by Warren Beath

Carole Lombard


   Carole Lombard's life had a storybook quality about it. Blond and vivacious, she was plucked off the streets of Hollywood as a teenager and put in her first movie. She was sassy as well as beautiful. Comedy became her forte. In the 1930s she helped pull America through the Depression with a string of screwball comedies. Clark Gable who became her husband said he saw Lombard in My Man Godfrey and realized he loved her.      

   The storybook ended on the night of January 16, 1942 when a plane carrying Carole Lombard crashed into Table Rock Mountain outside Las Vegas. Carole, her mother, and an MGM publicist named Otto Winkler were killed, along with fifteen soldiers and flyers who were reporting for duty. Lombard was only thirty-three. At the time, she was returning from a tour selling war bonds. She had raised over two million dollars, then a record for an individual effort.
   The crash site is still visited by airplane archaeologists and others. I have visited it twice, the most recent just a few weeks ago. It is a grueling three hours up the mountain. The vegetation is manzanita and century plants. The mountain base is an hour's jeep ride over a rocky road. The peak looms in the distance, some eight thousand feet high.

The Lombard flight was redirected at the last minute from Boulder to Las Vegas because the Nevada airport was more modern. This was not the only cruel irony. A young violinist named Szigeti patriotically gave up his seat to a soldier. Carole's mother had a premonition and begged her daughter to return by train. The actress refused. It was rumored she was anxious to return to Hollywood to keep an eye on Gable who was starting a movie with Lana Turner.


     It was a twist of a Hollywood plot that put Otto Winkler on the plane. Years before as a cub reporter, he had covered a paternity trial in which Gable had been unsuccessfully sued. The actor had liked Winkler and had gotten him a job at MGM. Later, Winkler was best man at Gable and Lombard's wedding. When Carole went on the war bonds drive,  Gable persuaded Winkler to tag along as a chaperon.

   The plane went down a few minutes after take off. It was a clear night. The pilot may not have been at the controls.  According to the folklore that surrounds the crash, the pilot left an inexperienced co-pilot in charge and wandered over to talk to his famous passenger who had starred in Twentieth Century with John Barrymore.

   It took the original search party some twelve hours to reach the wreckage. The rough mountain trails were buried by winter snow. The party was led by an Indian guide. The peak of the mountain glowed crimson in the night where the plane wreck burned.

   The mountain cliff is scarred where the plane hit. One of the engines is still embedded in the rock. Rusted landing gear lies nearby. All around is a tangle of wires, shards of windshield, and crushed aluminum--still shiny in the summer sun.

   Gable waited at the foot of the mountain throughout the night for word from the rescue party. Eddie Mannix, MGM's security chief, talked the actor out of joining the expedition. Mannix wanted to spare him the gruesome sight. Finally, word came down from the mountain: There were no survivors. Everyone aboard had been killed instantly.

   A heart shaped clip belonging to Carole was found near the site. Gable had it made  into a locket and wore it around his neck. Even today, other artifacts turn up: buttons, safety pins, brassiere clasps that may have belonged to Carole, a lone earring. For years after the crash, Gable annually sent out a search party hoping to find Carole's wedding ring and her V for Victory broach.

   Lombard was deeply patriotic. She would cry when they played The Star Spangled Banner. When war was declared, she urged Gable to enlist. He was reluctant to give up his career and leave the idyllic life they lived on their San Fernando Valley ranch.

   After Lombard's death, Gable drank heavily and sat up nights re-running her old movies. Later, he enlisted in the army as a private and served with distinction as an aerial combat photographer in Europe.

   Before putting his career on hold, Gable finished the movie he had begun with Lana Turner. It was a melodrama called, Someday I'll Find You.