Considering they spent only slightly more than 24 hours on their first trip to Washington, D.C., Clark Gable and Carole Lombard certainly made the most of their visit.
With little fanfare, the couple's train arrived at Union Station at 8:45 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1940, and they were taken to the Shoreham Hotel near Rock Creek Park. Gable had been in Washington several times before while he was a stage actor, but this was Lombard's first visit to the capital.
After settling in, Mr. & Mrs. Gable played tourist. They went to the Capitol (where they were met by Senate secretary Edwin Halsey), the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Not many people saw them on a chilly winter Sunday, and those that did stared and looked back over their shoulders, wondering why Hollywood's king and his regal wife would be in Washington.
They then went across the Potomac into Virginia to visit Mount Vernon, where Lombard loved the colonial-era kitchen ("Wouldn't it be lovely for our ranch, darling?" she said to Gable when both were interviewed the following morning) and Arlington National Cemetery...then it was back to D.C. to visit the White House.
Here's where Clark and Carole received a benefit of their fame -- not only did they tour the presidential mansion, but they were invited to be among a select few to sit in the Oval Office and watch President Franklin D. Roosevelt, less than a month away from beginning an unprecedented third term, deliver one of his famed "fireside chats" over the radio. (Lombard had been an active Roosevelt supporter during the 1940 election.)
One account of the event said an audience of 20 sat expectantly on wobbly, gilt wooden chairs before a desk drilled with holes for the wires of seven microphones. On the desk were two sharpened pencils, a blank notepad, two glasses of water and an opened pack of Camels. Among the invited guests were matinee idol Clark Gable with his wife, blonde Carole Lombard. She wore a “simple black afternoon dress” and a funnel-shaped black hat and veil.
The U.S. itself was then at peace, but internationally, late 1940 was a perilous time. On Dec. 29, England sustained its heaviest bombing yet from Germany, and things appeared bleak for those countries opposing the Axis.
It was in this tumultuous environment that Roosevelt delivered one of the more important speeches of his presidency. He labeled the topic "On National Security," Said Roosevelt:
"Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now. ... The Nazi masters of Germany have made it clear that they intend not only to dominate all life and thought in their own country, but also to enslave the whole of Europe, and then to use the resources of Europe to dominate the rest of the world. ... At this moment, the forces of the states that are leagued against all peoples who live in freedom are being held away from our shores. The Germans and the Italians are being blocked on the other side of the Atlantic by the British, and by the Greeks, and by thousands of soldiers and sailors who were able to escape from subjugated countries. In Asia the Japanese are being engaged by the Chinese nation in another great defense."
Later in the speech, Roosevelt delivered its most memorable phrase: "We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war."
(To hear the chat, which lasts about 37 minutes, go to http://millercenter.virginia.edu/scripps/digitalarchive/speechDetail/24. Go to "Fireside Chat 16.")
The speech, asking Americans' support of increased aid to Britain and more defense expenditures, was generally well received by both Democrats and Republicans. Afterwards, the Gables met Roosevelt for a few minutes, then left. If photos were taken, they have gone largely unseen -- a key difference between celebrity 1940 and celebrity today.
The next morning, reporters asked Clark and Carole for their comments. Gable said once the speech was over, he had "an insane desire to applaud."
Lombard, more politically aware than her husband, said she had been told beforehand by Secretary of State Cordell Hull "that the speech would make history ... but we didn't know it would be like that." She added: "I regard it as the highest of privileges to have been present in the Oval room as President Roosevelt delivered his historic message. It was thrilling." She said Roosevelt had "the finest voice in the world," adding, "What a gift it would have been had fate cast it for the stage or screen."
Lombard said she "enjoyed every minute" of her Washington trip and said she planned to return to see the Smithsonian and other sights. They evidently came back a week or so later, after spending time in Baltimore (see below). Sadly, of course, after that she never got another opportunity.
Their initial visit complete, on Monday, Dec. 30, the couple was driven up to Baltimore by local Loew's executive Carter Barron (a name still familiar to Washingtonians, as an amphitheater at Rock Creek Park is named for him), where Gable was to see doctors as Johns Hopkins Hospital, ostensibly about a shoulder injury he had suffered some years ago. Decades later, it was revealed another -- and perhaps more pressing -- reason for the visit was to determine whether the couple could have children.
A few days later, Gable and Lombard returned to Washington for another day of sightseeing before taking a plane home.