Shortly after Christmas 1940, Carole Lombard and her husband, Clark Gable, traveled east from Los Angeles to Baltimore. The reason? A visit to Johns Hopkins Hospital for help with the couple’s infertility.
Throughout her lifetime, Lombard made various public statements about wanting to be a mother. She was famously quoted as saying to gossip columnist, Louella Parsons: “I’ll work a few more years, and then I want a family. I’ll let Pa be the star, and I’ll stay home, darn the socks and look after the kids” (Spicer 2002, pg. 179). These sentiments found their way into publicity stories about the Gable marriage, and gained considerable traction by 1940. For example, in a Movie and Radio Guide article detailing the Gables’ home life, columnist James Street addressed the persistent rumors about Carole being pregnant. He writes, “Mrs. Gable said simply that if she were going to have a baby she would be very proud and would announce it instead of hiding it. One gathers the impression that they would like to have a baby” (1940, pg. 76).
Street’s quote hints at the fact that Lombard’s journey to motherhood was much more difficult than she had expected. In the May 1940 Screenland article entitled “Help Kills Those Crazy Rumors About Me!” columnist Elizabeth Wilson describes how in August 1939, Lombard suffered an alleged appendectomy while filming of Vigil in the Night:
This medical emergency was no appendectomy but, as sources later confirmed, a miscarriage. Towards the end of this article, Lombard mentions with great sadness that “rumors I’m going to have a baby are not true. I wish they were” (Wilson 1940, pg. 91). Lombard’s then-mysterious illness delayed Vigil in the Night’s production schedule, leading RKO to publish a release announcement in several trade papers. This one comes from the August 22, 1939 issue of Motion Picture Daily:
The fact that motherhood eluded Lombard in such a public fashion must have been incredibly painful. Her grief was compounded by the fact that Gable had a child of his own (whom he never publicly acknowledged or cared for): a daughter named Judy Lewis with Loretta Young. While some have argued that Lombard didn’t know about Gable’s daughter (Matzen 2017, pg. 131), that is untrue given that Judy’s parentage was, by her own admission, common knowledge in Hollywood. And, of course, Carole set up a bank account for Judy using her own funds, presumably because Gable was disinterested in providing financial support for his child.
Around that time too, Lombard’s close friends and family were having their own children: her best friend, Madalynne Field, and husband Walter Lang had a son (Lombard’s godson) in July 1939, while her brother, Fred, had a son (her only nephew) in November 1940. While Lombard was a doting aunt and godmother, she also desperately wanted children of her own. It’s therefore no surprise that she and Gable eagerly sought out medical advice from some of the best fertility doctors in the United States.
Prior to their visit to Johns Hopkins, the Gables took in the sights of Washington, D.C. They even paid a visit to the White House on December 29th, 1940. There, they met President Franklin D. Roosevelt and sat in attendance during his national address.
On January 2nd, 1941 the Gables had their Johns Hopkins appointment with doctors Dr. Richard Telnide and Dr. Benjamin Baker. Accompanying them on their trip East was Gable’s best friend and MGM publicity agent, Howard Strickling, who helped monitor the press coverage. Strickling arranged for photographers to take shots of the Gables arriving at the hospital (see below). As an aside: I remember seeing these photographs for the first time years ago and thought that they seemed quite invasive. Of course, publicity comes with the territory of Hollywood stardom, but I can only imagine how unsettling it must have been to have such an intimate event shared with the world.
Although some biographers have offered their speculations about the appointment, I believe that such details should remain private. However, their visit to Johns Hopkins was quite brief. The Gables returned to D.C. for a few more days, and then flew back to Los Angeles on Sunday January 5th. At the time, the press was told that the official reason for their Johns Hopkins visit was to attend to a shoulder injury Gable had sustained years prior. Other news outlets published this same cover story, as the clippings here confirm:
The press stuck with the Gable shoulder injury story for the rest of Lombard’s life, but some outlets later reported that Gable was treated for a toothache. Pregnancy rumors continued to persist until Lombard’s death in 1942, and only afterwards was infertility revealed as the real reason for the visit. One of the first documented accounts comes from the April 1942 issue of Photoplay:
Lombard and Gable never had children of their own, and based on several sources, it is likely that Carole suffered a second miscarriage in 1941. It’s futile to speculate what could’ve happened had Lombard lived: would she have had her own children? Would she have adopted? Would she have even stayed married to Gable? However, it’s clear that beyond any professional goals she might have had, motherhood was the most sacred ambition that went unrealized during her lifetime.
Matzen, Robert. Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3. Pittsburgh: GoodKnight Books, 2017.
Spicer, Chrystopher J. Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co. Inc., 2002.
Street, James. “Two Happy People – Part IV.” Movie and Radio Guide (May 18 – 24, 1940), 76.
Waterbury, Ruth. “What the Loss of Carole Lombard Means to Clark Gable.” Photoplay (April 1942): 29 – 30, 68 – 69.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “‘Help Kill Those Crazy Rumors About Me!’ Says Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable).” Screenland (May 1940): 26 – 27, 91.