This is said to be the last photo ever taken of Carole Lombard, shown with her mother on Jan. 15, 1942 following the war bond rally that night in Indianapolis. Roughly 24 hours later, both of them, along with MGM press agent Otto Winkler, would be victims of a plane crash in Nevada.
But suppose things had been different — that Carole somehow escaped her fate and lived to an advanced age? I’m not suggesting a Lombard who’d still be with us today; in that scenario, she’d be two weeks away from turning 106, older than Luise Rainer. Let’s imagine Carole at middle age, blessed with the maturity she admiringly saw in her mother.
Many have conjured up a “what if” for a Lombard in later years, and one of them is Robert Matzen, author of “Fireball,” the definitive book on that fateful flight. But many years before that, he wrote a bio-bibliography on Carole that can be found at eBay, so he knows plenty about her life as well as her tragic death. It makes for fascinating reading, as we project ourselves into an alternate universe where we read this press release…
MOVIE AND TV COMEDY STAR CAROLE LOMBARD TO PEN MEMOIR
Actress vows to ‘come clean’ in Putnam hardcover
HOLLYWOOD, May 1, 1961 -— G.P. Putnam’s Sons announced today that the publisher will release the autobiography of motion picture and television actress Carole Lombard. The would-be author had stated previously that her book would be entitled “Just One of the Guys.” Last week, Miss Lombard, who will turn 50 in October, made a public appearance after months of seclusion following the November 1960 death of her ex-husband, Clark Gable. It is speculated that her memoir will discuss life with the one-time “king of the movies,” as well as their 1946 divorce, continued close friendship, and recent reuniting as co-stars of the romantic comedies, “Teacher’s Pet” and “But Not for Me.”
Miss Lombard’s career began in silent pictures for the Fox and Sennett studios and then continued in the sound era at Paramount. But it was the 1934 Columbia picture “Twentieth Century” that shot her to the top. She solidified her status as “queen of screwball” two years later with an Academy Award-nominated performance in “My Man Godfrey.”
Miss Lombard and Mr. Gable began their association in 1936 and once comprised the most famous couple in Hollywood. They were married during production of the highest grossing motion picture of all time, “Gone With the Wind.” They enjoyed status as the most prolific and profitable stars of the World War II years, and, despite rumors of marital turmoil, their separation at war’s end caught Hollywood by surprise.
Miss Lombard said she has been working on the manuscript for more than two years. In describing its title, she said, “It was the men who ruled the Hollywood roost, and I had to make room for myself in the ‘boys’ club.’ Then I had to do it again when I decided to produce some pictures, and especially when I wanted to direct features and then serve as executive producer of my TV series.”
That series, “Carole of the Belle,” features Miss Lombard as Carole Simpson, a divorced newspaper reporter raising her daughter on a Seattle houseboat called the “Puget Belle.” Now in its 11th season on NBC, “Carole of the Belle” was second in popularity in the last decade only to the CBS smash hit “I Love Lucy,” which starred Miss Lombard’s friend of more than 20 years, Lucille Ball.
In addition to her groundbreaking work in motion pictures and television, among the topics to be remembered by Miss Lombard are a car crash that nearly ended her career in 1925; her marriage to suave leading man William Powell; the strange death of Russ Columbo, a 1930s singer with whom she was romantically linked; a long-time friendship with tennis star Alice Marble; a brush with death when an airliner on which she had been traveling crashed in Nevada after she had disembarked; and her battles with HUAC and unwillingness to “name names.”
Famous for her salty vocabulary and known as one of the most down-to-earth of Hollywood’s elite, Miss Lombard said she would “pull no punches” in her book, although she was coy when asked if she would discuss her post-Gable romances with actor/director Orson Welles, and then her most controversial relationship of all, with actor Paul Newman, a man 15 years her junior.
Putnam anticipates an autumn 1962 release for “Just One of the Guys.”
Before I give some comments, let Bob elaborate on his whys and wherefores:
How this came about…
A colleague of mine, Wendy, is reading Fireball and said to me yesterday, “The whole thing is such a tragedy because if anyone should have lived a long life and produced a great memoir, it’s Carole Lombard.” Wendy paused and said, “She’d have made a great old lady.”
