Fans knew Carole Lombard as the “screwball queen” and the “profane angel,” but when she wasn’t providing the laughs on screen she was living the glamorous high life, engaging in behind-the-scenes scandals as racy as any of her contemporaries. Sadly, a tragic accident took her far too soon—but even though she lived to just 33, her story is as jaw-dropping as it gets.
The woman we came to know as Carole Lombard was actually born Alice Jane Peters, to wealthy parents. Her mother took her to Los Angeles when she was just six years old—but this isn’t what you’d think. Lombard wasn’t a spoiled prima donna whose stage mom bought her way into Hollywood. She never intended to end up on the silver screen…so her entry into the film industry was pretty unconventional.
As a kid, Lombard was a total tomboy. She excelled at pretty much every sport that her school offered. In just one day, that talent changed the course of her whole life. Lombard was playing baseball with friends when film director Allan Dwan noticed her. She was plucky, outgoing, and most importantly, she was kicking everyone’s butts on the field.
So, he gave Lombard her first film role at just 12 years old—but she wasn’t exactly an overnight success.
Lombard relished working on the set of Dwan’s 1921 film A Perfect Crime, and rode high off of her own unexpected success—but she was in for a heartbreaking disappointment. The film didn’t get very far. When she decided to use it as a springboard to audition for other parts, she found only more disappointment and rejection. For three years—quite a long time for a girl her age—she had no luck.
Then, just as she was about to give up, a brush with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars turned things around.
Charlie Chaplin was preparing to make his magnum opus, The Gold Rush, and had an entire team out in Hollywood scouting for co-stars. One of his men spotted Lombard and sent her for a screen test. Although she didn’t end up in the film, the screen test changed hands a number of times before landing at the Vitagraph Film Company. They compelled her to take the stage name Carole, but they didn’t offer her a film contract.
Still, all the hubbub surrounding her screen test meant that she was the talk of the town. Finally, film execs were taking note.
The 16-year-old Lombard ultimately ended up at the Fox Film Corporation, ready to take on Hollywood. While they only had bit parts for her, she managed to take on the town in another way. She was hob-knobbing with stars on set, getting into the flapper lifestyle, and becoming a fixture at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Sadly, it came back to haunt her.
Lombard definitely had what it took to become a fixture on the Hollywood party circuit. However, when it came to being a leading lady, she hadn’t yet convinced her studio. They gave her one chance—in the silent drama Marriage in Transit—but they opted not to renew her contract. She needed to shake things up…and that’s exactly what she did.
Above all, Lombard was a good-time girl—so why should she swan about melancholically in a drama when her sense of humor and vivacity was much more well-suited to comedy? At 19, Lombard joined up with Mack Sennett to appear in the first of a series of slapstick comedies. But just as finally found her niche, her career was nearly derailed completely.
One night in September 1927, Lombard was out on a date with a man named Harry Cooper. They were driving down Santa Monica Boulevard when a terrifying tragedy struck. Cooper accidentally crashed the car they were in, and the windshield shattered. Deep cuts covered her face and blood poured from her wounds. After rushing to the hospital, doctors performed emergency surgery, but the damage was extremely bad.
The crash was devastating—but her nightmare was just beginning.
The accident left Lombard with a prominent scar, a long recovery period…and a budding career in peril. Silent films frequently used extreme close-ups on actors’ faces to communicate emotion—and Lombard’s scar was extremely visible on camera. She was terrified that she was about to lose everything she’d worked for—so she took drastic action.
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As you can imagine, the dramatic and damaging crash put a damper on Lombard’s romance with Harry Cooper. Lombard and her mother actually ended up suing Cooper for $35,000 in damages. The court papers explained that the accident had left her unable to work, when she’d previously been getting $300 per week. Ultimately, they settled for $3,000—but Lombard had an unexpected ally on her side.
Lombard’s boss Mack Sennett was a shining success in Hollywood, having made hundreds of silent films and shorts. Lombard had worked on no more than a couple of his films when she got into her accident, and he didn’t really owe her anything. But Sennett must have seen something special in her, because he not only vowed that he’d keep her contract—he came up with a plan to make her a star.
