By Kirtley Baskette
Modern Screen magazine,March 1942
One day, around a dozen years ago, a Hollywood extra named Billy Gable needed a new shirt. He stopped in at Clark’s Dollar Store on the Boulevard. He laid down a precious buck. He picked up the shirt, which he tucked under his arm—also the store’s front name, which he tacked onto his own last tag.
The deal was a bargain—any way you look at it.
Billy Gable became Clark Gable and Clark Gable became the greatest box office star the screen has ever known. He became the man who has stayed in the top ten for ten straight years. Who rose to a salary of $7,000 a week. Who caused riots when he visited big cities. Who eventually married movie land’s great glamour beauty, Carole Lombard, in a Hollywood king-and-queen match.
Clark Gable did all right. But at heart he remained pretty much Billy Gable, the ex-Ohio farm boy. He still preferred the dank, sweet smell of barns to the dead air of nightclubs. He still would trade back slaps and mob huzzas for the jolt of a shotgun or the zing of a reel. He could take the jostles of fame, but personally he could leave them anytime for outdoor elbow room.
So when he could call his shots, he did leave them a little. He bought a ranch fifteen minutes from Hollywood. He took his bride there. For three years Clark and Carole tried out country life. They both liked it. Now they’re planning on stretching the distance. They’re searching all over the West—Oregon, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. They’re hunting hard for a cattle ranch that’s a thousand acres at least and when they find the ideal spot they’ll move there, build a house and ver come into town except to make a picture. Then at last Clark Gable will be happy. After all these years he’ll be back on the farm. He’ll be Billy Gable again and darn glad of it!
At forty-one, Clark Gable is amazingly unchanged by this fantastic cycle in his life. Fame, fortune, three marriages and a decade of adulation have left him with simple tastes, habits and ambitions. Nor have they conjured up a demi-god of heroic proportions. Clark is good at some things, terrible in others. He has his strong points and his weak ones, too. He’s no saint, but certainly no lost sinner. He’s no great brain, but he isn’t exactly dumb. He’s a sucker for some things, but he packs around his pet peeves, too. He’s canny, and he’s crude, vain and humble, extravagant and sensible, energetic and lazy, brave and scared. In short, beneath his celluloid halo, Clark Gable is just an average guy in his private life.
No one knows this better than Clark himself. And nothing points this more plainly than where he lives and how.
To reach Clark Gable at home, you drive from Hollywood out Highway 101 and turn left when a sign says “Encino”. You travel up a road until you come to a thousand orange trees. The drives goes through these and what you find at the end is Clark Gable’s only piece of property, excluding a North California duck hunting shack worth possibly $500.
The Gable ranch house rests on twenty-two acres in San Fernando Valley, mostly citrus and alfalfa. It cost Clark $50,000, and it’s for sale now to apply on the bigger and better homestead. Clark bought it in March 1939 from Raoul Walsh, the director. He immediately planted fifty new orange trees, put up a new barn, remodeled the house and stocked the ranches. This modest domain claims practically all Clark Gable’s off-set time, except when he’s hunting. Gable’s private life is as simple as that.
His castle is a fifteen-year-old white frame ranch house of no particular architectural design. A veranda runs around most of its seven rooms, which do not include a guest room.
Clark’s immediate household consists of himself, Carole, Fred the ranch hand, Jessie the cook, Florence the maid, a flock of ring-neck pheasants, a few hundred chickens, two cows, eight horses, three dogs and one alley cat.
The Gable animal population has a varied and interesting history. It started with one cow, which became two when a ranch hand’s wife had a baby and milk became important. Chickens came next and Clark’s poultry pride reached its zenith when he groomed a certain flock for the Los Angeles County Fair. Visions of blue ribbons at Pomona danced in the country squire’s head. Then rudely, they vanished. On the eve of the big event, wife Carole discovered some poor people down the road who didn’t have enough to eat. She had a batch of ranch chickens killed and sent over. They turned out to be Clark’s pet contenders.
His canine crew consists of two dogs, “Bob”, his pointer and hunting companion, and “Commissioner”, a dachshund, named after Clark’s friend, a Santa Monica fire commissioner.
