One of the goals of this website is to chronicle Carole Lombard’s life and career, and a formative part of her story are her family, friends, and colleagues. While it is has never been my intention to try and uncover the “real” Carole Lombard (a thankless endeavor that no living historian will accomplish), getting to know the people around her will enrich our understanding of her stardom. A few months ago, I profiled Lombard’s fruitful but contentious relationship with her longtime agent, Myron Selznick. Another key figure in Lombard’s life was her former Sennett colleague, de-facto manager, and best friend, Madalynne Field (aka “Fieldsie” – a nickname given to her by Lombard). Selznick may have been Carole Lombard’s’s most important collaborator, but Fieldsie was her biggest champion and grounding in both life and work.
Unfortunately, not much is known about Fieldsie apart from her associations with Lombard. She seldom granted interviews, preferring instead to let her best friend bask in the spotlight. However, in my research I was able to listen to an interview in the the Margaret Herrick Library archives conducted by Clark Gable’s biographer, Lyn Tornabene, and Fieldsie’s son (and Carole’s godson), Richard Lang, for her book Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable (1977). Recorded not long after Fieldsie’s death in 1974, Lang describes his mother as strict, meticulous, and imposing – qualities that earned her the nickname “The General.” He also notes her wicked sense of humor and sharp wit, two traits that immediately endeared her to Lombard upon their first meeting in 1927. Lang is no longer alive to share his mother’s story (he passed away in 1997), but his interview with Tornabene gives us historians rich insight into Fieldsie’s personality – her humor, headstrong nature, and loyalty.
Born on April 1, 1907 in Charlotte, Michigan to John Rosswell Field and Agnes May Cooper, Fieldsie and her family moved west to Los Angeles by 1910. She and her older sister, Frances, both attended Abraham Lincoln High School in the Lincoln Heights district. Fieldsie was studious, after class she worked in the bookstore selling school supplies and candy to her fellow pupils. It is not known when Fieldsie first caught the acting bug, but archival records show that by 1926 she was working as a bit player in the two-reel Stern Brothers comedy series including And George Did (Scott Pembroke, 1926) and Dancing Fools (Francis Corby, 1927). That year she also appeared in Jess Robbins’ The Non-Stop Bride and Ella Cinders alongside Colleen Moore. Like Lombard, Fieldsie signed a contract with Sennett in mid-1927 and remained with his company until roughly 1929. She. appeared in 16 Sennett short films including 9 with Lombard such as The Girl from Everywhere (Edward F. Cline, 1927), Run, Girl Run (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928), and The Campus Carmen (Alfred J. Goulding, 1928). Sennett’s troupe was relatively small so the two women quickly became friends, and they would often carpool to the studio together in Fieldsie’s car to save money on gasoline (Hall 1939 pg. 24). They bonding over their careers and similar senses of humor, and in Fieldsie, Lombard found a trusted confidante. In illuminating interview with Modern Screen from 1936, Fieldsie explains that after revealing to Lombard that she was self-conscious about her weight, Carole told her: “Beauty is an asset to a woman as long as she has something inside. But if she hasn’t, beauty doesn’t count” (Babcock 1936, pg. 92).
Lombard’s conventional, all-American appearance and curvaceous physique propelled her to become one of Sennett’s “bathing beauties,” but Fieldsie’s stature – 6 feet tall and weighing around 250 lbs. – limited her to comic foil roles as the perennial “fat girl.” I’m not sure how some of the weight-related jokes landed in the late-1920s, but when watching the Sennett films today, I can’t help but feel a bit sad for Fieldsie. Gags like being too heavy to be carried on a stretcher, or getting distracted by pancakes (both in Run, Girl, Run – see clip below) affected her body image and self-worth, and by all accounts, she hid her feelings behind her stoic demeanor and penchant for practical jokes. In spite of her immaculate comedic timing, ambition, and drive, Hollywood’s obsession with beauty made it almost impossible for her to be taken seriously as an actress.
In 1930, Lombard signed a seven year contract with Paramount. Despite what has been written by Lombard’s biographers, Fieldsie did not immediately begin working as her secretary. In the aforementioned Modern Screen article, Fieldsie explains that she was still trying her hand as an actor “earning $35 per week” making films at Universal and Fox. One such film was Fancy Curves (Lou Breslow, 1932), a short in which an enthusiastic Fieldsie plays baseball with Babe Ruth (see clip below). As an aside, on Fieldsie’s filmography it is listed that she had an uncredited role in Paris Interlude (1934). I recently watched the film in preparation for this essay, and can confirm that she does not appear. Moreover, given the demanding nature of her work with Lombard, it is unlikely that she would have taken time away from her responsibilities to accept a bit part. Fancy Curves would have therefore been her final acting role.