Sennett provided Lombard with high-profile, well-paying roles, lots of publicity, and even gave her a racy new nickname. Sennett deemed her “Carole of the Curves.” Not only did it work to emphasize her body, it drew the focus away from her face—and by extension, her scar. She appeared in 18 different Sennett shorts, which jump-started her career and helped her polish her comedy skills.
In just two years, she went from a potential has-been to a promising new star—and now, it was time for her to move on from Sennett shorts to the big time.
Lombard was ready for stardom. She just needed the big break to help her make the jump from shorts to features. After leading roles in a few smaller comedies—much needed during the Depression era—Paramount signed her to her biggest contract yet at $350 per week, which would increase tenfold over the next five years. She was finally getting compensation for her hard work, but it took something entirely different to catapult her right onto the A-list.
Lombard appeared in a whopping five films in 1931. Two of them had her starring opposite suave leading man William Powell, whom she’d long admired. Well, her beamed that admiration right back at her. Powell fell for her, and fell hard. He proposed multiple times, but she wasn’t ready to hang up her career and become a housewife. Finally, he gave in. He agreed that she could keep acting…but that was easier said than done.
Despite their age difference—she was 22, he was 38—the pair rushed to the altar and tied the knot that June. However, it wasn’t exactly happily ever after. Lombard tried to fulfill the role of a doting housewife, while Powell tried to lighten up and appreciate her laid-back, unconstrained nature. They were incredibly different, to the point of being incompatible. Soon enough, the cracks began to show.
Maybe they should have seen it coming—after all, there were not one but two mishaps that seemed like bad omens. During the ceremony, Powell was so anxious that he forgot which finger to put Lombard’s ring on. Then, on their honeymoon to Hawaii, Lombard was so ill with the flu that she could barely look at her new husband, let alone enjoy their trip. Not a great sign…
Regardless of their problems, Lombard’s marriage to an A-lister increased her star power exponentially—not that she didn’t deserve the attention. Critics heaped praise on her for each successive film, and as the audience got to know her, they fell in love just as Powell once had. Producers paired her with another rising star, Clark Gable, in a film called No Man Of Her Own.
They eventually became very important to each other—but in 1932, it wasn’t exactly a love at first sight situation.
Lombard and Gable clashed on set. She was angry at the studio for loaning her out, and he found her off-putting. Still, they got through it. At the end of the shoot, they each had the good humor to give each other gag gifts. Gable got Lombard a pair of ballet shoes with a card that said, “To a true primadonna,” while she got him a ham with a picture of his face on it.
They each got a solid laugh, and then parted ways. As we’ll see, the next time they met, the circumstances were entirely different.
After 26 months of marriage, Lombard and Powell finally called it quits—but their high-profile divorce was far from conventional. Lombard went to Reno for the divorce, which Powell didn’t contest, and she didn’t ask for any money from him. She even made a joke in the divorce papers, saying this his foul mouth was one of the reasons they couldn’t make it work—when she was famously the one who was all-too-liberal with swear words.
It was probably one of the cleanest divorces Hollywood had ever seen. It left Lombard free to go back to her party-girl lifestyle, including plenty of nights out at the Cocoanut Grove.
It was during one of those nights out at the Cocoanut Grove where Lombard met singer Russ Columbo. It was love at first sight—and this time, things were a lot different than her ill-fated marriage to Powell. Lombard and Columbo were the same age and had similar lifestyles and personalities. It was a match made in heaven. Many expected that marriage would follow—but it wasn’t meant to be.
One afternoon in September of 1934, Columbo stopped at his old friend Lansing Brown’s house to take some publicity photos. The pair were examining some of Brown’s collection of firearms when a devastating tragedy struck. Brown accidentally set off an antique dueling pistol. The ball that he fired hit a wooden table and ricocheted, embedding itself deep into Columbo’s left eye—the same side where Lombard had suffered her injury in the car accident.
