In many ways, it was easier to be a star back then. The studio assigned you your films, your co-stars, dictated your schedule; they covered up your affairs, paid off columnists to shoo away divorce rumors and personal scandals, and made sure the pictures of you that were published were only your very best. You were protected.
On the other hand, you were also shackled—by the studio and by the time period itself. This studio system affected the life of most of its stars dramatically—personal choices that most would take for granted were whisked away. If you were gay, your studio set you up on dates with its newest starlet and planted marriage rumors in the columns. If rumors started flying that you were shacked up with someone or had gotten someone pregnant, you’d better believe wedding bells would be ringing as soon as possible. There was a morality clause in that contract you signed and your studio never let you forget it.
In the first contract Clark signed with MGM in 1931, the morality clause read as follows: “The artist agrees to conduct himself with due regard to public conventions and morals and agrees that he will not do or commit any act or thing that will tend to degrade him in society, or bring him into public hatred, contempt, scorn, or ridicule, or that will tend to shock, insult or offend the community or ridicule public morals or decency or prejudice the producer or the motion picture industry in general.” And that very morality clause is the direct cause for Clark’s second marriage.
Now that the scandal was avoided and the dust was cleared, I imagine that MGM was not too pleased that their newly minted “Hollywood he-man” came with an older, rather matronly wife. I’m sure they would have much rather had him single, and paired him with every new starlet in their roster to boost both careers. But MGM made the best of it. Story after story printed of how “in love” the Gables were, what a doting stepfather Clark was, etc. They even tried to lower the age of Ria and her children, and always described Ria as “beautiful, glamorous and sophisticated.” Any rumors of them separating (and they began nary a month after the wedding!) were quickly squashed by MGM publicity. If Clark had to be a married man, he was going to be a HAPPILY married man, if MGM had their way.
If you were Mrs. Clark Gable you would have to fight every minute to hold him. Every man and every woman must fight some sort of fight to keep the flame of love burning, steadily—and exclusively. Love is a living thing. It must be fed. It is rank nonsense to say, as some women do say, that if they had to fight for a thing, then they don’t want it. Anyone would fight for anything that is precious—be it a diamond ring or a husband. But there might be fighting to the death. There might be fighting that would exhaust, that would make the combat not worthwhile. There is no sort of sense in fighting, I suppose, when you know the odds are against you. One man would be a fool, not a warrior, if he undertook to engage an army in single combat. One woman would be a fool to resist all other women. And the wife of Clark Gable is, pretty literally, fighting against all other women.I am minded of a party I once attended where Mr. and Mrs. Gable were among those present. And every woman in that large room, from the most prominent stars down to the least significant debutante was ogling and pawing and using all but physical violence to get near Clark Gable. He was surrounded. He was besieged. He was drowned in a sea of perfumed flattery and eyes and lips and would-be caressing hands. He did the best he could. He didn’t seem to be enjoying it. He was dignified and shy and naïve. But there he was. All mean are sensitive to flattery. And Clark would have been a stone man—a robot—not to have felt the adoring flattery that was being lavished upon him. And on the sidelines sat Mrs. Gable, doing her very clever best to looks as if she were enjoying herself, wearing what became a fixed and artificial smile.This same sort of thing takes place everywhere they go. When the attended openings, Clark is all but knocked down by autograph seekers. Young, flower-like girls stand watching him, with half-opened buds of mouths and misty eyes staring at their incarnate dream. Some few will crane curious heads to look at Mrs. Gable. A voice or so will murmur, “I don’t know what he ever saw in her…”Which isn’t any reflection on Mrs. Gable. It wouldn’t be any reflection on you. So high runs the temperature of fan fever that Gable could be married to Lorelei, to Venus, to Garbo and Crawford and Shearer rolled into one and still those thousands of other women would shake deprecatory heads and say, “I don’t know what he ever saw in her…”Nor is Mrs. Gable immune from this sort of thing even in their own home. Women call him on the phone. Women write him letters, the fervid words of which shrivel the scented paper. The perfume of them fills the house even though the words are never read.
The story behind the scenes was far from the portrait MGM painted. Whatever relationship Clark and Ria had before their forced marriage, it was strained to say the least following the ceremony. Clark was angry at what she had done. I suppose he understood her reasoning in a way—I think he did realize that perhaps he “owed” her the marriage, but that didn’t make this cornered bear feel any better. Clark had new fame, new money, an exploding career and Ria was like an anchor he had to drag around on a chain behind him. He dutifully appeared at film premieres with Ria on his arm, waving at crowds. He did interviews with fan magazines, always mentioning Ria only delicately, giving her credit for being a good wife occasionally, but never oozing with love and adoration. Meanwhile, Clark and Ria were sleeping in separate rooms, across the house from each other. He was always staying late at the studio or not coming home at all. Hidden from the fans by a protective press, Clark was carrying on several affairs with co-stars: Anita Page, Marion Davies and Elizabeth Allan, to name a few. Not to mention the notorious affair with Joan Crawford that everyone in Hollywood knew about…but kept quiet.
