Clark Gable San Francisco

Hail to the King

Happy Birthday, Clark Gable. Today, had you taken better care of yourself, you would be 114. Let that be a lesson to you.

Come to think of it, Mr. Gable, I guess no matter how many cigarettes you had eschewed, no matter how many bottles of Chivas Regal you hadn’t consumed, you wouldn’t be around at 114. That’s a lot of years, and how they do fly by.

Some places reflect the years better than others. This past week I found myself in a city that feels very old: San Francisco. I was there on business, business so intense that I had barely a moment to see the sights, but a friend and I scaled Telegraph Hill from Chinatown to Pioneer Park and Coit Tower and looked out at Alcatraz, my first-ever glimpse of The Rock. Hard not to think about Al Capone or Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz. Or his Dirty Harry, for that matter. It’s going on 70 years since Capone died; almost 40 since Escape was made; more than 40 for Dirty Harry. Hell, it’s already been 52 since The Rock closed as a prison. Years, years, years, speeding by.

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

My discovery: the top of Lombard Street. Pioneer Park is above.

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

It’s a long way down Lombard Street from here, all the way down Telegraph Hill to Columbus Avenue in the Italian part of town.

Exploring the streets that radiate out from Pioneer Park, I stumbled on Lombard Street, and it was one of those moments when my mind went boinggg! I had read someplace decades ago that Jane Peters took the name Lombard because of Lombard Street; it was here in San Francisco that mother Elizabeth Peters had first lighted with the kids in 1914 after leaving Fred in frosty Fort Wayne. Now, here I was at the head of Lombard Street all these years later, in another century, feeling some magic about the name and exploring on down the long hill to Corso Cristoforo Colombo—yes, Lombard intersects with Colombo. (Another intersection of the two would take place in 1933. Sort of.) Up yonder hill to the west Lombard Street turns serpentine in a crazy little section that’s a kick to drive down as I found out later in the evening.

I asked Carole Lombard authority Vincent Paterno, proprietor of bold and sassy Carole & Co., if he had ever heard this story about the origin of Lombard’s name, and he said he thought she took Lombard from family friend Harry Lombard. I had heard this too, but part of me wonders if she would have appropriated the name of a friend, which could have made an awkward moment or two had he said no. But I could see her using the name of the wildest street in San Francisco, Lombard Street.

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

Original poster art from San Francisco, selling the bad boy and the warbler with the gams.

Birthday boy Clark Gable made a picture about San Francisco called San Francisco while banging his new girlfriend, Carole Lombard, in the spring of 1936. The picture San Francisco featured a different kind of banging as it details the earthquake of 1906 that leveled parts of the city. Does anyone know if the picture premiered in San Francisco? I like to think it did, back in the day when studios took their stars and the press on junkets amid much ballyhoo to launch the A-pictures.

This was a landmark film for its recreation of the Big One and shows off Gable at his finest as yet another black-hearted rogue, the kind of role that established him as a man’s man and bad boy who made the ladies swoon. Women didn’t want to own Clark Gable because they knew he couldn’t be owned—but they spent a great deal of time imagining what it would be like to get roughed up a little by Clark Gable, who was 35 at the time of San Francisco and in his absolute prime. It became a great part of the legend between them: Lombard in her prime, the year she made My Man Godfrey, landed Gable in his prime, causing a great stir among the gods. It was quite a year on Olympus.

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

Clark and Carole early in their relationship. Customary Coca-Cola in hand, she wears a look that admits she just ate a canary.

Carole was always very big on birthdays, so somewhere, maybe up there on Olympus, she is calling Benny Massi to make sure the catering from Brown Derby is perfect for Pa’s surprise party to celebrate this, his 114th birthday.