Sadly, Columbo wouldn’t be as lucky as his paramour.
An ambulance rushed Columbo to the hospital, where doctors worked frantically to save his life and retrieve the metal ball from where it had entered his eye and gone through to his brain. Finally, after six hours, Columbo succumbed to his injuries. He was only 26. His loss left Lombard absolutely bereft—but sadly, this was just the beginning of her ordeal.
At Columbo’s star-studded funeral, Lombard made a poignant tribute to honor her dearly departed love. His favorite flowers had been white gardenias. Lombard made sure that every attendee wore one. However, there was one conspicuous absence from the service.
Just days before Columbo’s untimely death, his mother had suffered a heart attack. Together with Columbo’s siblings, Lombard made a heartbreaking decision. They decided not to tell Columbo’s mother that he’d passed on, fearing that she couldn’t handle the shock. Lombard visited her weekly, and read letters that she’d written from Russ’s perspective, claiming they were from Russ.
For the remaining ten years of her life, Columbo’s mother never had to know about the terrible accident that had taken her son’s life. And Lombard didn’t just show this level of empathy in the wake of tragedy, either.
Above all, Lombard was altruistic and absolutely dedicated to the health and happiness of those around her. Her close friend and tennis coach remembered telling Lombard about another tennis player, Alice Marble, who was struggling with her health. Lombard called up Marble and helped raise her spirits when she was sick and unable to play—and that’s not all.
Lombard even arranged for Marble to see a new doctor, who gave her a second opinion that helped save her career. This was before they’d even met in person! After they had actually met, Lombard went to most of Marble’s matches to cheer her on. Marble went on to win multiple Grand Slams—which she likely would not have been able to do without Lombard’s help.
Lombard tried to use her career and fame for good…but sadly, as we’ll see later, it eventually led to her dark end.
Lombard deeply mourned the loss of Russ Columbo—but with her grief came an unexpected fruitful period in her career. Perhaps as a distraction for the grief, Lombard threw herself into making new movies, even connecting with her cousin, director Howard Hawks, on the film Twentieth Century. He ended up being a better teacher than almost any other director she’d worked with—and they had plenty on fun on set.
When Columbia Pictures executive Harry Cohn visited the set of Twentieth Century, he would continually make passes at Carole Lombard. She grew more and more frustrated and enlisted help from Hawks. Together they enacted an embarrassing plan to put Cohn in his place. One day, while Hawks was in Cohn’s office, Lombard rushed in. She shouted, “I've decided to say yes!” and pretended that she was about to take off her clothes.
Hawks feigned disgust, saying, “I'd better get out of here if this is the kind of studio you run,” and left. The whole situation shocked Cohn so much that he asked Lombard to leave and never bothered her again. Problem solved!
Twentieth Century cemented Lombard’s star status, which only rose higher with Hands Across the Table, where she starred with Fred MacMurray. They had so much chemistry that studios paired them together three more times—but that wasn’t the chemistry that had Lombard’s name splashed across tabloids. No, there was another offscreen pairing on the horizon.
Four years after starring together in No Man of Her Own, Lombard and Clark Gable crossed paths again, this time under different circumstances. They met again at a ball, and this time, there was a spark. In fact, he came right out with it and asked Lombard back to his hotel room. The starlet’s response was utterly legendary.
Lombard asked him, “Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?” She may have had a witty comeback, but the attraction was mutual.
The joke left Gable insulted and he went home in a huff. However, Lombard soothed his ego by sending him a note. From then, the pair were rarely apart. Be it a Hollywood party, the Oscars, or simply just a dinner out, Lombard was on Gable’s arm. Tabloids stepped all over themselves to be the first to publish a photo of the glam pair. But it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing…
They were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Anyone who met them could tell they were in love. Everyone wondered when they’d tie the knot, especially Lombard herself—but there was a major roadblock in their way. In fact, major barely covers it. Gable was still married to his second wife, Maria Langham…and even though they were separated, she wasn’t about to let him get away.
