A photo of a thoughtful Carole Lombard dressed in an elegant white outfit from early 1939.
Interestingly, when she married Clark Gable in March of 1939 she dressed in a discrete gray suit, a sensible choice for what was for her a second marriage and what was to be the third of five marriages for Gable.
Meeting the press the day after their elopement wearing what they wore to their Arizona civil wedding.
So why did she request burial specifically at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in a modestly priced crypt and that she be dressed in white for burial? And why did she make these requests shortly after she married Clark Gable, supposedly at the peak of their legendary romance? Did she request that she be buried alongside of Clark Gable?
Below is a photo of a pensive, almost haunted looking Lombard that was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the father of American photo-journalism, for her interview in Life Magazine by noted journalist Noel F. Busch in late 1938. It provides an insight into Carole's thinking at that time. Noel Busch later told Larry Swindell, her biographer, that Lombard corrected him when he referred to Clark Gable as the "love of her life." He said Lombard fixed him in a level stare and said almost grimly, "Russ Columbo was the great love of my life ... and that is very definitely off the record."
Alfred Eisenstaedt was famous for capturing in a single photo the essence of his subject. The editors of Life chose this photograph of Carole for their cover article on Lombard for their October 17, 1938 issue.
Who was Russ Columbo and how is it that he left such a lasting impression on Carole Lombard? How long were they together? And why, even after a fairly long relationship with Clark Gable, (six years in Hollywood time is a lifetime), was Carole still drawn to Russ?
Russ Columbo was a popular singer, orchestra leader, musician and film actor who was born in New Jersey in 1908, (the same year as Lombard), but raised in California. He took New York City, national radio and the recording world by storm in late 1931 when he was just 23 years old. Tragically, he died in 1934 when he was 26 years old.
They met in the early fall of 1933 shortly after Carole Lombard's divorce from William Powell while Russ was doing a return engagement at a major nightclub in Los Angeles. She was on a date with screenwriter Robert Riskin. Russ focused on her as he sang and she returned his gaze. They both liked what they saw. Riskin predicted that she would soon be hearing from Mr. Columbo. He was absolutely correct. A dozen yellow roses arrived for Carole at her Rexford Drive home from Russ the next morning.
This film clip from Broadway Through a Keyhole with Russ Columbo and Constance Cummings was made in 1933. It shows what Russ Columbo looked and sounded like when performing before an audience at that time. And the following film clip from Brief Interludes shows what Carole Lombard looked like then.
Body and Soul
Russ Columbo has been called a fervent Roman Catholic by his biographer, Tony Toran. Born into a large Italian-American family, (he was the 13th and last child born to his parents), he embraced the core tenets of that religion, (beginning with "I am the resurrection and the life..."), with a fervor that was all his own.
Russ was drawn deeply into Catholicism by his grief over the death of his eldest sister, Fanny, during the Great Pandemic of 1918. Only ten years old at that time, he was devastated by her death. She and her husband, Joe LeDucca, had raised him from infancy including moving him with them to California, while his birth parents were busy running various businesses to support their large family on the East coast. (Fanny's husband was the one who initiated Russ' formal musical training with lessons on the violin.) Up until that point his parents played almost the role of grandparents to him. He became closer to his parents and very protective of his mother after his sister's death when he saw how deeply she grieved for her daughter.
Boy to man. (left) Russ as a boy and (right) a rare color photograph of Russ in the 1930's.
Perhaps because of his Italian background, Russ Columbo missed the prudishness sometimes associated with the largely Irish, and some would say Jansenist, Catholic Church in America. He grew up to be a handsome young man and when he actively courted a woman it was both as a body and a soul. To him, first you won with the body and then you challenged the soul. And this is how he approached Carole Lombard. To Lombard who came of age in the hedonistic 1920's Hollywood where scoring and keeping track was the norm, this was both a novel thought and at the same time very refreshing.
Russ Columbo with Carole Lombard's tennis instructor, Eleanor Tennant, whom Carole nicknamed "Teach." and at play.
Their relationship had several stages. Russ, who was an intensely romantic man, was a novelty for Lombard. Initially she wondered if he was too good to be true. He was unlike anyone she had ever met before. He seemed to want more from her than she ever gave away to anyone yet he also seemed willing and eager to give her everything of himself in return.
