With Carole Lombard having left us more than 71 years ago, it's highly unlikely anyone reading this site actually met her. But some of us have done the next best thing, meeting or having talked to people who knew her.
One of my Facebook friends, Cynthia Cirile, is a frequent reader of "Carole & Co.", and over the years, she met two men who both knew and acted with Lombard -- George Raft ("Bolero," shown above, and "Rumba") and Robert Stack ("To Be Or Not To Be"). She has recalled her meetings and generously has both shared them with me and allowed me to share them with you.
We'll start with Raft, whom Cynthia says she met (and dined with) when she was about 12 years old:
"I'll take this opp to share with you one of the most interesting dinners I ever had in my life...with the elderly George Raft, in his suite at New York's Plaza Hotel! I was a kid, but already obsessed with old movies. I was nuts for Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, and had seen Raft dance with Lombard in 'Bolero' and 'Rumba.' My gorgeous Mom was a NYPD detective assigned to guard Raft (for some reason...) and she had wrangled a dinner invite out of him for little ole me!
"Dinner was room service in Raft's suite. I can't recall what we ate, but I certainly remember what Raft ate! His plate contained one tiny lamb chop -- period. He spent about an hour cutting and playing around with this lamb chop. I couldn't imagine how any human being could survive on such a meager meal!
"Even at the age of 12, there was no way I was going to leave the Plaza without asking Raft about Carole Lombard. His response was something that shook me to the core, and which I've never forgotten. He put down his fork, stared into space, and went into this passionate rant about Clark Gable being a whore master, and it being Gable's fault that Lombard died -- since she only got on that plane (his words) to get back to catch Gable screwing 'Lana Turner and that broad from Gone With the Wind!'
"Whew! I had read this theory in every Gable/Lombard bio -- but to hear it expressed with such venom by Raft in person? It took its toll on my feelings towards my 'hero,' Gable. Later in life I learned that Raft had been in love with Lombard, and had had an affair with her in the early '30s. That he still carried a torch for her was obvious, even that night at the Plaza Hotel."
It was no secret Raft and Lombard had an affair (in fact, Carole told her close female friends that in a purely sexual sense, George was the best lover she ever had)...but Raft's bedroom conquests also included the likes of Betty Grable, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich and his longtime friend Mae West. (George and Mae had been close since 1920s New York City; they called each other daily and died within days of each other in November 1980.)
Cirile met Stack decades later through her husband at the time:
"My ex, writer/director John Fasano, used to shoot skeet with Stack (who taught Lombard to skeet-shoot in his youth). I urged him to be very nice to him, and to please invite him out to dinner, with his wife and, naturally, to dangle the idea of some imagined role in some future film. Which, certainly if there had been a role in anything John Fasano did, he would have loved to work with Stack. It just never happened.
"A few things about Stack that I didn't know before this dinner. I had no idea that he was of Italian descent, at all. I'm of 100% Italian descent, and he told me that he was half-Italian. He rattled off not just the menu at this upscale BH Italian restaurant, but ordered the whole meal in Italian-and spoke to the waiter/maitre'd -- in Italian, with a perfect accent. Now I see on Wikipedia that he actually grew up in Europe -- and spoke Italian and French before he learned English! Whew! But, he doesn't seem to have actually have had any Italian blood at all. His grandfather was an opera singer named Charles Wood, who sang under the name "Modini." I guess that with opera in his heritage, and living abroad, Stack felt himself to be at least half-Italian. I wouldn't call it a lie by any means. He certainly felt Italian.
(By the time Stack was 20, he had achieved minor fame as a sportsman. He was an avid polo player and shooter. He and his brother won the International Outboard Motor Championships, in Venice, Italy; and, at age 16, he became a member of the All-American Skeet Team. He set two world records in skeet shooting and became National Champion. In 1971, he was inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame.)
"So! It was his shooting that attracted Clark Gable to Stack -- and later, it was his shooting that brought him together with me and my ex. Stack was extremely proud of the records he set, and was still shooting regularly at the age of 80.
