September 2, 2007

September 2 | Russ Columbo

January 14, 1908 - September 2, 1934: Age 26

Russ Columbo, born Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolpho Colombo in New Jersey, was the son of Italian immigrants. By his early 20s he was a famous crooner, on a par with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. He was a famous radio presence and beginning to get top billing in films. He is quoted in a press release as saying, "At 26, I find that I have just about everything I want from life and am pretty happy the way things have turned out for me."

On September 2, 1934, still 26 years old, he was visiting a close friend who had a pair of antique dueling pistols. The friend liked to use the pistols to strike matches, but this time trick went disastrously wrong. The pistol used still had some gunpowder and an antique bullet in it. The bullet ricocheted off the desk and hit Columbo in the left eye, lodging in the back of his brain. Although he lost consciousness immediately he lived another six hours.

One of the strangest things about Columbo's death is that his family were able to hide it from his mother for the remaining ten years of her life. She was 68 at the time and had a heart condition; her doctors advised the family not to give her the bad news for fear of sending her off as well. She was told he had married Carole Lombard (who really was his girlfriend) and had left for Europe for a honeymoon. Thus began a bizarre conspiracy of fake postcards and telegrams and an elaborate story about a European tour that kept getting extended. Newspapers that reported Lombard's marriage to Clark Gable were carefully edited before being brought into the home. As Mrs. Colombo was aging, nearly blind, and English was not her first language, the charade seems to have worked. She died in 1944, ten years after her son, without ever having been given the news.

On a completely different note, there is an excellent movie, made in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, that is) called "Since Otar Left" that tells a similar story about a family keeping the news of a death secret. It's a great film and worth renting if you can find it.

Sources: Classic Images, Wikipedia, Sicilian Culture

Click here to watch and listen to Columbo in Broadway Through A Keyhole, released in 1933

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