I Call on Clark Gable
By Pete Martin
Saturday Evening Post, October 5, 1957
It has taken me three years to write this story. It’s not the way it was supposed to be originally, but it’s still a story no one has ever told—and it has been told to me by the one who knows it best, Clark Gable. The idea has been for Gable to give me a detailed, play-by-play of his entire life. A mutual friend, Howard Strickling, brought us together in 1954 in his backyard at Encino, out in the San Fernando Valley. The backyard was a checkerboard of dark green and white sunlight. In an honest effort to help both of us it was Howard’s notion that it would be a good way for us to explore the idea of my helping Gable tell his autobiography.
Gable showed up that day in safari shorts and a short-sleeved safari shirt. They had not been run up to look like safari clothes. They’d actually seen service in Africa. We sat around Howard’s swimming pool, lifted a few, and chewed the fat. Once in a while somebody dunked himself into the pool; then came out and sat in a sun so hot it almost fried his skin.
“Tell him about the robbery, Clark,” Howard said helpfully, or “Tell him about that screwball paternity suit, Clark.” And Clark had told me. We even worked out a method of tackling our projected writing job. “We’ll put it all down; then we’ll cut out anything that might hurt anybody,” Gable said. I said that was fine with me.
It shaped up as a pleasant assignment. Gable was forthright, down to earth, easy to get along with, at least 200 per cent male.
When we said goodbye, he said, “Give me a month to think it over,” and I said, “Sure.”
That was where I goofed. I should have been persuasive enough to make a deal then and there, and have shaken hands on it. Gable is the kind who would have gone through with it, come hell or high water, once he’d shaken. As it was, when his month’s thinking period was over, he told me, “I don’t feel I could do an honest job for you if I leave out some of the emotions I’ve had and some of the things that have happened to me, and there are things I don’t care to have the public know. They’re extremely personal. They belong to me.” He softened the blow by adding, “When you come to the coast again give me a ring. We’ll tilt another one together.”
Three years intervened between those tilts.
Last spring I dropped in on Bing Crosby and spent a couple of hours yakking with him about anything that popped into our heads. I asked questions and he answered them if he felt like it, and in the way he felt like answering them. When Gable read that interview, he sent me a message. I was told, “If you want to do it that way, he’s game.”
“I’ll be there,” I said.
This time no transparent pool glittered in the sun. When Gable walked into my hotel room, he wore no safari clothes. His dark suit fitted faultlessly. His black shoes were glossy. His blue tie was polka-dotted. He was the very model of a man ready to preside over a directors’ meeting, buy a foreign car or go shopping with his beautiful wife. It turned out he was embarked upon the third mission.
“My wife, Kay, is stopping by at three o’clock to pick me up,” he told me. “You ask questions and I’ll tell you the truth. If you ask me something too personal, I’ll say, ‘That’s a question I don’t care to answer; I’m keeping that to myself.’ But if you ask me something that I feel I can answer honestly, I will.”
“I’ve never forgotten a couple of the stories you told me that afternoon around Howard’s pool,” I said. “I’m hoping you’ll tell them to me again. One was about a robbery in your home.”
“The robbery was like this,” he said; “When I first moved to the ranch where I live, I wanted it in good shape. I’d been too busy to irrigate the trees, and they needed it. So the first leisure time I had, I thought, I’ll get out there and get it done.
“It was 1939. I was married to Carole Lombard, but she had gone to the studio early, so one morning between nine and ten I went out to dig ditches in the orchard. A ring on my finger was too tight so I went back to the house to get rid of the ring and pick up a pack of smokes. As I pushed the ring off in my dressing room, there were mirrors behind me and before me. Behind me, I saw a door open slowly. A foot came out, then a hat brim. And a guy stepped out with one hand in his pocket. He wasn’t facing me, so he didn’t see me.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I let him have it behind the ear,” Gable told me; “he went down, with me on top of him. I was after the hand he had in his pocket. When I got it out, the hand had one of my own guns in it. I took it away and tossed it into a corner. ‘Get downstairs,’ I told him, but he was inclined to be stubborn about it, I grabbed him by his collar and said, ‘If you don’t walk, you’ll have to go the other way,’ and I dragged him down the stairs and into the kitchen. It was a bouncy drag.”
“Were you two alone?” I asked.