Russ was enchanted by Carole. He idolized her. A great beauty, her independence and her gusto for life were exhilarating to him. Her profanity, that was a distinct put off to some men, didn't seem to bother him. (She probably very rarely, if ever, used it on him.) Yet he wondered if she could really commit to anyone.
Russ and Carole shared a habit in that they both liked to sleep as they were created. He particularly liked wrapping his arms around her and holding her close while humming so she could feel the vibrations coming from within his chest. When her secretary, Madalynn Fields, told him that Lombard loved him physically and that should be enough for him, he responded to her that he was happy that the physical part at least was fine. But he was deeply offended by "Fieldsie's" comment and he told Lombard so. He didn't want her as just another fling, nor did he intend to be one for her. He wanted something more. He wanted her body and soul. He wanted Carole because he felt that together they completed one another.
(left) Carole and Russ. (right) The team at work. Russ chats with "Fieldsie" Lombard's secretary, while Carole visits with John Barrymore at a public event.
By early 1934 Russ realized that he also had to win over Madalynne Fields, Lombard's social secretary and companion, as an ally to make real progress with Carole. And he was well along in the process. Lombard was then working with John Barrymore, an acting legend but also an unapologetic masher, on what would be her breakout motion picture, the screwball comedy Twentieth Century. In this relaxed, congenial photograph, (above - right), we see the team of Columbo and Lombard at work. They were able to bring out the best in the people around them. Perhaps this is what Russ meant by completing one another. Psychologically speaking, it was probably the healthiest relationship Carole was ever involved with in her entire life.
Looking the 6 ft. tall and beaming Russ Columbo eye to eye adoringly from atop platform shoes.
Russ had the potential to be a superstar greater than Lombard and she was savvy enough to know it. She was as happy with the possibility as he was delighted with her first critical success in Twentieth Century. Russ had a national radio show for NBC, a recording contract with a major recording studio and he performed live at top venues. He recently signed with Universal Studios to make films. They planned to use him in starring roles in musicals initially and then to broaden their use of him with comedic and dramatic roles.
Watching a polo match together in Santa Monica on May 21, 1934.
Russ achieved most of this career progress on his own after he broke with his talented but also unpredictable and wily manager and promoter, Con Conrad, in early 1933. (Columbo leaned the hard way why everyone called Conrad, "Con.") He arrived in Los Angeles from New York after completing a nationwide singing tour organized by NBC seriously ill with a cold and the flu and nearly broke. Yet he did not return to his parents home, rather he checked into a suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, got over his illness, and then went about rebuilding his career.
Earlier in his career he opened the Empire Room at the new Waldorf Astoria in New York City as a headliner with a sold out engagement over the holidays in 1931-32 when he was 23 years old. He held the record for live performances at the vast Paramount Theater in Brooklyn for nearly a quarter of a century.
While primarily a baritone, Russ sang in a rich voice that could move up and down the scale from tenor to baritone with ease. He sang both popular music and jazz and he could also sing opera, but he was not doing so professionally. Only once, while performing onstage in New York, after being stung by a reviewer who panned crooners as second rate singers who relied on a microphone just to be heard, he stepped away from the microphone midway through a performance, motioned to the orchestra to play and sang an aria in full operatic voice that could be heard up to the rafters. He stunned and delighted his audience.
Russ played the piano professionally and was a classically trained violinist. During another performance when his audience would not let him leave the stage even after he sang two encores, he didn't know what to do next. So he borrowed a violin from an orchestra member and played a virtuoso classical piece for them. He brought the house down. Russ had been a child prodigy and played the violin professionally from the age of 13. He made his stage debut on a guitar at a church function when he was five years old. (He walked on stage with a guitar that was almost bigger than he was.)
(left) Master Russell Columbo, as he was billed, at age 13 and (right) Russ Columbo at age 20.
Russ composed music. Not only was he a composer of music but he was also a published lyricist of hit songs. And he was teaching Lombard both skills, sometimes in the middle of the night as Carole later humorously and privately explained to a journalist friend. She said that one time they got so engrossed in the process that they actually "forgot to take out the ashes." As a comparison, Bing Crosby, while a very talented singer, couldn't even read music.
