The Life and Many Loves of Clark Gable
The Ruthless Toyboy
Clark Gable's image, even 50 years after his death, is still that of the handsome romantic, the rogueish charmer, a Rhett Butler sweeping beautiful women off their feet. The reality of Gable's life is somewhat less romantic.
He was certainly a womaniser, a serial seducer and philanderer, and he ruthlessly used his attractivenness to women, particularly older women who held powerful positions in Broadway and Hollywood, to make his way to the top. He was a toyboy before the name had been coined.
Once established as a star he continued his womanising ways. With Loretta Young he fathered an illegitimate child whom he never acknowledged, and even when married to his soulmate, Carole Lombard he conducted an affair with Lana Turner. The sudden, tragic death of Carole Lombard in an air crash traumatised him and pushed him into the arms of a host of other women in a desperate search to recreate the happiness he had known with Carole.
This is Clark Gable's story.
He was born William Clark Gable on February 1, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio and in boyhood was always known as Billy Gable.
Until he graduated from high school, Billy had no thought of becoming an actor but this changed after a vist to the theater when he was seventeen to see the play 'Bird of Paradise'. He was a determined young man and, as soon as he recived a small bequest from his grandfather he went to Kansas City to join a travelling troupe called the Jewell Players. In the meantime he made a living as best he could doing odd jobs for a newspaper and later became a telephone linesman.
He began touring with stock companies, learning the business, working in Bute, Portland and Astoria, Oregon where he met and fell in love with a dark-haired, young actress named Franz Dorfler.
They got engaged during the fall of 1922 while living in Astoria but Franz's parents advised her against marrying a penniless actor. Dorfler, herself, thought they should wait until they had a more secure income. She encouraged Gable to contact Broadway actress and acting coach, Josephine Dillon, who was starting a new theatrical group in Portland called The Red Lantern Players.
Josephine Dillon was 15 years Gable's senior and was an experienced stage director. She became Gable's acting coach and saw a spark of acting genius in him that others had missed, and soon she became his patron, paying from her own pocket to have cosmetic work on his teeth, his hair groomed, as well as coaching him in speech and movement. Gable ended his engagement to Franz and he and Josephine moved to Hollywood in 1924 and they were married on December 12 of the same year. Gable always claimed that the marriage was never consummated.
As for Dorfler, she never got over Gable. "I never went to his pictures because I knew him. I knew all of his expressions, his gestures, the raising of one eyebrow, the crooked smile, his dimples and wink. He never really changed. A bit polished, but still the same…Sometimes I wished that I hadn't met him because I was unable to accept any of the other proposals I'd had. I couldn't marry someone else while I still loved Clark."
After appearing as an extra in several silent movies, Gable was dissatisfied with his progress in Hollywood and he returned alone to New York and the Broadway stage. He spent time working as a stage gigolo, squiring older, rich, well-connected women who could help further his career, around town. Actress and playwright Jane Cowl gave him a walk-on role in her production of Romeo and Juliet; Laura Hope Crews, 21 years his senior was a successful stage and movie actress as was Pauline Frederick, 18 years his senior, with whom he had a 2 year affair. Pauline cast him in her revival of 'Madame X', and as a nightclub owner in 'Lucky Sam McCarver'. She bought him a new suit and paid for the further extensive dental treatment he needed.
By the end of the decade his marriage to Josephine was crumbling. He had become famous on Broadway but not in Hollywood and he needed help with his Hollywood ambitions. Again he found an older, rich woman to provide it. In 1930 he divorced Josephine and married Texas socialite Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham. He explained to Josephine quite candidly that he wished to marry Ria Langham because she could do more for him financially. "He is hard to live with because his career and ambition always came first," said Josephine wistfully.
Maria Langham, daughter of a rich Texan family, was older than Josephine and seventeen years older than Gable, and had been married three times before, but for Gable she had a great advantage over Josephine - she had more money. She continued the job of smoothing Gable's rough edges and finishing his social education. Gable was an avid pupil and during the early years of their marriage his Hollywood career took off with a vengeance. So did his appointments diary.
He was paired with virtually all the beautiful leading ladies of MGM, including, in 1931 alone, Norma Shearer in 'A Free Soul', Greta Garbo in 'Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise' and Joan Crawford in 'The Possessed'.
He and Garbo disliked each other and his relationship with Myrna Loy was warm but platonic. His relationship with Joan Crawford, who was at that time married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., fairly crackled with their passion both on and offscreen and they became well known as a couple in Hollywood. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, fearful of the studio's reputation, threatened to terminate both their contracts.
For a while they kept apart and Gable shifted his attentions first to Loretta Young whom he met on the set of 'The Call of the Wild' in1935, and then to Marion Davies, his co-star in 'Cain And Mabel' in 1936.
Loretta Young was one of Hollywood's biggest female stars, twice an Oscar winner, and a strict Catholic. When she became pregnant with Gable's baby in 1935 an elaborate subterfuge was concocted to circumvent the rigorous (and hypocritical) moral codes in force in Hollywood which would have meant the end of her career and Gable's .She went on 'vacation' with her mother in order to secretly give birth to the child. Gable simply received an unsigned telegram, stating only that the baby had arrived safely, and she was blonde and beautiful. On her return Loretta announced she had adopted the little girl who was raised as Judy Lewis, taking the surname of Loretta's second husband.
Gable came to visit Judy once at her home when she was a young teenager; she had no idea he was her biological father and for the whole of his life he never acknowledged her as his daughter. It was common knowledge in Hollywood that Judy was Gable's daughter and she actually first heard about it from friends at school. When she confronted her mother, Loretta promptly vomited, and finally confessed the truth.
