Is Gable’s Love Life Jinxed?
By Jack Wade
Modern Screen magazine, 1952
Lucky in cards, unlucky in love, they say. If it’s true, Clark must be a whiz at bridge!
Every time Clark Gable gets himself s divorce, his fans say. “How come he married that woman in the first place?”
They asked this when Gable divorced his first wife, Josephine Dillon, a stage director 17 years his senior.
In 1939 the same inquiry was made concerning Clark’s second wife, Maria Langham, a wealthy Texas society matron, 11 years his senior.
Nowadays, in almost imploring tones, everyone is demanding to know “why Gable married Sylvia Ashley anyway.” It’s as if everyone in the world but Gable knew for sure that his fourth marriage was destined to fail.
A simple truth about William Clark Gable is that he is a notoriously bad judge of women, and he sought a mother substitute rather than a wife in each of the women he married.
Gable fans may scream in protest at the later statement—after all, for 20 years he has been built up as the rugged, handsome, self-sufficient he-man—but just examine the facts, study them honestly, and you will arrive at the same conclusion: Gable, with only one exception, has always married mature women who could mother him.
His own mother died when he was seven months old. His only memories of her are “a few pictures which show what a very fine-looking woman she was.”
Gable was raised by his grandparents until he was four when his father, an oil man, married Jennie Dunlap. Gable Sr. moved the family to Hopedale, a community of 500 which is ten miles from Cadiz, Ohio; and it was here that Clark spent his youth.
His step-mother, whom he idolized, died when he was 15, and the boy was without a mother again.
Gable very rarely talks about his youth, and this is understandable, because it wasn’t a very happy time. What he likes to remember most about it is his step-mother whom he once described as “the tenderest human being I have ever known.”
The night she died, her stepson’s youth died with her; ever since then he has had only the memory of her loveliness and a subconscious desire to recreate her image in the women he later married.
Gable’s professional career is undoubtedly one of the most successful any actor has every enjoyed, but his personal life continues to be tinged with tragedy. He continues to search for the perfect combination of mother-wife. He found her once in the form of Carole Lombard, but her death snatched her away. It is highly doubtful if he will ever again discover Carole’s rare qualities in any one woman.
He is not through looking, however, and despite his protestation: “It will be a long time before I get married again, if ever,” the chances are that Gable will someday take a fifth wife because he knows he can’t live alone.
A few years ago Gable was asked what sort of women he preferred. “I like the sophisticated type,” he admitted. “The sophisticated woman is more interesting. She has more to offer. She has had experience with life and men. She has seen more, heard more and is consequently more amusing. As far as I’m concerned, the demure little girl is a very dull proposition. Give me the older woman who knows what it’s all about.”
As any psychiatrist would point out, there lies implicit in this statement the sublimated desire for a mother-substitute.
There is nothing shameful or unmanly about a grown-up male who seeks a mature woman to provide him with the mother-love he went without as a child. Unless you understand that, there is no possibility of understanding Clark’s various marriages and eventual divorces.
Put yourself in his position when he was 15. Here’s a poor boy with a grade school education who doesn’t want to work on his father’s farm at Ravenna, 60 miles north of Hopedale.
Instead, he gets in touch with Andy Means, a chum from Hopedale, and against his father’s wishes, he packs his straw suitcase, makes three sandwiches, and sets out for Akron seeking a job.
In Akron, he goes to work in the Firestone plant molding treads on tires. He also attends night school, and on one occasion, he sees his first play, “Bird of Paradise”. Fascinated by the theatrical life, he takes a non-salaried job as call-boy.
But soon his money runs out, and in answer to a letter from his father who has gone to work in the Oklahoma oil fields, young Gable joins him and signs on as a tool dresser at $12 a day.
This is more money than the youngster has ever earned in his life, but he’s unhappy. He has no one to turn to, no woman to whom he can explain his newfound enthusiasm for the theater, his new passion for acting, his desperate hunger for show business.
What does he do? He leaves the oil fields and joins the Jewell players, a tent-show company where he drives the stakes in the morning, plays the cornet in the band before the show starts and then hurries to dress up and become an actor. All his for ten bucks a week.
“Of course, we went broke,” Gable recalls. “The final blow came in Butte, Montana. It was March and as cold as Greenland. I knew nothing about mining, and no one could give me a job. I didn’t have a cent for railroad fare. One night I talked to some hoboes. They told me there was a freight train going through that night to Oregon. I hopped it, and it was just my luck that it happened to be a fast fruit train. Every car was sealed. I had to lie flat on top of the car hanging on as best I could. I’ve never been so cold in my life.”
