Prisoner Of Love: Carole Lombard And Russ Columbo

Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo was born into a large Italian immigrant family in Camden, New Jersey on 14th January 1908. A musical prodigy, encouraged by his father, a theatre musician, he learned to play the violin at an early age, followed by the guitar, the clarinet and the accordion all by the age of 13, he was also a classically trained pianist. After the Columbo family moved to California’s Napa Valley, Ruggiero began to perform professionally with a number of bands as a violinist and singer. In Hollywood, he found work on film sets, providing what was known as ‘mood music,’ which was intended to aid silent movie stars get into character. It was on one of these sets, that he met Pola Negri, a Polish actress who had previously been romantically involved with Rudolph Valentino, whom Ruggiero strongly resembled. Using her influence, Negri helped him to get minor roles in several films including The Wolf Song (1929) with Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, and The Texan (1930) starring Cooper and Fay Wray.

At the same time, Ruggiero, who by then had adopted the name ‘Russ’ Columbo, had been hired as a violinist and vocalist by the bandleader Gus Arnheim and his Cocoanut Grove Orchestra, providing the lead vocals for many of Arnheim’s hits, such as Sweet and Lovely and I Can’t Do Without You. In 1931, Columbo was offered a radio slot in New York with NBC, with fans calling him the ‘Radio Romeo,’ a recording contract as a solo artist with RCA Victor Records soon followed. Columbo’s manager Con Conrad never doubted that his protégé was destined to become a star, thanks to his remarkable talent and the fact that, as one contemporary critic remarked, ‘while he may have been born of Italian parentage, when he stepped into the spotlight on stage with his glistening black hair, chiselled facial features and athletic physique he looked to all the world like the statue of a Greek god come to life. And with his flashing black eyes and gleaming white teeth, he had a smile that could melt a sphinx.’

Above: Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra with vocals by Russ Columbo – Sweet and Lovely (1931)

Popularised by the likes of Al Bowlly and Bing Crosby, with whom Columbo had a much publicised rivalry termed ‘The Battle of  The Baritones,’ by the press, ‘crooning,’ his preferred vocal style, was very much in fashion in the 1930s and his songs had a widespread appeal. Additionally, Columbo co-wrote a string of hits that have now become standards, such as Prisoner of Love (1931) and You Call It Madness (1932).

Above: Russ Columbo – Prisoner of Love (1931)

In New York, Columbo embarked upon a brief romance with the actress Dorothy Dell, who would die in a car accident in June 1934, at only 19. He also had another short-lived, but much-hyped dalliance with Greta Garbo. One evening in September 1933, whilst performing with Arnheim’s Orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove, the nightclub of the Ambassador Hotel in Los AngelesColumbo first laid eyes on the beautiful blonde actress Carole Lombard, who had recently divorced actor William Powell. Lombard was there on a date with the screenwriter Robert Riskin, but undeterred, Columbo, serenaded her from the stage. Unable to compete with the more handsome and younger man, Riskin assured Lombard that her ‘Singing Romeo,’ would pursue her. The following morning, Lombard received a dozen yellow roses from Columbo.

Born Jane Alice Peters in Fort Wayne, Indiana on 6th October 1908, Lombard had moved to Hollywood with her ambitious  mother, after her parents’ divorce in 1916. Lombard’s first film was A Perfect Crime in 1921, and in 1925, she was signed by Twentieth Century-Fox and given small parts in forgettable pictures like Pretty Ladies (1925). My Best Girl (1927), The Divine Sinner (1928) and High Voltage (1929) followed. Her first major role came in Howard Higgin’s 1929 drama, The Racketeer. In 1930, she moved to Paramount Pictures, and in 1931, she appeared in five films, most notably Man of the World and Ladies Man, alongside William Powell, who would become her first husband in June that year.

Several months into the relationship, Columbo suggested marriage, although Lombard was reluctant given her divorce. Furthermore, she was a Bahá’í, whereas Columbo came from a Catholic family, and had been deeply committed to his faith after the loss of his beloved older sister Fannie, to Spanish Flu during the pandemic of 1918. These obstacles notwithstanding, Lombard soon cast aside any doubts and told Columbo that she would consider converting to Catholicism so that they might eventually marry.

By 1934, both Lombard and Columbo’s careers were continuing to soar, with Lombard basking in the success of Twentieth-Century, a screwball comedy directed by Howard Hawks, and also starring John Barrymore. As well as his own prime-time radio show on NBC, in 1933, Columbo, who had signed to Universal Studios, featured in the musical Broadway Thru a Keyhole, with Constance Cummings and in Moulin Rouge (1934) with Constance Bennett. Set for release on 1st October 1934, he had also taken first billing in Wake Up and Dream about a struggling Vaudeville act, for which he wrote several numbers, including Too Beautiful For Words, telling friends that the song had been inspired by Lombard. As their mutual acquaintance, the novelist and screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns observed, ‘In my time I have seen men in love with women, but I have never seen a man as much in love as Russ was with Carole Lombard. There was poetry in it, and music, and sheer romance.’

Above: Russ Columbo – Too Beautiful For Words (1934)

On the afternoon of 2nd September 1934, Columbo went to the home of his close friend, the photographer Lansing Brown Jr. As Brown sat at his desk, with Columbo sitting on a chair in front of him, he absent-mindedly picked up a Civil War era duelling pistol, one of his large collection of antique guns, and struck a match against it to light his cigarette. The pistol went off, its bullet ricocheted off the desk and hit Columbo in the left eye. Alerted by the gunshot, Brown’s parents, who were staying with him, burst into the room to find their son crouched over his unconscious friend as he desperately tried to stem the blood flowing from Columbo’s head.