There are right horses on the Gable ranch today, including Clark’s two saddle favorites, “Buck”, a sorrel, “Comanche”, a grey. Carole’s is a Tennessee Walker. Clark has always been a great horse lover and constant rider although, except for his late and inglorious bangtail, Beverly Hills (who cost Clark a pretty penny and cured him or racing), none of them are prize-winners. A while back Clark invested in a wild, spirited steed, a bad actor. He thought it would be exciting to train and tame him. One day, with Clark in the saddle, the stallion dashed out of control, clattering across a road under repair. There he stumbled, tossing Gable smack in a puddle of newly ladled asphalt. Clark yanked himself up from the sticky stuff, looking like a tar baby, led the horse home and put him up for sale that day. He figured there was no use asking for a broken neck.
Probably the most annoying but beloved member of the Gable ménage is a nameless cat. Clark and Carole ran on to the derelict puss one night before they were married. They’d been out on a date and heard the kitten mewing dismally from a barrel in an alley. They promptly adopted him as an advance member of the family. The cat repays by climbing nightly up the house and scratching on the screen of Clark’s bedroom window. He doesn’t do this until after midnight, so it’s always a cause of nocturnal cursing as Clark rouses himself out of the hay and lets the tabby inside.
Clark is a light sleep by nature, anyway. If the cat doesn’t wake him, the mockingbirds do. These midnight yodelers perch in profusion among the ranch house tress and start their chorals about 4:30 in the morning. Time and again grumpy Gable has paced the floor at false dawn swearing vengeance via a shotgun on the mockers; of course, he never does the deed.
Midnight is the usual retiring hour at the Gables. But Clark’s light snoozing habit makes him a confirmed bed reader. His room is usually stacked high with books and magazines. He prefers the adventure type with plenty of action. His most serious reading bent is for history, especially military history. He has studied every American war and its campaigns thoroughly. He’s keenly interested in the present blitz and counter-blitz particularly from a tactics standpoint.
Clark’s bedroom is designed for masculine comfort. His bed is leather upholstered, and the large chairs match it. The room is plain. Besides the book shelves and old boxing prints on the wall, there’s nothing decorative about it—no trophies, no mementos strewn around. A large fireplace in the corner is balanced by a big and unpopular desk. The desk is Clark’s business office, but he hates business matters. The very worst correspondent in all Hollywood, writing letters is torture to Clark. Not long ago a secretary, going through his dressing room, found a stack of unopened personal mail postmarked 1937. The only letter Clark is certain of scribbling at the desk is the letter he writes Carole each year on their anniversary.
This worries him so that he gets up early in the morning and attacks it laboriously, sweating out an anniversary billet doux with a tortured pen. Clark is an early riser anyway, rolling out of the hay most mornings at six, a hangover from his early farm training and his many hunting junkets. Clark likes a big country breakfast when he’s ranching, almost none when he’s acting. He seldom loads up for lunch, but for dinner he wants man fodder—steaks, potatoes, roasts and lots of ‘em. Usually there’s game in the big icebox. Nothing tempts Clark more than cold fowl, chicken, duck, turkey. But he isn’t fussy about what the daily menu offers. In fact, he asks not to be told. Carole plans all the meals at the ranch, and when the Gables are on safari she does all the cooking. Clark brags about it, so you can bet it must be good.
Dinner is at eight at the Gables. Clark likes a drink or two before dinner—always Scotch and soda. He hates nothing worse than cocktails, unless it’s people who drop in to visit without phoning.
For that reason, the Gables spend most evenings by themselves, unless some dinner party or planned evening is on with their few close friends, such as the Walter Langs—she was “Fieldsie”, Carole’s former secretary and chum—the Fred MacMurrays, the “Tuffy” Goffs, Clark’s hunting pals, Jack Conway and Harry Fleischman, or Carole’s immediate family, the Peters clan. In any case, there’s never any question about dressing or not. Clark won’t—that’s all. The last time he wore soup and fish was for the “Gone with the Wind” opening in Atlanta. And when they had to have a dinner jacket shot of him for “Honky Tonk”, the set was camphorated until even Lana Turner complained.
