On the Street Where I (Didn’t) Live

I was a kid out of college the day in 1987 that my then-wife Debra and I visited Robert Stack at his home in Bel Air, California. Mr. Stack’s longtime next-door neighbor was Ronald Reagan, so I knew as we wound along the lush and winding roads, with the landscape abloom, that I was about to be in good company. My second book, under contract to Greenwood Press, would be an academic volume about Carole Lombard with a 30-page biography included. I queried all the old stars still alive at the time seeking in-person interviews. I didn’t know protocol and had no track record as a biographer, so Ralph Bellamy sent quotes in a letter and so did Cesar Romero. Jimmy Stewart, operating out of his Beverly Hills office, was downright gruff. I was in contact with many others, but the correspondence is buried somewhere. Then there was Robert Stack. I wrote him a letter with the basics—book about Carole Lombard, may I speak with you, etc.—and he shot back a note in the minimum number of days for mail to go from Pennsylvania to California to Pennsylvania. It included his phone number and he said, basically, love to talk about Carole, give me a call and stop by any time.

Robert Stack had met Carole Lombard in 1933 when he was 14. She befriended him in Tahoe as she took up Nevada residence in anticipation of divorce from William Powell. Carole had the ability to make a guy feel special; she was beautiful, accessible, and genuine, and made electric eye contact. Grown men fell in love with her almost daily, so what chance did an adolescent boy have of avoiding a head-over-heels tumble?

Lombard knew the effect she had on men, so she must have known Bobby Stack’s feelings, and she must have pulled her punches with this poor mop-topped kid.

Ironically, Stack’s first picture after migrating to Hollywood six years later would be called First Love, and he would portray new sensation Deanna Durbin’s onscreen boyfriend. A couple of years and five pictures later, Carole Lombard asked for Stack to portray a younger man smitten with her in To Be or Not to Be, a move that was typecasting for Stack—but didn’t make Carole’s husband, insecure Mr. Clark Gable, any too happy.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Robert and Rosemarie Stack right around the time I met both of them at their home in Bel Air.

Forty-five years later we pulled into Robert Stack’s driveway and were ushered past the pool and into his den by the housekeeper. We waited only a moment on an overstuffed leather couch before Bob breezed into the room, hair longer and blonder than I would have guessed, dressed in lounging pajamas, that big friendly movie star smile lighting up from ear to ear and his handshake firm. If he was surprised to be looking at a couple of wet-behind-the-ears kids, he didn’t let on.

He talked first about the film version of The Untouchables and this was bitter Robert Stack, grumbling that he hadn’t been involved in the production, then nearing completion, and he seemed to want to be on the record voicing his displeasure to anyone with an audio recorder.

Then he seemed to recall why I was there, and brightened, and a light clicked on in his eyes. Carole Lombard. Ah yes. He launched into stories of those early Tahoe days, laying eyes on and getting to know 24-year-old Carole, teaching her to shoot skeet, this boy teaching this woman, and Stack confessed that his mother, to whom he was very close, didn’t much care for Lombard’s loud personality and penchant for swearing. “Mother didn’t think I should be hanging around her,” said Stack with a smile that showed the perspective of decades.

He sat on an adjacent couch, cross-legged as he talked. But then at powerful memories of Lombard he would stand and pace, often ending up leaning against a giant fieldstone fireplace with a dark wood mantel. This was a man’s room, trophies, guns, and now I know that Stack had had Gable’s den in mind when he created his own. He talked a lot about Gable, about admiring the King and worrying for him after Carole’s death, when “He would race up and down Laurel Canyon on his motorcycle, not caring if he lived or died.”

We talked about the making of To Be or Not to Be and the lengths to which Carole went to keep a very nervous “Bobby” loose on the set. He told a story that showed up in his memoirs, how Carole would gently take him by the elbow and ease him back into his key light when he drifted out of it. She was, he said with awe, the only fellow performer ever to do that for him, but he learned from her to do it for other newcomers over the years.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Carole Lombard keeps an ill-at-ease Robert Stack loose on the set of To Be or Not to Be.

I asked him where he was when he learned of the plane crash and his response was telling. He didn’t hem and haw, and look far off and reach for the memory. “I was walking out of the Hollywood Palladium,” he boomed at once in that Unsolved Mysteries voice, reflexively. “I was with my date; we had been dancing. I heard a newspaper crier on the street corner. It was the Los Angeles Times, and he was calling out, “Carole Lombard in Plane Crash!”

