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Remembering 'A Gallant Lady,' part 2



The above, from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, ran in film trade papers shortly after Carole Lombard's death. While Lombard made only one film for MGM, the middling "The Gay Bride," she was the wife of one of its biggest stars, Clark Gable, and as such had spent much time on the Metro lot. She likely would have come back there for a film or two had she lived. And of course, MGM publicist Otto Winkler was a fellow victim of the air crash.

However, MGM's sorrowful lion represented the entire motion picture industry, still numb from the sudden, unexpected loss of one of its most popular and beloved personalities.

As promised, the second half of Adela Rogers St. Johns' tribute to Carole, "A Gallant Lady," which ran in Liberty magazine in March 1942. As with the first half, it's fairly long, and much of it will be found beneath a cut after a few introductory paragraphs. It's as touching as the first half, as St. Johns -- a writer who eloquently captured the spirit of the subjects she wrote about -- does so in completing this portrait of Lombard. You will be moved.

A Gallant Lady...Carole Lombard, part 2

by Adela Rogers St. Johns

“Before I say goodbye to you all –- come on –- join me in a big cheer -– V for Victory!”

Her arm went up, the fingers on one hand making the V symbol, V for Victory -– gave the crowd a grin in answer to the rocketing cheer –- and was gone.

It turned out to be Carole's goodbye to us all, her last appearance before any camera, that newsreel shot in Indianapolis where she sold more than two million dollars' worth of Defense Bonds.

V for Victory - what glorious last words! I hope that's the way everybody will remember her.

Because of them that final conversation I had with Carole became more and more significant. But in thinking about it, I realize that it didn't begin that day on the San Fernando ranch of the Gables, it actually began upon an afternoon of a New Year's Eve several years before.

I'd flown from New York to Hollywood on a rush job and dropped into Clark Gable's dressing room to say hello; the first time I had seen him since the Carole Lombard romance began to look serious.

I was feeling like a mother hen, not an unusual state for me but a little ridiculous when the chick was Clark Gable. But the things I knew he wanted were so darn simple. Women kept serving him squab and terrapin when all the Moose wanted was corned beef and cabbage or a steak and friend potatoes. There had been one flaming love affair that backfired and a lot of people got hurt. There had been two marriages that just couldn't be right. This time he ought to get a break. His basic integrity, his loyalty, his true simplicity, an almost shy inner fineness -– he deserved the best.

Carole Lombard –- I wasn't sure.



Her marriage to Powell went through my mind in swift review. The day down at Malibu when I saw her with Bill for the first time. A slim girl in brilliant red slacks and a white blouse, a huge mandarin hat over her blonde hair. Under a beach umbrella with the blue Pacific and the white sand as a background she was a magazine cover. Decorative, but at first glance typically Hollywood. Carole was a girl who took a good deal of knowing, otherwise she was just funny and screwball and lovely to look at. In fact, then she hadn't even started being funny -– that came to life under the tutelage of Powell and Barrymore and Crosby, who encouraged her to give free rein to that vein of mad humor. Nothing unusual then, except I remember saying later to Bill Powell, “That Lombard girl has charming manners -– which always suggests brains to me.”

And she was tremendously interested in an awful lot of things. That remained true always. You might put Garbo at one pole and Lombard at the other when it came to talk. How that girl loved to gab! She would talk about anything; she had ideas and intense curiosity about everything on earth from how an airplane could fly to all the questions they now ask on Information Please.

For almost a year after that first meeting she kept Bill Powell waiting. Then she married him and it proved to be a mistake.

I can fit the sudden and unexpected divorce that followed into the pattern of Carole's inner life as I know it now; but then I was as shocked as anybody. They had been so picturesque and stunning; their marriage was like something written by the author of The Thin Man -– all full of witty lines and amusing honesties and gay and charming things.

But down the road of that marriage, around the bend of a year or two, Carole saw inevitable disaster. When she was a kid in her teens Carole worked with Buck Jones and Tom Mix in Westerns and learned from them -– as she learned something from everybody she ever came in contact with –- that when you see trouble coming that's too big for you to handle, move fast and keep on moving and save all you can. It took great moral courage to fly in the face of public opinion and misunderstanding, but once she knew her marriage wasn't going to work, Carole moved fast and saved much. Once she saw that there were deep and fundamental differences between herself and Bill as husband and wife which would degenerate into quarrels, into ugliness, she didn't wait for any of the messy cruel things which are called grounds for divorce to happen. She used the surgeon's knife –- swiftly -– cleanly –- with decision.