Russ Columbo at the piano, circa 1934.
In addition to his musical talents and skills, Russ was blessed with a dramatic physical stage presence. One contemporary New York critic said that "while he may have been born of Italian parentage, when he stepped into the spotlight on stage with his glistening black hair, chiseled facial features and athletic physique he looked to all the world like the statue of a Greek god come to life. And with his flashing black eyes and gleaming white teeth, he had a smile that could melt a sphinx."
After returning to Los Angeles from New York in 1933, Russ played a leading role in Fox's Broadway Through A Keyhole co-starring with Constance Cummings. He set a goal for himself with that film to define a new type of hero for the screen, not just a rough and bluff "man's man" but a three dimensional man with feelings and sensitivities. He succeeded. He also filmed a delightful guest singing appearance with Constance Bennett in Fox's Moulin Rouge.
Russ with Constance Cummings in Broadway Through A Keyhole, 1933.
Russ Columbo and Constance Bennett in Moulin Rouge, 1934.
In 1934 he signed a contract with Universal Studios to star in motion pictures for them. He was targeted to be their major musical star and was slated to play Gaylord Ravenal in their upcoming production of Jerome Kern's Showboat. (Wake Up and Dream was a quick film that he made while the production details of Showboat were being ironed out.) Other films were in the works at Universal. And the advance buzz on his performance in Wake Up and Dream had other studios interested in his services. Russ was again a hot commodity.
Russ Columbo and June Knight in Wake Up and Dream, 1934.
By the summer of 1934, both Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo were deeply in love with each other. Carole had agreed to take instructions in Catholicism as a preliminary step to marriage. She was also heavily involved in managing his burgeoning career. Russ loved her as a person and he trusted her judgment as an entertainment professional. With Lombard's encouragement he had decided to take additional voice lessons to strengthen his baritone voice not only for the role of Gaylord Ravenal in Showboat but also to sing opera professionally. A newspaper article written at the time expressed concern that he not forget his popular music roots or loose his incredibly smooth sound in the process. The writer pointed out that while there were many good opera singers there was only one Russ Columbo.
All the hopes and the dreams ended in tragedy on Sunday, September 2, 1934. Russ Columbo was killed, the innocent victim in an accidental shooting. He was 26 years old.
(left) Stewart Peters, Carole's brother is Russ' pallbearer on the far left. The pall of gardenias, Russ' favorite flower, was provided by Carole Lombard. (right) Bing Crosby is the pall bearer on the far right. Walter Lang, the director and future husband of "Fieldsie," Carole's secretary, was also a pall bearer, (Lang would later direct the film verson of The King and I.), as were actors, Gilbert Roland and Zeppo Marx, and musician, Sheldon Keate Calloway.
Lead, Kindly Light - Voice Male - the hymn that Russ Columbo requested be performed a capella as the recessional for his funeral. In the weeks before his death both he and Carole experienced an almost overwhelming sense of dread and doom. A few days before he died he spoke with his pastor and told him how he wanted his funeral to proceed if he was the one who died. He then went to confession.
A sobbing Carole Lombard is seen (above) leaving the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood with her mother and members of the Columbo family after Russ' funeral. During the service Carole sat in the front row with his family in the position of primary mourner. At times during the service she wept uncontrollably.
The Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park where Russ Columbo is buried in a modestly priced crypt.
The Hall of Vespers where Russ' crypt is located.
Carole Lombard was inconsolable for months following Russ' death but when she did move onward she courageously lived life to the full. Film critics have pointed out that the warm, luminescent screen presence we associate with her today was a result of a new maturity that grew out of her first experiencing real love with Russ and then real grief over his loss. The differences in her film performances pre-Russ Columbo and post Russ Columbo are remarkable.
When she finally married Clark Gable in late March of 1939, over three years into their relationship and four and a half years after Russ' death, she gave that marriage all that she could possibly give it. They made a very striking couple.
(left) Gable and Lombard arriving at a prize fight in LA. (right) At the LA premier of Gone With The Wind in January, 1940.
