Riggs King Lombard

Love Match

Carole Lombard was a tennis bum. She hung out on tennis courts from 1934 on, used tennis to stay in shape, played for hours at a stretch, took pride in her skill, and through a twist of fate changed the history of tennis with an impact felt to this very day.

Lombard came to mind this past week as Mary and I made our annual pilgrimage to the Western & Southern Masters 1000 tennis tournament in southern Ohio. It’s a tournament that’s considered a “mini-major” and right below the four grand slams. It’s Mary’s chance to hobnob with her favorite player, Roger Federer, and since I started playing tennis at age 12, I’m right there with her getting sun-baked watching match after match.

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

Carole Lombard, Alice Marble, and Clark Gable courtside in 1938.

If anyone would appreciate the way tennis has evolved, it would be Carole Lombard. Readers of Fireball know the love she had for the game, as personified in her sponsorship of down-and-out young American player Alice Marble. Carole did all but drag Alice out of her sick bed in a Monrovia, California, tuberculosis sanitarium and will her back onto the court. At the start, Marble was 45 pounds overweight and lacked the strength to walk a flight of stairs, let alone play three sets of tennis. Within a couple of years Marble was winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Open after treatment by doctors that Carole recommended. Alice played her matches in clothes bought by Lombard, with Carole courtside at every opportunity. Carole got Marble nightclub gigs as a singer and tried to land her in the picture business.

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

Carole Lombard works on her net game in 1939.

In researching Fireball I had wondered if Carole and the girl she nicknamed “Allie” were really close, or if Lombard had merely stepped in, spent some time with the girl, and moved on as was the case when she launched the career of Margaret Tallichet. In truth, Lombard and Marble were very close indeed. Lyn Tornabene’s interview with Marble—housed in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Herrick Library—runs more than an hour and as Marble sips cocktails and smokes up a storm, she recounts her years as one of Lombard’s best friends and a member of the Peters inner circle. Tornabene was a strong interviewer and their conversation reveals Alice’s life with Carole, Petey, tennis coach Teach Tennant, tennis cronies Don Budge and Bobby Riggs, and of course Clark Gable—happy times that ended with the crash of Flight 3.

After Lombard’s death, Marble continued as a tennis pro and turned to teaching, with pupils that included the woman who changed the modern game, Billie Jean (Moffet) King. It was King who legitimized the women’s game, advocated for prize money comparable to the men, and inspired Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and succeeding generations. Ironically, it was also Billie Jean, Marble’s disciple, who defeated Carole’s old pal Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” in the Houston Astrodome. The heavily publicized, highly rated primetime match introduced legions to the sport, making it no stretch at all for me to walk around amongst the players and matches in progress and think of Carole Lombard and her influence on everything in sight. By saving the career (and perhaps the life) of forlorn Alice Marble, Carole did a whole lot of good for millions of tennis players and fans around the world, including Mary and me.

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

The modern game so influenced by Carole Lombard and Alice Marble–Ana Ivanovic of Serbia and Christina McHale of the United States play this past Wednesday near Cincinnati.