A Man’s Man Off the Screen Too
Few actors in modern times have come close to the fame and glory of Clark Gable, the original macho man of movies for three decades. Gable stamped his image indelibly on the public consciousness in 92 motion pictures including “Gone With the Wind,” one of the most popular films of all time.
Although not the greatest actor in the world, nor the most handsome, Gable was probably the most popular romantic star Hollywood ever produced. So wonderfully human, so manly and magnetic, he was loved by millions of women, admired by their husbands and millions of other men, and worshiped by children.
Many stars are short men who appear bigger than life on screen. William Clark Gable, who was born Feb. 1, 1901, in Ohio, was bigger than life on and off screen, and the public realized it: He had that magic quality called presence or charisma. In every film he made, even the early ones, he made his roles believable. In my opinion, Gable would be an even bigger star today because so much emphasis in current films is on plot contrivance and computer gimmickry rather than fully rounded characters.
I’d grown up watching Gable films in theaters in my hometown, and later saw them projected on sheets hung between poles on various islands in the South Pacific during World War II. He defined masculinity for an entire generation of us young adult males. Like many Americans, I was a childhood fan of the hero/actor. As an adult who came to know him, I became a fan of the real-life man.
I first met him during the fall of 1951 when he was in New York to promote “Across the Wide Missouri,” his latest film. The assignment editor at the New York Herald Tribune, where I had just started working as a reporter, told me to find out how Gable was spending his time in Manhattan. An MGM press agent arranged for me to see Gable at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
By that time, Gable was the biggest star in the Hollywood firmament. He had won an Academy Award for 1934’s “It Happened One Night.” Instead of a long-winded speech, he said only, “Thank you.” He was nominated two more times, for “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939). He’d been married four times. Three of the wives he divorced were his senior by many years. His marriage to actress Carole Lombard ended with her tragic death at 33 in a plane crash in 1942.
When I phoned Gable’s room from the hotel lobby, he answered the phone himself. “I’ll meet you in the lobby,” he said. “I have a short errand to do. Maybe you can go with me and we’ll talk.”
A few minutes later he came out of the elevator wearing a double-breasted, camel hair wrap-around coat, a tan, wide-brim fedora hat, and the Gable grin. He was taller and more rugged looking than I had expected, every inch of his 6 feet the movie star. I introduced myself and we shook hands. He headed out the Park Avenue door with me following. I’d expected a limo to be waiting, but he started walking briskly uptown with me alongside. We exchanged some pleasantries about the cold weather. He asked me if I liked guns.
“Not much,” I said. “I had an M1 slung over my shoulder for three years as an infantryman.”
“I was in the Air Corps myself,” he said.
Someone shrieked, “Clark Gable!” Within minutes we had a small crowd following us. By the time we had reached 57th Street and Madison Avenue, the crowd had become a parade. Gable seemed as unconcerned about them as a drum major leading a band.
We entered Abercrombie & Fitch followed by the entourage. A man wearing a green apron over his black suit, obviously expecting Gable, greeted him with a handshake and led us to the elevator. Someone blocked the door to allow us to get in alone. We went up one flight and entered a room furnished like a hunting lodge, which, in a way, it was.
The man put a cloth over the table and excused himself for a moment. He returned wearing gloves and holding a shotgun that he very carefully handed to Gable. “Just as you ordered, sir,” he said.
Gable’s gray eyes squinted as he handled and examined the gun for a few minutes. He gently caressed the burled walnut stock before hefting the gun to his shoulder sighting it at targets only he visualized. Satisfied, he put the weapon gently back on the table. “You’re one helluva gunsmith,” he told the man.
There was some talk between them about the recommended ammunition for various types of hunting and another handshake. The fans waiting on the ground floor parted respectfully to let us pass. Someone hailed a cab for us.
While we were stopped for a light at Madison Avenue and 50th Street, a woman on the corner shrieked, “Clark Gable!” Before the light changed, traffic was stopped and a hysterical mob of women were trying to open the cab doors. Gable managed to lock them. He sat calmly, smiling and waving, until police arrived and cleared the crowd.