Carole created a private world for Gable at their Encino ranch that she purchased with her own money. (Gable was cash strapped after his divorce from his second wife, Ria Langham.) She decorated the house primarily to suit him and in the process sold off her antique collection that she had acquired over the years, much of it with the help of friend, former actor and interior designer, William (Billy) Haines.
The den of the Gables' ranch home in Encino.
She made sure Gable was served, and sometime cooked herself, the simple but well prepared food he liked, frequently a good steak and potatoes. (Carole gave up on gourmet cooking after her marriage to Gable.) She went fishing and hunting with him and his close buddies such as MGM ceo, Eddie Mannix, and MGM director of publicity, Howard Strickling. She even learned to shoot skeet and soon became a better shot than Gable.
While as the wife of the "king of Hollywood" she was at the top if the social ladder in the film colony, yet she sold off many of her signature jewels, such as her star sapphire collection with their past associations. She gave up many of her old friends especially those that Gable did not care for. (Their home had no guest rooms.) She even rationed the time she spent with her family far more closely. (Carole's mother and brothers usually visited her when Gable was not at home.) Perhaps because of their differing schedules, they maintained separate bedrooms. And despite serious attempts and visits to medical professionals, their marriage was not blessed with children.
Gable and Lombard at a Hollywood gethering, January 8, 1941.
Loyalty was a characteristic that Lombard was expected to give in her marriage to Clark Gable and also was one that she was looking for in return from him. For Lombard a double standard didn't work. Unfortunately loyalty to any particular woman was not, nor would it ever be, Clark Gable's strong suit. A former girlfriend said of Gable, "Of course, Clark never really married anyone. A number of women married him, he just went along for the gag."
To the public their marriage was the ideal union, and it was actively portrayed as such by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard with the assistance of the photographers and the staff of the publicity department of MGM. However, several of their close friends, such as actor Robert Stack who had known both Lombard and Gable since he was a teenager and who would co-star with Carole in her last film, To Be Or Not To Be, commented that for Lombard the marriage "was all give while getting little, if anything, in return."
In her final will Carole Lombard quietly made a choice for eternity. Burial in a modestly priced crypt at Forest Lawn in Glendale would put her in the Great Mausoleum near where Russ Columbo was buried. She did it as discreetly as possible, so that it would not be an embarrassment to her husband, Clark Gable, but she did it most definitely. It was the very first provision in her will.
Why did she request that she be buried in white?
Was it because brides are usually dressed in white? Although Carole did not dress in white when she married Clark Gable, she had agreed to take instruction in the Roman Catholic faith as a preliminary step to marrying Russ Columbo just before he died. Her first marriage to William Powell would not have been an impediment to a Catholic marriage for Lombard and Columbo since William Powell, who was 16 years older than Carole, had been previously married and had a teenage son. Church canon law would not have recognized their marriage as valid. So Russ Columbo and Carole Lombard could have been married in a Catholic church with the bride wearing white.
Did Carole Lombard request that she be buried alongside Clark Gable?
While she left most of her fortune to Gable and she named him as her executor she did not mention him in her burial instructions nor did she request that they be buried next to each other.
After her death in a plane crash on January 16, 1942 while on a war bond tour, her final wishes for burial must have caused consternation. But they were there in writing in her will, (which was filed in the Superior Court of Los Angeles County and therefore would ultimately be a public record), and could not be ignored without generating press interest. So they were carried out "to the extent possible" by her widower, Clark Gable. He was undoubtedly guided by his mentor, Howard Strickling, the head of publicity for MGM Studios. Both were aware that Clark Gable had a reputation to protect and a legend to secure.
Howard Strickling has been called Clark Gable's "fixer" by author E.J. Fleming. He earned that title by his efforts on behalf of Clark Gable over the decades. For example, he orchestrated the adoption of Gables' illegitimate daughter by Loretta Young to Loretta Young in 1936. (It was highly unconventional and may have involved illegal affidavits.) Clark Gable took no further interest in his daughter. She was raised as Judy Lewis by Loretta Young and her husband, Tom Lewis. Gable even declined an invitation to his only daughter's wedding in 1959 well after any concern about a breach of a "morals clause" was a thing of a long gone past. (Gable wasn't even under contract with MGM or any other specific studio at that time.)
