The Tragic Death of Russ Columbo at Age 26

Drawing of Russ Columbo on the cover of the 1932 album My Love
Russ Columbo on the cover of My Love (1932)

Russ Columbo laughed as he watched the satisfied hundreds at the preview of the movie Wake Up and Dream, in which his caressing voice had won their instant approval.

Life really began today. Just write 'Friday the 31st' in red because it starts Chapter 3 in the story of Columbo. And put it down that today Old Man Hard Luck lost my address. Everything good happened today. I made the first of my new broadcasts, I saw my first starring picture and I made four recordings on my new phonograph contract. What a lucky day this was!

And that isn't all. I found the piece of property where I'm going to build the new home for my folks. I'm going to design the house myself -- and put in all the little nooks and gadgets my mother wants.

So, I'm forgetting the bumps and disappointments in Chapters 1 and 2 and starting Chapter 3 today. And don't think I don't know I'm the lucky guy.

Less than 48 hours later, Grim Tragedy snapped that string -- and wrote "Cut!" across the picture of Columbo's success. For a tragic misadventure and an old dueling pistol had put an end to what promised to be one of the most successful careers in pictures, and left a dying mother listening for a voice she would never hear again.

So sudden and unexpected were the blazing headlines, "Columbo is dead!" that even blasé Hollywood was shocked -- and a trifle frightened. The boulevard punsters and gagmen were silent, and the wise ones offered no inside facts, but merely shook their heads in numb confusion.

Russ Columbo was so young, so handsome, so friendly, and so unselfishly devoted to his family. It just didn't seem possible that he could be lying cold and still. He had had, too, a rather unhappy life up until the day he called the beginning of Chapter 3. His first love affair went smash. His first promising success in radio petered out after a brilliant start. A cherished brother had been killed in an automobile accident. And then, when everything seemed bright and happy once more, his young life was cut short.

A wonder and fear reached every studio and was evident in the attitude of the great mass of men, women and children who stood so silently and so orderly outside the Blessed Sacrament Church where, five days before his crowning triumph, Russ Columbo's soul was considered to his Maker.

No movie cameras or autograph hunters blasphemed the simple solemnity of the occasion, and as the pallbearers, headed by Bing Crosby, carried the casket, covered with a blanket of gardenias from Carole Lombard, only the sobs of hundreds of friends broke the stillness. Carole, supported by Russ' brother John and Dr. Harry Martin, was spared the stares and crowding of the curious.

In some manner, this death hit home in Hollywood and caused the village of make-believe to cast an apprehensive glance over its shoulder. If so happy and clean a life, and so promising a career, could be struck cold without a whisper of warning, just who can tell what will happen tomorrow. Or even today, so unexpected was this blow.

And yet, in one sense, not altogether unexpected.

Two days before Russ started making Wake Up and Dream, he and this writer were driving through the hills of Hollywood, looking for a home for his family.

"I'm not satisfied with the place we just left," referring to the house he was leasing in Beverly Hills, "because I know mother would be happier where it is quieter, and a little more off the main road. So let's take a look up in Outpost."

"Aren't you planning to build for the family?" I asked. "Why not stay where you are 'til then -- especially when you have the worry and work of just starting a picture?"

"Maybe I'm funny about it," he replied, "but I want to grab some of the nicest things for mother right now. You know how it is. The old fellow with the scythe is always just around the corner.

"I am planning to build -- but I don't want to wait -- because you never know what might happen.

"For example," as he swung his car about an exceptionally sharp and steep turn, "suppose one of Hollywood's famous damn fool drivers happened to be coming down here just now, wide open. I'd have a great chance to build a house after that, wouldn't I? No, I have a hunch it's a good idea to get your living in today. Tomorrow is so absolutely uncertain."

Russ was the last person in the world to borrow trouble or to fear tomorrow -- and on the day of his death he had talked excitedly of his new plans -- but he did have this feeling, where his beloved family was concerned, against putting things off.

Not that trouble had overlooked him -- for he had been caused considerable loss of time and money through lawsuits and misplaced confidence. So much so, that in business he was becoming extremely cautious, and skeptical of the promises of others.

Having heard startling rumors of what Hollywood usually does to radio stars who storm its citadel, he came to the screen not grandly confident as came Rudy Vallee, nor yet boyishly eager as came Lanny Ross, but wary, alert for Hollywood's vicious left to the jaw that has sent so many of his contemporaries wobbling to the ropes.

