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Remembering 'A Gallant Lady,' part 1



The above may, or may not, be the last photograph ever taken of Carole Lombard; in his biography "Screwball," Larry Swindell bestows the description upon another picture. Whatever, not many hours after this was taken, Carole, her mother and MGM publicist Otto Winkler were gone, along with the other passengers aboard that ill-fated plane. A world mourned, and two-thirds of a century later, many of us still do -- even if we were born years after Lombard left us.

As a tribute, I am running one of the finest, most poignant pieces ever written about Carole, from one of the era's top writers. Before we begin, a few words about her:

Adela Rogers St. Johns (1894-1988) was an honored journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She spent much time around Hollywood, but she also covered politics, news events (the Lindbergh kidnapping trial), sports (the Dempsey-Tunney "long count" heavyweight title fight), you name it, mostly for the Hearst chain. The daughter of a prominent Los Angeles attorney, she fictionalized her father's exploits and troubles with alcoholism in the novel "A Free Soul," which became a film in 1931, winning Lionel Barrymore an Oscar for playing a character based upon her father. The film was also Clark Gable's big break.

St. Johns also knew Lombard quite well, and upon her passing, Liberty magazine asked her to come up with a tribute. She did, and more. Yes, she captured her personality, but many writers had done that. What makes this special is her perspective of Carole's spiritual self, something few interviewers had explored. It explains, as few articles have, what Carole Lombard was made of; not just her heart, but her soul.

It's a long piece, and Liberty ran it in two installments, the first on Feb. 28, 1942; so will we. Part 2 will come tomorrow. We'll run a few paragraphs before the cut to give you a feel for St. Johns' writing. You will want to read more.

A Gallant Lady...Carole Lombard, part 1

by Adela Rogers St. Johns

For a good many hours I have been sitting in front of my typewriter asking for that inspiration without which I shall hardly be able to set down here for you the inner life of a woman I knew named Carole Lombard, who was the wife of Clark Gable. That inner life, so strong and tender and aspiring, is worth preserving because it is the story of a struggle toward the light.

The thing that makes the task difficult, as the dark night outside wears on, is that I cannot convince myself that Carole Lombard has gone to her death upon a modern pyre lit atop a wind-swept mountain. For if she has, how can she be here in this quiet room where I write? The spirit of her is as impish, as determined, as honest as was the girl herself, the girl whose husband once described her to me as the gay and perfect companion.

Clark Gable was in love with her when he said that. At first he was not, but he grew to love her as few women have been loved. Yet other men who were not in love with her have said the same thing. I have a feeling that those boys in the plane with her felt the same way, that if there was a split second of eternity when they saw their fate, they found her a bright and undaunted companion with whom to fly on through that hole that opens in the sky for lost pilots.

The first American woman to fall in the fight upon her country's mountainside. Her heart high and warm because she had sold bonds to buy guns and planes and tanks for her country's soldiers. Flying home to save time in her busy, crowded life.

“I'm glad it came when he was so happy,” she said, just after Russ Columbo died upon the threshold of their marriage. “If it had to come, I am glad it came when he was happy in his work and in his love.”

So, if it had to come, it came to Carole the way she would have wanted it. When at last she had found happiness in her love and in her work. For she had to conquer many things before she found that strength and truth for which she always struggled, often mistakenly but always honestly.

“Get you, Gertie,” she seems to say to me tonight, “doing an elegy -– is that the right word? -- about me. Why me?”

One eyebrow crooked up in the way she had, her face screwed tight with the intensity of her thought, she clamors for recognition for those boys who went down with her. “I'm not as important as they were, putz. Clark grieves for me -– he will always miss me, as I shall miss him. But he is a very strong man. A real man. He will know that none of you can stop now to weep too much for those of us who have gone down in the battle. Do not make us out of proportion. Make us all one. All over the world, men and women are dying for their faith. There's only one word for any of us now -– carry on.”

