As I have been documenting on the site’s Facebook page, my office is a mess. I moved nearly two years ago. This move meant that finally I have an office of my own–a space that is completely mine, that I can make a classic film haven from one end to the other. But as is the case with most wives and mothers I imagine, everyone else’s spaces and the neutral spaces took precedent. And so here we are nearly two years later and my classic film haven still looks like a bomb went off.
Going through piles and piles of items is aggravating, but it is also exciting. “Oh yeah! I forgot I had that!” I have exclaimed so many times. Magazines, random clippings, vintage slides, audio recordings…there is just so much stuff. I now have a rather large box that is filled with nothing but newspaper clippings, lovingly kept over the years by Clark Gable fans and acquired by me various ways over the years. Finally they are being organized and I’ve been quite intrigued reading them all. So I’m starting some “In the News” features to outline events as they were chronicled in the newspapers.
I’m going to start with the fourth Mrs. Clark Gable, Sylvia Ashley, because as far as clippings go I have the most on her and the fifth Mrs. Gable.
Sylvia absolutely fascinates me to no end. She had five husbands–two of them distinguished titled Englishmen, two of them Hollywood royalty, and one a bonafide Georgian Prince. Quite impressive. It’s fairly obvious that the poor chorus girl from Paddington made up her mind early on to find herself a rich husband so that she could live the glamorous life she felt she was meant to have. And boy did she, five times over.
Here’s the backstory on old Syl:
She ran away from home at the age of fifteen and became a lingerie model and soon after, a chorus girl. She was dancing in a revue in London when she met Lord Anthony Ashley, the Ninth Duke of Shaftesbury and married him soon after. She became the subject of great scandal when, in 1934, her husband filed for divorce and named Hollywood heavyweight Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (then the husband of “America’s Sweetheart “Mary Pickford) co-respondent. For nearly three years the drama dragged on until their divorces were final. Sylvia met great resistance in Hollywood as the new Mrs. Fairbanks, as Douglas and Mary were Hollywood’s royal couple. After Douglas died of a heart attack in December 1939 (at the young age of 56), leaving Sylvia the bulk of his estate, Sylvia split her time between London and Hollywood, counting among her friends Norma Shearer and Loretta Young. In 1944, she married Lord Stanley of Alderly and he filed for divorce a year later. After much mudslinging and lawsuits back and forth, they were finally divorced in 1948.
Clark and Sylvia first locked eyes at a party at his agent Minna Wallis’ house in the summer of 1949. He had arrived at the party with socialite Dolly O’Brien as his date, but spent most of the evening dancing with Sylvia. They dated off and on for a few months but nobody thought much of the relationship because Clark was also dating Dolly and Virginia Grey, among others.
Clark called his pal and MGM publicity man Howard Strickling and told him he was getting married and to arrange a private wedding. Howard, like all of Clark’s friends, said, “Married? To who?” and was surprised at the answer. Clark and Sylvia were married in the living room of one of Howard’s friends homes in Solvang, near Santa Barbara. Sylvia’s sister and brother-in-law, Clark’s personal secretary Jean Garceau and Howard (the best man) attended. The quick ceremony was performed by Lutheran minister Reverend Aage Miller and afterward the newlyweds cut their tiered wedding cake with an antique sword. They took off on a two week honeymoon to Hawaii, where the press followed them and took shots of them planting a palm tree together and smooching on the beach.
Upon their return from their honeymoon, Sylvia promptly took it upon herself to redecorate Clark’s beloved ranch, which had not been altered since Carole had decorated it years before. A crystal chandelier was added to the entryway, her English antiques were spread around the house, two new rooms were constructed and, most surprisingly, she received no complaints from Clark when she replaced all the furniture in Carole’s bedroom and painted the walls pink (his least favorite color). He called her “Bird” or “Ducky Doodle” and confided in friends that she was a “wildcat in the sack.” But it didn’t take long for Clark to tire of Sylvia’s extravagant ways. She had weekly salon appointments, was constantly shopping for clothes, required her own personal maid and was frequently giving money to her teenage nephew whom Clark couldn’t stand. In sharp contrast to Clark, she liked to throw lavish formal dinner parties and attend Hollywood social events. She had no respect for his privacy and would invite her relatives and friends to be guests at the ranch, sometimes for weeks on end. Sylvia accompanied him on hunting trips, but proved only to be an embarrassment to him. She refused to hunt, she couldn’t fish well (especially not with all the jewelry she refused to remove hanging from her wrists and fingers) and Clark’s attempts to show her how to cook over a campfire failed. His friends referred to her as “her ladyship” and laughed at Clark carrying around Sylvia’s little terrier and buying it a diamond collar.