Weeping as though her heart would break, she put her arms around him and said goodbye to him as a husband. But she saved him as the best friend any woman ever had. That came to me in a rather fine way when I saw that she was the pal and comforter beside him at Jean Harlow's funeral. And Gregory La Cava, who directed them in their greatest picture, My Man Godfrey, told me they were like a congenial, loyal brother and sister.

Any woman who keeps the men who have been in love with her as real and true friends is quite a gal. Carole always did.

That was part of Carole's inner life, that unspoken determination to make quick, clean decisions, to take her loss and get out, without squawking, without recriminations.

“She did what she would have wanted another woman to do as far as her friend Bill Powell was concerned,” some one who knew once told me. “That was a trick of hers. Figuring out what she'd want somebody else to do where any friend of hers was concerned and then making herself live up to it. Sometimes she was wrong, but she played it the way she saw it.”

Russell Birdwell, Hollywood's sensational press agent of Gone-With-the-Wind fame, told me a story about her not long ago. Like every man who worked closely with her, Bird adored her. He told me how she stormed into his office one day, perched on the edge of his desk, and delivered herself with her accustomed violence of the following:

“Who do we think we are? This is a very swell country we live in. It is a free country. I went to a very good high school myself, and that was free. We give people a fine place to live, and hospitals, and bridges and roads and protection and an army and a navy and J. Edgar Hoover and sanitation and parks for the poor kids to play in and clean up the slums and have minimum hours and wages and the best paid people on earth and colleges to make doctors and engineers and clinics to teach women how to take care of their babies and who do people think is going to pay for government of the people by the people and for the people? Me, I'm lucky I'm not getting ten bucks a week behind a counter or ten cents a dance and don't I know it! With me -– it's all right about taxes. What I have left over after I pay them is all any one woman is entitled to.”

That year she earned $487,000, which is fantastic, of course, but she brought it into the box office or they wouldn't have given it to her. Of that, she had about $60,000 left.

“Which is probably too good for me,” said Miss Lombard, “though Fieldsy will see to it that I save it for my old age. But I want you to put it in the papers how I feel about it. I would like some of these squawkers to know.”

Modern to her fingertips, with the career girl's independence and viewpoint, still she had principles. And abided by them. There wasn't much sympathy in her for whining little sin and self-indulgences. She kept her mind as hard as her body.

Some of these things I knew and some I did not that afternoon of New Year's Eve when Clark and I sat in his dressing room. We had talked in the past of many things important to us both, so I felt I had the right to ask him, “Clark, do you love her?”

I wish I could remember exactly what he said. The words were simple –- he's a simple guy –- and they told me that there wasn't anybody like her, that he would rather have the rest of his life with her than with anybody he ever knew. You could trust that little screwball with your life or your hopes or your weaknesses and she wouldn't even know how to think about letting you down. She was more fun than anybody, but she'd take a poke at you if you had it coming and make you like it. And if that added up to love, he finished, then he loved her.

Their marriage was a good, happy, down-to-earth thing, with no rose-colored glasses. Their love was never blind –- it was open-eyed and sure. She made a full-time job of being Mrs. Clark Gable, and when she found it made them better companions, closer, that it amused him, she went back to the screen. If he had felt differently, pictures would have lost her. You see, she had grown and learned since the days with Bill Powell. Her sense of values had grown, too. This time, to keep her marriage happy, she would have left her work if it had been necessary.

“Your wife died in the service of her country. Her brilliant work for the Treasury this week in selling Defense Bonds in Indianapolis will be long remembered and honored by us all.” Those words were written by the United States Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, to Gable.

The President of the United States wired him, “Mrs. Roosevelt and I are deeply distressed. Carole was our friend, our guest in happier days. She brought great joy to all who knew her and to the millions who knew her only as a great artist. She gave unselfishly of her time and talent to serve her government in peace and in war. She loved her country. She is and always will be a star, one we shall never forget nor cease to be grateful to. Deepest sympathy.”

Those are fine words to have, splendid words to come from the commander in chief of our armed forces in the time of our great battle against evil. Great words for one American woman to have earned. They must have brought Clark Gable great comfort.