In Oregon, Gable went to work as a lumberjack, a hop picker, a necktie salesman, and a member of the Portland Oregonian’s circulation department. He also fell in love. The girl’s name was Franz Doerfler, and she lived in Portland. She is never mentioned in any of his biographies, but she was his first sweetheart.
As a matter of fact, if Clark hadn’t been accused by a deluded young woman of having fathered her child, it is highly doubtful if the world would have ever learned about Miss Franz Doerfler. For Gable, ever the gallant, has always been extremely secretive about his love life.
In 1937, however, a Canadian girl began writing Clark, accusing him of being the father of her 13-year-old girl. In court, later, she elaborated on the details, explaining that she had given birth to her daughter in 1922 “”when Clark Gable was with me in England.”
Clark realized early in the game that the girl was a bit “off her rocker”, and had promptly turned her letters over to the proper authorities. “I preferred to let the whole case drop,” he confided later, “but the U.S. Attorney asked me to testify on behalf of the government. They felt they had a good extortion case and didn’t want to drop it.”
In his testimony, the handsome actor swore that in 1922 he was broke and living in Oregon. He said there were persons who could substantiate that.
One of these was his Oregon sweetheart of 1922, Franz Doerfler, a tall, plain, shy woman who took the stand and promptly testified that Clark had been courting her in Portland all during the time he allegedly was in England with the Canadian woman.
The wacky female who had written Gable so threateningly was convicted of extortion and sentenced to one year in jail. Franz Doerfler returned to Portland never to be heard from again.
In contrast to Miss Doerfler, the one woman who is prominently mentioned in all Gable biographies is his first wife, Josephine Dillon.
Clark met her when he was 23 and she was 40. He met her in Portland when he applied for an acting job in The Little Theater. Josephine Dillon was a dramatic coach who had been imported by the Chamber of Commerce from Los Angeles to stage the Oregon Rose festival. She took an immediate liking to young Gable and even suggested he come down to Los Angeles and try his hand at the movies.
“I had two dollars and one suit,” Gable recalls, “and I sat up all the way on the train from Portland to Los Angeles. When I arrived in town the only prospect I had was of starving to death.”
But Josephine wouldn’t let Gable starve. She was sure he had enough talent to make the grade, and undertook to coach him. In the process they fell in love and were married at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church on December 13, 1924. Miss Dillon’s family was outraged by the news. It was a fairly prominent Los Angles family—her father had been district attorney of the county—and in the seven years she was married to Gable, her family refused to have anything to do with her.
“Clark and I rented a little house on Harold Way,” Miss Dillon recalls. “We had hardly any money, but we worked long hours. Clark studied all the time. I tried incessantly to find work for him. I went and saw Virginia Mathes who used to be in charge of the Rudolph Valentino pictures, and I asked her to give Clark a chance. She said to send him around, but when she saw him, she cried, ‘Oh, my God! No. Not that yokel!’ I tried to get him extra work at $1.50 a day plus lunch, but hardly anyone would have him. He never gave up. I have never met anyone who wanted to desperately to be an actor. Finally, a Hollywood agent, Jack Sherrill, sent him to Houston to work in a stock company, and it was there that he met the woman who was to become his second wife.”
The divorce mess with Sylvia Ashley is old pickings to Gable. In order to free himself of his second wife, Maria Langham, he had to go through the same legal hassle. Ria, so the story goes, had divorced her husband in order to marry Gable in 1931. She was 11 years older than Gable, and was soon to become a grandmother, but she and Gable were madly in love, and it had to be marriage.
Josephine Dillon divorced Clark, and since he had no money back then, that’s exactly what she got as a settlement.
Gable and Ria Langham separated in 1935. Clark took a flying trip down to South America where he was mobbed by the ladies and returned aboard a steamship where he engaged in a small romance with a dancer named Della Carrol.
When the boat docked and Gable was asked about the romance, he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t recall anyone by that name. Did you say Della Carrol?”
Gable always denies romances. He also denies separations, divorces and romantic entanglements.
Miss Carrol, however, wasn’t sufficiently acquainted with Clark’s ways, and when reporters told her that Clark couldn’t even recall her name, she was hurt. “I’m surprised to think he could say a thing like that,” she complained. “Of course he knows my name. The ship’s purser introduced us. Clark called me Della at first. Afterwards when we got to know each other, he called me Irish. Maybe he doesn’t want the publicity. I don’t blame him. I’m not mad. Just hurt. I still think, though, that he’s the most divine man I ever met…a marvelous lover. But from here on, he’ll have to run after me. It’s foolish for a girl to pursue a man, even a man like Clark who spoils you for other men.”