Inside the cab, we talked briefly about the war and his experiences with a bomber group in England. “War’s hell,” he said, and laughed. “My biggest concern was that Hermann Goering, that SOB, offered any flier who shot down my plane a promotion, $5,000, and a furlough. I was always afraid that my crew would be a special target if the Krauts knew I was in it.”
Before we parted at the Waldorf, I asked Gable about his new film. “It stinks,” he said, “and you can quote me on that.”
The New York fans made it so impossible for him to visit his old haunts and friends from his early days as a struggling Broadway actor that he cut his trip to New York from 10 days to three.
A couple of years later the Tribune sent me to Hollywood as a columnist. Confidential magazine, a scandal tabloid, had published an article about Josephine Dillon, Gable’s first wife and the woman primarily responsible for training him as an actor. The article claimed she was a poverty-stricken old lady, who was still giving drama lessons, living in a rundown shack in Studio City, forgotten and neglected by Gable, who had shamelessly dismissed her from his life.
She lived only a few blocks from me. One afternoon I dropped by her home, not a shack as the article claimed, and introduced myself as a neighbor and reporter. I asked if she had any comments about the article.
“It’s rubbish,” she said firmly. “I always knew that one day Clark would be a big star and not need me anymore. I told him that if he ever truly wanted a divorce, I would give it to him. The fact is he has paid off the mortgage and overdue property taxes on my home. He also had my studio repaired and repainted.”
“What do you think of him now, 25 years later?” I asked.
The sweet little old lady sighed and looked at me for a long moment. “He’s a great actor as I knew he would be from the very first day he came to me for acting lessons. And, he’s a first-class gentleman, always was and always will be.”
I filed a story to the Trib rebutting the Confidential claims. A week later I received in the mail a postcard reading, “Thanks. Clark.”
In 1958, Paramount was making “Teacher’s Pet,” a comedy about a newspaper editor starring Gable and Doris Day. As a publicity stunt, 50 Hollywood newsmen sat at desks in the film’s city room. A few of us, including me, were given a few lines to speak.
I flubbed my few lines three times. Gable leaned over and whispered, “Take a few deep breaths and relax, Joe,” he said. “It’s only a movie and you still have your job.”
When “Gone With the Wind” was being re-released, my editor suggested I interview Gable for his reaction to its continuing worldwide success. Howard Strickling, his good friend and the head of publicity at MGM, arranged for me to interview Gable at his home on Petit Avenue in Encino.
I drove there in my old Buick and sputtered up a steep driveway to a two-story white brick and frame farmhouse, which sat high on a knoll surrounded by shade and eucalyptus trees. He must have heard me coming because he greeted me at the door wearing jeans and an old shirt. After shaking hands, he said, “Sounds like you’re having carburetor problems. Lift the hood.” He went into the garage and came back with a monkey wrench and screwdriver. After a few minutes of tinkering under the hood, he told me to start up the car. It purred like a contented kitten.
“Let me show you around the ranch,” he said. “Twenty-two fenced acres all paid for. I can get on my horse and ride from here to Malibu without seeing another house.”
He showed me the animals: horses, cows, a mule and some New Hampshire Red chickens in a cage. “These were Carole’s,” he said.
He gave me a brief tour of the house and his gun room, stocked with all manner of weapons. He picked up a shotgun. “This is the one I got when you were in New York with me,” he said. “Remember?”
I remembered. We went into the living room where Martin, his houseman, brought us iced tea in huge highball glasses. I asked Gable what he thought of the continued success of “GWTW.”
“Those revivals are the only thing that keeps me a big star,” he said. “Every time that picture is re-released, a whole crop of young moviegoers get interested in me.”
“What do you remember about the film’s premiere in Atlanta?” I asked.
“You should have seen the way those Southern belles looked at Carole. She was so damn beautiful.”
“How did the audience react to that first screening?” I asked.
“You’da thought I’d won a second Civil War for the South. The Atlanta papers called it the biggest news event since Sherman.”
