Carole Lombard, Star of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and Wife of Clark Gable, Dies in Plane Crash

Carole Lombard in Vigil of the Night
Carole Lombard in "Vigil of the Night"

Carole Lombard, the star of My Man Godfrey, Twentieth Century, and To Be or Not to Be, died in a plane crash alongside twenty-one other passengers on the night of Friday, January 16, 1942. She was thirty-three years old.

Lombard was one of twenty-two passengers killed when the flight crashed into mountains west of Las Vegas, just after taking off from the city’s airport. On board with Lombard was her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and MGM publicist Otto Winkler, along with fifteen Army men. To this day, there is no clear answer as to why the plane crashed—but it had gone off course, and the beacons in place to warn planes away from the mountain range had been blacked out after Pearl Harbor.

Lombard was on her way back to Hollywood after participating in a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana. Born there in 1908 as Jane Peters, she began her film career in the early twenties. She was in a car accident in 1925 that left her face destroyed, but after some especially painful experimental surgery, Lombard recovered with two small, barely noticeable scars. In 1930 she scored a contract at Paramount, and there she met and married star William Powell. They divorced soon after, but always remained friends.

Her first big break came in 1934—not from Paramount but from a loan-out to Columbia, where she starred with John Barrymore in the screwball classic Twentieth Century, directed by Howard Hawks. This helped her find the screwball niche she would occupy so well in the following years; in 1936 she received her one Oscar nomination, for My Man Godfrey at Universal, and a string of films with Fred MacMurray followed back at Paramount. In the late thirties, she began to independently pave her career at many different studios. By negotiating deals on a picture-by-picture basis, she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood. However, the films she chose to make at that time were dramas like Made for Each Other and Vigil in the Night, and they were far less artistically and financially successful than her comedies.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

In 1939, when Clark Gable finally obtained a divorce from his second wife, Maria Langham, Lombard became the third Mrs. Gable. “They were so madly in love,” said Jill Winkler, wife of the deceased publicist. “I had never seen two happier people.”1 Her last film released before her death was Mr. and Mrs. Smith, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and just before Christmas she had wrapped shooting on her final film, To Be Or Not to Be.

Gable was put in charge of the actor’s division of the Hollywood Victory Committee, for which he was tasked with sending stars around the country, selling war bonds. Ever the patriot, Lombard was the first to volunteer, and on Monday, January 12, she started the journey across the country by train with her mother and Winkler. They stopped at a number of cities, raising money before reaching Indianapolis on Wednesday; by the end of the rally on Thursday, January 15, she had raised around two million dollars—four times the goal. About ten that night, she informed Winkler that she had made a decision: “We’re flying home.”2

Carole Lombard onstage at the war bonds rally
Carole Lombard onstage at the war bonds rally

Winkler was shocked. The plan had been to stop in more cities on the way back, and more importantly, he was terrified of flying. He had resisted even coming on the trip to begin with, and according to his wife, told her before he left that “if I get on a plane on this trip, I won’t be coming home.”3 Lombard’s mother didn’t want to fly either—a believer in numerology, she was terrified by the presence of the number three (it was trip number three, the plane scheduled to arrive at 3 a.m.; there were three in their party, and Lombard was thirty-three and three months old).

Exactly why Lombard was so desperate to return home as quickly as possible isn’t clear. Most think it had to do with being separated from Gable, who stayed behind to start shooting his second film with Lana Turner, Somewhere I’ll Find You, on Thursday. Whether Lombard was afraid of Gable cheating on her with Turner, or just couldn’t stand being apart from him, she felt the need to get home right away.

Otto Winkler, Carole Lombard, and Clark Gable
Otto Winkler, Carole Lombard, and Clark Gable

Allegedly, the decision came down to a coin toss, and Lombard won. A roughly seventeen-hour flight with multiple stops, the plane arrived to Indianapolis a little before 5:30 a.m., running late after having to pick up air mail at each stop. They reached St. Louis at 6:47 a.m., Kansas City at 10:50 a.m., Wichita at 1 p.m., and Amarillo at 3:11 p.m., changing time zones throughout the trip.