“I had a servant or two,” Gable said, “but they were outside. The guy I’d been dragging was little more than a kid. He didn’t look more than twenty-one. I pulled him to his feet in the kitchen, and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ and he said, ‘I wanted some money.’
“’You have a peculiar way of asking for it,’ I told him. ‘There are better ways.’
“I didn’t know it then,” Gable told me, “but he had been there the night before, peering through my windows. He’d looked through my gun-room window, he’d seen my guns, and seeing them had swelled his larceny gland. In the morning he’d come to the kitchen door and told my housekeeper-cook I was a friend of his.
“’I’ll go see,’ she’d told him. While she was looking for me, he walked into my gun room and took one of my guns. But I didn’t think he was a professional stick-up man, so I said, ‘You shouldn’t be doing things like this. Aren’t you sorry?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not sorry.’
“’Oh…so?’ I said. ‘That puts a different light on it.’ He made a lunge for the door, and this time I tackled him the way an end tackles a halfback. Then I called the police and they took him away.
“I had to appear against him. I don’t know what happened to him after that. If he had shown any signs of remorse I wouldn’t have called the cops, but when I asked him if he was sorry, he just kept saying ‘No’ in a sulky way. What with my gun in his pocket, he might have given me a bad time if he had seen me in my dressing room before I saw him.”
He thought of something else and grinned. “That story has a funny angle. I had a boxer watchdog guarding my place. Later on, I found out that the robber and my dog slept in my automobile in my garage, the previous night. After that I called my watchdog Old Dependable.”
“There there was that anecdote you told me about a threatened paternity suit,” I reminded him.
“That started slowly,” he said, “then it built. I got a letter or two, at my home, from a woman in Canada. She asked if she could see me about a personal matter. I didn’t know her. In fact, I had never heard of her, so I ignored her, but her letters kept arriving just the same.”
“Did she tell you what that personal matter was?” I asked.
“She finally said I would remember her because she had been in England such and such a year, that I’d had an affair with her then, and, as a result of that affair, a child had been born. Her letters said she thought something should be done about providing for the child.
“At the time she said all this happened, I’d never been in England. I’d never been out of North America—so I’d never had a United States passport. As affairs go, the one she described was a long-distance project. It must have set a world’s record, so I decided she was nuts and forgot about it.
“Then Walter Winchell began to get letters from her about me, and another columnist, Jimmy Fidler, got letters too. And letters also began to arrive at my studio, MGM, and Fidler and Winchell and the studio asked, ‘What is all this?’”
He said, “As I remember it, I was told by the United States district attorney in Los Angeles that his office had heard about those letters, and he sent an assistant United States district attorney to see me. He told me, ‘You’ll not only have to prove you weren’t in England when this child was conceived; you’ll have to prove where you actually were at that time. Can you do it?’
“’It’s not going to be easy,’ I said. ‘When the woman who wrote those letters said I was in England, I was pretty much of a wandering trouper. I was in shows and out of shows and working in lumber camps.’ But with this threat in mind I reached back in my memory and I was able to prove where I’d been. I came up with two kinds of proof: old, dated theater programs with my name on them, and paychecks made out to me by Silverton Lumber Company, in Silverton, Oregon. When I was supposed to be in England, I had been piling lumber in Oregon for three dollars and twenty cents a day.”
“I’d say that was pretty good proof,” I told him.
“That wasn’t bad,” he agreed. “My attorney handed those things to the United States district attorney’s office. After that the postal authorities took over.”
“Sounds like attempted blackmail,” I said.
“The postal authorities had the woman indicted for using the mails to defraud,” Gable told me.
On April 6, 1937, a jury trial of the case began before Judge Cosgrave, in the United States District Court. The trial resulted in her conviction on April twenty-third. On April twenty-eighth the Appellate Court reversed her conviction on the ground that the charge of using the mails to defraud was not a proper charge, but that it should have been a charge of extortion or attempted blackmail. On February 7, 1938, she was deported to Canada and warned not to attempt to enter the United States within a year.
I was glad he’d told me that story, for it turned a spotlight on how phony an attack at a star can be. When the public reads this in the papers, I thought, it jumps to the conclusion that where there’s smoke there must be fire. Gable’s experience with the woman who’d been deported proved that, where there’s smoke, most of the time there’s nothing but smut; not even a tiny spark of reality.
“You may not like my next question,” I said. “Is it true that you don’t like to talk about Carole Lombard because it reminds you of her tragic end and distresses you?”