I shifted uneasily in my seat as I made notes. “Back problem?” Gable asked. I nodded.
“Me too,” he said. “Let me show you some exercises. First thing is to never get up from a chair without resting your hands on your knees first and pushing up. Don’t just stand up.” He demonstrated some of the exercises he did when his back troubled him.
The interview ended because his fifth wife, Kay, had returned from grocery shopping and he wanted to help her carry in the “grub.” He stood on the front porch waving goodbye as I drove away.
The last time I saw Gable was on the set of “The Misfits,” a movie written by Arthur Miller with an all-star cast headed by Gable, Miller’s wife Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach.
Much of the picture was to be shot in the blistering desert 50 miles from Reno, where the temperature sometimes rose to 135 degrees in the afternoon. I went there to report on the filming. When I arrived on the set, Gable was sitting in a director’s chair under an umbrella that afforded little shade from the boiling sun, and waiting impatiently for Monroe to arrive for a scene with him. He was dressed in worn jeans, battered boots and a worn cowboy hat for his role as a middle-aged cowboy although he was then 59. He’d recently lost 30 pounds and he looked fit, although I’d heard he had a heart problem and Parkinson’s. He waved me over and offered me a sip from a bottle of whiskey he was holding. His hand and head were shaking.
“My doctor would kill me if he knew I was drinking in this heat,” he said, “but I’m so g-------- bored hanging around waiting for Marilyn to show up. I know my lines and hers ass-backwards and I’ll bet the farm she doesn’t have a clue about hers when and if she does show.”
“How do you like working with Marilyn?” I asked.
“On or off the record?”
“Off,” I said.
“She’s the rudest, most impossible actress I’ve ever worked with.”
We sat in silence for few moments. Finally, he said, “I’ll let you in on a secret if you promise not to print it. We’re expecting and Kay guarantees it will be a boy. I promised her that when this damn picture winds up, I’m taking off until the baby is born in March. I want to be there when it happens and for a long time afterwards.”
I knew that Kay had miscarried some time ago and I congratulated him.
Some stuntmen appeared. “Ain’t likely Marilyn’s going to show any time today,” one of them said. “The boss [director John Huston] said we should get you ready for the roping scene, that is if you still want to do it yourself.”
“Better than sitting around doing nothing,” Gable said.
He beckoned for me to follow him to his trailer. The stuntmen carefully strapped pads over his elbows and knees. “You positive you don’t want one of us to double you, Pappy?” one of them asked.
“I volunteered,” Gable said. “Let’s do it.”
I watched from a distance with others of the crew and cast as Gable was dragged on a rope behind a truck going 30 mph over the hot, dry desert. We applauded when, after several minutes of filming, Huston shouted, “That’s a wrap.”
Gable was heaving like an old plow horse as he limped back to his trailer.
Shooting ran long past its scheduled end date. Less than two weeks after filming ended, on Nov. 16, 1960, he died of coronary thrombosis in a Los Angeles hospital.
Clark Gable, the King of Hollywood, was buried in a closed casket because he had once told Kay, “I don’t want a lot of strangers looking down at my wrinkles and my big fat belly when I’m dead.”
In death as in life, his fans respected Gable. There were no rioting crowds at the Church of the Recessional at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, where an Episcopal service was led by an Air Force chaplain accompanied by an honor party of 10 airmen and a color guard. Gen. Jimmy Stewart, also a war hero, Spencer Tracy and Robert Taylor were among the stars there to say goodbye.
I was standing on the street outside the church in the silent crowd along with other newsmen. Although I knew Gable only slightly, I joined the world in mourning him and feeling for his widow, who was waiting to deliver the child he would never see. His son, John Clark Gable, was born to Kay by caesarean section on the evening of March 20, 1961, in the same hospital where his father died.
It is sad that Gable could not have seen his reviews for “The Misfits”--overwhelmingly the best of his career. The New York Times obituary said, “Gable was as certain as the sunrise. He was consistently and stubbornly all man.”
Joe Hyams reported from Hollywood for the New York Herald Tribune from 1951 to 1964 and is the author of 27 books.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.