So we talk together of her because she was one of the few people I knew who quietly and secretly within herself worked toward a high and spiritual end, who was almost brutal in the lengths of honesty and naturalness she insisted upon for herself.

Her story is a simple one and must be simply told. For the truth is that she was a very simple woman for all her success and her love affairs and her final great love and marriage. They were extraneous. Her true life was within.



“If,” says a very real Carole, recreated for me tonight by many things, by memories, by inner impressions I hardly knew had been made over the years, “if you go soft on me and get sentimental, I will howl under your window. Tell only the truth. Tell them why I laughed –- that's the point.”

Why not? She can stand the strong light of truth even as the beauty of her face and body could stand the strong lights and the cruel eye of the camera. She was a lusty, faulty, rowdy, two-fisted, terrific dame, who knew all there was to know about life and love and temptation, and that is why it is important to understand her laughter. The secret of her inner life.

There were three man-woman loves in her life. All important -– all different. Bill Powell, her first husband and her best friend. Russ Columbo, the sweet singer of songs, who was romance and poetry and -– something else few suspected –- he was almost like her child; he woke all that was mother in her; she couldn't bear to see him unhappy. And Clark Gable.

But there were so many others -– you can measure the size of her heart by the people who were ensconced there safely and forever.

There was her mother. “That Bessie,” she would say, “is she terrific! Do you adore her? Let's call her up.” She was always calling Bessie up at odd hours, from strange places, for screwy reasons, with a new story or a bit of gossip or a sudden plan. “Let's give Bessie a laugh,” she would say, sitting cross-legged on the big couch in her dressing room. “Hello, toots, how are you doing? I've got a baby elephant in my dressing room. Sure. Movie actress has strange new pet. We had elephants in a scene in the picture, but they had to take them out because when you looked at them from the rear you couldn't tell which was Crosby. Say hello to Bessie, Bing.” (That was of course before the immortal Bing became sylphlike.)

Then Bing and Carole would go into a rehearsal of their radio skit, writing in some dialogue that certainly would never be spoken on the air, but infinitely amusing to themselves. Slightly Rabelasian, it was.

In those days, let us face it, Carole had the vocabulary of a mule skinner or a marine top sergeant. Her denunciations were sulphuric and inventive. Born a lady and educated well, she sometimes talked like a gun moll.

But Clark Gable quickly broke her of the habit. “I,” said Mr. Gable, “will do the swearing in this family.”

You see, she wanted Clark to be boss. Wanted it terribly. She wanted it to be worth while to spend everything she had, everything she had learned, everything that made her a great box-office figure, in being Clark Gable's wife. Everything in her yearned for that, because she was a woman who had grown capable of a great love and a real passion.

In her heart there was that unusually close love for her mother -– there was hardly a day that they didn't see each other. Some one said to me this morning that it seemed so awful that her mother should have been killed, too. I can't feel that, knowing them. It would have been so awful for the one who was left.

And then her older brothers, who slapped her down when she was a fresh kid -– and all the people she worked for and with -– whoever and whatever they were.

I do not think Jack Benny stayed off the air, the Sunday night after Carole met her swift and unexpected death, as a gesture. They had just finished a picture together, and how they had loved it! I think Jack Benny just didn't feel he would be funny, with that empty feeling of irreparable loss stealing over him like a gray fog. But I think nevertheless that Carole would have given him blue blazes. “You dope!” she would have said. “What goes with you? So my number was up. So I flipped a coin and it came up tails. So you're going to cheat fifteen million people out of a lot of laughs they've maybe been looking forward to all week. No, no, auntie. Remember about the show must go on?”

She never pulled any punches. And the philosophy of her life was laughter. You see, that was her secret, the thing she seldom talked about. She believed that laughter bubbled up from the heart that was filled with faith. She had known black despair and heartbreak. She believed that you had to win through them and believe that good would triumph, that right made might, and thus that laughter was an outward sign of an inward grace.