The next stop was Albuquerque, where they were greeted with a change of plans from TWA agent Ed Knudsen: “May I have your attention please! I have just received an order from TWA headquarters. All civilian passengers on this flight are to be removed in favor of military personnel with priority status.” Lombard, of course, would hear none of this, and had Winkler go talk to the agent. “We can’t get off this plane. We—my party—are traveling as part of a—a—national defense program. Fundraising. For the war effort.”4 Lombard refused to give up their seats, and so the flight took off at 4:40 p.m. with the group of three and fifteen new Army personnel. At about 6:30 p.m., they stopped in Las Vegas; the plane took off again at 6:50 p.m., and never landed.

Gable was eagerly awaiting word on when Lombard’s plane would get in when he got a call from MGM executive Eddie Mannix. “Can I get back to you?” he asked Mannix. “I’m expecting word on Ma’s arrival any minute.”

“King, that’s why I’m calling. Larry Barbier just phoned from the airport. Carole’s plane went down just a few minutes after it left Las Vegas.”5

A search party inspects some of the wreckage.
A search party inspects some of the wreckage

Gable boarded a plane with Mannix; they checked in to the El Rancho Vegas Hotel, and waited for news from the rescue party. Gable wanted to go up the mountain himself, but Mannix talked him down, saying, “suppose the first party brings Carole back and you’re not here to greet her?” Mannix went instead, and was the one to send Gable the telegram from up the mountain, informing him that there were “NO SURVIVORS. ALL KILLED INSTANTLY.”6

Gable was a complete mess. His friend Spencer Tracy was shooting Tortilla Flat at MGM, but the moment he left set he started the six hour drive to be with Gable. Once the remains were recovered, a small funeral was held Wednesday, January 21.

Her death had two immediate impacts on the industry. United Artists cancelled a preview screening that Sunday for her upcoming film To Be Or Not To Be, scrapped the planned advertising campaign, and pushed the film back a month. Only one line was cut from the Ernst Lubitsch comedy, in which Lombard’s character asks, “What could happen on a plane?” She had already signed to make a comedy for Columbia called They All Kissed the Bride—she was replaced by Joan Crawford, who donated her salary from the film to charity.7

Gable’s film Somewhere I’ll Find You had to be closed down, and it took until February 23 for MGM to coax him into returning. After the film wrapped, he—to the dismay of the studio—joined the Air Force, which Lombard had been trying to convince him to do since the start of the war. He remarried twice after, but when he died in 1960, he was buried next to Lombard in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

Due to the eerie and mysterious circumstances which led to Lombard taking the flight, and the crash itself, there are many conspiracy theories concerning her death. The primary theory was floated by Orson Welles: “[Her plane] was full of big-time American physicists, shot down by the Nazis. She was one of the only civilians on the plane. The plane was filled with bullet holes . . . Nazi agents in America. It’s a real thriller story. . . . The people who know it, know it. It was greatly hushed up. The official story was that it ran into the mountain”8

Tragically, Lombard’s performance in To Be Or Not To Be was a career high, and seemed to signal that the actress had clued into where her strengths lied—not with the underperforming dramas of the past few years, but in the genre of screwball comedy that made her a star in the first place. Not only did her death shock the country and send her husband into a period of depressed, self-destructive behavior, it deprived her and audiences of what could have been the strongest point of her career.

For More on Carole Lombard’s Death

Read Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, by Robert Matzen, for an extremely in-depth look at the events leading up to and following the crash.

Listen to You Must Remember This episode 28: “Carole Lombard and Clark Gable”.

Watch the biopic Gable and Lombard, starring Josh Brolin and Jill Clayburgh (DVD / iTunes / Amazon).

References   [ + ]

1. Robert Matzen, Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 (Pittsburgh: GoodKnight, 2014), 152
2. Matzen 2014, 164
3. Matzen 2014, 154
4. Matzen 2014, 189
5. Warren Harris, Gable: A Biography (New York: Gable: A Biography, 2005), 248
6. Harris 2005, 249
7. Frank Miller, “They All Kissed the Bride (1942),” Turner Classic Movies, accessed December 23, 2016, http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/27457/They-All-Kissed-the-Bride/articles.html
8. Peter Biskind, editor, My Lunches with Orson (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2013), 63.