“I’ve lived by a man’s code designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time I never forget that a woman’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.” -Carole Lombard
If anyone ever made the most of life, it was “Hoosier Tornado” Carole Lombard. Standing at a mere 5’2″ in heels, she was her own brand of dynamite. A glamorous star with the mouth of a sailor, she was down-to-earth, hilarious, forward, and refreshingly beautiful. Her romance with Clark Gable is legend, as is her untimely death.
Lombard’s life both began and essentially ended in Indiana. Born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, she was the tomboyish daughter of a very affluent family. As a child, she played with her two older brothers while attending Washington Elementary within walking distance from her home. Unfortunately, her father’s anger issues tore the Knight-Peters marriage apart, leading Lombard’s mother to take the children West in 1916.
Lombard was pulled into show business by simply being herself. While playing baseball in the streets, she was spotted by director Allan Dwan, and was cast in the role of a tomboy. Afterwards, she appeared in a string of comedies, and eventually took a turn for the dramatic in Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century.
Already an established “Queen of Screwball Comedies,” Lombard quickly became a prominent star in the Hollywood studio system. However she was never the egotist. Yes, she spoke her mind quite frankly, but opted out of having a dressing room when she worked on a film. Rather, she would socialize and joke with the cast and crew. She was as comfortable running amok in denim as she was when slinking about in gowns.
It is also worth noting that Lombard was a wonderful friend. She was particularly close to Lucille Ball, who was devastated by her death. I’d like to tell you one of my personal favorite anecdotes about Lombard, whom Hawks described as “Marvelous, though crazy as a bedbug.” Lucy and Desi Arnaz of I Love Lucy fame threw an occasional dinner party, though Arnaz was the cook. He spent hours creating a spaghetti dish, which wound up weakening the bottom of the pot and spilling onto the carpet before the eyes of the dinner guests. Lombard and Gable were in attendance, and Lombard inquired of Lucy: “When did you last clean the carpet?” Lucy responded that the carpet had been cleaned for the party. Carole grabbed a fork and loaded her plate with pasta from the carpet, deemed clean enough to eat off of! The guests followed suit. It seems that death could not stop a fast friendship. After Lombard’s death, Lucy mentioned that she had always valued Lombard’s advice. Carole came to her in a dream once and encouraged her to proceed with her sitcom. The rest, we know, is history…
Upon a brief marriage to William Powell, Carole eventually met Clark Gable, the “Pa” to her diminutive “Ma.” The two were immensely fond of each other, and Carole was never afraid to take the “King of Hollywood” down a few pegs. Once his divorce from an oil heiress was finalized, Gable proposed to the vivacious Carole at the Brown Derby in 1939. The couple purchased a ranch in Encino, California.
Fate dealt a heavy blow when Carole completed a war bond rally in Indianapolis. She caught wind of Gable having an affair with Lana Turner and was in a hurry to get home. Lombard’s mother was also with her and was aghast at the idea of flying and hoped instead for a trip by train. An avid numerologist, she was especially frightened after realizing that the flight was TWA #3, the plane was a DC-3, they were traveling in a party of three, and that Carole was 33 years old. (Three is very unlucky.) The decision came down to a fateful coin toss. Lombard’s last words at the Indianapolis rally were as follows: “Before I say goodbye to you all, come on – join me in a big cheer – ‘V for Victory!'”
Clark missed Carole terribly and made sure the house was in perfect order, even planning a surprise party. However, he soon received word that Carole’s plane had gone down outside of Las Vegas. Everyone was killed instantly. MGM Executive Eddie Mannix brought back a piece of one of Carole’s ruby clips that Clark had given her just that past Christmas, and a long lock of her blonde hair. Clark held out the hope that her wedding band would be found, even offering a reward, but it never was.
Though 71 years have passed since her death, Carole Lombard is still Fort Wayne’s “brightest star.” Her childhood home still stands at 704 Rockhill Street in Fort Wayne. Formerly operating as a bed and breakfast, the Carole Lombard House is owned by Rick and Cora, who have taken great care in maintaining the home and a host of Lombard memorabilia. Though the home is no longer a bed and breakfast, tours can be arranged by contacting Rick and Cora directly.
Rick and Cora have gone through extensive efforts to preserve the home and represent it in a way that would have been familiar to Carole. When Rick and Cora learned the former owner would be selling the home, they decided to purchase the house and continue its operation as a bed and breakfast until 2011. Tourist traffic in Fort Wayne is not very high, so they ceased running it as a business. Nevertheless, the couple has welcomed in guests from all over the world, wanting to get a glimpse of Carole’s humble beginnings. I applaud them greatly for maintaining Carole’s home and continuing to let her fans appreciate her by dropping in for a visit.
The house is structured in a lovely Queen Anne style, and is brimming with antiques and Lombard-related history. The entryway houses original newspaper clippings covering Lombard’s death, as well as tracings of both Gable and Lombard’s Walk of Fame stars. The home overlooks the nearby St. Mary’s River, and the Carole Lombard Memorial Bridge.
Rick and Cora are continuing to restore the home. They have plans to repaint the exterior and create a brighter color scheme.
On a side note, the home of Carole’s Grandfather is very close. This home is not open to the public, but is worth admiring nonetheless. It is located at 832 W. Wayne Street.
If you’re anticipating a trip through Fort Wayne, I strongly encourage you to get in touch with Rick and Cora via their website. You won’t want to miss their landmark home.
August 2014 Update: About a little over a year since my first visit to the Carole Lombard Home, I was lucky enough to be in the area once again to cover a story about the nearby Auburn Cord Duesenberg Automobile Museum. I couldn’t resist dropping by once again, since the Carole Lombard Home is easily one of my favorite spots in Indiana. How can it not be? Crossing the bridge over the St. Mary’s River and glimpsing the teal Queen Anne Victorian home on the corner is just as magical to me as it was on that rainy July day when I first visited.
I’m happy to say that Rick and Cora are still as wonderful and welcoming as ever, and continue to recognize the delightful history to their beautiful home. Best of all, they put so much love and care into the upkeep of their amazing house, which is certainly no easy feat. They are still planning to repaint the home, and possibly change the color, and are considering a new deck to better glimpse the nearby river and Carole Lombard Memorial Bridge. The city of Fort Wayne is exploring the possibility of better developing the land around the river and will be working on cleaning up the St. Mary’s River for the citizens and tourists of Fort Wayne.
Since my last visit, the Anthony Wayne Rotary members restored the plaque marking the home. The plaque is in much better condition, with no changes in text. The plaque was dedicated anew in a special ceremony outside the home.
Additionally, in December 2013, a new biography about Carole was released. Author Robert Matzen’s Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, according to Rick, is extremely well-written. Rick and Cora are working with Matzen to coordinate a book-signing event in October, to ideally coincide with Carole’s birthday.
On another note, Rick and Cora shared a fun story with me, since I had just come back from seeing Duesenbergs on display at Auburn’s immaculately preserved Art Deco showroom. Auburn, Indiana, hosts a major Duesenberg festival every year. However, one year was particularly special, since the Duesenberg that Carole gave to Clark Gable was on display. This was, of course, a priceless vehicle on display, with no one allowed to touch it. As Rick and Cora admired it, they shared that they owned Carole’s Fort Wayne home. Needless to say, this lucky pair were able to sit in the ’35 Duesey, with Cora in the driver’s seat. And it suits them well!