Party Girl

My friend the High NASA Official is reading Fireball at present. She said the other day, “I think I would have liked drinking with Carole Lombard.” Yes, Diane, I think you would have, because Lombard liked the sauce (scotch and soda) and Lombard was a very sociable, outgoing person with a genuine interest in other people.

There were many questions to answer in writing Fireball. One of them involved her party period that began in 1934 at the house on Hollywood Boulevard. For much of her time here, Lombard was planning and staging wacky parties for friends that ran the gamut from filmland’s elite to gaffers, carpenters, and production assistants on her pictures. She wasn’t big on entertaining during her marriage to William Powell, which ended in 1933, and certainly not during her years with Clark Gable, but during her run on Hollywood Boulevard, Lombard was known for her spectacular social events. It became imprinted upon the legend: Carole Lombard, thrower of crazy parties.

I think it was John Barrymore’s widow who told a story of how Carole, in formal attire at a formal gathering, suddenly jumped in somebody’s pool because she was “that kind of girl.” This documentary was made when so few of Lombard’s contemporaries remained alive that John Barrymore’s last wife became relevant, but her statement shows a lack of understanding of the subject. I’m here to tell you that if there was one thing Lombard was not, it was impetuous, or capricious, or anything of the kind. Everything Carole did, she did for a damn good reason.

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

In this official Paramount Pictures publicity photo taken in 1934, Carole stands in front of her rented Hollywood Boulevard home.

Which brings us to the parties. Carole rented the 3,000-square-foot, French provincial home at 7953 Hollywood Boulevard late in 1933 at a time when her career at Paramount was on the upswing. The house sits way down in the residential section of Hollywood Boulevard near Laurel Canyon and it’s tucked back off the thoroughfare and you wouldn’t give it a second thought and certainly wouldn’t imagine it to be connected with bigger-than-life Carole Lombard.

I’ve never been inside this place but I’ve stood outside and I’ve talked to neighbors. Looking at it, you wonder how she had room for the kind of ambitious entertaining that marked her years here. But this terrific video with its then-and-now views puts things in perspective. The Hollywood Boulevard house had land behind it, including an apartment on the terrace above where Madalynne Fields (dubbed “Fieldsie”), Carole’s best friend and secretary, resided. Carole’s guests could spread out inside and out for the parties of legend.

Anyone who knows me will tell you: I hate parties. I’ll do all I can to avoid one, so you won’t see me having the willies when I describe Lombard’s parties but just know—I’m having the willies.

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

Mixology, Lombard-style, in the Hollywood Boulevard house.

She threw a “Roman party” and invited guests to come in togas. She threw a “hillbilly party” complete with barnyard animals (think cows and roosters) and wait staff in coveralls. Look close in the video because there may still be hay and feathers stuck in the baseboards from that one. She threw the miscalculated “hospital party,” where guests were asked to change into hospital gowns at the door or at the very least cover their attire with hospital gowns. Wait staff appeared as nurses and orderlies; food was brought in on gurneys and served hospital-style on trays. All that happened in the house shown in the video.

It all seems “madcap” and “gay” in the old sense of the word, but in Fireball I refer to it as Calculated Mayhem. In the wake of her performances in Twentieth Century and Lady by Choice, and the popularity of the new style of picture catching fire, the “screwball comedy,” Carole set out to claim that territory in Hollywood’s landscape. The parties were a means to an end to position Carole Lombard as the type of personality just right for screwball. It was what they call today a brand strategy concocted by Carole and her two very shrewd advisors, Fieldsie and talent agent Myron Selznick.

The strategy worked. By 1935 Paramount was putting Lombard in Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across; Universal was asking for her for her most famous screwball picture of all, My Man Godfrey, and David Selznick (Myron’s brother) could imagine only Lombard appearing in his screwball entry, Nothing Sacred. Lombard’s screwball run lasted a solid three years, but these pictures with their bizarre elements could easily misfire, and that’s what ended her hot streak—the truly wretched True Confession in 1937 and Fools for Scandal in 1938. She made four straight dramas in 1939 and 1940 and only appeared in a couple more comedies before she died, but after the crash of Flight 3, the snapshot description of Carole Lombard was the “queen of screwball.” It’s how I describe her in interviews, and how she’s remembered.

In 1936 she started seeing Gable, and the house on Hollywood Boulevard became a little too high profile for the lovers, so she ditched it for digs in far-flung Bel Air. But her glory years on the social scene as bachelorette and hostess were all spent here, in this unassuming little house at the edge of Tinseltown.

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

This was my first view of the Lombard party house as it looked in 1987 with vegetation run amok. Back then it looked haunted, and some say it is.

 

2 comments

  1. Robert, I always find it fascinating to look at old photos of the homes occupied by Hollywood stars of the studio era. I envy you for actually being able to stand in front of Lombard’s old home, but that, of course, is nothing compared to your experience, of course, at Errol Flynn’s home on Mulholland Drive (or was it, just off it?). Now there is a place of legend. You could even write a book about it, I guess. Oh, wait, you already did!

    Since I don’t have any plans on travelling to California, I’ve done the next best thing by using Google Maps in order to see what some of those houses look like today, assuming they even still exist.

    Some time ago (I can’t remember where) I came across Lombard’s Bel Air address to which you made passing reference, at 609 St. Cloud Road. I tried to google it to see what it looked like today, but didn’t have much luck. I found 605 St. Cloud Road, alright, as well as a reference to 615 St. Cloud. Still, I did see the charming winding road on which her home was located (and perhaps still is, hidden behind all that shrubbery on those inclines straddling the road) and wondered how much that I am viewing today on the internet was also seen by Lombard (and Gable) 80 or so very long years ago.

    1. Yes, Tom, 609 St. Cloud Road is still there and as of 20 years ago, which is about the time you stopped being able to see it from the road due to planned-obfuscation-via-landscaping, it looked exactly as it did in 1937. The unfortunate trend is for homeowners all over the L.A. area to build walls, install fences, and plant impenetrable walls of vegetation for security and privacy purposes. As a result you mostly can’t see vintage movie star homes these days. The party house on Hollywood Boulevard is a happy exception, and is more viewable today than it was in the 1980s, as you can see from the photo.

      You don’t see many teardowns in Bel Air, thank God. I’m not sure if this is because of ordinances or if there’s a genuine appreciation for the existing architecture or what. But you used the right word for the Bel Air experience: charming. You could also use opulent, breathtaking, frustrating, confusing, and weird.

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