Carole Lombard: From Fort Wayne Flood to the Silver Screen

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Jane Alice Peters became one of America’s favorite movie stars of the 1930s as Carole Lombard. She was born in Fort Wayne in 1908 and spent the first six years of her life in the shingle-style house on Rockhill Street that was built about the year 1905. Her grandfather was John Clouse Peters, one of the founders of the Horton Washing Machine Company, and her mother, “Bess” Knight, was a vivacious and strong actress descended from “Gentleman Jim” Chaney, an associate of the notorious robber baron of the 1880s, Jay Gould.

Described as a tomboy in her youth, Jane Alice fondly remembered her young days in Fort Wayne, attending the Washington Elementary School a few blocks to the south and playing rough games with her brothers, “Fritz” and “Tootie.” While the actress is remembered for her WWII work promoting war bonds, her philanthropic efforts began in Fort Wayne during the Great Flood of 1913. Under the direction of her mother, Bess, her house became a rescue center for flood victims, among other reasons, because the family had one of the only telephones in the area. Jane Alice also remembered helping her mother collect supplies, run errands, and help care for those displaced by the rising waters.

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Flooding in Fort Wayne, 1913, image courtesy of The History Center, accessed Fort Wayne News Sentinel.

Jane Alice and her mother left Fort Wayne in 1914, eventually settling in Hollywood. At age 12, she made her film debut and by 1924 was a glamorous actress for Fox Studios. She changed her name to Carole Lombard, in recollection of an old family friend, Harry Lombard, a relative from Fort Wayne living in California. A 1940 Collier‘s article wrote about the move from Indiana life to early Hollywood stardom:


Her dynamic Hollywood career was highlighted by roles in Mack Sennett films, steamy romances, marriage to William Powell, exotic parties, outstanding comedy roles in major movies opposite the best actors in the business, and, marriage to actor Clark Gable. She starred in films such as Mr. & Mrs. Smith, My Man Godfrey, and Nothing Sacred.

Photo of Carole Lombard and Clark Gable courtesy of

On January 15, 1942, Lombard revisited to her Hoosier roots for a war bond rally in Indianapolis. Approximately 12,000 turned out for the event on Ohio and New Jersey streets; millions others viewed the rally through newsreels. While in the city, Lombard attended tea at the governor’s mansion, a flag-raising ceremony at the Statehouse, and ribbon-cutting at an army recruiting office. According to the Indianapolis Star, Lombard exclaimed to the crowd:

“As a Hoosier, I am proud that Indiana led the nation in buying Liberty Bonds in the last war. I want to believe that Indiana will lead every other state again this time — and we will! We won the last war, and with your help we will win this war!”

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Lombard with Indiana Governor Henry Schricker, courtesy of; Hammond Times, January 16, 1942, accessed

Lombard sold a record $2 million in bonds to Hoosiers. Tragically, the following day, her plane crashed in Las Vegas, where she lost her life at age 33. Twenty-two people were killed in the accident, including Lombard’s mother, young servicemen en route to war duty, and agent Otto Winkler, who had begged her to return to California by train.

The Indianapolis Star reports that following her death, Lombard was honored by “President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as a tribute to patriotic spirit, [who] declared Lombard the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war and posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

Learn more about Lombard’s life and the devastating way in which husband Clark Gable found out about her death via Photoplay’s 1942 article.

Author: Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi and retired Essex Vice President, is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; a contributing writer for Fort Wayne Monthly magazine; hosts “On the Heritage Trail,” which is broadcast Mondays on Northeast Indiana Public Radio WBOI, 89.1 FM; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 FM Fort Wayne and 95.7FM South Bend.