I get goosebumps now thinking about that moment in Bob Stack’s den, seeing this friendly, sincere man tearing up. “I saw it in a newspaper headline,” he said, regarding me through the mist. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Unfortunately for me, one can only live life straight ahead, with no do-overs. There was so much more I could have and should have asked him. About her, about Gable, about his career—The High and the Mighty, Written on the Wind, his TV series

—about Flynn for crying out loud, since he haunted Flynn’s Mulholland tennis court for years. I need to give myself a break, though. I was just a kid starting out.

Finally I ran out of questions and he led us back outside by the pool, where I met his wife Rosemarie, who was just as gracious as her husband, and their friendly white poodle Hollywood, regarded by both as a beloved child and the heart of the household.

This was my first celebrity interview, and therefore the most memorable. I wish I had taken pictures that day but I didn’t. I just lived it, a kid out of college on the street where the president lived.

3 comments

  1. What a great anecdote, Robert. And it’s nice to know that Robert Stack was such a kind and gracious host, a tribute to him as well as his eagerness to talk about a lady he so admired.

    Lombard was a larger-than-life personality who left such an indelible impression upon those who had been fortunate enough to know her. It’s something for you to recall how, closing in on a half century after her death, Stack still teared up when thinking about it.

    But what a great memory that first interview obviously is for you. Don’t beat yourself up too badly over the questions that you, as a neophyte interviewer, neglected to ask. If you do I’m sure you’ll only be in a long lineup of other interviewers moaning over their unasked questions of a celebrity, as well.

    Years ago I sent a fan letter to Jane Russell who replied with a very friendly, complimentary letter which included, in her letter head, her telephone number. And I agonized over that. “Should I call her? Would she mind? What the heck would I say that didn’t sound trivial?”

    Well, I didn’t call, and a part of me is still a little sorry that I didn’t. Then, again, the call might have been an awkward flop so, at least, I still have her down-to-earth, engaging letter – for which I can be grateful.

    But what you have, Robert, is so much more – the memory of your first interview, spent in the home of a charming host, with his anecdotes about some of the Hollywood legends he had known. Now that’s the kind of memory that a lot of us would like to have. Thanks very much for sharing your’s with us.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I got all nostalgic for Bob Stack when I saw “Carole Lombard: Hollywood’s Profane Angel,” the 2001 A&E Biography entry, which was loaned to me by writer David Smith. There was Stack being interviewed near the end of his life, but just as passionate as ever to preserve Carole’s memory. When he said, “She was…the best,” he teared up again, just as he had that day in Bel Air a decade earlier. Thank you Dave for the loan of that VHS; you inspired a memory and a column.

      I’d be on the fence about calling a celebrity like Jane Russell as well. Celebs need to know in the first 30 seconds why you have made them walk to the phone and pick it up, so if you had said, “I’m a fan and wanted to say hello,” it’d get one reaction, and if you had said, “I’m a fan who’s working on an article about you,” you’d get another reaction. Then again, Russell seemed to be another of those down-to-earth, genuine souls, like Lombard, so you might have had the time of your life. It’s another road not taken…that you can’t beat yourself up about. Hmmm, I guess I better practice what I preach.

  2. Thanks, Robert. To give you an idea of what an unpretentious, humorous soul Jane Russell was, when she sent me her letter she also included a photograph of herself, quite complimentary to the lady, of course, but still clearly taken in more recent years.

    On that photo she wrote the following, “Tom – This is white hair you’re looking at and now there’s lots more.”

    Now how can you not like a person like that, especially when she was a former Hollywood glamour queen? With that kind of attitude, it makes me think that she and Carole Lombard might have been great pals if they had known one another. Coincidence or not, I believe that Russell and Gable got along very well while making The Tall Men together. I wonder if Clark saw a little of his former wife in her.

    As far as Robert Stack is concerned, I would like to make special reference to a film favourite of mine in which he appears, Bullfighter and the Lady. While I think that Gilbert Roland owns much of that film, Stack is very convincing as the brash Yank who wants to take up bullfighting as a lark, with tragedy ensuing.

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