Carole and Clark pass most after-dinner hours playing games, reading or driving out to movies they’ve missed. Clark hates dancing; he’s an awkward dancer still. So there’s little night-spotting. Clark still likes movies, his most recent favorite being “Here Comes Mr. Jordan”. Backgammon is the Gable table sport, but sometimes they sit up all night playing showdown poker. One night recently they wasted electricity until 4:00am with Clark heavy winner by twenty-five cents. Gable isn’t a serious gambler, doesn’t play the horses any more. But when he did (as everyone in Hollywood did when Santa Anita first opened) he was phenomenally lucky, hitting them regularly on the nose. The only time he shows up now is at the famous racetrack’s annual Handicap.
The Encino ranch living room is after-dinner headquarters. Like the bedrooms, it features a large fireplace. The divans and chairs are huge, low and soft. The Gable pets have the run of the house as well as the ranch. Often evenings they always arrive inside and plant themselves happily at Clark’s feet while he smokes a cigar. Gable smokes everything—cigarettes during the day, a cigar after dinner and pipes later on.
A famous ranch pastime for these long winter evenings is movie projection. Carole gave Clark a complete 16mm set-up last Christmas, complete with sound and everything except pretty usherettes. He collects clips of his own films, reels taken on hunting trips and favorite scenes from newsreels. They’re all reduced for home showing. When he isn’t playing movie theatre, a major attraction for Gable is to “go over” his hunting and fishing equipment. This is a solitary job; in fact, Gable’s gun cabinet is a sacred place. No one touches his fancy shooting irons—not even Carole. The den has been transformed into his gun room.
Clark started collecting guns the minute he had any part of his check to spend on foolishness. The most extensive shooting item in the Gable collection is a $1,200 gun. It’s one of his two great weaknesses in the spending department. In almost every other personal want he’s thrifty and sparing. In fact, since the day he arrived in Hollywood he has been saving. Just the other day, a local bank manager uncovered a savings pass book of Billy-Clark Gable’s. It showed a dollar-a-week deposit, whether Clark was working or not—and quite often he was not.
The only collection that matches his sporting arsenal is his expensive custom-made fishing tackle. Lake Mead, the inland sea backed up by the Colorado River behind Boulder Dam, is a currently favored spot. Like all fisherman, Clark can invent tall tales, but when pressed will admit that trout, as a rule, have him well baffled.
This side of Gable’s life—the most important in his off-studio hours (so important that his contract calls for three months off for trips) has been wisely shared from the nuptial start by Carole. No wife ever struggled to adapt herself to a husband’s play interests more than the strictly urban Miss Lombard, used to silks, satins, and fancy city living. They’d been married hardly a month before she was traveling grimly out daily to a skeet range. In typical Lombard, thoroughness, she not only mastered shotgun shooting, but occasionally outshot Clark. Carole still spends an hour every leisure day on the front lawn of their ranch whipping a trout line all over the place. Expert casting takes even longer than good shooting.
“Mrs. G.” (as Clark calls her) has palled “Pappy” (as she calls Clark) on so many hunting trips that when illness kept her from Clark’s last pheasant hunting junket the other week in Arizona, those old (and silly) divorce rumors popped up again.
The major mark against Carole is that when she goes hunting she takes along so much comfort duffle the car can hardly clear the bumps. The last time they set out, Clark had a mammoth moving can backed up to the ranch door. Draped across the top was a banner, “Mrs. Gable’s Hunting Wagon.”
Clark has recently done the best he can about this feminine foible by purchasing what is currently his pride and joy. It’s officially a hunting wagon, but the Gables call it “the Jeep”. The Jeep has a four-wheel drive, separate axles and practically everything the army’s blitz buggies have except cannon and flame throwers. It can amble over sand and fields, ford streams and almost climb palm trees. It’s hefty enough to stand the strain of all Mrs. G’s outing gear.
The hunting wagon neatly combines the two major masculine loves of Clark Gable’s life—sports and automobiles. It is hard to say which he woos more ardently. Both are his major money extravagances. Both give him more of a kick than anything yet invented by man.
