Myron H. Davis: The Last Photographs of Carole Lombard
When Carole Lombard took the stage of the Cadle Tabernacle during a war bond rally in Indianapolis, Indiana on the evening of January 15, 1942, no one present could have foreseen that it would be her last public appearance. The Academy Award-winning actress, famous for such classic comedies as My Man Godfrey (1936), had embarked upon a three-day fund-raising tour at the urging of her husband, Clark Gable, following the United States’ entry into the war in December 1941. Lombard helped raise more than $2 million in support of the war effort as she charmed crowds in her home state with her beguiling blend of Hollywood glamour and unassuming nature. Prior to leaving the 10,000-seat auditorium she addressed the crowd one more time: “Before I say goodbye to you all, come on and join me in a big cheer! V for Victory!” At 4 AM the next morning, Lombard boarded Transcontinental and Western Airlines Flight #3, accompanied by her mother, Elizabeth Peters, and MGM publicist Otto Winkler. Approximately 23 minutes after refueling in Las Vegas, the plane slammed into Table Rock Mountain (located 32 miles southwest of Vegas) a couple hundred feet below the peak, killing all 22 people aboard. Lombard was only 33 years old. Of all those who attended that final rally, perhaps none has a more vivid recollection of the actress’ last hours than the man who took her last photographs. Myron Davis was then working as a stringer for Life magazine, and he would soon become the magazine’s youngest accredited war photographer, covering several amphibious landings in the Southwest Pacific. Davis documented Lombard’s official activities during her tour, and his picture of Lombard leading the crowd in singing the national anthem appeared in the January 26, 1942 issue of Life under the headline: “Carole Lombard Dies in Crash After Aiding U.S. Defense Bond Campaign.”
Myron H. Davis working on a troop train story for Life during World War II.
Can you talk about the context in which these images were made?
Well, you have to remember that there was a huge amount of patriotism at that time. People were shocked about Pearl Harbor and believed that we were an innocent country that had been viciously attacked. Lombard was very patriotic herself, and was, I believe, the first big Hollywood star to sell raise money for the war effort. Later, of course, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby were noted for traveling to overseas bases and putting on big stage shows for the soldiers. But this was the first war bond rally in the country, and I think Lombard’s death inspired other Hollywood stars to follow her example.
Take me through some of her activities on this tour.
Lombard didn’t like flying, and had taken a train from Los Angeles that was bound for Chicaco. The train made a brief stop in Salt Lake City on January 13, where she spoke to people waiting on the platform and sold some war bonds. Then she got back on the train and proceeded to Chicago, where she sold more bonds and did some interviews. From Chicago she flew to Indianapolis on Wednesday evening, and met her mother at the train station the next morning.
Her first official appearance that day was at the Indiana statehouse. Also attending were the governor [Henry F. Schricker], the publisher of The Indianapolis Star [Eugene C. Pulliam] and Will Hays, who was responsible for the notorious Hays Code of film censorship. The governor made a speech while Lombard stood on a stepstool and personally performed the flag-raising ceremony. She was wearing a fur coat, on account of the cold weather, but she was very down to earth. She didn’t have any “actress” airs about her. After the flag-raising, she signed the first shell fired by the United States in World War I, gave a short speech and then signed autographs for the crowd. I remember that she and the governor and Hays stood in a row at one point and gave the “V for victory” sign for a newsreel camera crew.
Lombard raises the flag as Indiana Governor Henry F. Schricker addresses the crowd.
Then everybody went inside the statehouse building, where Lombard sold war bonds for about an hour or so. She was very good with the crowds, and very spontaneous. She handed out special receipts to everyone who bought a bond. These receipts had her picture and signature printed on them, plus a special message. I still have one, in fact. It read: “Thank you for joining me in this vital crusade to make America strong. My sincere good wishes go with this receipt which shows you have purchased from me a United States Defense Bond.”
She was then driven to the Claypool Hotel, where she was staying, for another flag-raising event. I think it might have been to commemorate the opening of an armed forces recruitment center. After that she went to the governor’s mansion for a big formal reception — busy day! And then that evening, she appeared at another war bond rally at the Cadle Tabernacle, where she gave a patriotic speech to get the crowd fired up. The last thing she did was to lead the crowd in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Did you have much personal interaction with her during the tour?
I was with Lombard for three days, traveling all around. She put in a lot of long hours, and I tried to go wherever she went. We passed a few words here and there, but she knew enough about photography to just let me do my job, and I just let her do her thing and documented it.
Your most famous shot of Lombard is the one in which she’s singing the national anthem onstage.
I knew that the Cadle Tabernacle was the last place that she was to perform publicly before heading back to the West Coast. It was this huge auditorium that was standing room only and filled with patriotic signs put up everywhere. When I got up on the stage I saw way back on the far wall this big sign that read, “Sacrifice, Save and Serve.” That pretty much summed up the mood of the country right then, and I said to myself, “Wow. I’ve somehow got to get that sign as part of the image.”
Lombard leads 12,000 patriots in singing the national anthem.
What equipment did you use for this image?
