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Verdugo Views: Clark Gable’s first wife helped launch his career

Verdugo Views: Clark Gable’s first wife helped launch his career
The piano room at Rockhaven Sanitarium was for the use of the residents, including Josephine Dillon, best known as Clark Gable'€™s first wife, who lived there for several years. Dillon died in 1971. (Courtesy of Friends of Rockhaven)

Josephine Dillon, best known as Clark Gable's first wife, lived out her final days at Rockhaven Sanitarium in Montrose.

Despite her label as Gable’s first wife, Dillon, who grew up in Los Angeles and studied acting at Stanford University, had an extensive career of her own.

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After graduating from Stanford in 1908, she studied acting in Italy, then made her way to a stock company on Broadway before opening an acting school in Oregon, according to Wikipedia.

That is where she met Gable. He was 17 years younger than her. He had tried acting; but was now a telephone lineman and went to the theater on a job, according to the article titled “The Fabulous Life and Loves of Clark Gable” in Screenland magazine in March 1961 and found on dearmrgable.com.

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Dillon saw potential in the stage-struck young man and took a special interest in him. She paid to have his teeth fixed and his hair styled and taught him body control and posture. She also taught him to lower his naturally high-pitched voice, as noted in Wikipedia.

Dillon moved to Los Angeles in 1924 to open the Dillon Stock Co. Gable followed and they soon married. Dillon continued to coach Gable as his career gained momentum.

In 1930, shortly before he signed with MGM, Gable asked for a divorce. He remarried two days after the divorce was final.

As Gable’s ex-wife, Dillon became a hot topic. In an article titled “The Trials of a Hollywood Ex-Wife,” in Movie Classic magazine in June 1932, also found on dearmrgable.com, Dorothy Calhoun wrote, “Does Clark Gable realize how his ex-wife, Josephine Dillon, has been persecuted by reporters because she will not tell, even for a price, the intimate details of their life together?”

Gable, who won an Academy Award in 1934, married four more times. He rarely spoke publicly about Dillon.

He denied rumors that he married her just to further his career, saying he was motivated only by love and that he “owed her a debt of gratitude” for guiding his early career.

Dillon never remarried. She refused to speak disparagingly about her famous ex-husband, saying the two were married "in name only,” implying the marriage was not consummated, according to Wikipedia.

Dillon continued to teach, living in a small home in the San Fernando Valley. A 1955 Confidential article titled “The Wife Clark Gable Forgot,” on dearmrgable.com reported that Dillon was “down and out” and that Gable refused to help her.

Dillon denied the story, but the negative publicity cost her many of her students and she nearly lost her home. She later revealed that Gable sent her money to avoid foreclosure.

When Gable died in 1960, his will stipulated that the remainder of Dillon's mortgage be paid in full by his estate, as noted in Wikipedia.

Poor health forced Dillon to retire in the mid-1960s and she moved to Rockhaven. But even there, she rarely spoke of her ex-husband. “She was silent. She never talked,” Gina Rozyczka said in “Memories of a Rockhaven Nurse,’’ Crescenta Valley Weekly, November 14, 2013.

Rozyczka, who began working at Rockhaven in 1965, once said to Dillon, “Wow, you’re married to the hunk, Clark Gable?” According to Rozyczka, Dillon replied: ‘yes,’ but added that it had cost her a lot of money.

Dillon died in 1971. She is interred at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles.

Readers Write:

Clark Gable came to Hollywood during the height of Prohibition, when speakeasies were popular. There’s a rumor that he frequented one at the then-brand-new Glendale Hotel on the corner of Broadway and Glendale.

In 2009, Jen Heaslip, manager of the Cave, a wine storage place on the lower floor of the hotel, invited me on a tour. [Verdugo Views, Feb. 27, 2009]

Heaslip told me of a rumor that there was a speakeasy on the lower floor during the 1920s and that Gable had been a patron.

“I love this building,” Heaslip told me at the time. “It has the promise of elegance. I’d like to bring that elegance back and keep the speakeasy atmosphere in the Cave.”

This week, I emailed Heaslip, asking about the rumor. Heaslip, who now goes by Grey instead of Jen, sent a link to a 1998 Glendale News-Press article by Ryan Carter.

The opening paragraph suggested that Gable frequented the hotel’s underground bar — then known as the Silver Room — in the 1940s and 50s.

It was that article that “planted the idea” of a speakeasy in his head, Heaslip said. He acknowledged that rumors of Gable in Glendale at either a speakeasy or a bar known as the Silver Room are as yet unproven.

“I’ve Googled and Googled some more but could never find anything more substantive than the rumor,” he said.

Heaslip explores the hotel’s history and pays homage to the idea of “its famed speakeasy roots” in his blog thecavewinestorage.blogspot.com.

KATHERINE YAMADA can be reached at katherineyamada@gmail.com. or by mail at Verdugo Views, c/o Glendale News-Press, 453 S. Spring Street, Third Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90013. Please include your name, address and phone number.

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