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

Glamour pusses Gable and Lombard share an ‘up’ moment exiting Ciro’s on the Strip in August 1941.

Why do we need there to be a happily ever after? When I was interviewed during the Fireball book tour, I would often hear things like, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured.” There would be such conviction in the voice of the interviewer, and at moments like that I found myself in an awkward place because the interviewer believed what was being said and, in fact, it was and was not true.

During the years that Carole Lombard and Clark Gable were together, she was in love with him in a mature way and he was in love with her in his own way. She was an older soul and possessed a strong altruistic streak. He was a perpetual adolescent and quite selfish the way males can be. Up to the time they became an item, he had relied only on himself, number one, and there was no number two. But suddenly she became number two and worked like hell to maintain that position, which must have been, for her, something like barbequing in a snowstorm. As the premiere sex symbol in the world and therefore a male of unquestionable power, Gable cut a swath through the female population of Hollywood. He slept around and continued to sleep around until the day Lombard died. She approached this fact as practically as she could: This is the price I’m paying to be Mrs. Clark Gable. He can get his rocks off wherever he likes because I know he comes home to me.

But that doesn’t mean she found rationalizing easy, and even a self-confident soul and sexual libertine like Carole Lombard had her limits.

Every indication is that if she had lived, he’d have gone right on as a brigand for as long as the marriage could endure. There were rumors at the time of her death that their union had already hit the rocks. A particular photo that appears in Fireball bears this out. They are sitting together in a restaurant, and she is smiling politely but looking like hell and he looks as miserable as you’ll ever see Clark Gable looking. It’s not the kind of grouchy-miserable that you see when Clark Gable is acting. This is vulnerable-miserable, pained-miserable, as if they are arguing and he’s wrong and he knows he’s wrong.

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

Three months later, here they are, her smile painted on, his nonexistent. She rests her hand on top of his hand, but she’s not holding his hand and he’s not playing along.

When the host of a Fireball interview would turn the statement into a question, “Gable and Lombard had the kind of love that would have endured, didn’t they?” there was my opening and I would answer with the truth: They loved each other, yes, but there were problems with the marriage that I think would have ended it before too much longer. Probably by 1945 or 1946, had she lived, she would have given up and left Clark Gable. Sometimes, loving someone and giving it your all isn’t enough. Sometimes, unconditional love causes the self to endure too much, give away too much; in this case she would have given away the prime of her life. I could easily see her reaching age 36 or 38 and no longer being willing to serve as consort to a hard-drinking, womanizing sovereign. Or I could see Gable waking up one morning and beholding a Lombard whose looks were beginning to wane from smoking, drinking, stress, and the natural process of aging. You can see the beginnings of it in the photo discussed earlier. At that point Gable might decide to trade his wife in for a newer model, say the sleek, 10-years-younger Lana Turner.

Whether Carole would have ended it or Clark would have, I don’t think this relationship was headed for happily ever after, and it was the shattering event of her death at age 33, after only two-and-a-half years of marriage, that bronzed the timeless, forever love of Gable-Lombard legend, the kind of love this twosome sometimes captured but was beginning to find elusive.

Looking even further down the line, I could see the Gables divorcing and remaining friends like she was friends with her ex William Powell and somewhere around 1955 getting together again for a Gable-Lombard picture or two. Precedent: Lombard made My Man Godfrey with Powell three years after their divorce. Gable made Key to the City with Loretta Young 16 years after she bore their love child—a child he would never acknowledge. Stars set personal feelings aside for the sake of box office. Astaire and Rogers weren’t exactly fond of one another; Abbott and Costello grew so far apart they didn’t speak except in front of the camera.

That’s life is how I look at it. Happy endings don’t come about very often and “for keeps” usually isn’t for keeps, especially in Hollywood. But that doesn’t detract from the story of Lombard and Gable. They were real people, “juicy people,” Loretta Young called them, and they deserve to be remembered for who they really were, not who we wish they would have been.


  1. Very interesting and a conclusion I don’t find improbable. Although I would like to think that had they separated, it wouldn’t be forever. (There I go again; forcing my fantasy on them.) Was Gable faithful to Kay?

    1. That’s an interesting question, Gail. I can only speculate because I didn’t do in-depth research on the last phase of his life, but what I did find was surprising. Far from being the bright light that’s often portrayed, Kay was quite the negative force in Gable’s universe and alienated most of those critical people around the king who loved him. Clark made arrangements to be laid to rest next to Carole, not next to Kay. If past behavior predicts future behavior (it always does), and if Gable didn’t feel the need to be faithful to Carole, and if Kay couldn’t hold a candle to Carole as a person, then my conclusion is that Gable wouldn’t feel the need to be faithful to Kay.

      It’s also possible that you’re right about Clark and Carole ending up back together. The growth of character he experienced with Lombard’s passing may well have been achieved by going through a cleansing divorce action initiated by her. Maybe that would’ve been enough to alter his behavior and align it with something she could accept.

  2. Your analysis of where the “perfect” marriage was probably headed seems pretty logical to me, Robert. Lombard was the one who worked hard to make this marriage to a largely self absorbed man work as well as it did. She was the one who show flexibility by learning to go hunting with Gable, roughing it in the outdoors the way he liked to do. In contrast to that, did Gable ever try to entertain at Hollywood parties the way that Lombard used to?

    Sooner or later, though, you have to think that this adolescent “King” of Hollywood’s perpetual tomcatting around would wear Lombard down, and she would look at the passage of years and think, “Enough already. Time to move on. I’ve tried my best, he’s just not changing, and I’m getting pretty tired of it all.”

