It was Life magazine, not yet two years old but already a publishing sensation. Unrelated to the former humor magazine of the same name, this Life, part of Henry Luce's Time Inc. empire, was a large-sized, photograph-oriented, weekly newsmagazine. Hiring many of the top photojournalists of the day, Life's wide-ranging style complemented the new, streamlined America of the late 1930s. For Carole Lombard to appear on the cover was indicative of the impact she had made upon American culture.
As it turned out, Life's lifespan in its original incarnation wouldn't be much longer than Lombard's; rising postal rates and public interest in more specialized publications forced it to give up the ghost as a general-circulation weekly in December 1972, although it's periodically made comebacks in one form of another.
Some background on the Lombard cover after the story of the photographer who took it, Alfred Eisenstaedt, truly a legend among photojournalists:
Born 109 years ago this past Thursday in a section of West Prussia that's now part of Poland, Eisenstaedt served in the German army during World War I, suffering shrapnel through both his legs. The only member of his artillery battery to survive, he was sent home, where to pass the time during his recuperation he studied photography. Though he became a merchant after the war, photography had entered his blood, and by 1927 he had sold his first picture. Two years later, he became a full-time photographer, gaining work for wire services. In one of his 1933 assignments, he traveled to Italy to take picture of Hitler visiting Mussolini. But Eisenstaedt was Jewish, and two years later he left for America.
Luce hired Eisenstaedt, Margaret Bourke-White and two other notable photographers on what he called "Project X" -- the creation of Life magazine. "Eisie," as he was nicknamed, was on its staff for its entire 36-year run, winning countless awards, and continued working as a photojournalist into the 1990s. He died in August 1995 at age 96.
Here's his most famous image, "the kiss" in Times Square on V-J Day 1945 -- and every time I see this photo, I think of the hit song from that year, "It's Been A Long, Long Time" ("Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again...")
Now about that Lombard photograph...
Late in life, Eisenstaedt recalled, "In 1938 our picture editor, Wilson Hicks, told me, 'Alfred, I'm sending you to Hollywood. Don't be afraid and in awe of these queens -- you are a king in your profession.' I've never forgotten that."
As it turned out, Lombard was the first movie star to be an Eisenstaedt Life cover subject, for the Oct. 17, 1938 issue. Others would include Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert and Sophia Loren.
It's an interesting photograph, though it seems to be at odds with the title of the inside feature on Lombard, "A Loud Cheer For The Screwball Girl." There's little that's cheery, or screwy, about this photograph; instead, Lombard looks sober, almost morose. A far cry from the smiling Lombard so often featured on the cover of movie fan magazines of the period...and perhaps to Eisenstaedt, that was the point -- to place Carole in a different light than we were used to.
The editors at Life must have liked the impact of the face, because they did a lot of cropping. Here's the entire photo Eisenstaedt took:
This changes the context considerably. You now see Lombard in her living room, reading a magazine (probably a fashion magazine -- it doesn't look to be Life). Her face isn't so much gloomy as it is wrapped in thought.
And, as Paul Harvey might say, now you know the rest of the picture...er, story.