Despite their separation, Langham held onto hope that Gable would come back to her. She knew that he’d cheated on her before, and didn’t care—but this time was different. Gable and Lombard were such a popular pair that the tabloids actually sympathized with them over Langham. That’s how you know it’s bad. Well, Lombard may not have known it, but she would help Gable out of this situation in more ways than one.
Hollywood was in a frenzy over the production of Gone With the Wind—and every star who picked up the novel immediately wanted to get involved, Lombard included. She was actually the one who passed it on to Gable, who initially wrote it off as a “woman’s picture.” Little did he know, it was actually a solution to his problem.
The studio wanted him out of his scandalous marriage—and by putting him in Gone With the Wind, they’d be able to pay him enough that he could afford a generous divorce settlement. Their plan worked, but it came at a cost.
Clark Gable got the part of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind—but that unfortunately meant that the studio was unwilling to put Carole Lombard in the film as Scarlett O’Hara. Still, Lombard got another prize: Gable himself. Just 13 days after his divorce from Langham, Lombard and Gable eloped during a production break from the epic.
They say fools rush in—but these two knew exactly what they were getting into.
Lombard and Gable weren’t just husband and wife—they were also the best of friends. They were both bon vivants, practical jokers, and lovers of the outdoors. They bought a ranch together in Encino where they could grow a garden, go on hunting trips, and keep horses, chickens, and dogs. But still, there was something missing…
For all of her riches and successes, there was one thing that Lombard desperately wanted and never got. Lombard wanted nothing more than to have a child with Gable, but two heartbreaking miscarriages and multiple attempts at fertility treatments failed. The long ordeal weighed heavily on their marriage, as we’ll see—but for the time being, not being pregnant meant that Lombard could throw herself into her thriving career.
As Carole Lombard gained fame and power, she used it to help out friends. This included John Barrymore, her Twentieth Century co-star, whose career had been steadily going downhill. Lombard pushed to get him the role of Charley Jasper in the 1937 film True Confession. The studio wasn’t keen on hiring him, but Lombard insisted, and they conceded.
Sadly, Barrymore passed on a few years later of cirrhosis, but they remained friends for the rest of his life. She didn’t get along with every co-star, though…
Lombard’s confrontation with Harry Cohn wasn’t the only time she got creative when turning away an overly-amorous coworker. Fredric March, Lombard’s co-star in Nothing Sacred, was known for hitting on his leading ladies. When March put the moves on Lombard, she had a surprise for him. Lombard invited him into her dressing room, and as soon as she picked up her skirt, he was treated to the sight of an anatomically-correct racy toy between her thighs.
Not surprisingly, he left her alone after that!
Gone With the Wind was a huge success for Gable. On her side, Lombard decided to try her hand at more dramatic roles. While the movie swept the Oscars that year, Gable lost. Lombard comforted him by saying, "Don't worry, Pappy. We'll bring one home next year." He explained that he thought it was his last chance to win one—and her response was utterly hilarious.
With characteristic confidence, Lombard said: "Not you, you self-centered [bleep]. I meant me." Amazing. Unfortunately, the good times couldn’t last forever.
Lombard was in a great position in Hollywood, and became more and more choosy with her roles, hoping to score that elusive Oscar trophy that had previously escaped both her and Gable’s grasp. This left her plenty of free time, and as the US was just entering WWII, she began to explore her options for how she could help with the war effort. Sadly, this altruism would set her up for the tragedy that came next…
Gable became chair of the Hollywood Victory Committee and suggested that Lombard visit her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a war bond drive. Lombard traveled there by train with her mother and Gable’s agent, Otto Winkler. Their drive was an unprecedented success. They wanted to raise $500,000, but instead came away with $2 million in bond sales—but their glee over the victory was soon shattered.
Lombard’s mother hated flying, but Lombard was in a serious hurry to get home, so she begged her and Winkler to consider a flight. They tossed a coin, and Lombard won. It was a long journey—back then, it would take nearly 17 hours and multiple refueling stops to get that far. When the plane stopped in Albuquerque, a number of Army Air Corps personnel were waiting.
