In my humble experience with Clark Gable fans, there are two things that are the most popular topics: His role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind and his tragic marriage to Carole Lombard. Sadly, Clark wouldn’t probably want to be remembered for either of those things. Rhett Butler left a bitter taste in his mouth and Carole, well…Carole was a touchy subject.
Once, on a classic movie fan board years ago, I came across a discussion on the most romantic classic filmdom couples. Joel McCrea and Frances Dee, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, James Stewart and Gloria Stewart…these were the names that topped the lists. I found it odd that suggestions of couples such as Vivien Leigh and Laurence Oliver, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, were all knocked down. “They divorced, they don’t qualify!” was the apparent verdict. Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Also brushed aside. One haughty member replied to the suggestion, “The only thing that makes their relationship notable is the tragedy of their story.”
I definitely object to the notion that just because a couple divorced their romance wasn’t a great romance. If it doesn’t work out in the end, that means it was never a great love? Surely not; that seems a rather delusional take on the subject. Death, however, has the opposite effect; it seems to magnify the feelings of the relationship. Perhaps we do think their love was more than it was because of how tragically Carole died. It is interesting to ponder: If Carole had lived, would theirs still have been a great romance? Do we only romanticize it because of how she died? If they had divorced years down the road, would it still then have been considered a great romance?
Without wanting to succumb to bias, my answer is still yes. I believe people nowadays are still drawn to them because of what a magnetic couple they were. None of us have met them, none of us have seen them together as a couple, but there is just something about these two together that still comes through in video footage and photographs seventy years later. They were just happy. From a Clark Gable fan viewpoint, there is no denying the joy Carole brought into his life and the suffering her death caused. Were they any happier than most couples? Did he suffer more than any other widower? Certainly not—their celebrity just causes their feelings to be heightened in our eyes.
I think what resonates so much with Clark Gable fans (myself included) about the Carole Lombard marriage is what she meant to him and what his loss did to him. I could write quite the detailed psychoanalysis on how women shaped Clark Gable. The sad part is, most of the important women in his life ended up leaving him. He never knew his own mother. The only mother he did know, his beloved stepmother Jennie Dunlap, died when he was still young. Jean Harlow, a close friend who was like a sister, died young. His first two marriages were formed out of convenience and blackmail. He finally finds a woman whom he considers a partner and marries her for love…and within three years she is gone.
Their marriage was not perfect; I have yet in my life to see a marriage that is. But for some reason often people try to either portray them as such or to lambast them for not being so. They are dead, pretty much everyone who knew them as a couple is dead, and therefore it is often difficult when someone is trying to get to the real them. All we have left are quotes and written accounts by those who did know them. These kinds of things as well get stretched and elaborated over time. I have discovered in several incidents that a lot of things even the most top notch bios say are simply not true. A lot of times a rumor gets started, maybe even as they were still alive, and as the decades go on it is cemented into truth. For a prime example, take the instance of Clark and Carole attending the 1940 Academy Awards. They didn’t. Just a bit of digging provides the truth, but yet every Clark Gable bio I own says that they did. In turn, they, like any celebrity couple, constantly endured rumors of strife and infidelity. I have yet to find an actress who admits sleeping with Clark when he was with Carole. Ones who slept with him when he was with Ria? Quite a few hands shoot up there. But there are just so many things that we will never know.
Regardless of what anyone believes to be true as to what went on behind closed doors, what is not deniable is the indelible mark Carole left on Clark’s life. Nobody dared to ask the question, but in the 1950’s if someone asked Clark who the love of his life was, in true Clark fashion, I bet he would refuse to respond. But I believe we all know the answer.
See you next year for Carole Lombard Month, Carole!