"We wrangled an invitation to meet Stack and his wife, Rosemary, at their house for drinks, because John told Stack that I was a fan/historian of Gable and Lombard, and had asked John to ask Stack whether he had any unpublished photos of CG or CL that he could share?
"RS said, 'oh, yes!' and was eager to show them off. My expectations of what an 80-year-old RS might have in the way of CL/CG pix was pretty much off the wall. I was figuring a whole book featuring them. Well, that didn't happen, though I bet that after Rosemarie’s death, a great deal more may show up at auction.
"What he had were maybe 5-6 photos, a few candids, and a few posed—taken on the set of 'To Be or Not to Be.' There were, I think, a few of CL 'pranking,' but casually dressed, probably taken on a hunting trip. And a few two-shots of CL and RS smiling, on the set of TBONTB.
"They were fabulous -— and I could’ve gotten his permission to use them, if I had been planning a book on Clark or Carole and not Edgar Allan Poe. I saw that TV Guide got wind of these shots and printed at least a few of RS’s pix a couple of years later….
"Clearly these photos meant a lot to him, since they had been blown up to 11" by 14," and were displayed in his dining room, I believe, along with some shots of CG shooting.
"Unlike my dinner with George Raft, I was a very well-informed historian/writer at this point -- and was going to hit RS with as many questions as I could…with his wife there, that is.
"It has always seemed to me that RS is far better in TBONTB than in any other film he made -- natural, casual and handsome beyond belief. And quite funny -- especially playing off Jack Benny! Certainly Lubitsch gets the credit -- but RS said that he was just a kid when he made the film, and that if it weren’t for Carole’s gentle coaching and coaxing, he would never have gotten through such a complex role.
"Naturally, I always wondered whether RS and Lombard had an affair. I know that the prevalent theory is that Carole was always faithful to CG….but I’m not much on 'prevalent theories.' I thought they (RS and Carole) were very hot together, and said so. I started hinting around at how she was at her most beautiful…he said how she had 'virtually adopted him,' 'took care of him on the set,' and launched into a typical tribute to her beauty, her humor, and how much he worshiped her. Hard to read anything into that.
"I’m not sure just when he became close to CG. It was very close in time to TBONTB…because he said that he was just a kid, and that CG became “a second father to him.” My computer is screwing up, or I’d check to see when Stack’s father died. I got the feeling his father wasn’t around when CG came on the scene -— because I seem to recall him saying that Gable “took the place of his father,” and that they went shooting (and maybe even golfing) all the time.
"My impression is that Gable and Lombard 'adopted' Stack at about the same time -— and that Gable’s friendship for Stack did not diminish after Lombard’s death, but became the main 'glue' that kept up the father/son relationship. He talked about how he and Clark would shoot silently, after Carole’s death -- and that RS felt he just needed him around because he (RS) had become close to Carole the year of her death.
"He loved Clark Gable, and he certainly didn’t think that Clark had 'murdered' Carole by any means. He adored him, and he adored Carole. And let’s face it, RS wasn’t just another pretty boy! He had this amazing background, language skills, athletic accomplishments….he was a prodigy, to be sure.
"Given that Gable didn’t much seem to like kids, and sure as hell didn’t go out of his way to do anything to help his daughter Judy [Lewis, by Loretta Young] get through her childhood, it really was very nice to hear RS declaring that Gable helped him through his young manhood, and was always a heroic father figure to him. It does help to balance out some of Gable’s account/figures…where he comes up sadly short!"
Here are Robert and Cynthia at that meeting in 2001:
Stack's character may have sought an affair with Carole's character in the film...and when he first met Lombard in his youth (she was staying at the Stack family's Lake Tahoe site in the summer of 1933 to establish Nevada residency so she could divorce William Powell), her beauty probably got his adolescent hormones raging (she elicited that reaction from millions of males of various ages). But I think that's as far as it went. (Don't feel bad for Bob -- he did, after all, deliver Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss.)
I thank Cynthia for furnishing me with these anecdotes. It says something about Lombard that decades after her passing, those who had known her still cherished her memory.