Friends noticed Clark had become increasingly irritable and tense as the months wore on. He became very distant toward Sylvia and started drinking heavily. She soon started spending more and more time in her native England. After she returned from one trip and was in the bath soaking in her tub, he came in, said “I want a divorce” and walked out. She later recalled, “At first I couldn’t believe Clark was serious. I stayed on at the house for several weeks, during which time he rarely spoke to me. When he did, he was very sullen. I tried everything I knew how to get him to change his mind. Ultimately, I had to give in.” After she finally moved out, Clark promptly fired any help she had hired, changed all the locks, and started to undo her renovations to the house.
Here’s where our newspapers catch up:
May 28, 1951:
Gable and Wife Living Apart
Hollywood, May 28–Clark Gable and his wife, the former Lady Sylvia Ashley, were living in separate houses today, and Hollywood buzzed with renewed reports that their 18-month-old marriage is over.
Neither the actor nor his wife would comment, but some movie colony insiders said Mrs. Gable might make an announcement “very soon.”
Right they were, as, just a few days later…
June 1, 1951:
Gable is Sued for Divorce
Former Lady Sylvia Ashley Wed to Movie Star Less Than 18 Months
Santa Monica, Calif., May 31–Clark Gable was sued for divorce today by his wife, the former Lady Sylvia Ashley.
The widow of Douglas Fairbanks Sr., charged Gable, her husband of less than 18 months, with mental cruelty. She specified no particular instances.
But, she issued a statement through her attorney, Jerry Giesler, which said in part:
“I am taking this step with the deepest reluctance and under severe pressure, and only after it became evident that all of my efforts for a reconciliation were fruitless.”
Giesler said that doctors have advised her she needs a complete rest, and that she will leave tomorrow on an expedition to the south seas with Mr. and Mrs. George Vanderbilt.
Doctors said she needs a rest so she must leave immediately on a luxury cruise! The poor dear! In another paper on the same date:
June 1, 1951:
Clark Gable’s Wife is Suing For Divorce
Sails on Scientific Fishing Expedition to Quiet Her Nerves
Hollywood, June 1–Mrs. Clark Gable sailed for Honolulu today after filing suit for divorce yesterday.
Described as “a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” the former Lady Sylvia Ashley boarded a schooner yacht last night and immediately secluded herself below deck.
“She’s positively heartbroken,” said her brother-in-law, Basil Bleck, who acted as her spokesman.
Her breakup with the 50-year-old screen he-man came less than 18 months after their marriage, the fourth for each. She charged mental cruelty.
“I am taking this step with the deepest reluctance and under severe pressure,” Mrs. Gable, 40, said yesterday in a statement. “All of my efforts for a reconciliation were fruitless.”
A spokesman for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where Gable is making a picture, reported: “Mr. Gable has nothing to say.”
The schooner, a 192-footer, will cruise along the Polynesian Islands for six months to gather deep sea specimens for two museums. George Vanderbilt, son of the late Alfred G. Vanderbilt, heads the expedition.
Mrs. Gable probably will sail only as far as Honolulu, her brother-in-law said. That leg of the trip is expected to take about 20 days.
Married in 1949
She and Gable eloped to Santa Barbara, Calif., in December. She was known then as a laughing, lovely blonde remindful of Gable’s great love, the late actress Carole Lombard, his third bride, killed in a plane crash seven years before.
Mrs. Gable’s attorney, in a statement said: “She is asking for no community property or support. In the event she changes her mind she can file and amendment.”