The pilot asked Lombard and her group to give up their seats—but unfortunately, Lombard had a characteristic witty comeback.
Lombard pointed out that she was also “essential,” since she’d raised so much for the war effort. Who could say no to Carole Lombard? She and her group continued on the trip, which stopped next in Las Vegas. By then, they’d been traveling for over 12 hours. The plane took off again—but on this leg of the journey, disaster struck.
Just 15 minutes after taking off from Vegas, TWA Flight 3 hit one of the cliffs of Potosi Mountain, where it crashed. News of a crash quickly reached Clark Gable at home in Hollywood. He flew to Las Vegas and rushed to the site of the accident, hoping to find his bride stumbling out of the rubble. Famous Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix begged Gable to stay safe and started the long journey up the mountain himself.
What he found instead was absolutely devastating.
TWA Flight 3 had 22 passengers on board, including Lombard, her mother, Gable’s agent, and 15 US troops. Not a single passenger or crew member survived—it was a total loss. Mannix was able to retrieve part of a ruby clip Lombard often wore, and a lock of her hair, but not her wedding band. When he telegraphed Gable about what happened, Gable's reaction was heartbreaking. He proclaimed through sobs: “Oh, God! I don't want to go back to an empty house.”
His grief was immeasurable—and as the news of the tragedy spread, the rest of the world began to mourn too.
Gable held a small funeral for Lombard. After the spectacle of Jean Harlow’s funeral, Lombard had told him she wanted something private and quiet. At the service, a white dress she’d requested in her will laid in her coffin, covering what little remains the search party had been able to retrieve. Following the service, Gable was stoic. He broke down just once, after reading the final note Lombard had left him before she went to Indiana.
And then, the investigation into the crash began…
The Civil Aeronautics Board began a full inquiry in order to discover what had happened to TWA Flight 3. Ultimately, they found that pilot error was the problem, in tandem with a lack of beacon lights in the vicinity which had been turned off in an attempt to prevent Japanese attacks. Still, for some, these answers weren’t enough.
While Clark Gable did not comment on the issue, director Orson Welles later revealed a disturbing theory about the crash. He claimed that a security official had told him that Axis forces had shot down Lombard’s plane, but that the government had covered up their involvement in order to protect Americans of German ancestry.
While this theory didn’t get much traction, it was definitely not the most far-fetched story about the crash…
Lombard’s mother had never flown before, and was especially terrified of getting on TWA Flight 3—all because of a terrifying premonition. Prior to the trip, Lombard and her mother visited a psychic who told her to "Keep out of planes in 1942, there is danger in them for you.” On top of that, Lombard’s mother believed in numerology.
All the number 3s associated with the trip—from the flight number to the plane model to Lombard’s age (33) convinced her that it was a terrible idea…but Lombard had insisted.
Why was Lombard so dead-set on getting home quickly from the trip to Indiana? Sadly, many point the finger at her husband, Clark Gable. At the time, he was filming a movie with starlet Lana Turner, and many believe that Lombard suspected Gable was cheating on her. They had fought before she left, and Lombard may have believed that she was saving her marriage by hurrying home. This had a devastating effect on Gable.
When the US entered WWII, Lombard had encouraged Gable to enlist, and following her untimely passing, he finally did. Gable joined the United States Air Force—but his behavior there was chilling. Many believe that his guilt about Lombard led him to put himself in dangerous situations as self-inflicted penance.
He made it out alive, but before he did finally pass on in 1960, he made sure that his final resting place was next to the love of his life—Carole Lombard.
Gable wasn’t the only one who felt some kind of guilt. In fact, it’s possible that no less a figure than US President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt it as well. When Lombard and Gable had asked him how they could help when WWII broke out, he told them that their efforts should be directed to the war effort. Following Lombard’s crash, due to the timing of it all after the bond rally, he named her the first woman representing the Allied Forces to be killed in action during WWII.
He also said: “She is and always will be a star, one that we shall never forget, nor cease to be grateful to.”
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