It was when she was so badly hurt -– when she was just a kid, really –- that she had to fight out and work out for herself some answers, some inner thing by which she could go on.

It began on the day when Carole, a spoiled and adored only daughter in a well-to-do American home, and a very pretty one at that, with beaux and good times and nice things and everybody making a fuss over her -– went for a drive with a young man who stopped his very expensive and smart roadster too suddenly and threw her through the windshield.

It was a bright sunny day, and the street was a tree-lined boulevard and there were gardens with many colored flowers and the birds were singing -– but it was a red road for the girl who had just begun to realize that she wanted to act.

There have been false and distorted stories of that accident, tales of plastic surgery that made Carole's lovely face a miracle of a doctor's art.

It wasn't as simple as that. It wasn't as easily dramatic as that. The injury to Carole's face in the end turned out to be fairly minor –- a long cut from her mouth almost up to her eye, in which a young surgeon at the Hollywood Emergency Hospital took fourteen quick stitches without any anesthetic, because he didn't want those facial muscles to relax. That was Carole's introduction to pain.

At first there was an angry red scar. It wasn't a very bad scar, as scars go. But for a girl who had always been very pretty, particularly for a girl who wanted to be an actress, it was very serious.

Her career, she believed, was over. Probably no man would ever love her, so she would never be a wife and mother. She developed an inferiority complex, she was supersensitive, she was almost morbid.

“I snapped out of it,” was all she ever said.

It was the beginning right there of her philosophy, her inner life. For she began to laugh at herself –- and she went on laughing at herself as long as she lived -– and afterward, I'm sure.

But she had great tenderness, too, great responsiveness as well as laughter. Everything and every one she touched changed Carole. There was her feeling for Russ Columbo, for instance.

Russ was a very unusual man –- a boy he always seemed to me. Slim, dark, with one of the loveliest voices I have ever heard in my life. Carole had been married to Bill Powell and divorced from him when she met Columbo. In my time I have seen men in love with women, but I have never seen a man as much in love as Russ was with Carole Lombard. There was poetry in it, and music, and sheer romance.

Oh, they were young and quite wonderful together, those two. Though it was always plain that he loved her much more than she did him. In her was that tenderness of a decent woman for a man who adores her, whose happiness is entirely in her hands. Carole knew that was how it was with Russ Columbo, and so did everybody else in Hollywood.

Her premonition of his death was a strong one. If there was ever any one who was -– I don't know exactly how to say it –- but in tune with whatever forces mold and shape out ends, it was Carole Lombard. I think she always knew that she would never live to be old. In all the time I knew her, I never heard her make any plans for her own future. She did not expect to follow the long trail. I am sure she knew it. Some people do. Perhaps that is why she tried to cram so much into her life. Perhaps that is why she never wanted to sleep, why she read like a glutton every good book she could get her hands on, why she seemed to savor life -– and particularly her life after she met Clark Gable -– as few people ever did.

That she knew of some dark shadow that hung over young Columbo, just beginning what promised to be a career as brilliant as any we have ever seen on the screen and in radio, there can be no doubt. Her great friend Fieldsy -– you must know Fieldsy to know Carole, and we will come to her soon -– knew it. Her mother knew it. Perhaps it was the reason she was so tender with him, gave in to his wish never to be separated from her. It must have been that, for she was never in love with him -– she was never really in love until she met Clark, though she thought sometimes that she was.

When he was killed by a strange accident –- a bullet fired from an old dueling pistol which was supposed to be empty ricocheted from the wall and found its mark in a fatal spot -– she was heartbroken. But she kept right on being Carole Lombard.

She played a great drama and kept Russ's mother -– who was ill with a heart trouble in the hospital -– from knowing that her beloved son was dead. It was her idea –- and she even went so far as to arrange for telegrams to be sent from Europe where Russ was supposed to be traveling; she even herself wrote letters and had them mailed from distant ports, so that his mother thought she and Russ were on a honeymoon. Beau geste, surely.