It was an over-developed eagerness to share everything he owned that caused Russ so much trouble during his first broadcasting days, and that resulted in his paying off several thousands of dollars in debts his friends and business associates had contracted.

The first time I called on Russ, he was laid up at home with an arm crippled from too much tennis, and was eager to talk about his first picture.

He was enthused, and anxious to start it, as he felt that the grim misfortune that had dogged him and his family for years (and that had recently taken his brother Fiore in an automobile accident) had finally released its crushing grip.

I'm mighty anxious to make good here, because this town is my alma mater, so to speak. I came here from San Francisco when I was nine, and stayed until we stormed New York and radioland. I was the twelfth son of a family that was not too well off, and that gave me the feeling that it was up to me to look out for myself.

Between playing concerts, studying voice, doing bits in the movies and doubling voice for some of the best known stars in the early days of the talkies, I managed to keep busy.

Then I joined up with Gus Arnheim, and along with Bing Crosby, sang at the Cocoanut Grove -- which brings us to about four years ago, when one of my brothers got the idea of turning an automobile salon into a club where I could fill in my spare time as an entertainer.

It is at this point that Russ Columbo's life story was picked up and made into the motion picture Twenty Million Sweethearts. Jerry Wald learned Russ's story, wrote it for a magazine and then, at Dick Powell's suggestion, rewrote it into a motion picture for Warner Brothers.

It was Con Conrad, the famous composer, who discovered Russ singing at the Columbo Brothers' Pyramid Club on Hollywood Boulevard, and talked him into making a flying trip to New York to storm radio -- and then helped him skyrocket to fame.

"I'll never forget that Saturday we struck New York," smiled Russ, shifting his arm to a more comfortable position. "Once we were there Con didn't let any grass grow under his feet. I had a lot of confidence in him, but being a big kid who had been taken in before, I was a little skeptical when he announced, casually, that inasmuch as he had to make some money for us to eat on, he would give Flo Ziegfeld a buzz and have him come over and hear some of his new songs.

"But when Ziegfeld received Con's phone call, he came over, bringing Harry Richman, Jack Pearl and Mark Hellinger with him."

How Con Conrad next took him to see Earl Carroll (who instantly wanted to put him in his show and write a special part for him) and then on to the midnight audition at the National Broadcasting Company is well-known now, as is also the story of his rapid climb to fame, and the popularity of his "caressing" voice.

He started singing for the broadcasting company at no salary at all, but within two weeks' time his fan mail had grown to such volume that he was signed on a "commercial."

Russ's fan following soon became so enormous and so partial to his voice that a national tour of personal appearances was decided upon -- and after breaking box office records in theatres all over the country, he was sent on a second tour, this time appearing in the largest dance halls and other public buildings available.

About this time the famous Columbo-Crosby feud was being exploited by the different radio broadcasting chains. Bing and Russ had worked together in the same orchestra and, because of the similarity of their voices, a good hot feud looked like excellent publicity copy.

Whenever he was asked about this feud, Russ used to merely grin and wink. He knew it was nonsense and Bing Crosby knew it was nonsense. But it so happened that, just a day before Russ Columbo's death , a newspaper ran a synthetic photograph showing Bing Crosby shooting Columbo -- to illustrate the bitter feud that existed between them. One of those silly, but nevertheless harmful, things that misguided publicity does.

I hope no one took that seriously. "I tell you it gave me an awful shock. A creepy feeling. Everybody who knew either of us intimately knew there was nothing to that feud idea at all. It was started back east, by the radio people.

After both of us settled in California we were together many times at my house and at Carole's. Russ and I were always chummy. Way back when he played a violin in Gus Arnheim's orchestra at the Cocoanut Grove and sang in one trio, while I sang in another, Russ and I used to go around together, sometimes alone and sometimes with Dixie, my wife, and Sally Blane.

We often laughed over this so-called feud of late years -- and figured it would die out when we appeared in pictures, and proved to be such entirely different types.

Russ sent a christening present to my first baby, and flowers for my twins. During Dixie's long confinement, he sent flowers often.

Few people felt Russ's loss more than I did -- because, somehow, it seemed we should be sailing along together, as we had been the last three months of his life. I was proud when asked to officiate at his funeral as a pallbearer, and to play some small part in his last rites.

Thank you, Bing Crosby, for this friendly and fitting tribute.

William French in Modern Screen, December 1934

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