May 11th, 2008

carole lombard 07
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A Mother's Day salute to Elizabeth K. Peters

The most important man in Carole Lombard's life is a subject for some debate. Clark Gable is arguably the strongest candidate, although William Powell is up there, too. You could also make good arguments, professionally speaking, for Mack Sennett, Ernst Lubitsch, Howard Hawks and John Barrymore.

However, the most important woman in Lombard's life? That's easy:

Elizabeth Knight Peters, Carole's mother (shown soon after Lombard's marriage to Powell in 1931, as the newlyweds were leaving on their honeymoon). True, she also had a bond with sons Frederick and Stuart, but she was probably closest to her daughter, and did so much to shape and guide her life, in both what she did and didn't do. And since it's Mother's Day, today is an appropriate one to review, and celebrate, the life of this lady.

Born in June 1876, Elizabeth -- nicknamed "Bess" -- was among three sisters from the affluent Knight family of Fort Wayne. Lombard biographer Larry Swindell wrote that Bess Knight "wasn't as pretty as her sisters but she was more vivacious...[she] had a scheming wit and worldly personality. Unlike her sisters, who both married well but pursued no horizon beyond the Fort Wayne social hierarchy, she courted adventure that might surpass the Hoosier definition of it."

Bess was ultimately courted by Frederic Peters, son of a local hardware company owner, and they eventually married. Children followed: Frederic Jr. in 1902, Stuart in 1905 and finally a girl, Jane Alice, on Oct. 6, 1908. She was born at this house at 704 Rockhill Street, which the family had occupied a few years before:

But Bess was beginning to feel unease in her marriage, and much of it may have derived from a workplace injury her husband had suffered a few years before. He severely hurt his leg in an elevator accident, which forced him to walk with a gimp -- but he was also developing chronic headaches that were causing him noticeable pain and irritation "against which even the wonderful new aspirin tablets were impotent," as Swindell wrote. "If they got any worse, there was real fear of what he might do." (Some have inferred from this that Frederic was abusive towards his wife.)

Bess was desperate, but thanks to her family's affluence, a solution was simple. Her mother suggested an extended holiday, and insisted that Bess take her children along. Initially, Bess considered going to New York, but on the advice of friends, decided to go to California for a while -- and the move was endorsed by her husband. So in the fall of 1914, Bess, Frederic Jr., Stuart and Jane left Fort Wayne and went west...a move that initially was planned as a temporary one.

At first, the Peters clan headed to San Francisco, a city they liked, and they might have stayed there -- but little Jane had brought a head cold from Indiana, and the dampness of the Bay Area didn't agree with her. So before the end of October 1914, Bess and her children headed south to Los Angeles and its drier climate.

Years later, some people mistakenly believed mom moved to L.A. to get her little girl in the movies, which had set up shop in town a few years before. Not the case. (Incidentally, it should be noted that before she married, Bess did a little acting in Fort Wayne theatrical productions.) In fact, aside from encouragement, Bess had little influence over her daughter's film career; she was not a "stage mother" a la Lela Rogers, Ginger's mom.

Where she did influence Carole Lombard was in her beliefs and actions. Bess was active in Fort Wayne society, and in 1913, when Jane Alice was an impressionable five years old, her mother played an important role in aiding neighbors who had to evacuate their homes during a flood of the St. Mary's River. Helping others became an integral part of the Lombard mindset.

Not long after moving to Los Angeles, Bess was introduced to, and adopted, the Baha'i faith. Not a formal religion, with little if any dogma, one of its tenets that appealed to her was its belief in the complete equality of the sexes -- a somewhat radical concept at a time when women had yet to gain the right to vote in much of the U.S. Bess became a feminist in her own, relatively undogmatic way, and so did her daughter, who was encouraged to believe she could do just about anything a man could. (Thanks to her family's fortune and frequent money mailings from her husband, Bess never had to work, although early on she was somewhat thrifty. Later fan magazine claims of poverty were somewhat exaggerated.)

Mother and daughter were close, and Bess generally had good rapport with Lombard's husbands, as this picture with Gable, taken not long after Clark and Carole married, shows:

When Carole volunteered to go to her native state of Indiana for a war bond rally in January 1942, it was a given that her mother would accompany her. This photo, taken in Indianapolis, shows just how proud Bess was of her daughter:

Sadly, of course, neither made it home to Los Angeles, as both died in the Jan. 16, 1942 plane crash -- the first time Bess Peters had ever traveled by air. Like Carole, she is buried at Forest Lawn, appropriately as close to her daughter in death as she was in life:

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