Seventy-six years ago today, March 30, 1939, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable addressed the media at her Bel Air home and announced that they had wed. Newsreel cameras rolled, flashbulbs popped, and a cultural phenomenon was born. Gable then reigned as the hottest thing in Hollywood—the number-one box-office draw in the world and definitive sex symbol of the movies. Lombard was a popular leading lady known as the “screwball queen” for her comedy pictures and madcap Hollywood parties.
Their relationship was more than three years old by this time. Lombard had made herself available on the social scene 16 months after the Labor Day 1934 shooting death of her lover, 26-year-old popular singer Russ Columbo. She emerged from a period of mourning with a vengeance, landing a very married Gable at the end of January 1936 and carrying on a public love affair based from her home right there on Hollywood Boulevard, in full view of the movie colony and the press. But scrutiny proved withering and Lombard left her Hollywood “party house” for a home in secluded, difficult-to-access Bel Air where she continued her activities with Gable.
I’m not sure that we can imagine today what a sexual playground Hollywood was in the 1930s. We think of the stars of the day as above it all, but nobody was immune and everybody was doing it with everybody. They were beautiful people dressed by professionals and promoted by powerful ad men. They cavorted with other beautiful people, and sex became a sport of who could bag whom. Many stars came from troubled backgrounds and brought emotional baggage with them to a city without morals. This was Clark Gable, certainly, a narcissist by definition because he was an image created by his acting teacher/wife and projected by MGM. Lombard, on the other hand, had bounced westward as a child after her parents’ separation back in Indiana, but she had enjoyed a solid Los Angeles upbringing thanks to her practical, loving mother. Solid, yes; conventional, no. Lombard had grown up a sexual athlete from her teens on and been made wise beyond her years due to a car crash that chopped up her face just shy of her 18th birthday.
The couple that met the press this day 76 years ago had been galvanized by years of couplehood in the glare of the public spotlight. He had been crowned king of Hollywood and she had made some big pictures and now earned more than any other actress in town. Their out-of-wedlock shenanigans had earned scorn in the Bible belt, and the backlash reached the board room at MGM, where Gable was ordered to divorce his wife and make an honest woman of Lombard. Gable didn’t take kindly to orders from anyone about anything, but he had been beaten down from all sides, and so during a day off from production of Gone With the Wind, he sneaked out of town with his girl and got hitched.
Fireball tells the story of the elopement for the first time thanks to an unpublished account by Jill Winkler, whose husband Otto had driven the disguised couple out of Hollywood and clean to Kingman, Arizona, for the ceremony. They didn’t have a proper wedding night, or any sleep at all for that matter. You can see it in their faces in the thousand-and-one photos snapped at the Bel Air press conference. One has to laugh at Lombard’s acting job, playing it demure for the newsreels complete with shy and loving gazes at King Gable.
The press conference on this date proved to be a brilliant move as it established these two, dressed to the nines and appropriately bashful, as the closest thing America had to a royal couple. They wouldn’t enjoy even three years past this date as husband and wife due to the plane crash that removed Carole Lombard from the living in January 1942. As explored in this column recently, the union was in rough waters and possibly heading for the rocks by the end of their second year as an official couple, but her tragic passing erased any trace of negativity and pressed these two into America’s book of memories as one of the perfect couples of all time.