It was Fieldsy who told some one eventually of another thing Carole did after Russ's death. The boy who had fired the gun by mistake was afraid to see Carole. When she found it out, she sent for him. “Don't be silly,” she said. “I know you loved Russ. I don't blame you. It was an accident. Russ would want us to go on being friends, you and I, and of course we will.”

She had room in her heart even for him. But I don't suppose any one has had a bigger place there than Fieldsy. She is a tall girl, with just a suggestion of Kate Smith about her, something of the abundant, rich joy in living, something of the strong steadfastness that Kate conveys to you.

In their Mack Sennett days, Fieldsy was a comic. Carole, back after the long lonely year of her accident, having decided that what she needed was laughs and some good rough, tough going, was one of the last group of Sennett bathing beauties –- when Sennett was trying for a comeback, and she became simply fascinated with Madeline Fields. She followed her around all day on the set, and that was the beginning of one of Hollywood's greatest friendships.

“I'm going to slit her throat some dark night,” Carole would say. “I can't call my soul my own –- I have no say about my own business. Lincoln freed the slaves, but he didn't know about me in time. That woman is a menace.”

But her gift for getting the best from people and abiding by it, led her quietly down the path Fieldsy, as her secretary-manager-major-domo-and-everything-else, marked out. In consequence of Fieldsy, she lived in small attractive houses which suited her, and conducted the business end of her career with a measure of sanity that belied her reputation as the screwball girl of Hollywood.

But when Fieldsy married Walter Lang, one of our fine young directors, and had a baby, it was the proudest moment of Carole's life. She followed the course of events with excitement and curiosity and adored the baby.

I asked Carole once if she was ever afraid of anything.

“Sure,” she said, “lots of things. Most of all I'm scared of getting things too easily. Houses built on sand -– no foundations. I like getting them the hard way. I might as well -– that's the way I always get them.”

I keep saying to myself, Why Carole? There are, frankly, stars in Hollywood who wouldn't be missed except maybe in the theaters. Why Carole?

The answer is plain. Carole said it once herself about somebody else.

“The good guys get it,” she said, “because they are always in there pitching. They are always in the front line when there is a good fight going on.”

If those boys who went to death in that plane had stayed home, they wouldn't have been ferry pilots who had already delivered planes to the fighting men -– planes that spell victory. If Carole had stayed home making motion pictures and living selfishly and contentedly and securely in her love and happy marriage, she wouldn't have sold more than two million dollars' worth of defense bonds to buy more guns and more planes and more tanks to defeat Hitler and the Japs. But then she wouldn't have been Carole.

Do you think for one minute that men like Bing Crosby and Bill Powell and Jack Barrymore and Jack Benny and Greg La Cava and Wes Ruggles and Clark Gable idolized her because she was a mere gagster, and special garden variety of screwball? Those guys are gagsters themselves. Do you think that every grip and carpenter and electrician in Hollywood adored her because she was lovely to look at? Every set is packed with lovelies –- some of them younger and lovelier than Carole Lombard.

There was a special quality there -– and Bill Powell contributed to it. Jack Barrymore contributed to it -– and the blow-by-blow account of that championship combat is still talked about –- when he first discovered in her a great comedy talent which was to bring her her real place in the sun.

But it is –- it was –- all distilled in Carole Lombard. She put it all together, with her eyes always upon one goal and one only.

The last time I saw Carole was at the Gable ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Clark had gone to look at a horse. Carole and I sat on an overturned box in the back yard.

Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, she said, “Look. Do you believe in God? I don't mean an old guy with long spinach on his chin. I mean something for every day -– wherever you are.”

I keep thinking of Clark Gable waiting at the foot of that mountain for news from the snow-packed trail above, Spencer Tracy's arm flung over his shoulder. And then I think of that last talk with Carole -– one of the strangest talks I ever had with any woman.

In the light of that final blackout, I am wondering how much Carole knew of what was coming.



(Part 2 tomorrow)

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