lily surprised everyone else. “Miss Lombard...never seemed to be more than a passably fair performer,” said one critic, “but she has now given a more than ordinarily good performance in which she holds the attention, even though she is opposite one of the finest actors in films, in one of his best roles.” Carol quickly followed her success with another widely admired performance as a gold-digging manicurist in 1935's Hands Across The Table, a script she had herself helped develop at Paramount and for which she had chosen her leading man, Fred MacMurray, in one of his first comedic roles. “[They] make an all-time copybook example of how to play a movie for all it’s worth,” wrote Variety’s reviewer, “with...the open, sustained kind of charm that can be projected through the shadows of a mile of celluloid.” Her position at the top of Hollywood’s roster of stars was secured with the release of My Man Godfrey in 1936, in which she played the wealthy, if not particularly bright, heiress Irene Bullock, who finds the homeless Godfrey on a bet and passes him off as her family’s valet. Carol landed the role after Powell, playing Gregory, refused to do the picture unless his ex-wife was given the role. The film was so successful that Carol became Hollywood’s highest paid star when she renewed that year with Paramount, guaranteed $450,000 a year for the seven year life of the contract.

Typically, Carole (who had decided to change the spelling of her name) joked about her rising fortunes, telling Garson Kanin “I think that ‘e’ made the whole fuckin’ difference”; but in more serious moments, she attributed a good deal of her success to playing opposite great actors, like Barrymore and Powell. “I’m really not a leader, but a follower,” she said. “I respond to any pace, but I don’t set one.” That may have been true on a sound stage, but Carole was definitely a pace-setter for Hollywood’s social life. Like Bessie, she became known for her inventive, amusing, and sometimes raucous buffet suppers and parties, all of which were organized around a theme. Noticing that many of her friends seemed to be complaining of various aches, pains, and other physical indignities, for example, Carol threw a “hospital party”, in which everyone was required to attend wearing hospital gowns. When a dinner guest moaned that he was too tired to sit up at the table, she organized a roman banquet during which guests sprawled out on sofas; and at the 1936 Mayfair Club Ball, which she had been asked to organize, Carole commanded everyone to wear white and was enraged when Norma Shearer arrived in a brilliant, scarlet gown. Shearer was preserved from a barrage of Lombard insults by a quick-thinking Clark Gable, who whisked Carole out of the room. It may have been at the Mayfair Ball that one of Hollywood’s most famous love affairs was born, for many noted that it seemed an inordinately long time before Gable ushered Carole back into the room.

The two had worked together only once, in 1932's No Man Of Her Own, when Carole was still married to Powell and Gable had recently taken society belle Ria Langham as his second wife. Gable had had his own false start in movies, coming to Hollywood in the ‘twenties to work as an extra but forced to find work with touring theatrical companies before being discovered by MGM in 1930. Thirty-five at the time his relationship with Carole began, Gable had become the heart throb of millions of American women with his work opposite Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and in the sprawling San Francisco, and had already been dubbed “the King of the movies.” Carole relished the memories of the early days of their affair, in which Gable would rent a motel room in some obscure little town outside Los Angeles, making a copy of the room key and sending it to her; and she traced the beginning of his serious interest in her to a “nervous breakdown party” in which she arrived in an ambulance and had herself carried into the room on a stretcher, wearing a white operating room gown (“Maybe he thought I was a virgin or something,” Carole speculated). But by 1937, their affair had become such public knowledge that Photoplay included them in a feature story called “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands And Wives”.

While her love for Gable deepened, Carole’s career reached a new pinnacle in 1937. Finishing work on a Friday on that year’s Nothing Sacred, she reported to the set on Monday to start True Confessions, both films being released simultaneously on Thanksgiving Day of that year and both remaining classics of the “screwball” comedies of the era. She played for a second time opposite Fred MacMurray in True Confessions as an otherwise normal young housewife whose only failing is an inability to tell the truth. John Barrymore, by then crippled by alcoholism, nevertheless turned in an hysterically funny performance as the eccentric con man who finds a cure for the young woman’s malady. The next year, Carole surprised her audience in her first picture for RKO, Made For Each Other, a light romantic comedy that emphasized her dramatic range rather than her by now familiar genius for comedy. The picture was named one of the year’s ten best by the New York Times.

But Carole had more on her mind that year, for Gable had now divorced Ria Langham and was a free man. On March 29, 1938 - the first day off Gable had from playing Rhett Butler in David Selznick’s Gone With The Wind - she became the third Mrs. Clark Gable in a private, closely guarded ceremony at a small church in tiny Kingman, California. “Carole was madly in love with him,” a friend of them both told an interviewer years later. “When she would zero in on something, that was it, and she wanted this relationship.” Carole’s view was more prosaic. “I just think about that husband of mine all the time,” she said. “I’m really stuck on the bastard. That’s something, isn’t it!”. The pair set about renovating a twenty-acre ranch which Gable had bought from director Raoul Walsh in Encino, then still a rural Valley enclave. They indulged in the kind of pastoral fantasy that their combined salaries allowed, keeping horses and chickens (which Carole tried to turn to good use by selling “the King’s eggs”) and mowing an alfalfa field with the yellow tractor that was Gable’s pride and joy. They even called each other Maw and Paw, and were much photographed together in Gable’s favorite pastime, duck shooting.