Gable's career continued to surge onwards. His 1934 movie with Claudette Colbert, 'It Happened One Night' had swept the boards at the Academy Awards and Gable received the Best Actor Oscar. In October, 1935 Gable and Ria separated. He was on the crest of the Hollywood wave, vastly rich, the most famous movie actor in history and he simply didn't need her any more. His problems with Loretta were seemingly behind him and he had started a relationship which was to prove the most important of his life. He began to live with beautiful Hollywood actress Carole Lombard, his friend, lover and soulmate.
Gable first met Carole Lombard in 1925 when they were both working as extras on the set of 'Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ'. They later starred together in 'No Man of Her Own' in 1932, but did not become romantically attached until 1936. They lived together for 3 years and then got married in March 1939 just 3 weeks after his divorce from Ria was finalised. Lombard, whom he called his 'little screwball', was lively, younger than him, foul-mouthed and irreverent. "I love Pappy," she once said, "even though he's not the greatest lay."
'Gone With the Wind' was released near the start of their wedded life. Gable's stock in Hollywood, already skyhigh, went stratospheric. He was immensely famous, immensely rich and it seemed he had been blessed by the Gods. For three years he lived an idyll with his wife who shared his enthusiasm for outdoor pusuits like hunting and fishing and who tolerated his philandering lifestyle which he was unwilling or unable to stop. He began an affair with Lana Turner, his co-star in 1942's 'Somewhere I'll Find You'.
In January, 1942, the plane in which Carole Lombard was traveling crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas. All on board were killed, including Lombard, her mother, and her MGM staff publicist Otto Winkler.
Gable was traumatised but returned to his and Lombard's empty house where he continued to live for the rest of his life. After a month he returned to the studio to complete 'Somewhere I'll Find You'. He began drinking heavily and to his friends he seemed to lose interest in life and was never the same man afterwards.
Although he was well over draft age he volunteered, seemingly as a death wish, for the Army Air Corps and saw active comabat as a tail-gunner in Europe in World War II. He was discharged in 1945 with the rank of Major and when he returned to the screen it was as a returning hero.
Immediately after his discharge Gable returned to his ranch to recuperate and it wasn't long before his eye started wandering again. He resumed a pre-war relationship with the MGM actress, Virginia Grey and dated numerous other starlets. After Joan Crawford's third divorce in 1946, she and Gable resumed their affair and lived together for a short time.
Gable continued to make movies, averaging about one per year but his post-war film career was mainly undistiguished and he never again repeated his astonishing pre-war successes although for each of the nine years from 1947 he was in the top ten of Hollywood money makers. His performance in 'The Hucksters' in 1947 was praised and he followed it with a brief but very public affair with Paulette Goddard. In 1948 he dated and is also believed to have proposed marriage to, Nancy Davis, the future Mrs Ronald Reagan.
Lady Sylvia Ashley
Gable's fourth marriage was his most unsuccessful. Lady Sylvia Ashley was an English actress and model and had had been married three times previously, including most recently to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
They first met in the summer of 1949 when Gable attended a party with socialite Dolly O'Brien as his date but spent most of the evening talking and dancing with Sylvia. They were married in December of that year. Gable confided to friends that she was a "wildcat in the sack," but it didn't take long for him to tire of her extravagant ways.
She was constantly shopping for clothes, had her own personal maid and gave frequent handouts to her teenage nephew whom Gable disliked. She also liked to throw lavish formal dinner parties and attend Hollywood social events, none of which Gable liked. They grew more and more distant and Sylvia moved back to England. After nearly a year of separation, the divorce was finalised in April, 1952.
Shortly after the divorce Gable started filming 'Never Let Me Go' opposite Gene Tierney. She was one of his favorite actresses and he was very disappointed when she went to Europe and began a romance with Aly Khan. In 'Mogambo' in 1953 Gable's on-location affair with Grace Kelly ended after filming was completed.
Kathleen "Kay" Williams
In July 1955 he married a former girlfriend, Kathleen Williams Spreckles who had previously been married to sugar-refining heir Adolph B. Spreckels Jr., and became stepfather to her two children, Joan and Adolph ("Bunker") Spreckels III. He appeared to be more contented than he had ever been since the death of Carole Lombard.
Although Kay was quick to deny any similarities between herself and Carole, she was able to happily accompany him on his hunting expeditions, and unlike Sylvia, she did not try to change Carol's décor at the ranch. Gable enjoyed being a stepfather to her children and both he and Kay were delighted when she became pregnant in 1960. Gable's wandering eye at last seemed to have stopped wandering and he seemed to be entering a period of contented family life. But it was not to be.
Death - and Life
Gable learned the news of Kay's pregnancy whilst he was filming 'The Misfits', with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift. Four days after completing the movie he suffered a major heart attack and was hospitalised. For most of his life he had been a heavy smoker and whisky drinker and it finally took its toll. Ten days later on 16 November 1960, he suffered another massive heart attack. He was dead within seconds and attempts to revive him were unsuccessful. He was aged 59 years.
His funeral was attended by more than 200 of Hollywood's finest and he was laid to rest, as he had requested, next to Carole Lombard.
Three months later on 20 March, 1961, Kay delivered Clark's son, John Clark Gable, at the same hospital Clark had died in earlier.
Gable's death marked also the end of Hollywood's Golden Age. He was an astonishing man who dominated the world of Hollywood like no-one else before or since. He was called the King, and the title died with him.