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Clark Gable and Carole Lombard met while acting opposite each other in 1932's No Man of Her Own. At the time, Clark, then 31, was married to Houston socialite Maria Langham. Lombard, just 24, was in an unhappy marriage of her own, with actor William Powell of The Thin Man fame.
"[We] did all kinds of hot love scenes...and I never got any kind of tremble out of him at all," Lombard would later tell director Garson Kanin, who recounted her words about Gable in his 1976 book, Hollywood: Stars and Starlets, Tycoons, Moviemakers, Frauds, Hopefuls, Great Lovers. Strictly professional, the heartthrob and the high-paid actress didn't allow any romantic connection to develop between them. At least not at the time, anyway.
Four years later, the two stars reunited at an event for Hollywood's elite. Major studio execs started the Mayfair Ball in the '20s as a glamorous party for Tinseltown society and it became an annual affair, according to Hollywood Bohemians by Brett L. Abrams. In 1936, Gone with the Wind director David O.Selznick asked Lombard, who had a reputation for throwing the best shindigs, to oversee that year's event.
According to the fan site Dear Mr. Gable, the former co-stars flirted with each other intermittently throughout the night before sharing a "close dance" and a ride home-despite the fact that the divorced Lombard had brought Cesar Romaro as her date, and Gable was technically still married, although separated. When Gable invited her up to his hotel room, Lombard reportedly quipped, "Who do you think you are, Clark Gable?"
They became inseparable shortly after. An article in the April 1942 issue of Photoplay magazine stated that from the night of the ball until Lombard's untimely death, the longest stretch they went without seeing each other was just six days. They carried out their relationship in secret until 1938, when Gable's divorce was finalized.
On Mar. 29, 1939, while Gable was on a break from filming Gone with the Wind, the pair eloped in Kingman, Arizona. Husband and wife loved spending time in nature-often hiking, camping, and hunting together-so naturally, they made their home on a 20-acre ranch in Encino, California, complete with horses, cows, and chickens. Whenever business took them apart, they would send each other silly presents ("goofy ones, strictly for laughs," wrote Ruth Waterbury in Photoplay), a tradition that had started at the wrap party for No Man of Her Own, when Lombard gave Gable a ham with his picture on it. Their house was filled with gag gifts for such occasions.
But the handsome, fun-loving duo had their fair share of dark times too. Lombard desperately wanted to be a mother; still, numerous doctor visits and a trip to see a specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore returned no solutions for her infertility issues.
There were also allegations of infidelity on Gable's part: In his 2014 book Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, author Robert Matzen claimed Gable cheated on his wife with his 21-year-old co-star Lana Turner.
"Gable was self-centered and never felt it necessary to have self-discipline when it came to sex outside the relationship because he had a sense of what a catch he was," Matzen told the New York Post. "And, really, was Carole going to give all that up? She was a shrewd businesswoman and knew the power of being close to the biggest movie star in the world."
In a startling revelation that came 75 years after the super-celebrity couple tied the knot, Matzen speculated that Gable's affair indirectly caused Lombard's death. Matzen's theory is that Gable and Lombard had a fight over his infidelity the night before she embarked on the fateful plane trip in January 1942 that would be her last. She was so determined to get home to save her marriage, Matzen believes, that she forewent a longer, cross-country train ride in favor of a last-minute flight on a "bumpy commercial airplane with an unpressurized cabin."
Lombard was doing her part to support the war effort abroad; the purpose of her trip back home to Indianapolis, Indiana was to sell defense bonds for what she called, according to Photoplay, "the best damned land there is." Before leaving Hollywood, she and her mother, Elizabeth Peters, visited a psychic they occasionally saw for fun. The woman shook her head when she read Lombard's fortune: "Keep out of planes in 1942," she allegedly warned. "There is danger in them for you."
On the Indianapolis trip, Lombard was accompanied by her mother and Otto Winkler, Gable's press agent and longtime friend, who'd been with the couple when they eloped. Gable had asked him to assist Lombard on the journey. On the day they were to return to California, both Otto and Lombard's mother tried to talk her out of flying. Winkler had experienced a premonition of a plane crash just days before, according to the Post, and was concerned about flying in winter conditions. Peters had the psychic's words on her mind.
But Lombard had scored last-minute seats on TWA Flight 3, desperate to get back and fix things with the man she called "Pappy" and "Mr. G." They decided on a coin toss to settle the dispute, and Lombard won. After a stop in Las Vegas to refuel, she, her mother, and Winkler lost their lives later that day en route to Los Angeles when their plane crash landed on Nevada's Potosi Mountain.
Gable was devastated. He had been so proud of his wife, who had raised more than $2 million in bonds during her week away, and was excited to pick her up at the airport. When he learned of the news, he flew out to Nevada with Winkler's wife and a few others, and demanded that he be allowed to visit the wreckage himself. When locals tried to dissuade him from climbing the 7,800-foot-steep peak, a hike so treacherous and studded with cacti and boulders that even "experienced Indian guides and hardened trackers" found it challenging, he reportedly snapped, "If those Indians can go on horseback and on foot, I can go on horseback and on foot."
Gable and his guides hiked until they began to see "pitiful bits of wreckage of the plane scattered about them," according to Photoplay. At that point an official stopped them, indicating that the bodies of the passengers-including Lombard, her mother, Winkler, and 15 young pilots who'd been headed West to serve in the war-were just ahead.
"Search and rescue found a hair clip that Gable had given her for Christmas, with a few strands of her blonde hair still attached," Michelle Morgan, author of Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, told the Daily Express.
The widower holed up at the nearby Rancho Vegas hotel, pacing back and forth on his suite's deck. He wouldn't leave his room. "I don't want to go back to an empty house in Encino," he told well-meaning friends who tried to entreat him. "If I had gone with Carole on this trip all this might have been avoided."
Gable was forever changed. "He rode his motorcycle recklessly, drank and smoked heavily," said Morgan. "He kept Lombard's bedroom unchanged. He signed up for the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942 and told friends he didn't care if he lived or died."
He never stopped loving Lombard. When he died in 1960 at the age of 59, he was buried beside her at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, California.
Lombard's biographer says the beauty's tragedy is that "she died racing to get back to Gable: the man she loved but could not trust."
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