The careers of Hollywood’s reigning love birds seemed just as fantastically sublime. Gable, after screening the completed Gone With The Wind, was convinced his Rhett Butler would earn him the Oscar. The 1939 award went instead to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Gable found little solace on the way home from the ceremonies when Carole predicted they’d bring an Oscar home the next year. She was thinking of her own work in Vigil In The Night, a hospital drama released in 1940 in which she played one of two nurses in love with the same doctor.  It was one of a pair of dramatic roles she took on that year, the other being They Knew What They Wanted, a poignant story of a mail-order bride in California’s Napa Valley (and the inspiration for the subsequent musical The Most Happy Fella). Her work in Vigil impressed critics more than audiences, who found the story grim and depressing. Carole took the hint and returned to comedy. Her next film was 1941's Mr. And Mrs. Smith, the only romantic farce directed by Alfred Hitchcock, in which Carole and Robert Montgomery play a married couple who find out that an obscure legal technicality has left them decidedly un-marrried.

Meanwhile, her real life marriage to Gable, it was said, was foundering. Carole had discovered that while she and Gable would always remain close, the passion they had felt for each other had flickered out. “The romance had ended, but the marriage endured,” as one close friend later put it. Gable’s fumbling lovemaking had become almost a joke between them. A houseguest remembered when Gable, during a futile attempt to learn to play bridge, threw down his cards in exasperation and declared “Dammit, I don’t think I’ll ever learn to finesse!”. Carole rose quickly to the occasion. “Well, sweetie,” she cooed, “every Metro script girl knows that.” Carole tolerated Gable’s frequent affairs, objecting loudly only at his attraction to his co-star in Honky-Tonk, Lana Turner, and vigorously denied rumors of a separation that were circulating in 1941. “I ain’t dying and I ain’t divorcing Clark,” she said. “I simply ain’t any of the things they say.”

The two of them remained as professionally committed as ever, Carole turning in what some consider to be her finest work in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War Two comedy To Be Or Not To Be, playing opposite Jack Benny as half of  a Polish theatrical pair involved in espionage for the Allies who confront and outwit suspicious Nazis. While she was working on the picture, Carole told Hedda Hopper, “I want to keep working as long as I have my looks and my sanity.”

With America now resolutely at war, Gable was named as the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee and agreed to the suggestion that Carole open a war bonds drive for the Midwest in her hometown. Carole and Bessie, along with Carole’s publicist, left by train for Indiana on January 12, 1942 and arrived in Fort Wayne in time for the public ceremonies on the 15th, at which Carole was mobbed by thousands wanting to see the hometown girl who had married “The King”. Anxious to complete pre-production on her next picture and to return to the Encino ranch, Carole sent Gable a telegram the night of the 15th saying she had decided to fly back to Los Angeles, even though Bessie hated flying. Gable set about planning a homecoming party as Transcontinental and Western Airways Flight #3, a DC-3 with twenty-one passengers aboard, left Fort Wayne at four o’clock in the morning.  Carole, along with her mother and PR agent, were the only civilians aboard, the rest of the passengers being military personnel bound for assignments at Army and Air Force bases in California. Many hours later, as the flight passed south of Las Vegas, the pilot casually radioed that he had decided to fly some thirty five miles off his planned course in order to save time.

As he was about to leave for the airport to meet the flight, Gable learned that Carole’s plane had gone down. Frantic, he flew to the crash site to discover that there were no survivors from the plane’s collision with Table Rock Mountain. Except for the bodies of three military passengers thrown clear of the wreckage, all on board had been trapped in the cabin and burned nearly beyond recognition. Carol, only thirty-three at her death, and her mother became the first American women to die in a war-related accident during World War Two.

A shocked Hollywood felt as if it had lost its best friend. “Without her, this place changed permanently,” said director Wesley Ruggles, who had worked on three pictures with Carole. “She was irreplaceable, and we just kept on missing her.” Garson Kanin, who had directed Carole in They Knew What They Wanted, thought her one of the finest performers he had ever met and consoled himself by recalling Carole’s brilliant combination of physical beauty, genial professionalism, and bawdy good humor. “If Carole did six takes,” he said, “it was six different takes. Each one had some small development, some sense of growth. There was always something going on inside Carole.”  It was her laugh he especially missed. It had, he said, “the joyous sound of pealing bells”.

Gable stumbled through the memorial service and received condolences, including a telegram from President Franklin Roosevelt, with hollow-eyed grief. He completed work on the picture he had begun before Carole’s death, Somewhere I’ll Find You, then enlisted in the Air Force and stayed away from Hollywood for the rest of the war.  He returned to the empty Encino ranch when the war ended, starred in 27 more films, married twice more, and had a son before his own death in 1961 of a heart attack. During all that time, close friends knew he never really recovered from the loss of his greatest love; and the world at large realized it, too, when his last wife honored his dying wish and saw to it that he was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, next to Carole Lombard.