Maria “Ria” Franklin
“Clark never did anything to embarrass me. Our marriage was one of mutual respect.”
“I’ve always told Clark he could have a divorce any day he asked me for it. And he can. Today or tomorrow. But he’s a businessman as well as a movie star. He knows one must be businesslike about these things. It’s only fair. I gave him a good many years of my life and taught him a great deal.”
Ria was raised in Macomb, Illinois. She married William Prentiss at age seventeen and divorced him four years later. By this time her mother had died and her father was living in Texas, ailing with tuberculosis. She moved to Texas to help care for him and met Alfred Thomas Lucas, a widower twenty-two years her senior who had a very successful brick business. Soon after they were married, Ria gave birth to George Anna (called Jana) and to Alfred Jr. six years later. After Alfred Sr. died in 1922, he left Ria quite a fortune and she was considered one of Houston’s wealthiest citizens. She married Denzil Langham in 1925 and divorced him in 1927 (daughter Jana recalled that the marriage was “an utter mistake”). Soon afterward, Ria and her children moved to New York to start anew.
How They Met
Ria’s daughter Jana claims she and a friend saw Clark when he was part of a stock company performing in Houston and developed big crushes on him. When the family moved to New York, Jana discovered Clark was there too and took her mother with her to see him in the play Machinal. Ria’s half-brother, Booth Franklin, was an actor as well and offered to take them backstage to meet Clark after the show. It was then that Ria first set her eyes on Clark and decided he would make a nice protégé. Ria fell madly in love with Clark from the start and began to groom him, picking out stylish clothes for him to wear, teaching him social graces. Clark enjoyed the attention she flourished in him and saw her as elegant and worldly. She followed him to Hollywood when his movie career began and started to insist on marriage.
Clark was quickly gaining heart throb status and was enjoying the attention. He was seen around town with several of his costars and would often not come home. Ria grew more and more irritated as the months wore on and finally decided to take matters into her own hands. She went directly to MGM public relations chief Howard Strickling and told him, crying, that they had been living together for years and that Clark had promised to marry her but now wanted to dump her. She was devastated at what that would do to her reputation and said that if he did dump her she would be “forced” to tell her story to the fan magazines and newspapers. Strickling, knowing the scandal would ruin the career of his rising star, agreed that they should be married as quickly as possible. Clark hesitated, until Strickling and MGM producer Irving Thalberg waved his contract in his face, which included a morality clause. Living with a woman who was not his wife was in direct violation. Clark had no choice but to agree.
Many early reports say that Ria and Clark were married before they even arrived in Hollywood. These reports stemmed from the fact that Clark and Ria had been registering at hotels as “Mr. and Mrs. Gable” and MGM had even already told the press that he was a happily married man. To avoid confusion over the marriage, MGM put out a statement that when they originally married Clark’s divorce from Josephine was not final, thus their marriage was not legal and they had to get married again.
They were married on June 19,1931 at a courthouse in Santa Ana, California, in the judge’s chambers. Reporters flocked to the scene and shouted questions at them as they exited. Neither answered and solemnly walked to their waiting car together.
If Ria was hoping that forcing Clark to marry her would result in him finally behaving like a husband, she was wrong. They moved into a mansion in Beverly Hills, their bedrooms at opposite ends of the house. They appeared together at premieres and social functions, smiling happily, their arms intertwined, but when the evening was over Clark would often drop her off at the house and go back out on his own. Ria was enjoying fame of her own, as women all over the world envied her and the name “Mrs. Gable” immediately propelled her into Hollywood’s elite social circle. She even did a cross-country press tour with Jana and Al in tow, traveling by train and waving to fans, telling everyone how grand her marriage was to the famous Clark Gable. Jana remembered that when Clark was around at home, things weren’t as happy as Ria liked to perceive them. He liked to “get under her skin” and “ruffle her feathers” about things, breaking engagements and leaving her to apologize. Eventually, the whispers certainly made their way to Ria’s ears: Clark’s affairs with Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Allan and Loretta Young, among others. But she remained confidant that Clark needed her as his wife. Clark did make time to spend with Ria’s children. He took Al to ballgames and picnics, bought Jana a car and made her his secretary and even walked her down the aisle at her wedding. By 1935, Clark was a success. He earned top box office, had one of the highest salaries in the business and had just been awarded an Oscar for It Happened One Night. He no longer needed Ria’s guidance or reassurance. He had his lawyers draw up a separation agreement and moved into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
Even though they were no longer living under the same roof and the only time she knew of his whereabouts was when she read it in gossip columns, Ria was confident that he would come back to her. So much so, that she became quite upset when the press embraced Clark’s relationship with Carole Lombard. His other dalliances had come and gone, all under the radar and Ria knew that everyone was on her side, as the scorned wife. But this Lombard affair was different. Instead of seeing it as adulterous, the press and public applauded the romance, tracking the couple’s every move and wondering when Ria would finally get a divorce and let Clark marry Carole. Ria kept her head held high. She knew Clark wouldn’t want to pay her off. She wanted her share of Clark’s salary that he had earned while she supported him all these years. In December 1938, Photoplay magazine published an article called “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives” (Available in the Article Archive). In it, Clark and Carole (along with Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, among others) were called out for “behaving like they are married”, even though they weren’t. To help avoid any additional scandal, MGM released a statement from Clark saying that he was asking Ria for a divorce. Ria was furious and Carole was becoming impatient. Clark was at the time hesitating to play Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. MGM saw the Ria situation as a way to seal the deal so they gave him an advance on his contract so he could pay Ria the $300,000 she demanded. At first, she spitefully insisted on getting the divorce in California, which called for a year waiting period before Clark and Carole could marry. After a few months it seems she realized that no one was on her side and the press saw her as a martyr standing in the way of Clark and Carole’s “true love”.
Ria traveled to Las Vegas and was granted a divorce on March 8, 1939, from Judge William E. Orr, in a court hearing that lasted four minutes. She told reporters outside the courthouse, “Clark knew he could have a divorce anytime, but he never seemed to want one. I think a marriage between a movie star and a society woman has a better chance of succeeding than one between two stars.”
Life After Clark
Ria maintained her composure despite her crumbling dignity as everyone celebrated the marriage of Clark and Carole, who were wed on March 28. She stuck around Hollywood for a few years but found that being “the ex-Mrs. Gable” did not open as many doors as being Mrs. Gable, especially when the current Mrs. Gable was Carole Lombard. She dated George Raft for a while and then retreated from public life, eventually retiring to Houston. She kept up with Clark’s career, saving clippings of him and would often regale her grandchildren of her “days in Hollywood”.
Ria died on September 24, 1966 and was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston.
For more pictures, check out the Ria Franklin section in the gallery.