I find it odd that she chose to mourn the demise of her marriage at their honeymoon location! Also I just cannot understand why anyone said that she was reminiscent of Carole Lombard. I do not see that at all, certainly not in personality. And as far as looks were concerned, they were both small blondes and that’s about it.
Clark didn’t take this laying down for long.
June 6, 1951:
Gable Fights Wife’s Suit
Los Angeles–Clark Gable yesterday turned his fourth wife’s divorce suit into a court battle.
He filed an answer denying her charges of cruelty and contesting her claim to community property.
The actor said the former Lady Sylvia Ashley has a fortune of more than $1,000,000 and needs no financial aid from him. In their brief marriage, Gable said, all community funds were spent or pledged for payment of community indebtedness.
Community funds are those earned by either party during the marriage.
Mrs. Gable, one-time London Showgirl and widow of Douglas Fairbanks, sued for divorce last Thursday. They were married December 20, 1949.
Another paper, on that same date:
Gable Pleads No Alimony For Socialite
Hollywood, June 5–Clark Gable asked a divorce court Tuesday not to award his wife any alimony because, he said, she’s a “millionaire.”
Besides, he added, they spent most of his money during their year and a half of marriage, anyway.
Gable filed an answer in superior court to the former Lady Sylvia Ashley’s divorce suit, which she entered last Thursday. The blonde socialite didn’t ask for alimony, but left that matter open so she could add a money demand to her suit later.
But the movie profile pointed out that the earnings they accumulated since they were married in 1949 “have been spent or are obligated for community indebtedness.”
Otherwise, the actor admitted, the charges in her divorce suit are true. She accused him of mental cruelty but did not elaborate on the charge.
Bound for Hawaii
The titled socialite, the daughter of an English saloon keeper, beat it to Hawaii on a yacht early Friday morning after her lawyer dropped off her mate-shedding papers in the Santa Monica court.
But brother-in-law, Basil Bleck, announced that she took the action “with deepest reluctance” after futile attempts to patch things up with the king of MGM movies.
Lady Sylvia inherited the widow’s share of a vast movietown estate when her matinee idol husband of a past generation, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., died of heart attack in 1939.
This was Gable’s first acknowledgement of the suit since he issued a snappy “no comment” the day it was filed.
One of the things that I believe drew Clark to Sylvia was that she had her own money. Clark liked his women to be independent and not rely on him for things. Well, Sylvia had money but it was apparently not all liquid. He was not pleased when it was his money being spent for her furniture, clothing and other extravagances. So it is no surprise that Clark was going to fight her over community property.
June 13, 1951:
Gable’s Lady Forgets on Hawaiian Vacation
Honolulu, June 13–Clark Gable’s wife was on a quiet Hawaiian holiday today, attempting to “forget” the breakup of her short-lied marriage to the handsome movie star.
Mrs. Gable, the former Lady Sylvia Ashley, arrived yesterday aboard George Vanderbilt’s yacht, “Pioneer.” She left Southern California May 31 immediately after filing suit for divorce.
She refused to talk directly to reporters when the gleaming white yacht docked, but the authorized Vanderbilt to act as her spokesman.
“Gable evidently just didn’t want to be married any longer,” was the way Vanderbilt explained the divorce action.
Two months in Hawaii would surely cure anyone’s nerves. Sylvia returned in August:
August 8, 1951:
Maps Divorce Plans
Hollywood, Aug. 7–Lady Sylvia Ashley returned to Hollywood from a Hawaiian vacation Tuesday to map plans for what is expected to be a stormy divorce battle against film star Clark Gable.
The four-times married honey blonde shrugged off reporters and photographers at the airport, refusing to say whether she found “peace and solace” in Hawaii. She snapped: “I never answer questions.”
She tried to duck behind her sister, Mrs. Basil Bleck, who accompanied her from Honolulu, whenever a photographer poised his camera or flashbulbs popped.
Sylvia’s back and Clark wants this divorce over and done with, so he takes matters into his own hands. To be continued…