Fit for a King
By Cynthia Miller
Modern Screen magazine, March 1950
The heartache and the restlessness are over at last…the loneliness is ended.
For a miracle happened to Clark Gable—he fell deeply in love again.
They sat opposite me at Amelio’s, one of those restaurants in San Francisco where the steaks are tender and titanic. I tried not to stare.
Clark and Sylvia Gable had been married only 48 hours. In another two, they would head for pier 32, and board the S.S. Lurline for Honolulu and their honeymoon.
As I say, I tried not to stare. But after all, I’m a woman with a woman’s curiosity, and I couldn’t help myself. There, sitting opposite me was Clark Gable, the King, the most celebrated screen lover of modern times, and there next to him, was his fourth bride, the blonde and beautiful Lady Sylvia Stanley of Alderley, widow of Douglas Fairbanks, Senior. She was dressed in a simple black-and-white checked sports dress and she wore flat-heeled pumps. Over her shoulders was draped a silver blue mink coat.
These two world-famous celebrities did not look like newlyweds. They spoke very sparingly during the meal, and as any waiter will tell you, that’s a sure sign a couple is married. When they’re in the courting stage, they talk a blue streak.
Clark and his bride, however, were both in a happy, anticipatory mood, and when the waiter brought their food, Gable slapped his hands in relish and said, “This is our first square meal in three days.”
What I wanted most to do was to go over to their table and interview them right there and then, but I knew two things for sure: One, I had no right to invade their privacy at a time like this; and two, if I did, the management would toss me out on my ear.
So I got up and drove to the Matson pier. I boarded the Lurline and went down to C deck and suite 245, the quarters reserved for Mr. and Mrs. William Clark Gable. The suite consisted of two bedrooms, sitting room and a private deck.
The boat was scheduled to leave at midnight. It was jammed with hundreds of visitors, all of whom, it seemed, knew the location of the Gable rooms. The corridor leading to the suite was packed with women and bobby-soxers, all anxious to get a look at Clark and his bride.
A little after 11 o’clock, the Gables drove onto the pier escorted by two motorcycle policemen. As Clark and his blonde bride, surrounded by police officers, stepped off the gangplank, the crowd moved in. Ten police officers made a flying wedge and after 15 minutes of shoving, succeeded in getting the Gables into their suite. A crowd then formed outside and began beating on the door.
In a few minutes, the door was opened slightly to permit the entrance of a few of us reporters, and a Modern Screen photographer, Ken Cheney. We dove in.
First thing, our photographer spoke up. “Would you mind please standing a little closer together?” he asked Gable. Clark smiled—so, too, did his tall bride. “Look,” said Clark, as our lensman kept motioning him closer, “you run your romance and I’ll run mine.” We all laughed.
“How did you pop the question to Lady Stanley?” I then asked.
Clark grinned. “I was scared to death,” he said, “that she’d say ‘no’—but she came through all right with a big ‘yes.’”
“I said it as fast as I knew how,” Mrs. Gable added. “Wouldn’t give him any time to change his mind.”
There was another round of flashbulbs, and then the ship’s warning whistle sounded. As we left, I looked back Visible on the newlyweds’ faces were looks of profound relief. They seemed to say, “Alone at last.”
The Lurline pulled out at midnight, and the Gables were below decks as it did.
In three days, they had done an awful lot. Their sudden marriage had amazed and surprised an entire nation. No one had expected this marriage—not even Gable himself, for that matter.
“I’ve had marriage in mind for some time,” he said after the surprise ceremony at the Alisal guest ranch near Solvang, California, “but I just suddenly decided to pop the question. I asked her yesterday if she’d marry me and she said, ‘Yes.’”
The couple then drove to San Luis Obispo on Tuesday, December 20, 1949 and obtained a marriage license at 12:10pm. On the marriage license, Gable gave his age as 48, and Lady Stanley gave hers as 39. Three hours later, the Reverend Aage Moller, pastor of the little Danish Lutheran Church, was conducting the ceremony in the ranch living room. It was a single-ring ceremony with Gable slipping a simple platinum wedding band on Sylvia’s finger and kissing her.
During the ceremony, a hand-cranked phonograph wheezed out the wedding march. The entire ceremony had a horse-opera atmosphere. The guests who watched it wore boots and 10-gallon hats and after it was over, the ranch hands were invited inside for some of the wedding cake and champagne. Sylvia cut the bridal cake with a Japanese sword, which one of the ranch hands had brought back from war service in the Pacific.
When the news was flashed over the wires to a stunned world, the reaction was one of sheer surprise. AT MGM, Clark’s home studio, the publicity department didn’t even believe it. “Impossible,” one press agent said. When he was told however, that his boss, Howard Strickling, head of the MGM press department, had been Gable’s best man, he changed his mind. “Now,” he said, “I believe it.”