Fieldsie did not enter Lombard’s employ until late-1931. She had enrolled in night school to learn stenography with William Haines’ sister, Ann, and recalled being “fascinated” by shorthand. By her own account, she was so enthusiastic about her new skills that she begged Lombard’s then-husband, William Powell, to let her take down his letters because he had the most “perfect English diction of any man” she knew (Ibid). At the same time that Lombard’s film career skyrocketed, lucrative acting jobs for Fieldsie were becoming increasingly scarce, so she made the difficult decision to quit acting and become Carole’s full-time secretary. Initially, both women were reluctant because they did not want to ruin their great friendship. In this excerpt from Modern Screen, Fieldsie describes her job and working relationship with Lombard in detail:
As Fieldsie herself admits, she functioned more like a live-in best friend/manager than secretary. When Lombard and Powell divorced in 1933, she bought a house on Hollywood Boulevard – and Fieldsie moved in with her. Lombard was hands-on with all aspects of her career, devoting time to learning her craft and all of the ephemeral responsibilities of stardom (for example, she took a keen interest in crafting her own publicity). But Fieldsie was in-charge of running Lombard’s house and taking care of her day-to-day tasks, and Lombard would often tell her friends and business associates that she would be “lost” without her. In many ways, she was the person who kept the Lombard star machine running. Personality-wise, Lombard and Fieldsie were like complementary forces: the former was a generous and exuberant free spirit (described by her best friend as the ” little champion of the down-trodden”), whereas the latter was fastidious in her work, organized, and efficient. For example, when Lombard made headlines in support of a high tax bracket for the wealthy (including herself), she credited Fieldie’s impeccable bookkeeping as the reason why, despite making $465,000, she was still left with an impressive $20,000. Fieldsie brought stability to Lombard’s life, and was indispensable to her business interests.
As Lombard’s best friend, Fieldsie became popular among the Hollywood social circle. It was through Carole that she met director Walter Lang, who became her steady boyfriend by 1934. The couple would go on double dates with Lombard and her beaus, first with Russ Columbo and, later, Clark Gable (see photo below). After several years of dating, Lang and Fieldsie married in Nashua, Iowa on July 5, 1938. Their union would produce one child, a son named Walter Richard Lang Jr. born in 1939, who went on to be a successful TV director of such shows as Kung Fu, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place. The couple remained together until Lang’s death from kidney failure in 1972.
When Fieldsie married Lang, she retired from Carole’s services to devoted her time to her family. Not one to languish in the spotlight, she rarely made public appearances post-1938 with a few exceptions. The first was as a special guest on the Lux Radio Theatre’s adaptation of My Man Godfrey in May 1938 (available to stream here). In an interview/ad spot for Lux soap with host Cecil B. DeMille, Fieldsie discusses Lombard’s new home in the San Fernando Valley, and her fashion sense. Although the exchange with DeMille was scripted, there’s an undeniable warmth and affection in Fieldsie’s voice as she speaks about Lombard, and it’s almost as if she was bursting with pride as she tells him about Carole’s charitable endeavors during a devastating flood. Although brief, the interview illuminates the mutual love and respect between the two women.
Fieldsie’s second major public appearance was in January 1944, two years after Lombard’s untimely death, when she served as the master of ceremonies at the christening of the liberty ship, the U.S.S. Carole Lombard. Also in attendance were Lombard’s husband, Clark Gable, his boss, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, Robert Montgomery, and Irene Dunne. Initially, Fieldsie was asked to pay tribute, but she knew she would be too overcome with emotion to speak about Lombard publicly. She requested instead that her friend, Irene Dunne, take her place; Dunne graciously accepted, and christened the ship with a bottle of champagne.
When Walter Lang retired in 1961, the couple retreated to Palm Springs. Their social calendar was often full, and they mingled with the friends they made during their time in Hollywood including Fieldsie’s old shorthand chum, Bill Powell, and his wife, Mousie. In Richard Lang’s interview with Lyn Tornabene, he wistfully recalled his mother’s strength, vitality, and independence, qualities that never wavered even in Fieldsie’s later life. Sadly, much like her late best friend, Fieldsie’s life was cut short by tragedy. In the early hours of a late-September morning, Fieldsie was attacked on the head with a lead pipe in a violent home invasion. She fell into a coma but did not recover, and died on October 1, 1974. She was just 67 years old.
For too long, Fieldsie has remained a footnote in Carole Lombard’s life story. It’s a cruel irony that she has been erased from some of the press photos from the liberty ship christening (see above). Fieldsie’s loyalty to Lombard was unwavering, and Carole’s devotion to her best friend was reciprocal. Nevertheless, one can only imagine Fieldsie’s bittersweet feeling of working adjacent to an industry that disqualified her based on appearance alone. Hollywood may have shunned Fieldsie, but she played an integral role in managing one of its most popular stars.
Babcock, Muriel. “Lombard Ltd.” Modern Screen, June 1936. Pgs. 38-39, 91-93.
Hall, Gladys. “What’s the Matter with Lombard?” Modern Screen, September 1939. Pgs. 24-25, 83-85.