During her lifetime, Carole Lombard interacted with many of Hollywood's great stars. Here's the story of a star-to-be she saw -- and who saw her -- but that would be as far as it went. Sounds strange? Perhaps, but we'll let the star describe the encounter:
"Suddenly I heard George whisper, 'Oh, my God! It's Gable, and he's got Carole Lombard with him.' When they got closer, I saw Clark Gable, accompanied by this vision in blond hair, decked out in black velvet and black fox. As he elegantly seated her in the canvas sling chair that was right under the camera, George said, 'Clark, I think that's my spot.'
"'Carole is sitting here, George,' Gable said smoothly. 'You take the other side.' George Sidney was a test director, and Clark Gable was the biggest star in the world. If he wanted Carole Lombard in that chair, there would be no further discussion. George would have to do without a lens finder, which was attached to the camera on the side where Lombard was now sitting. ...
"As this little melodrama played out, I kept stealing glances at Carole Lombard. I couldn't make out her features clearly, but I could see the radiance of her blond hair and the wonderful tilt of her beret. I could see she was wearing diamonds, because every so often I caught a bit of sparkling out of the corner of my eye. 'I'd better look away,' I told myself, 'because she could really rattle me.' For the first time since my arrival at MGM, I blessed my nearsightedness. It made it easier to fool myself and put her out of my mind. If I couldn't really see her, maybe she wasn't really there. ...
"While we were rolling, I knew that I wasn't supposed to look at the camera, or at George Sidney, and I certainly wasn't going to look at Carole Lombard, aka Mrs. Clark Gable, who was still out there just beyond my myopic haze. ...
"Gable walked away from the set, helped Lombard to her feet, nonchalantly took her arm, and they walked toward the door. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the empty soundstage. They left arm in arm, laughing merrily, the world's most glamorous couple, thoroughly enjoying themselves."
Any idea who's telling the story? The next quote provides the answer:
"Just as they got to the soundstage door I heard him say to her, 'Well, baby, I told you I was gonna kiss me a mermaid today.' Then they went through that big heavy door and it clanged shut behind them."
By now, you should know who it is -- Esther Williams, the one-time world-class swimmer turned film star, describing a screen test for MGM in the fall of 1941.
The test was for "Somewhere I'll Find You," which would be Gable's last film before joining the military; Lombard died during production. Williams was ostensibly up for the female lead despite her inexperience, but as it turned out, MGM officials were using her as a threat to keep Lana Turner in line. (This was typical Louis B. Mayer strategy; Rosalind Russell had served the same purpose with Myrna Loy.) Turner, who was considering leaving Metro, returned to the fold and took the lead.
This encounter would be as close as Lombard and Williams ever met, but Carole, a sports fan, probably knew who Esther was. Williams likely would have been on the U.S. Olympic team in 1940 had World War II not canceled the Games. In fact, Lombard may have caught a glimpse of Esther in a swimsuit if she saw the front sports page of the Los Angeles Times on April 28, 1939:
While the screen test was the only time Williams and Lombard laid eyes on each other (nearsighted though Esther's eyes may have been), she surprisingly adds that she never met Gable again, even though they were both at MGM for at least a decade more. (Of course, Clark was away in the war for several years, and once he returned he and Esther probably weren't going to be cast in the same film.)
This information comes from Williams' fine autobiography of some years back, "Million Dollar Mermaid," and when she made the rounds of radio talk shows to promote the book, she displayed a charm and wit that makes one believe that had Lombard lived, she and Esther would have become close friends. Both were athletic, and both had a sense of humor.
We should also mention that Williams -- who had a fine film career, especially in those aquacades that played to her strengths -- turned 90 this week. Many happy returns, Esther.