“That isn’t true,” he said. “My feelings are under better control than that. I have great respect for Carole and the place she had in my life. I want to keep that to myself. It’s not to be kicked around. I’m the one who can control it.”
“I don’t see how you control it unless you talk about it,” I said.
“That’s how I do it,” he said. “By not talking about it.”
“Ok,” I said. “Maybe you’d like to talk about your present wife, Kay, instead.”
“I don’t have to say anything about her. I’m a very happy man. I reflect that, don’t I?”
I agreed that he did. “Then that’s my comment on her,” he said.
“It’s not quite the same thing as saying a few words about her,” I said.
“I don’t know whether she’d want me to. You decide that when you meet her.”
“I’ll take my chances on that,” I said; and I asked him about three pictures he’d been in: It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty and Gone with the Wind. “I’ve heard you wanted to be in none of them,” I said, “but in each case somebody talked you into changing your mind.”
“It Happened One Night came along early in my motion picture career,” he said. “I’d played a lot of comedy on the stage. The last show I did in New York was a satirical comedy, Love, Honor and Betrayed, starring Alice Brady, but almost everybody has forgotten I had a New York stage career. I can’t blame them. I didn’t exactly set that town on fire, and I was brought into the motion picture business as a heavy, because of my performance as Killer Mears in the road company of The Last Mile. I wasn’t in New York in The Last Mile. Spence Tracy starred there. The Killer was a gangster who killed practically everybody in the show.”
“He must have ended up lonely,” I said.
“He did finish pretty much by himself,” Gable said. “For two years after MGM put me under contract, I pulled guns on people or hit women in the face. Then MGM assigned me to do a bad part in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford—a picture I didn’t like. But as bad as the part was, it wasn’t as bad as my health.”
“What was wrong with you?” I asked.
“I’d lost a lot of weight. They’d been working me hard and I was tired. I told myself, ‘If I have a few operations, that will take care of my health and the part in Dancing Lady too.’ I had my appendix and tonsils out, but it didn’t take care of everything, for MGM was mad at me. For some strange reason they thought I’d taken evasive action to avoid their picture. They bided their time during the eight or nine weeks I was in the hospital. Then the very day after I got out they called me in and said, ‘We’re sending you over to Columbia Pictures on a loan-out.’”
“Was that punishment?” I asked.
“At that time Columbia was on the wrong side of the tracks,” Gable said, “and being sent there was a this-will-teach-you-a-lesson deal. I didn’t know anybody at Columbia, but I’d been told, ‘Report to Frank Capra,’ so I reported to him.
“’I’d like to talk to you about our story,’ Capra said, and I said, ‘I don’t want to talk to you about it. Just give me the script. I’ll read it. Then I’ll talk to you.’
“Frank is a nice guy, and he was tolerant of my attitude, which, to put it mildly, wasn’t good. He didn’t know I felt that I had just been swept out of MGM’s executive offices with the morning’s trash. I took home the script of It Happened One Night and I read it. I had a couple of drinks and thought, It can’t be that good. I’d better look at it later. So I had dinner and read it again. It was still good. The next morning I called Frank and said, ‘I want to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I was rude and I had no reason to be. You’ve got a fine script. Why you’ve chosen me to be in it I don’t know. You’ve never seen me play comedy on the screen.’”
“Did he ever tell you why he chose you?” I asked.
“I don’t know to this day,” Gable said. “I told him, ‘If you think I can do it, I’ll try, but after three or four days, if you don’t like what you see on the screen, you can call the whole thing off and there’ll be no hard feelings.’ We worked a few days; Frank came to me and said, ‘We’ll have no trouble.’”
“Had you seen the daily rushes?” I asked.
“I wasn’t important enough to see the rushes,” Gable told me. “But I didn’t need to. Frank told me, ‘We’ll carry on the way we’re going. We’re in business.’”
I said, “There’s a legend that the classic touches in that film—the piggyback scene, the passengers singing ‘The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze’ in the bus, Claudette Colbert thumbing a ride by lifting her skirt and adjusting her garter while passing motorists slammed on their screaming brakes—were thought up by Capra on the spur of the moment as he went along. Were they in the script,” I asked, “or were they shot off the cuff?”
“They were in the script,” Gable said. “Frank and Bob Riskin put them in. Frank was the director; Riskin was the writer. They were an unbeatable team.”