Clark has had a mechanical mind since he was a kid. He developed it in the oil fields and a dozen other jobs before he saw a camera. He has probably owned more deep breathing motors than any other star in Hollywood. Certainly he has puttered, fussed and remodeled cars more, driven them farther and traded them oftener than anyone else in town.
His latest personal heap is just about the best looking automobile in the screen colony, although it’s far from the most expensive. Clark took a Cadillac coupe, just like Carole’s, had the top cut down four inches, the body streamlined here and there and all the “Hollywood” chromium trim removed. He had the hard top covered with canvas and a Gable innovation added here and there. The resulting gray job is sleek, sporty and safe. Clark loves the country look of a soft-top car, but he balks at the risk of life and limb. He’s a speedy driver and if he turns over he wants a chance. The entire Cadillac operation cost $500.
When the rebuilt new car was finally delivered, Clark was in bed with the flu. The day was cold and rainy, and there ensued a vigorous wrestling match for a few minutes between Clark and Carole to keep him in bed. Pneumonia or not, he hiked out to the garage to pet and purr over his new car, like a kid with a Christmas toy.
Clark has constantly scoffed at having a chauffeur. He likes to drive too much himself. When he and Carole would up pheasant- hunting trip in South Dakota recently, they couldn’t find a convenient plane or train to take home. Clark walked into a small town agency and bought a Ford. He sold it when he reached Hollywood, losing $100, less than plane or train tickets.
When Clark isn’t behind the wheel he loves to tinker with cars. One Saturday not long ago, his station wagon was wheezing badly as he left the studio. He left, saying he was going home and fix it. He fixed it. He worked all weekend. Monday a garage had to call and haul it away to fix Clark’s fixing. He’s been more successful, however, with his farm tractor. The first day the tractor arrived Clark hopped in the seat and happily set about cultivating his orange grove. The tractor promptly ran away and mowed down five trees. Bloody but unbowed, Gable peered into every part of its mechanism and mastered it. Now it’s his mechanical pet, and he’d rather clank it across his alfalfa field than win an Academy Award.
Outside of farm chores and sporting trips, Gables takes practically no exercise. When he got a little puffy around the gulls a while back he tried mild morning calisthenics, but soon gave them up. He doesn’t golf much and seldom treads a tennis court these days.
Yet his weight remains fairly constant, around 190, and his health is sound. The only thing that troubles him is a “shoulder point”, a kind of a nerve and bone condition of the shoulder, common to football players. Clark got his shooting. That’s what he entered Johns Hopkins Hospital for last time he was East.
But he still reads without glasses, eats and drinks anything he pleases, owns all his own temple-graying black hair and shows no signs of falling apart under the strain of being the nation’s number one heart throb.
The only concession Clark makes to this romantic status is his personal appearance. For an outdoor man, Clark Gable is inordinately neat, clean and well groomed. He sprouts daily a beard as black as the shades of Hell and as wicked to shave. But no one in Hollywood has ever seen him with a stubble unless it was for a spike-faced role. Clark shaves every morning, trims his moustache and totes along an electric razor which he’s likely to plug in any convenient socket. He’s a twice-a-day showerer and fussy about white nail rims, although he seldom gets a manicure in the MGM barber shop where his thick locks are trimmed heavy-sided, long movie style of necessity. He can’t stand scented lotions or perfumes. The myth of an ear-pinning-back job is just that, Clark has never had any beautifying facial operation.
The only jewelry he ever wears besides cuff links and studs are a plain gold ruby mounted ring, a birthday present from Carole two years ago, a gold cigarette case, Christmas loot also from Carole, and a wrist watch he bought himself years ago. With clothes he’s more extravagant. Clark both likes and knows good clothes and he has plenty of them.
That’s not to say he’s a dude. Something cured Clark of fancy feathers a good many years ago. It was in his Broadway days and he’d just clicked modestly in a small part. Clark invested his roll in a morning coat, striped trousers, spats and topper. With a gardenia in his lapel and twirling a stick, he strolled down the avenue like a real actor. The next day the show folded, he was broke, out of a job and desperate—with all his fine rags to mock him. Gable has few superstitions, but that has steered him since from elegant get-ups.
