On January 16, 1942, a grim Clark Gable boarded a plane to Las Vegas to find out the fate of his beloved wife Carole Lombard, her mother Elizabeth Peters and his friend Otto Winkler after hearing that their plane had gone down at Mount Potosi.
Seeing the fire on the mountain at his arrival, he knew the news wasn’t good but still he wanted to go with the rescue team. He was persuaded not to, and considering the charred bodies that were found, it was certainly not a sight he would have wanted to see.
After some time spent at the nearby Pioneer Saloon, Clark was taken to the El Rancho Vegas Hotel to await news on his wife, his mother-in-law and his friend, staying in a private bungalow under guard from the press and curious fans. The news he received: “No survivors. All killed instantly.”
An emotionally shattered Clark insisted on remaining at the El Rancho until all three bodies were taken down the mountain; he wanted to accompany them on the train back to Los Angeles. His time in his bungalow was spent pacing, chain smoking, not eating, not sleeping and barely speaking.
From this article:
One of the friends who’d accompanied Clark met Eddie [Mannix, MGM publicity):
“He hasn’t eaten since we got here. Go see if you can get him to eat.”
“If you can’t, I can’t–”
“Maybe a new face–”
He went in. “Hello, Clark.”
Gable lifted his ravaged face. “Hello.”
His eyes returned to the window. But the sight of Ed seemed to have dragged him back to the incredibly beautiful time when there had been a Carole in the world–back and then forward. He looked up again. ‘We didn’t meet the plane, did we, Ed?”
Ed’s heart turned to water. “No, Clark,” He said quietly, “we didn’t meet the plane.”
Then, a little later, “Want something to eat?”
“Mind if I eat something?”
He ordered a hamburger sent to him there. Maybe it was a lousy idea, but what could he lose? It worked. “Think you could get me some stewed fruit?” asked Clark. Ed was out of there like a bat out of hell. He wasn’t leaving this to the telephone. With the fruit, he brought back a bottle of milk. Clark finished the bottle, by which time Ed had stealthily introduced another. Clark finished that, too. No general ever got more satisfaction from a well-planned maneuver than strategist Ed.
Clark kept himself going till everything was done that had to be done. Otto was buried the day after Carole and her mother. He insisted on going. He went with Jill. Then he relapsed into what seemed a kind of stupor. They couldn’t get him to love; they could hardly get him to speak. He just sat.
Gable’s been rated a tough guy, who could take what blows fate handed out and come back for more. Those who wondered over his collapse are those who confused toughness with lack of deep feeling. Sure, Gable’s tough, none of which precludes the softer emotions. Tenderness is none the less tender when wrapped in a gag. One day there had been Carole, warm, alive, the dear companion of today and all the years to come. Next day there was Carole, a searing pain. She’d woven herself into every fiber of his being. Torn out, he was left bleeding. She’d been the heart of his world. When it stopped beating, the world crumbled. He was in no stupor. He’d crawled into the hole of himself, because every outside contact flayed his raw grief.
I’ve said before that I have a lot or random Gable related stuff. Well, one of those random items is an original picture of the bungalow Clark stayed in at El Rancho, taken right after he left. You can see, they have typed on the photo as well as written on the back. This was taken by an employee of the hotel, who sent it to her sister, apparently a Clark Gable fan.
When Clark left El Rancho to head back to Los Angeles with three bodies, he was never the same.
The hotel largely burned to the ground in 1960, and then the remnants were bulldozed in 1978, so this is a rare glance of where Clark was during the worst days of his life.