Carole Lombard never resided in her hometown under that name; in fact, on her last visit there in 1930, her screen name was still Carol Lombard, no “e.” But even though she left at the tender age of six, Fort Wayne, Indiana, played a major part in shaping her personality. The good news is that much of that little world of hers has been preserved for us to experience today.
The future film legend was born Jane Alice Peters at 704 Rockhill Street on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 1908, to an affluent family -– husband Frederic, wife Elizabeth, known as “Bess,” and sons Frederic Jr. and Stuart. The two-story house had been built a few years before Jane was born. Her grandfather, John Peters, was born in Fort Wayne in 1841 and worked as a cabinet maker until he was 21. He then started his own business, the Peters Box Co. He sold fine woods and veneers, furniture and other wooden items. He sold the business and started the John C. Peters lumber company, which sold fine oak. (Peters used plenty of oak in this house and another he built next door.) Eventually he and others started the Horton Washing Machine Company. Soon, half the washing machines in the world came from Horton.
When Jane was born, no one could have foreseen that, under another name, she would gain worldwide fame as a motion picture star in Hollywood. After all, in the fall of 1908, films were two-reelers shown in small halls called nickelodeons, and the actors in those films really weren’t known to the mass public. And Hollywood was still an obscure, dusty, movie-less village, independent of the city of Los Angeles –- although its few residents could now travel there, thanks to a new trolley line.
In Fort Wayne, the Peters girl spent much of her early childhood playing baseball in the street with neighborhood boys, showing a tomboyish, athletic streak that would last the rest of her life. On Friday nights, Bess would take Jane Alice downtown, several blocks away, to see movies, which by the mid-teens had developed the rudiments of a star system. Moviemakers were making the transition from New York and Fort Lee, N.J., to this new community called Hollywood, by now annexed into Los Angeles to gain access to the city’s water supply. Bess and her young daughter were particularly fans of the serials and their spunky stars, Kathlyn Williams and Pearl White, and Jane would often re-enact the scenes with her neighborhood friends the next day.
The little girl even gained a sense of public duty from her mother, who during a 1913 flood on the nearby St. Mary's River used the family’s house, located on high ground, to coordinate relief activities. Much of the action was handled from what is now the dining porch, seen below. (A bridge near the house was posthumously named for Carole.)
However, the Peters family was internally troubled. A severe leg accident that befell Frederic Sr. before marriage led to chronic headaches that made him increasingly difficult to live with. For the sake of the children, Bess -- who would receive monthly stipends from her husband -- decided to take the children west in 1914, after Jane had finished her kindergarten year at nearby Washington School.
The next time Jane visited Fort Wayne, she was a young woman of 21 known to the film world as Carol Lombard (she wouldn’t legally change her name from Jane Peters until 1937), who had starring roles in a few small films and supporting parts in a few larger ones. It was June 1930, and Lombard -- who had recently signed a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures -- was on her way east to make a film, “Fast And Loose,” at Paramount’s eastern studios in the Astoria, Queens, section of New York.
In his book “Carole Lombard: The Hoosier Tornado,” Wes D. Gehring provides highlights of an interview Lombard gave to the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel. As interviews of that era go, it’s fairly insightful; she notes it’s personality, not looks, that are most important for film acting, and says of being a celebrity, “Most people don’t think we’re human. Everywhere we go they just stare and stare at us.” She also said she was “lucky because of my low-pitched voice” that was optimal for talking pictures.
Carol and her mother were honored guests at an epic reception attended by several hundred guests, including, according to the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, “many who had [claimed to have] known Miss Lombard when she lived in this city.” (Incidentally, both the Journal-Gazette and News-Sentinel still operate today -– a situation becoming increasingly rare in all but the largest cities.) Lombard, who played baseball on the streets of her neighborhood, probably wished she could have attended an exhibition baseball game that day between the Fort Wayne Chiefs and the Philadelphia Phillies, led by Fort Wayne native Chuck Klein, a future Hall of Fame slugger.
According to Gehring, the trip enabled Lombard to meet her father for the first time in years, while at the same time her mother was making arrangements, with her husband’s blessing, to quietly obtain a divorce so that each could remarry, although neither did.
Lombard never visited Fort Wayne again, although Bess did make a side visit there before reuniting with her daughter at the war bond rally in Indianapolis. However, the city did figure into Carole’s publicity on Jan. 1, 1938, when mayor Harry W. Baals put up a plaque on the Rockhill Street house noting it was the birthplace of Lombard, who, as the plaque states, “became one of the most important figures in the motion picture industry.” However, since a reference follows to her appearance in “David O. Selznick’s Technicolor production ‘Nothing Sacred,’ ” one can assume that it was put there at the behest of Sekznick International Pictures -– and indeed it was.
By 1938, Rockhill Street and the West-Central neighborhood was beginning to lose some of its upper-class panache. Wealthy residents began looking for more spacious homes in surrounding areas, and some of the houses deteriorated. Many were divided into rental apartments. But in the 1980s, the neighborhood’s Victorian charm enabled it to make a comeback and many of the homes have been restored. (During that decade, Hollywood was graced by another fine comedic actress from Fort Wayne, Shelley Long.)
The owners of the Lombard house have made certain Carole’s birthplace retained its magnificent century-old ambience. Its two most recent owners turned the house into a bed and breakfast (http://www.carolelombardhouse.com/); there are three bedrooms on the second floor, named for Jane Alice Peters, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable (in honor of his marriage to Carole; Gable never visited the house) and the parlor on the first floor has been converted into a guest room with two single beds. Below, two pictures of the Jane Alice Peters room, the Carole Lombard room, and the parlor:
However, the current owners are contemplating selling the house in order to reunite with their family in California. They intend to find a buyer who will continue keeping the house in its special condition –- and you can be sure that somewhere, Carole Lombard is pleased.