He didn’t mention another unbeatable team, the stars of the picture. Claudette Colbert and he himself won Academy Awards for the year’s best performance by an actress and actor. Gable isn’t a great one for talking in terms of awards he’s won. The picture itself won the award as the outstanding production of 1934. Capra won an Oscar for his direction. Riskin won a similar award for the year’s best screenplay.
I mentioned another legend that grew out of that film; that he had sabotaged the undershirt industry by peeling off his shirt in the picture and revealing nothing under his shirt but him.
“I didn’t know what I was doing to the undershirt people,” he told me. “That was just the way I lived. I hadn’t worn an undershirt since I’d started to school. They made me feel hemmed in and smothered. I still felt that way when I joined the Air Force in World War Two and I had to put on a t-shirt. I felt swathed in fabric, like a mummy.
“I didn’t want to be in the second picture you mentioned, Mutiny on the Bounty, because it was a story about a crew of Englishmen, and since I obviously wasn’t English, I felt badly miscast. MGM had already assembled a group of all-English players, with the exception of Franchot Tone, who had a Cornell accent instead of a Oxonian one. However, Irving Thalberg cast me in the picture, and while Irving was one of the most fabulously successful movie-production men who ever lived, I butted heads with him about it. ‘You’ve guided me right many times, Irving,’ I said, ‘but not this time. I can’t do this. The public will never believe me as a first mate in the British Navy. I’d be more believable as the first mate of a Puget Sound scow.’
“For a while there was a deadlock. It was broken by Kate Corbaley, who headed MGM’s story department. God rest her soul, she’s dead now, but she was a wonderfully kind, white-haired, brilliant woman. She knew I was giving Irving a bad time, and she didn’t like civil war in the studio, so she came to me and said, ‘I think you’re making a mistake. I’ve read this story and I can’t see anybody else playing Fletcher Christian but you.’
“’Not me, Kate,’ I said stubbornly, ‘I’d have to wear knee britches and a three-cornered hat. That’s more than I can stomach.’
“’Don’t be such a mule,’ she told me. ‘Listen.’ So I listened, and after I listened, I said, ‘Ok, let’s go,’ although I still didn’t like it.”
“What did she say?” I wanted to know.
“She said that the role called for male-ness and independence, and that those two things were far more important than an English accent and knee britches and a three-cornered hat. ‘It’s going to be a big picture,’ she told me, ‘and you’ll be its hero, not its heavy. How can you lose?’”
“Did you feel better about it as you went along?” I asked.
“Not me,” he said. “I told everybody who’d listen, ‘I stink in it.’ I didn’t realize I was wrong for several months. After the picture was finished, I went to South America on a ten-week holiday, and while I was there they previewed Mutiny. Afterward I got a cablegram from Thalberg: THE MOVIE IS WONDERFUL. WE’RE PROUD OF IT. YOU’LL LIKE YOURSELF IN IT. I had to believe Irving because he was a guy you could believe. He didn’t kid himself or anybody else.”
“I don’t see how you could have avoided playing Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind,” I said. “The whole country cast you in it long before the cameras began to roll.”
“That was exactly the trouble,” Gable said. “Not only that, but it seemed to me that the public’s casting was being guided by an elaborate publicity campaign.”
I disagreed. “That casting was a natural thing,” I said. “No studio or producer controlled it. I sat in any number of bull sessions in friends’ homes while we cast that picture. Nobody said we ought to cast it, we just did. And the way we non-movie employees cast it was the way it was eventually cast on the screen. Almost everybody agreed on you as Rhett Butler, Leslie Howard as Ashley, and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie.”
“My thinking about it was this,” Gable told me; “that novel was one of the all-time best sellers. People didn’t just read it, they lived it. They visualized its characters, and they formed passionate convictions about them. You say a lot of people thought I ought to play Rhett Butler, but I didn’t know how many had formed that opinion.”
“Enough,” I said.
“There are never enough,” he told me. “But one thing was certain: they had a preconceived idea of the kind of Rhett Butler they were going to see, and suppose I came up empty?”