Clark didn’t run after Della one bit. When he landed in New York, he told reporters that he had separated from his second wife, Mrs. Maria Gable. “I’m not the easiest person in the world to live with,” he gallantly confessed. “And I admit it. Sometimes I wonder how I get along with myself. Eight weeks ago when I left for South America I knew this separation was coming. We’ve made a property settlement. There’s absolutely no animosity between Mrs. Gable and myself but there’s no chance for reconciliation. “
Gable said that in 1935. How history repeats itself! In 1951, he told reporters concerning his divorce from Sylvia Ashley: “there’s absolutely no animosity between Mrs. Gable and myself but there’s no chance for reconciliation.”
There is never any animosity between Gable and his wives, but somehow, they always wind up in long legal fights.
In 1938, when Clark started to go around with Carole Lombard, he filed suit in Superior Court against Maria Gable for interpretation of a property settlement. Gable said in his complaint that he and his wife had signed a property settlement in 1935 providing for a division of community property. “But recently,” Gable told the court, “Mrs. Gable informed me that she refuses to be bound by the agreement and intends to breach it.”
The story about Gable’s second wife is that while Clark was still a relatively unknown stage actor in New York, she had introduced him to the right people. She is even credited in some sources with having gotten Clark his first Metro raise from $350 to $500 a week. Anyway, they were married after Gable signed his first Hollywood contract. The marriage lasted only four years, but Mrs. Gable would not give Clark a divorce until 1939. They were separated for four years, and according to intimates, Clark settles close to a half million dollars on his second bride before she would give him the freedom to marry Carole Lombard, who was really the great love of his life.
In December of 1938, Gable said that he had already paid Ria $286,000 and had asked her to get a divorce. Not until march of the following year, however, would the second Mrs. Gable make her move.
After she left for Las Vegas, Clark announced that “Mrs. Gable and I enjoyed a fine life together until the time arrived when further happiness was precluded. My wife has been extremely cooperative in all respects of the property settlement. Both of us were upset and shocked at the rumor that I intended to get the divorce. Never did such a thought enter my mind and the rumor was most offensive.”
Undoubtedly, Gable will issue a similar statement after he and Sylvia Ashley finish their divorce fight. But these statements, on the basis of the record, have very little identity with the state of Gable’s true feelings.
It is no secret, for example, that ever since last year he has considered Sylvia’s alimony demands “grossly unfair.”
In Nevada only recently, however, he told a reporter, “Sylvia is one of the finest women I have ever met. She’s charming, intelligent, well-bred. I’m sorry it had to end this way. It’s just that we believe in two different patterns of life. The reason I filed a complaint in Nevada is that when things are over, I like them to be over. No sense in dragging them on and on. If the California court says a Nevada divorce in my case is invalid, I believe in obeying the courts. We’ll get a divorce in California. As for Sylvia, I repeat she’s a fine woman and I wish her only the very best.”
While Clark was speaking thusly in Nevada, he answered his wife’s divorce action and demand for a large California property settlement with an affidavit which was filed in Santa Monica.
Gable said that his wife needed no financial settlement from him because she is worth approximately a million and half dollars. He went into details pointing out that she owned a half interest in the $1,000,000 Rancho Zorro in San Diego County, jewelry appraised at $378,385 in March, 1950. More jewelry worth $90,000 she has brought from England. More than $12,000 in furs, $37,000 in securities, $25,000 in a bank account, a $50,000 beach home in Santa Monica, $15,000 in Solano Beach property, and $50,000 from the sale of films made by one of her ex-husbands, the late Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
The contested divorce battle is scheduled to get under way in Santa Monica at the Superior Court some time in May of this year. It’s possible that Lady Sylvia may agree to a small financial settlement and cancel out the court fracas, but under the circumstances, this isn’t very probable. Sylvia feels she is entitled to be paid for the time spent married to Gable and paid well.
In any event, she wants her divorce in the state of California which means that Clark Gable will not obtain his freedom until 1953.
What will the King do with it when he gets it? Will he marry Virginia Grey, the young actress who reminds so many people of the late Carole Lombard, will he play the field, or will he give up on women and marriage for good?
A reporter asked Clark if he was through with love got the following answer. “Love is something that stays with a person all through his life. A man just gets rid of it periodically. To live is t love. Life without loving people is pretty worthless.
Despite the bitterness of his anticipated court battle with Lady Sylvia, he still retains the famous Gable sense of humor. He frequently wonders out loud how he ever managed to get himself “hooked again” and he vows that many a moon will pass before he slips another ring on the second finger of some woman’s left hand.
Of Gable’s four marriages, three have been to elderly, matronly, and worldly women from whom he expected companionship, and a good deal of mothering.
The one young girl he married, Carole Lombard, turned out to be his most successful mate. If the King has learned his lesson, his next bride should be under 40. That’s the only way he can break the jinx on his love life.