"They had an ineffable quality in romance, the ability to have fun together," says actress Esther Williams, an MGM contract player like Gable. "They were soulmates who thought life was delicious, and they made everyone's life delicious around them."
By any measure, they had plenty to savor—even before they found each other. When the 28-year-old Lombard caught Gable's eye at a Hollywood party in 1936, she was one of the highest-paid actresses in America, pulling in $465,000 one year for three movies and three radio shows. Gable, the star of It Happened One Night and San Francisco, was a 35-year-old heartthrob so revered that "Who do you think you are—Clark Gable?" had become a standard put-down. Yet since Lombard's marriage to actor William Powell ended in 1933, serious romance had eluded her. And Gable was tiring of his second wife, a society belle named Ria Langham who had no interest in duck shooting or fishing, his chief passions.
Lombard, a party girl who favored low-cut silk dresses, "bent herself around sideways to conform to him," says actor Robert Stack, who was a good friend of the actress's. "She went duck hunting and dressed like a ragamuffin. She'd stand around in the rain for the guy." Her friend Margaret Tallichet, wife of director William Wyler, watched her reel Gable in. "Carole was madly in love with him," she said. "When she would zero in on something, that was it, and she wanted this relationship."
She was also smart enough to know how to keep it going. After one quarrel, Lombard sent Gable a pair of live doves as a peace offering, a heart-melting gesture she would repeat over the years. Yet this King wouldn't have loved an obsequious subject, and Carole was no pushover. At one point during their courtship, disturbed by rumors that Gable's current costar had designs on him, she stormed onto the film set and screamed at the director, "Get this bitch out of your picture or I'll take Gable out of it!" The offending ingenue disappeared, and Gable, long known for his womanizing, bragged afterward about his beloved's pluck. "He absolutely adored her," says Stack.
By 1937, the duo were inseparable enough to be cited as one of "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands and Wives" in an article in the movie magazine Photoplay. The exposure hastened Gable's divorce from the reluctant Ria, who walked off with a sizable settlement. Free at last, Clark and Carole wed in a tiny ceremony on March 29, 1939—the first day Gable had off from his job playing Rhett in Gone with the Wind. Their careers had never been in higher gear, but Gable hated the Hollywood partying that went with fame, so the couple made their home in an elaborately restored farmhouse in then-rural Encino, Calif. There, among horses, dogs, chickens and Gable's expanding gun collection, the newly-weds—who called each other Ma and Pa—lived simply, giving occasional small dinner parties for friends and even attempting to sell eggs (until their chickens proved unreliable). It was by all accounts an idyllic life, even without the babies their best efforts never managed to bring forth.
On Jan. 16, 1942, the idyll ended. Lombard, who had just wrapped her 57th film, To Be or Not to Be, was on a tour to sell war bonds when the twin-engine DC-3 she was traveling in crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas. Upon hearing the news, Gable flew to the scene and had to be forcibly restrained from climbing the snowcapped mountain himself in an effort to rescue her. After Carole's body, along with the bodies of her mother and 19 others, was discovered, he reportedly sobbed, "Oh, God! I don't want to go back to an empty house...."
Lombard's death, the first war-related female casualty the U.S. suffered during World War II, was the worst loss her husband ever endured. Gable lived out his life at the couple's Encino home, made 27 more movies and even remarried twice. "But he was never the same," says Esther Williams. "His heart sank a bit."
When Gable died of a heart attack in 1961, his fifth wife, Kay, graciously buried him where he belonged: in L.A.'s Forest Lawn Cemetery, right next to Carole Lombard
Like many showbiz pairs, they looked too good together to be true. Tall, blonde and fiery-eyed, Carole Lombard epitomized 1930s glamor; Clark Gable, with his broad shoulders, and devil's grin, seemed every inch his nickname—the King. But the queen of comedies, who swore freely and loved practical jokes, and her rough-and-ready leading man were more than just Golden Age window dressing. The love they shared for six years was that Hollywood rarity: the real thing.