An ambulance was called and Columbo was taken to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where he underwent surgery to remove the bullet that had lodged itself in his brain. It was unsuccessful, and Russ Columbo died at around 7 p.m. that evening. Brown told the police, ‘We had been talking for quite some time and these old duelling pistols, they have always been on the desk there, and I was pulling the hammer back and clicking it while I was listening to him talk, and there was a match, just an ordinary kitchen match, and I had it in my left hand and I wasn’t looking at my hand. I was naturally listening to him and looking at him and I don’t know, there was an explosion and I noticed Russ had slipped over in his chair.’ The Coroner ruled Columbo’s death to have been nothing more than the result of a freak and tragic accident.

Her lover’s death caused Lombard, who was staying at her holiday home in Lake Arrowhead to rush back to Los Angeles. Grief-stricken, she was hounded by reporters at the airport, but said nothing other than, ‘His death shocks me beyond words.’ Nevertheless, she was able to compose herself enough to take charge of Columbo’s funeral arrangements and decide, along with the rest of his family, that his mother Julia, who had suffered a heart attack only two days before her son’s death, and was virtually blind, should be spared the terrible news. Instead, an elaborate story was concocted whereby Julia Columbo would never learn that her son was dead and until her own death a decade later, she would simply assume that he was incredibly busy with his career, touring all over the world. Julia was told his recordings were live broadcasts, and the family even let her believe that the singer and Lombard had married and were living happily together in New York.

The funeral took place at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Sunset Boulevard on 6th September 1934. Lombard ensured that everyone wore a white gardenia, Columbo’s favourite flower, and so that he could have an open casket, his face and head were worked on by Jack P. Pierce, the Universal make-up artist for horror films such as Frankenstein and Dracula, both released in 1931. Over three thousand fans arrived to pay their respects, and pallbearers included Zeppo Marx and Lombard’s brother Stuart Peters. Brown, whom neither Lombard nor the Columbo family had any ill-feeling towards, also attended the service and was inconsolable throughout. So too was Lombard, who collapsed several times during the service. Columbo’s body was taken to Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, California and interred in a crypt in the Sanctuary of the Vespers, opposite his brother Fiore who had been killed in a car accident in 1929.

Lombard went on to achieve even greater success with films like Love Before Breakfast (1936), My Man Godfrey (1936) with her former husband William Powell, Made for Each Other (1939), Mr & Mrs Smith (1941). She also developed a reputation as a more serious performer, in dramas such as In Name Only (1939) and Vigil In The Night (1940). In 1936, Lombard started a relationship with leading man Clark Gable, with whom she had worked on No Man Of Her Own in 1932. They were married in Kingman, Arizona on 29th March 1939, with Lombard wearing a sombre grey suit for the ceremony. The couple bought a 20-acre ranch in Encino, California. which had plenty of space for their ever-growing number of dogs and other animals, however, as guests noted, Gable forbade all mention of the name ‘Russ Columbo’ in his presence, and visibly blanched whenever he heard one of Columbo’s recordings. Often dismayed by Gable’s philandering, as one friend suggested, for Lombard the union ‘was all give while getting little, if anything, in return.’

Above: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable attend the Atlanta premiere of Gone With The Wind (1939)

In January 1942, Lombard travelled her home state of Indiana with her mother for a war bond rally. The trip had been a great success, with Lombard, raising in excess of two million dollars in one day alone. Although due to return by train, Lombard decided that she wanted to get back to California as soon as possible, with rumours circulating that she intended to confront Gable after she had accused him of having a fling with the actress Lana Turner on the set of Somewhere I’ll Find You, the night before she left for Indiana. On the morning of 16th January 1942, Lombard and her entourage, which included her mother and Gable’s agent Otto Winkler, boarded a Transcontinental and Western Air flight to Los Angeles. Stopping in Las Vegas to refuel, almost fifteen minutes after take-off, the plane ran into difficulty and crashed into an area of Nevada’s Potosi Mountain known as ‘Double Up Peak.’ A large rescue party was sent to the site of the crash, but of the twenty-two on board, there were no survivors.

Devastated, Gable travelled to Nevada to claim Lombard and her mother’s bodies, and as Lombard had hoped he would, he immediately enlisted with the U.S. Army Air Force. In 1944, a U.S. Liberty ship was christened the SS Carole Lombard in her honour. Gable married another two times before his own death from coronary thrombosis on 16th November 1960. His wish was that he be interred next to Lombard, who had made no mention of being buried beside him. In fact, Lombard had ensured that the first provision of her will, written after her marriage to Gable, was that she be laid to rest in the Sanctuary of the Vespers at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, as near to Russ Columbo as possible, without causing any public embarrassment to her husband. Furthermore, Lombard had explicitly stated that she wished to be buried in white; she had often spoken to her close friend Madeline Fields about how she intended to wear a white dress when she married Russ Columbo. Despite being a divorcée herself, because William Powell was divorced and had a son when they wed, her first marriage was invalid in the eyes of the Catholic church.

In September 1938, four years after Columbo’s death, and four years before her own, Lombard was interviewed by the journalist Noel F. Busch for LIFE magazine; six months before she married Gable. Whilst researching his 1975 book Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard her biographer Larry Swindell was told by Busch that during the interview, after he referred to Gable as the ‘love of her life,’ Lombard confided, ‘Russ Columbo was the great love of my life. And that is very definitely off the record.’

Above: Russ Columbo – I See Two Lovers (1934)


Selected Sources:

Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard – Larry Swindell (1975)

Russ Columbo and the Crooner Mystique – Joseph Lanza and Dennis Penna (2002)

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 – Robert Matzen (2013)

The Mammoth Book of Hollywood Scandals – Michelle Morgan (2013)

1942: What the Loss of Carole Lombard Means to Clark Gable