I have wandered a long way from that last conversation with Carole, but after all I am only trying to give you a clearer memory of her, and the things she said that day mean much more when you know her better.

“Do you believe in God?” she said to me that last time, suddenly, when we were sitting in her back yard.

Now, I had never thought of Carole as what we call a religious woman. I had become aware that there was an inner pattern to her growth, that she had a set of laws by which she ruled and guided herself. But until that moment I hadn't thought about her philosophy of life exactly as a religion.

I said I did believe because all through my life I had had proof.

“Do you get solemn about it?” Carole said. “I don't seem to get solemn about it and some people might not understand. That's why I never talk about it. I think it's all here -– in the mountains and the desert. I don't think God is a softie, either. In the end it's better if people are forced back into -– well -– into being right, before they're too far gone. I think your temple is your everyday living.”

We talked about children. She sat as she so often did, one knee up and her elbow resting upon it and her chin on her hand. Her eyes were very intent. I said I was enjoying my grandchildren. It gave me great joy to know that when my sons went away in uniform, they had gone to make a safer world for the little fellows and that made it all worth doing.

Carole wanted children, as she always wanted more and more life, more and more light. But she could not see herself with them as they grew up.

“I never can see into the future at all,” she said. “I guess I'm too busy living every day, or something. Look –- I'm not afraid of growing old. I think it's wonderful. Look at Bessie -– my mother. She's nine times the woman I am. It sounds sort of nice to be old. When you are out of the tailspins of youth, when you're content, like Clark and I are, and have learned not to let emotional high blood pressure hit a boiling point and knock you all silly, then you begin to enjoy everything. So much you missed when you were skittering around when you were a kid.

“But I never can see myself growing old. I don't have any pictures of how I'll look or what I'll do. I can see myself with a little baby, but not with a baby grown up.”

She did not seem distressed about it. She said it simply, a little curious, as she always was, but not with any sense of premonition or foreboding. She had always faced everything -– she walked forward fearlessly.

And then she said the thing that has helped me so much ever since.

“I like it when the going is tough,” she said. “If you wait for everything to be just right in your life, you'll never get any happiness. You have to fight for it and get it anyway, and the minute you start fighting anything, you've won. The end doesn't matter. We're so dumb we maybe don't even know what the end is. There's got to be something after this -– after this life – where you can use all you've learned here or nothing makes any sense, and too many things make sense for the guy behind it all not to have sense too. When you're in there fighting, you always feel so clean. Ugly things drop away. I guess God never lost a fight. The only time you're a cinch to lose is when you won't fight for what you believe in.”

That was long before Pearl Harbor. It seems strange that she should have said it.

But it was also a cinch that Carole would be in there, and quick, after the Japs woke us up, after the fight was on at last. She'd be the first one out there selling bonds, doing anything and everything –- doing it.

And because she was like that, she can become a sort of symbol to us. She can bring us a message. We can keep her alive and give her a new name that will delight her.

Carry on. That's her message.

Carry On Lombard.

It always fitted her, that name. It fits her now more than ever.

I've been thinking about the picture she had just finished with Jack Benny. It's an uproarious comedy, of course, and it seemed for a moment as though it would be awful to sit in the theater and see her laughing and clowning and hear her voice when you knew that she was gone.

That's wrong. It would be unfair to cheat Carole of those last laughs she left us. She'd feel terrible, she would really, if she thought all she'd poured into trying to make the world laugh in its hour of pain and trial and sadness was wasted. No different, she would have said, from reading a book, if I'd written a book that might make somebody laugh. Carry on.

Today all over the world men and women have lost all they hold dear in the fight for freedom. It's tough, losing Carole. It was tough losing those boys who were with her. But this is no time to stop and weep -– not when there's a job to do.

That's why Carole means so much today. Not one movie star. Not one lovely clown gone in the very prime and beginning of her life, since those are today the shining targets of death, the young and strong who fight for us and for our children in many lands.

But she can symbolize to a nation which just happened to know her and love her, better than some of the other heroes who have already fallen, the first great personal chance to catch the stride of the martial music to which all must march now.





Thanks to Carole Sampeck of The Lombard Archive for transcribing this piece, heretofore largely unseen by most of us.
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