In January of 1942, after Carole's death, Strickling must have wondered if people would talk about Carole's choice of burial site. Would they remember that Russ Columbo was buried there? And would this somehow diminish Gable and his marriage to Lombard?
Strickling also had to realize that any discussion of the genesis of the war bond tour or the role that Gable had been asked to play in it, and flatly refused, was potentially damaging. The press had already picked up on the fact that Clark was not at the train station to see Lombard and her mother off at its beginning on Monday, January 12, 1942. So Howard authorized a press release at that time that contained a lie, namely that Gable was unable to attend Lombard's departure because he was in Washington, D.C. conferring with the military on how he might best serve his country. Gable didn't go to Washington, D.C. in January of 1942. He went there months after Carole's death.
Elizabeth Peters, Otto Winkler and Carole Lombard in the train station in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942.
To safeguard and enhance Gable's reputation and to prevent further gossip the legend of the perfect marriage of Gable and Lombard also had to be protected. Clark Gable was making a film with Lana Turner, Somewhere I'll Find You, at the time of Lombard's death. By January of 1942, Turner, who was about to turn 22 and who would ultimately marry eight times and have countless affairs, had already earned the reputation of a home breaker in Hollywood. And Gable was known to have a roving eye, a point of contention between himself and Lombard.
A photographic study of Clark Gable by George Hurrell.
On the night before she left on the war bond tour Lombard and Gable had a fierce argument over Lana Turner and he walked out on her. He then hooked up with Spencer Tracy, his drinking buddy, and they went out on a binge and for a night's entertainment. This is why he was not at Union Station on Monday morning, the day Lombard left with her mother and MGM press agent Otto Winkler on the war bond selling tour.
Heating up the screen. Lana Turner and Clark Gable in Somewhere I'll Find You, 1942.
Clark Gable was born in Ohio on February of 1901. He was personally asked to make a heartland war bond selling tour by Harry Hopkins, a special advisor to President Roosevelt, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But Gable declined citing his shooting schedule for his film. Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, encouraged him to go and offered to suspend shooting on Somewhere I'll Find You until he got back. But Gable said that he was not comfortable with public speaking even though he had New York theater experience.
Carole Lombard, who was born in Indiana, stepped in and volunteered to go in his place, even though she had virtually no stage experience and no public speaking experience. She tried unsuccessfully to get him to accompany her on the tour which according to E.J. Fleming was to include not only Indianapolis but also several other cities. The war bond tour never made it beyond Indianapolis.
Photos of Carole Lombard taken in Indianapolis on January 15, 1942, the day before she died.
Carole and her mother at the end of the long evening. Carole reached her quota of $500,000 and then surpassed it by selling over $2,000,000 in war bonds in Indianapolis alone.
After completing her engagement in Indianapolis, Carole Lombard, for reasons known only to herself, insisted on flying home to Los Angeles rather than continuing the war bond tour on the East Coast as planned and then returning home by train. Her mother and Otto Winkler tried to persuade her to do otherwise. Allegedly, Winkler put it up to a coin toss and Lombard won.
The crumpled middle section of TWA Flight # 3 after crashing near Las Vegas.
Given the worrisome details of the facts and the challenges that he faced, marginalizing Carole's relationship with Russ Columbo and Russ himself was something Strickling viewed as a practical necessity. Ever a ruthless pragmatist, it was a matter of creating a smoke screen and spinning the story so that it burnished the image of Clark Gable.
As with the tragedy of the Jean Harlow/ Paul Bern matter Strickling found a dependable ally in famed writer Adela Rogers St. Johns. (After Paul Bern's murder St. Johns wrote an article that slandered Bern at Strickling's urging.) She was an old friend of Strickling and had recommended him for his job. And Hedda Hopper, who owed her gossip columnist career to the influence of MGM also proved herself useful. (MGM and Strickling boosted her to contain Louella Parsons.) Their carefully worded articles and comments did the job intended.
· St. Johns, an experienced story teller, mixed fact and fiction in her article for Liberty Magazine published in late February of 1942. She painted Columbo as a mere boy that Lombard pitied. She went on to write tearfully about Gable, the brave but anguished widower and even that how deeply he missed Carole's mother who died with her. (Mrs. Peters wasn't alive to comment. Carole's brothers inherited the money Carole left to her mother but Gable also sent Stewart Peters, the younger one of Carole's two brothers, a demand for repayment of a small amount that Carole had personally loaned him. After the funeral, Carole's brothers had nothing to do with Clark Gable for the rest of their lives.)