Actually, Gable had decided to ask Lady Stanley’s hand in marriage two days before he did, but he couldn’t get up the courage. At Charley Feldman’s party on Saturday, three days preceding the wedding, Gable had matrimony in mind, but wouldn’t discuss it.
On Sunday, he proposed to Sylvia while driving. When the answer was “yes,” he stopped his car, and the couple kissed.
On Monday, they notified intimates of their intention. Gable called Strickling and asked him to be best man, and Sylvia phoned her sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Basil Bleck of Cheviot Hills. The next day, the marriage took place. Basil Bleck gave the bride away. Also present at the ceremony was Miss Jean Garceau, Clark’s business manager and secretary of many years.
Newly-married at the Alisal Guest Ranch, the Gables let people think that they were heading north towards San Francisco for a honeymoon. Instead, they doubled back to Gable’s ranch in Encino. Here. Clark introduced his new bride to his ranch help. Sylvia, of course, charmed all of them off their feet. That night, she went back to her beach house, packed her honeymoon clothes and returned to Gable’s ranch.
Next day, they motored up to San Francisco and boarded the boat for a two-week Honolulu honeymoon.
The first question most movie-goers wanted answered when they heard of Gable’s marriage was: “What kind of girl married Clark Gable—who is she, anyway?”
Well, she was born Sylvia Louise Hawkes, the daughter of an English footman, and for many years she has been regarded as Great Britain’s Cinderella. When she was a teenager, she got a job as a London dressmaker’s manikin, and soon became known as “Silky”—because she could model long, slinky negligees most appealingly. Her heart, however, was always set on a stage career, and in 1926, she got a job as a chorus girl in Midnight Follies, then playing in London.
In very little time, tall, lovely Sylvia Hawkes became the darling of the stage-door Johnnies. She was invited to the homes of the British nobility; she met the earls and dukes and the Prince of Wales (now the Duke of Windsor), and they all found her witty, charming, and gay. One member of nobility fell madly in love with her. He was young Lord Ashley.
His parents, the Earl and Countess of Shaftesbury, wouldn’t hear of the match, so Sylvia and the young Lord, both madly impulsive, eloped and got married. In less than two years, however, the London papers were carrying notices to the effect that Lord Ashley would “no longer be responsible for any debts incurred by my wife.”
However, it wasn’t until seven years later—in 1934—that Lord Ashley would divorce Sylvia. He named a co-respondent in the divorce proceedings, Douglas Fairbanks Senior—at that time still married to Mary Pickford.
A little more than a year later, after Doug and Mary had been divorced, Sylvia and Fairbanks were married in Paris. The U.S. Ambassador was the official witness, and the ceremony was performed in French. The couple honeymooned in China. The marriage supposedly was ideal, but it ended tragically when Fairbanks died of a heart attack in California. He left Sylvia a sum reputed to the in the neighborhood of $2,000,000 and she quickly became prominent in café society circles.
The Sailor Departs…
On January 19, 1944, however, Sylvia Hawkes drove around Boston in a taxicab looking for a minister who could marry her to Edward John, the sixth Baron Stanley, then a Lieutenant Commander in the British Navy. Cole Porter gave Sylvia way that night, but the Baron went to sea and she went to England to await his return. Unfortunately that marriage didn’t take, either, and in 1948, Lord Stanley sued his wife for a divorce in London on desertion grounds. Sylvia did not defend the suit. Instead, she came to the United States and started to live in the ocean-front house in Santa Monica that Fairbanks had left to her.
Three months ago, she and Gable began going to a few parties together. No one thought anything of it. Gable had first met her 15 years ago when she was married to Fairbanks. They were considered old acquaintances—nothing more.
Most of us had long been convinced that Gable would marry again, but we always thought he would choose someone like his third wife, Carole Lombard—very witty, very down-to-earth, very American. None of us ever thought he would marry a titled Englishwoman.
Clark, as everyone knows, has been married three times previously, once in 1924 to Josephine Dillon, a dramatic coach, once to Rhea Langham in 1931, and once to Carole Lombard in 1938. His marriage to Carole was called “the perfect union,” and when she was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas, three years later, Clark went into seclusion at his Encino ranch. His hair turned white at the temples, his face became lined, and he ordered that Carole’s room remain just as it was when she left it—clothes still hanging in the closets, perfume bottles in the bathroom, hosiery rolled up into tight little balls.
It’s been no secret that for the past nine years, Clark has been carrying the torch for his dead wife, subconsciously comparing her to every girl he went out with—and always having the escort fail to reach the Lombard standard.
About a year ago, a girl who had dated Gable occasionally was asked if she thought Clark would ever forget Carole Lombard. “I don’t know,” she said. “He’s certainly tried. He joined the Air Forces; he turned intensely to hunting, fishing, and boating. He threw himself into his work. But my own opinion is that there’s only one way in which a man like Gable can forget a woman he’s loved. That way is by falling in love with another one. I’m not that woman.”
She wasn’t, either. But the whole word now knows who was.