The whispers surely hit Mrs. Gable’s ears, but Ria was a proud woman and did them no mind. She enjoyed being Mrs. Gable and all the perks that came with it. Ria and her two children even took a train around the country, waving to fans of Clark’s. She gave interviews depicting their perfect family life and sharing recipes for the things Clark liked to eat. To the American public, the Gables had a perfect marriage, and Ria was confident that, despite what he was doing all those nights he wasn’t at home, that he would always return to her.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was Clark’s brief fling with Loretta Young in 1935 while on location for Call of the Wild. It wasn’t too long after Clark learned of Loretta’s pregnancy that he finally moved out of the Brentwood home he shared with Ria, and into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Loretta’s condition was kept secret (for about 60 years!) but the fan magazines fed fans a steady diet of “oh no, how could this have happened to such a wonderful couple who were so perfect together” stories following the Gables’ separation. Ria felt vindicated by these stories, knowing the public was on her side.
This rather ridiculous article, written by Adela Rogers St. Johns ( a friend of Clark’s who knew full well of his numerous affairs) tops the charts as far as syrupy eulogies to their marriage.
The parting of the Gables makes my heart ache a little. I think it does yours, too. Because they were in love with each other, those two. And I know that they expected to live out their years side by side, with love and laughter and courage. I’ve listened to them, in the serene and lovely home Rhea Gable had created, planning things they were going to do, places they were going to see, books they were going to read – always together. Now they are planning to go separate ways and you can see the heartbreak in Clark’s eyes. Because even with all the other women there are in the world, even if a man were the screen’s great lover, it would be dreadful to wake up in the morning and think you’d lost Rhea – because there aren’t any other women like Rhea, at least none I’ve ever met. Why? Why did it have to happen? Why did two such swell people, both of them real, both of them fine, both of them deserving of happiness, have to come to the end of what seemed to all of us who knew them well, all of us who’d been close friends, an ideal marriage? I’ve been sitting here looking out at trees that are bare, but that will be green again in the spring, at lilac bushes that today are brown twiggs but that in April will be fragrance and beauty and color once more, and trying to figure it out. You see, it was like this with the Gables – you felt a wholeness of self when they were together. You felt that they presented a united front to the world and therefore they were safe. I’ve so often noticed them at parties. Maybe they’d be separated the length of a room, the length of a dinner table. Maybe Rhea, stately and elegant in black, would be playing bridge and Clark would be spinning yarns with a gang of men. But every once in a while their eyes would meet in an exchange of sweet understanding, a moment’s greeting, that said, “I’m having such a good time because I know you’re here, in the same room, that we see little things, and laugh over little jokes that belong just to us, and that when the party is over, we’ll go home together to our own home. That’s what really makes everything so nice.” They weren’t sentimental or gushing. They were too modern for that, too casual, as is the fashion nowadays. But your heart felt a little warmer because they were joined in their own way, and the world is often a lonely place and men and women were meant to be one, so that loneliness would roll back like a wave and stand trembling at the command of love. Now the Gables are parted, there’s going to be a divorce.
That was Adela, doing her job, giving the public their fluff and biting her tongue. I have always wondered if the American public bought the whole thing. Probably not.
All that changed when a certain Miss Carole Lombard entered the picture the following year. Fans went nuts for this pairing of Hollywood’s favorite screwball beauty and it’s favorite He-Man. Clark and Carole were pictured everywhere together: the circus, the MGM picnic, premieres, at the horse races, at parties. And these weren’t the somewhat stoic premiere pictures that Clark and Ria had posed for—these were lovey dovey puppy love shots of them arm in arm, often gazing into each other’s eyes. Much to Ria’s surprise, the public turned on her. She was no longer the “poor Mrs. Gable who was left by her loving husband”—she was now the stubborn older wife standing in the way of Clark and Carole’s true love.
Clark and Ria were finally divorced in March 1939 (after Clark was able to pay Ria off with a bonus he received from signing on for Gone with the Wind) and Clark swiftly married Carole Lombard a few weeks later.
As for Ria, she stayed around in Hollywood for a while, even dating George Raft for a bit. Then she retired to Houston, where she died in 1966.
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