· Hedda Hopper, frankly a shrew, painted the talented, hard working and gentle Columbo as a narcistic fruit. (Would she have dared to write something like that while Lombard was still alive?) The best reaction to Hopper was one she received from Spencer Tracy after she published a blind item column about himself and Katherine Hepburn. He encountered her at Ciro's, a restaurant in Hollywood, and he gave her a swift kick in her rear-end.Howard Strickling's unseen hand was, and still is, at work here. A master at his trade, he picked two sources considered credible by the public at the time and set them to worK putting his spin on the story. Unfortunately it is perpetuated on many of the Carole Lombard and Clark Gable web sites we see on the Internet today. If it were not for film critics like Leonard Maltin and biographer Larry Swindell and his ground breaking book on Lombard for which he interviewed of Noel F. Busch, (Screwball, the Life of Carole Lombard, 1975.), Strickling might have gotten away with his cynical spin on the facts.
Almost two decades later in late 1960, Howard Strickling guided Kay Gable, Clark's fifth wife, with the arrangements for his burial at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Newsreel footage of Clark Gable's funeral shows Strickling hovering near Kay and directing it. Kay agreed to relegate herself to the position of a consolation prize, and after her death in 1983, would be buried beneath and to the left of Gable. Clark Gable was buried alongside Carole Lombard, thus enshrining forever the legend of their perfect marriage.
Strickling played the role of fixer for Gable to the end, a role that he seemed to relish. The myth and the legend that was "Clark Gable", if not his real talent and screen performances, had in large part been Strickling's creation. In The Fixers, E.J. Fleming wrote:
Howard once described his job metaphorically saying, "Talent is like a precious stone, like a diamond or a ruby. You take care of it. You put it in a safe, you clean it, polish it, look after it. Who knows the value of a star?" According to him "there was only one each" Garbo or Gable, they had to be protected. That's just what he ... did.
The damage that he also did knowingly to the reputations of others as a result of his work was very real. Perhaps this is why he never wrote an autobiography after he retired, even when offered money to do so. If he told the truth he would undo much of what he had accomplished. And by revealing his methods of operation, (some of which were already speculated upon), he would not be edifying either himself or his collaborators.
Carole Lombard was not only a talented actress and a great beauty but she had a head and a heart. She faced life with courage and with a smile on her face despite serious concerns. The reality of her life was not nearly as idyllic as she wished it to be nor was it as happy as many of her fans thought that it was. But it was a life lived every day at full throttle with love, kindness and humor for those around her. In her final wishes she expressed the independence of mind and the integrity of spirit for which she is so rightly known and admired.
Russ Columbo' place in entertainment history has been helped immensely by the advent of Internet technology. Almost his entire songbook is now available on the world-wide-web. His lush voice and the utter sincerity of his delivery have captured the attention and the admiration of an entirely new generation of listeners around the world. Critics, who in their zealous promotion of emerging swing music discounted Columbo's contributions to the great American songbook, are now seen as having had an agenda and are considered partial. A new generation of music critics is actively reconsidering Russ' work and his contributions to American music.
Columbo's time at film making was brief, but the promise he showed was very real. His personal charisma comes across on film just as readily as it did in person onstage, in his recordings and performances over the radio. He easily projects an appealing warmth and humor that was genuine. It takes little imagination to see that Russ was making the transition from radio and recording star to motion picture icon.
But it was as a human being that Russ Columbo truly succeeded in his relatively short life. He loved his God, he loved music and he loved Carole Lombard with a deep passion, a sincerity and a sweetness that she had never experienced either before or afterwards. Perhaps this is why she regarded him as the great love of her life and chose to be buried near him.
May they rest in peace....awaiting, (if you are a believer), the day of the resurrection of the body, judgment and the rewards of eternal life.
In memory of Stella D. Cwiklo, née Wozniak, 1914-2001, a stalwart Russ Columbo fan who provided her insights to the author.