January 16

This Day in History

Hollywood

Jan 16, 1942:

Carole Lombard killed in plane crash

On this day in 1942, the actress Carole Lombard, famous for her roles in such screwball comedies as My Man Godfrey and To Be or Not to Be, and for her marriage to the actor Clark Gable, is killed when the TWA DC-3 plane she is traveling in crashes en route from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. She was 33.

Gable and Lombard met in 1932 during the filming of No Man of Her Own. He was just starting out on his trajectory as one of Hollywood’s top leading men and she was a talented comedic actress trying to prove herself in more serious roles. Both were married at the time--Gable to a wealthy Texas widow 10 years his senior and Lombard to the actor William Powell--and neither showed much interest in the other. When they met again, three years later, Lombard had divorced Powell and Gable was separated from his wife, and things proceeded quite differently. Much to the media’s delight, the new couple was open with their affection, calling each other Ma and Pa and exchanging quirky, expensive gifts. In early 1939, Gable’s wife finally granted him a divorce, and he married Lombard that April.

In January 1942, shortly after America’s entrance into World War II, Howard Dietz, the publicity director of the MGM film studio, recruited Lombard for a tour to sell war bonds in her home state of Indiana. Gable, who had been asked to serve as the head of the actors’ branch of the wartime Hollywood Victory Committee, stayed in Los Angeles, where he was set to begin filming Somewhere I’ll Find You with Lana Turner. Dietz advised Lombard to avoid airplane travel, because he feared for its reliability and safety, and she did most of the trip by train, stopping at various locations on the way to Indianapolis and raising some $2 million for the war effort.

On the way home, however, Lombard didn’t want to wait for the train, and instead boarded the TWA DC-3 in Las Vegas with her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and a group that included the MGM publicity agent Otto Winkler and 15 young Army pilots. Shortly after takeoff, the plane veered off course. Warning beacons that might have helped guide the pilot had been blacked out because of fears about Japanese bombers, and the plane smashed into a cliff near the top of Potosi Mountain. Search parties were able to retrieve Lombard’s body, and she was buried next to her mother at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California, under a marker that read “Carole Lombard Gable.”

Hysterical with grief and adrift in the empty house he had shared with Lombard, Gable drank heavily and struggled to complete his work on Somewhere I’ll Find You. He was comforted by worried friends, including the actress Joan Crawford. That August, Gable decided to enlist in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He spent most of the war in the United Kingdom, and flew several combat missions (including one to Germany), earning several decorations for his efforts. He would remarry twice more, but when he died in 1960 Gable was interred at Forest Lawn, next to Lombard.

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