Which got me to thinking. Suppose she hadn’t died on that mountaintop. Suppose she had lived a normal lifetime and worked the length of a normal career. What would have happened? Of course it’s pure fantasy, but when you have spent as much time in someone’s head as I have in hers, you get to a point where you can draw conclusions. Here they’re laid out. Somehow or other, the marriage would have ended, but Lombard didn’t hold grudges and after a time she and Gable would have been friendly. Without the tragedy of her death hanging over his head, three things would have changed: 1) Gable’s ambition wouldn’t have been snuffed out and his brand would have thrived; 2) the public would have been spared seeing Clark Gable as a mortal and he wouldn’t have aged prematurely, and 3) at age 41 and then 42 and 43, he wouldn’t have gone to war; he would have made very popular pictures from 1943 through ’45, during the biggest boom in Hollywood history.
In the meantime, Lombard would have made “He Kissed the Bride” (retitled “They All Kissed the Bride”) and “My Girl Godfrey,” and from there, she would have been off to the races as an independent, enjoying good roles with her contemporaries until 1950. I could see her producing and directing by, say, 1948, and not comedies either. I think Lombard would have gone for gritty film noir as a form of artistic expression. She had wanted to succeed at drama but never broke through, so it’s clear she wanted the challenge of meaty work. She would have been out front with Ida Lupino as a woman director and by this time she would have amassed fortune enough to finance A-pictures as an independent.
Imagine Carole Lombard called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Always a liberal Democrat, Carole would not be the one to rat out a colleague and it was likely she’d lean into the microphone on Capitol Hill and state clearly for newsreel cameras, “With all due respect, sir, you can kiss my ass.”
In 1954, when MGM severed with Gable, Lombard would have been there as his biggest supporter and sooner or later she would have made pictures with him to give her ex a boost -— returning a favor done for her by William Powell in 1936. I picked “Teacher’s Pet” because I could see Lombard in the Doris Day role, and “But Not for Me” where she would have been perfect in the cynical ex-wife part played by Lili Palmer.
Carole would not have spoken about Clark during his lifetime, but because she was indeed a “ham” and because she loved to tell stories (never letting the truth get in her way), I could see Miss Lombard following the trail blazed by Errol Flynn and publishing a scorcher of a memoir.
Romantically, she may well have slipped into a romance with Robert Stack, a premiere Hollywood stud and nice guy who was in love with her. The problem was that Bob didn’t need rescuing, and Carole was a rescuer/nurturer who went for powerful men. Always powerful men. Who fit the bill at this time? Obviously, Orson Welles, who would have been available after his divorce from Rita Hayworth. I asked Carole Sampeck to play along and it was she who labeled Welles a likely candidate, and also young Paul Newman, the next big thing in the late 1950s at a time when Carole would have just been turning 50 but, knowing her, still mindful to play the field.
And finally, I believe Lombard would have turned to television, the rival medium. In a white 1950s America dominated by traditional family values, the formula was for aging female movie stars to play wives and mothers, but not Lombard. Carole would have scratched and clawed to play a woman with guts, a divorcee and career-minded mother. A woman making her own way and suffering romantic misadventures week in and week out, making jokes at her own expense and guiding an onscreen child in lieu of the one she could never produce in life.
Notice that the press release gets Lombard’s age wrong by three years. She had already shaved a year off by 33 and sleight of hand would have killed another couple by the early 1960s. Nobody enjoyed pulling a fast one more than Carole Lombard.
So this is my version of the alternate reality wherein Lombard lived out her lifetime — what’s yours?
OK, my thoughts on his thoughts, as well as on the “release”:
* Based on her relationship with Powell, I believe a Gable-Lombard separation would have been relatively low-key and amicable. (Of course, in Matzen’s scenario, the couple doesn’t have children; their presence probably would have complicated matters.) And a Clark and Carole “Teacher’s Pet” (I too can see her in the Doris Day role) would “reunite” both with Mamie Van Doren, who saw them arrive at the Sioux Falls, S.D. airport when she was a child named Joan Olander.