    That they would rekindle a friendship after the divorce seems to make sense, too, just as she had been with Bill Powell.

    Other “perfect” marriages of Hollywood legend had their problems, as well, of course. Look at Bogart and Bacall.

  3. What about Bogart and Bacall, you ask, Gail? Briefly: Verita Thompson, Bogie’s wig maker and “secretary,” wrote a book, Bogie and Me: A Love Story, about being the famous actor’s mistress, starting two years before he met Bacall. It ended with her own marriage in 1955, apparently. Bacall stayed silent on the subject, to the best of my knowledge, though perhaps Robert knows more about that.

    Likewise, there has long been strong speculation that Bacall began her affair with Sinatra while Bogart was dying of cancer.

    None of this doesn’t mean that Bogie and Bacall’s marriage was a sham or they didn’t care for one another. She did nothing but support and try to build his legend after his death. But they also cared for others, as well, during their marriage, it would appear.

  4. I’m in complete agreement with you, Robert, about the direction of their marriage. His relationship with all of his wives was one-sided. He benefited in one fashion or another from each wife’s generosity (often financial) and in every case the relationship was dependent on how much these women were willing to bend. He was a catch, the King. I can’t remember who said it but someone (I think woman) said that you could be at a party with your back to the door and when he entered the room, you could feel his presence, his magnetism. What a thing for a wife to have to live with. Yes, he’s mine (sort of) but everyone wants a piece of him. All the time. And he wasn’t particular about the action he had on the side. On the one hand, there was Carole when he was married to Ria and Lana when he was married to Carole. On the other hand, he was known to rendezvous with the pink and blue collar ladies because they didn’t ask questions and were grateful. Yeesh. Who wants to put up with all that deceitfulness?

    The only two things that could’ve saved this marriage were, as you mentioned, a clear wake-up call on his part during divorce proceedings, or a baby which likely would’ve delayed divorce but not prevented it altogether. I think about this beautiful, smart woman going through this, looking in the mirror, asking why am I not enough? Eventually, Carole would’ve realized I am enough and found a mature man to appreciate her. And I think it would’ve broken her heart to leave him but she would’ve done it.

  5. I always wondered if she did divorce Gable, could she have gone back to Bill Powell. They just seemed to be extraordinary friends after their divorce. Almost right after it seemed they may have had second thoughts and were seen all over town together. With him getting her the role in My Man Godfrey and her really helping him through his illness. Although, he seemed to have very caring and loving relationships with a lot of women friends. That last picture shown above is rather sad.

  6. There are some great reasons why Lombard and Powell wouldn’t have remarried. Both acknowledged they made great friends and lousy spouses; sex seems to have been an issue for them during their two years of marriage and Powell was unlikely to get better at it at 50 than he was at 40; and Powell had already met Diana Lewis and they’d remain married to his death.

  7. I am happy William Powell found happiness with Diana. He certainly deserved some happiness. It’s just fun thinking about the what ifs. I always thought it strange how Carole would talk about how awful Clark was in bed and how wonderful she thought Russ Columbo was. I never read anything so detailed about her feelings on William Powell. I thought they had a strong physical attraction based on them barely having the ink dry on their divorce papers and being seen around town. One article tells of them with their hands all over each other when the lights came on in the theater. These archived articles have wonderful interviews and articles from back then. It seems Bill was the man about town after the divorce while still seeing Carole and the same for her, but they still seemed drawn to each other. One article chastised Carole for not wanting to marry Bill, but not wanting him with anyone else. It seems a lot of the writers had a soft spot for Bill. Very interesting insight into Hollywood back then. In the end it’s just a shame that Carole Lombard died so tragically young.

    1. cc, I am pretty sure CL’s comments about CG being bad in bed were, in the language of the day, bunk, invented by Carole’s brothers to discredit Gable, whom they despised. I’m certain you’re right about CL and RC–judging by Columbo’s letters to Lombard, they did the horizontal tango to beat the band. As for Carole and William Powell, aka Popsie, aka Junior, that was the dictionary-definition of infatuation. Lots of shenanigans in the first few months, followed by a tepid marriage and a rousing, “How about if we just be friends?” conclusion.

      1. Oh my, I’ve never seen letters between Carole and Russ Columbo. I agree with a lot of shenanigans between Carole and Bill. That’s why their relationship fascinates me. Yes, Bill was said to be more reserved and at times bashful, but when he let loose, he seems to have been an all out riot. Speaking of shenanigans, in Harold Arlen’s book he said he walked into their home and found them just rolling around all over a luxurious rug. Stopping “whatever” it was they were doing when Bill finally noticed his uninvited, gaping guest. Carole’s secretary Fieldsie had said that the home they shared was a very happy home when she had heard of an acquaintance buying it. I think she really liked Bill by some other comments I saw from her about him. I recently saw a picture of them around 1970 or 71 with their spouses at a benefit dinner. Bill was near 80!

        I have to say I do laugh a little whenever I see Carole refer to Bill as Junior. The reason being, is a letter, that was a little racy, from Bill to a woman in 1927. It was on the auction block a while ago. He tells her how much he misses her and wishes she were there in a lot of ways. So does Junior, he adds. I about died reading that. Makes me think that the Junior nickname had a little private joke to it. With Carole’s raucous humor who knows. Like I said I find their relationship very fascinating. Before, during and after the marriage. I think Bill was a little old fashioned in some regard, but I think more so than Russ Columbo or Clark Gable, Bill had the same kindness and sweetness as Carole.

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