I’d never head that phrase before, so he explained, “I thought, All of them have already played Rhett in their minds; suppose I don’t come up with what they already have me doing. Then I’m in trouble. If they saw one little thing I did that didn’t agree with their remembrance of the books, they’d howl. I’d done the same thing myself when I’d wanted to be a Shakespearean actor. I’d taken a copy of ‘Hamlet’ or ‘Richard II’ or ‘Othello’ to the theater with me and I’d sat in the balcony—I couldn’t afford to sit anyplace else—and I’d checked on the Shakespearean actors. I’d say, ‘Why that—missed an ‘and’ or he left out a ‘but.’ He can’t do that.’”
“I’ve seen Gone with the Wind three times,” I told him, “and I had the feeling you enjoyed it.”
“It was a challenge,” he said, “I enjoyed it from that point of view. But my chin was out to there. I knew what people expected of me and suppose I didn’t produce?”
“But you did produce,” I said.
“Maybe so,” he said noncommittally.
“When did you finally get it through your head you’d done all right?”
He said, “The night we opened in Atlanta, I said, ‘I guess this movie is in.’”
“How did you figure that?” I asked. “Did you enjoy it yourself or did you gauge it by other people’s reactions?”
“Other people’s reactions,” he told me.
“I’ve dug down into a mass of stuff about you,” I said, “and I can’t figure out whether it was Darryl Zanuck or Irving Thalberg who took a look at your ears and thumbed you down as an actor.”
“Darryl and Irving did that at different times,” Gable said. “Darryl was head of production at Warner Brothers. I don’t know the details of his story, but I do know the Thalberg ‘ears’ story. I’d been the juvenile lead in The Copperhead with Lionel Barrymore on the stage here in Los Angeles, but I couldn’t seem to cut the mustard in pictures, so I went to New York and found work on the stage. While I was there, Lionel became a director at MGM. Later I came back to Hollywood in The Last Mile, and Lionel came to the old Majestic Theater to see me in it. He came backstage afterward and said, ‘Come on out to the studio. I want you to make a screen test.’
“’No use,’ I said. ‘I’ve tried working in pictures. They don’t want me.’
“’Wait a minute,’ he said; ‘there’s a thing called sound in pictures now, and these actors out here can’t talk. You can.’ I went out to MGM and Lionel said, ‘Go over to makeup.’ I went over and they curled my hair.”
He bent his head and I could see the natural wave in his hair. “You see how much I need a curl,” he said, “but they curled it anyhow. Then I went over to wardrobe, where they stripped me and gave me a G-string. The sound stage where they were making the test was a long way off. I’m no exhibitionist and I was embarrassed making that trek.”
Somebody knocked at the door of my hotel room and I opened it. A beautifully groomed blonde walked in. Gable said to her, “Come in, mamma. How are you?”
The tall, chic blonde said to me, “This is me. How are you?” She did something to the room by just being in it. Suddenly the space in which we sat was bigger, airier; the sunlight that streamed through the Venetian blinds was brighter. Without trying to, she shot off sparks like a Fourth of July sparkler.
Kay Gable’s marriage to Clark Gable is his fifth. It is her third. She was born Kathleen Williams in Erie, Pennsylvania. She grew up on a farm and did her share of the work there. Somewhere along the way she was a Powers model, and she also had a brief flurry as a Hollywood starlet. Her last husband prior to Clark Gable was Adolph Spreckels 2nd, a California sugar heir. Their turbulent and unhappy marriage ended in divorce in 1952. She was married to Gable on July 11, 1955, at Minden, Nevada, at the home of Justice of the Peace Walter Fisher.
“I’m glad you two finally got together,” she said to me now.
“I’ve only been waiting three years for this talk with your husband,” I said. “I hope you’ll give me five or ten minutes more with him.”
“Certainly not,” she said. “It’s too warm in here.” But she smiled when she said it and sat down.
“He’s telling me about his first screen test,” I told her.”
“Go right ahead,” she said. “I’d like to hear that myself.”
“When I showed up on that MGM soundstage,” Gable said, “I asked Lionel, ‘What is this? Why am I curly-haired and half naked?’
“’I’m directing The Bird of Paradise,’ he told me. ‘I want you to play the native boy in it.’ A prop man stuck a hibiscus behind one of my ears, shoved a knife in my G-string, and here I was, creeping through the bushes, looking for a girl. Lionel had made a big thing out of ‘these actors out here can’t talk,’ but he’d given me nothing to say throughout the test. Then my test was sent in for Irving Thalberg to look at. He called Lionel in and said, ‘You can’t put this man in a picture. Look at him!’