* Although Carole directed Alfred Hitchcock in his “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” cameo, I’m not certain she wanted to go down the directorial route. Producing? That’s an entirely different matter; Lombard was de facto director of “Smith” and, as we all know, was a very bright businesswoman. So rather than compete with Lupino aa a director, she might have hired Ida for one of her projects.
* I think Lombard would have liked film noir, particularly since so many of those movies were set in the Los Angeles she loved. Since she and Barbara Stanwyck were good pals, Stany might have attached herself to a noir Carole produced. (But I don’t think she would have eschewed comedies, especially ones she could both produce and act in.)
* Post-Gable relationships make for a fascinating “what if.” A Welles-Lombard romance would have been beneficial to both parties; for Orson, Carole would have provided the business sense he needed for his cinematic projects, while Lombard could draw upon Welles’ fertile mind (and occasionally guest on her TV series). And both could toss the bull around with the best of them. My only reservation is that she was about 6 1/2 years older, and Carole might have been reluctant to be with a younger man (the same is true for romances with the even younger Stack and Newman). Then again, by this stage of her life, she might’ve enjoyed the challenge of being the 1950s version of a “cougar,” or figuratively said, “Screw what anyone thinks!” (A Lombard at 50 or so would have retained her allure.)
* “Carole of the Belle”? Intriguing premise for a TV series, though I’m skeptical the concept could sustain itself for 11 seasons; she might have had to reinvent it every few seasons to keep it fresh. Do like the idea of Lombard as a divorced parent, though.
* Lombard before HUAC? She would have ripped them to shreds. (One tangent to this thought: Imagine the relationship between Carole and equally-outspoken liberal Lauren Bacall? They’d have been the best of pals. Conversely, might Democrat Carole and Republican Lucille Ball have had a falling-out? And in this alternate reality, is Lombard appear in a dream to provide the “go for it” impetus for Lucy to go into TV — and if not, does Desilu ever exist? Are “Star Trek” and its progeny ever made?)
* Had Carole and her party joined violinist Joseph Szigeti and got off at Albuquerque, there’s no certainty Flight 3 would have crashed. Perhaps things would be different for those on board, too. (Carole’s mother, had she lived, would have been 84 at the time this book was announced.)
* During my Lombard research, any shaving off of her years to me seemed more the work of the studios than of herself. When this “release” was issued in May 1961, Carole would’ve had no qualm about admitting she was 52.
* “My Girl Godfrey”? Was a project by this title actually considered?
Bob ends with, “So this is my version of the alternate reality wherein Lombard lived out her lifetime — what’s yours?”
It just so happens that in October 1998, I wrote such a piece in cyberspace about Carole turning 90. It’s long since lost, but I recall a few elements, plus have added several recent ones:
* Lombard kept making movies until the early ’50s, when she followed the lead of her friend Lucille Ball and went into television. But instead of a sitcom, she took the Loretta Young anthology route — albeit for comedy, not drama — and did a series called…”Carole & Company,” where she performed with a troupe of regulars. (So that’s where I got the name for this site!)
* In the early ’50s, Carole — who hadn’t sung publicly since “Swing High, Swing Low,” but enjoyed singing before her friends — agreed to cut a few albums of jazz standards with small groups. None were big hits, though all were well received by critics.
* By the start of the ’60s, Lombard was a regular guest of talk-show hosts such as Jack Paar and then Johnny Carson for her sharp sense of humor and delightful storytelling. (Think Bette Davis in her later years.)
* As she aged, Carole became a favorite character actress in both film and TV, and beginning in the late ’60s made a series of popular comedic TV movies with old friend Myrna Loy. She capped her career in 1998 by portraying a genial witch matriarch (though she told the press, “No, I’m not channeling Billie Burke!”) on an episode of the ABC sitcom “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch,” filmed at the Paramount studio where she had been a contract player more than six decades before.
Ah, what might have been. What’s your Lombard “what might have been,” both professionally and personally?