I used my Speed Graphic and Eastman Kodak Double XX film. I had a battery-powered Heiland flashgun on my camera fitted with a reflector and a #3 Wabash Superflash bulb, which was the most powerful one on the market back then. I framed the shot to illuminate both Lombard and part of the audience to her left. I also had a couple of stagehands point flashtubes with #3 flashbulbs at the front and middle rows to help light what was a really large crowd. Fortunately I got a pretty good negative, but when I had to make an 11x14 print for Life magazine, I had to dodge and hold back some of the sign in the background to make it legible.
I understand you had a close encounter with Lombard at the airport before she got onto her plane.
I was pretty doggone tired after taking that last picture of her, not realizing what a historical moment it was going to represent. I had to catch a plane at the Indianapolis airport at around three or four in the morning. I took a cab there and arrived early. I was practically the only passenger there. So I’m sitting on this wooden desk, half-asleep, when I sensed somebody come in and sit next to me. I felt a fur coat pressing against the side of my leg. Well, of course I knew it must be a woman, but I was so surprised when I opened my eyes and here was Carole Lombard sitting right next to me! We were so close together it was almost like we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I was so startled that it made her laugh, and then I laughed, too. I guess both of us were the kind of people who tried to see the sunny side of life.
Davis captures Lombard’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life.
I had sensed from the start of working with her that she was a wonderful, down-to-earth lady. Being in Hollywood and being a star and being married to Clark Gable hadn’t gone to her head.
So we just sat there and talked about a few of the day’s events. I thanked her for being so cooperative and letting me follow here around and do my thing. And she said, “Well, I was happy to do it, Myron.” I don’t think I called her by her first name. I probably called her Miss Lombard. Being the kind of lady she was, she said early on, “Just call me Carole.” It was a very sincere personal exchange between the two of us thanking each other for working on a job that we both thought was necessary for the country at that time.
Her mother and a Hollywood press agent were also there, standing in front of me. Neither of them spoke much. Carole and I were doing all the talking and laughing until they called her plane. We weren’t there together very long. I would say I talked to her for about five to ten minutes. Her plane was called shortly before mine, and then I got on my plane and fell asleep right away.
Did she talk about her fear of flying?
Yes. She told me she was really afraid of flying, but that she didn’t want to spend three days — and she used this expression — on a choo-choo train to go back to California. So this is another tragic part of it. It was almost like she had a premonition of some kind.
Ever the professional, Lombard held this V for Victory pose until Davis could make the shot.
You didn’t take any photographs of her at the airport?
No, my equipment was checked in, except for my Leica, but I wasn’t going to bother her any more. I’d been following her around with my camera for three days and nights, and it was obvious that she and her mother were tired, like I was. I always tried not to impose on people.
So your Cadle Tabernacle pictures are the last ones that anyone took of her.
Yes, I’m convinced that’s true. I don’t remember seeing any other photographers at the auditorium. And I don’t think anybody else was at the hotel waiting to take her picture after the event wrapped up. I’m certain that the “Sacrifice, Save and Serve” picture Life ran was the last one taken of Carole Lombard while she was alive.
It must have been quite a shock to hear the news about her death.
I was married at the time and living on the south side of Chicago. We hadn’t been married all that long. I was still in bed trying to get some sleep from all this round-the-clock stuff, when my wife comes in, shakes me, wakes me up and says, “New York is on the phone. They want to talk with you.” It turned out to be Life magazine calling. They said, “Myron! You’re sleeping? Where are your Lombard pictures?” I said, “Well, they’re here with me. What about them?” “Oh, you don’t know? There was a plane crash and she was killed. We want those pictures here. Go downtown, develop the negatives and make four 8 x 10 prints. We’ve arranged for you to go to the Associated Press offices, and they will transmit the pictures to us. We’ll look at them and tell you which one we want. Then go back to the darkroom and make an 11 x 14 print, and then go down to the Donnelly printing plant—which was on 22nd Street just off the lake—and deliver this personally. And you’ve got to do that as fast as you can.” So that's what I did.
Lombard puts on the charm at the governor’s mansion prior to her final public appearance.
Once the editors in New York knew that the plane had crashed and that Carole Lombard, her mother and her agent had all been killed, they stopped production of the issue they were working on. At that time the editions for the entire country were printed here in Chicago at the R.R. Donnelly printing plant, and then shipped to the New York and the East Coast and the West Coast. They stopped production on that entire issue until I did what they wanted me to do. That may be the one and only time that Life stopped production on an issue.
As it happens, Life ran just the one image of Lombard. Did you try to do anything else with the pictures you took of her?
Some time after it had happened and after I had gotten over the shock of it, I went to the Life darkroom on the fifth floor of the Carbon and Carbide building on Michigan Boulevard. I spent hours making 11x14 prints that I had taken during her tour, maybe 25 or 30, boxed them up and sent them to Columbia Studios with a letter addressed to the top executives. The letter read: “This may not be the time to deliver these to Clark Gable. There may, in your opinion, never be a time to deliver these pictures to Clark Gable. But I’m leaving this up to your decision. If you think he might want to have these sometime, please deliver them to Mr. Clark Gable.” I never found out whatever happened to them. I never got a response, not from the studio, and certainly not from Gable. But I don’t believe these shots would have been tossed out.
[This interview was conducted in 2009 for a B&W magazine story. Myron H. Davis died on April 17, 2010 from injuries incurred during a fire at his apartment in Hyde Park, Chicago. He was 90 years old. Signed vintage and modern prints of Davis’ Lombard images can be ordered at: www.davidphillipscollection.com.]