Clark’s wardrobe bears down heavily on brown handspun tweeds, shetlands and other sports clothes. He owns about 25 tailored business outfits, very few hats, but scores of custom made English boots and shoes, size 11-C. Naturally enough, he has a vast closet jammed with riding clothes and outing gear. Carole never dares tag along to buy anything even as small as a tie (he likes red ones). Adolphe Menjou’s tailor, Eddie Schmidt, makes most of the Gable suits. Clark tried another bushelman, but discovered he was out to gyp him. The tailor had picked the wrong movie star. Clark will spend plenty for what he wants, but he’s a close buyer and resents being fast-talked out of a dime.
Automobile dealers discovered long ago that to keep the Gable account they had to talk turkey on trade-ins. Clark is cagey about his money because he has a goal. The goal is to gain a lifetime income of $1,000 a month. That will keep up all the living standard he’ll even acquire. But he wants his security gilt-edged.
The ranch is the only property investment he has ever made. The rest of his salary (he keeps 20 percent of his check, and the government takes 80) goes into annuities and bonds and stocks as sound as such can be. Actually, Clark has been in the big money only about five years. He is not poor, but he is not rich, like William Powell or Wallace Beery or any veteran star who got up there where it counted, before income taxes came along!
Clark’s MGM contract has five more years to run. The present agreement calls for three pictures a year, no more. It’s most unique in that the options are Clark’s, not MGM’s. He can stop anytime he wants. But whenever he’s queried now on this point, Gable just grins and says, “As long as they like me, I can stand it!” (He once said he’s quit in 1940.) The best guess is that Gable will quit when and only when he figures he has a lifetime supply of pocket money.
Clark usually carries $50 in his pants pocket, by the way, secured by a gold clip. It’s likely to last him a couple of weeks. He doesn’t over-tip or toss change around lavishly. But in the big things, Gable is generous. He is always a sure bet for any worthwhile charity—with a check, that is. He hates benefits and it’s almost impossible to persuade him to go unless it’s especially worthy.
Besides Carole (who naturally is wealthy in her own right), Clark supports only his father, now aged 76. [His father] dwells in a Hollywood bungalow. Just the other day Clark presented him with a new Chevrolet coupe. Papa Gable has seen his famous son act just three times and then briefly. He isn’t too interested. He thinks Clark is just lucky in a rather foolish life’s work. The last visit was on “Honky Tonk”. Jack Conway said, “Well, you’ve got quite a boy here,” meaning Clark. “He’s all right,” observed the old man. “He’s never been spoiled, anyway.”
That, as his dad knows, is the most amazing thing about the metamorphosis of Billy Gable. He’s stayed himself underneath though has choice a selection of superficialities as a man’s ever faced.
That is evident in every direction. But maybe it can be pointed by an episode that took place at the very zenith of Clark Gable’s movie glory—at the Atlanta premiere of “Gone with the Wind”.
As Clark sat on the platform, surrounded by 300,000 frog-eyed worshipers on Atlanta’s streets, a message came to him. “Your Uncle Charley is out in the crowd,” it said, “and he’d like to see you.” Clark grinned. His Uncle Charley owns a movie theatre somewhere in rural Florida. He won’t play Clark’s pictures. He says very frankly they’re too expensive and nuts to them.
A message sent out over the loud speaker. “Clark Gable,” the announcer said, “would like to see his Uncle Charley at the reception after the show. Will he please come?”
Uncle Charley came. MGM photographers poised their cameras to record the family meeting. Then they lowered their lenses and shook their heads. One approached Clark and whispered, “Look at Uncle Charley’s ears!”
“What’s the matter with ‘em?” asked Clark.
“Well—“ began the photographer, “—er—the shot might look funny.” Like his nephew, Uncle C. had indeed a generous helping of ears. Like Clark’s they spread to the wind like spinnakers.
Clark caught on. He leaned back and roared. “Don’t worry about that! There’s nothing wrong with the Gable ears. Boy—they’ve sure done all right for me!”
Which nobody can deny.