“Lionel said loyally, ‘He’s a good stage actor. He’s young, but he’ll be all right.’ Irving said, ‘Not for my money, he won’t. Look at his big, bat-like ears.’
“Fortunately a woman agent had seen me and believed in me enough to sell me to Pathe for a while. Then I was at Warner’s for a spell, and in December, 1930, I came back to MGM.”
“If you’ll spare me a moment,” Kay Gable said, “I’d like to take a measurement. Our second wedding anniversary is coming—cotton.” She took a tape measure from her handbag and said to her husband, “Hold out your hand.” She tightened the tape around his wrist and said, “Eight inches plus.”
“I want you to know that there’s a tape-recording machine over there in the corner,” Gable told her. “It’s going, and anything you say will be held against you.”
“That’s very interesting,” she said brightly.
“What was that wrist-measuring bit about?” I asked.
“I’m buying the man some new shirts,” she told me.
“I’ve never heard of a shirt measurement that included the circumference of the wrist,” I said to Gable. “Maybe what she’s really plotting is a wrist-watch band for you.”
“Can’t be,” Gable said. “I have one already.” Then he told her, “That’s a very thin story. I don’t buy that.”
“You never know what I’m doing.” Kay Gable said. “I’m a woman of mystery. That shirt talk was just a decoy. Just say I’m having the Mau Maus make you something of value. Maybe a metal band of some kind. I think I’ll call it a Band of Angels after your new picture. Plug.”
She put her tape measure away and I said to Gable, “There’s a theory that you’re primarily a personality. On the other hand there are people who think you’re an actor. What do you think?”
“Some people think he’s a myth,” Kay Gable said. “It just so happens that I have reason not to think so.”
“I’ve never worked hard at being a myth,” Gable said. “But I’ve spent a lot of time learning to be an actor. I’m still learning. I don’t know how you go about learning to be a personality but I do know how you learn to go about being an actor and I work at that. Everyone has a right to his opinion, even me. Not matter what I was, I’d work at being as close to the best as I could get, and I choose to think of myself as an actor. It’s a profession I’m proud of. It’s my job, not that I’m the best, but I try.”
“I think the first time I saw you on the screen was as the chauffeur in Red-Headed Woman,” I said.
“I played a chauffeur in Night Nurse, with Barbara Stanwyck,” Gable told me. “You must have seen me in that. I wasn’t in Red-Headed Woman.”
“Anyhow, it was before you had your ears pinned back,” I said.
“Speaking of myths, that’s one,” he said. “They were never pinned back.”
I looked at him and said, “They certainly don’t stand out anymore. What happened?”
“He weighed only a hundred and fifty pounds then,” Kay Gable explained. “When you’re that slim your ears can look like handles.”
“I thought maybe he’d had a small operation,” I said.
“No,” Kay told me. “Look behind his ears. No scar tissue!”
“Since I’m down to fan-magazine level with my ears-pinned-back question,” I said, “how about these quotes I’ve read: ‘Clark Gable is a man nobody knows. It takes him a long, long time to make friends.’”
“Those quotes don’t quote me,” Gable said. “They’re a writer’s opinion. I’ve given no thought to whether I make friends slowly or fast. I don’t have a lot of friends; I do have a lot of acquaintances. Friends are something else.”
“I’ll tell you one of my definitions of a friend,” I said. “If I do, maybe I can get one out of you. To me, a friend is a man with whom you can sit in a room and both read and you enjoy being together without saying anything. You don’t feel any sense of strain. You have no compulsion to entertain each other.”
“Being a friend goes deeper than that,” Gable told me. “I don’t feel any sense of strain in the present company, but a friend is someone is someone in whom you can confide. You can say to him, ‘I’m going to tell you something just between us,’ and you know that it’ll be just between you. Then, when you get down to the short rows and the going gets rough, a friend is someone who will help you. And he also knows you’re available if things get rough with him. I don’t mean in a monetary way, but in a companionship way or any other way you need.”
“That reminds me,” I said. “I once told an editor, ‘I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you insert a notice that I’ve been fired in the motion-picture trade publications as well as the weekly Variety; then send me out to Hollywood and let me find out how many people will still be my friends and let me into their houses and studios? It would make an interesting personal experience story!’
“Nothing came of that idea, because the editor said, ‘I wouldn’t do that to you. That’s a grisly notion. You’re the sentimental type. It would kill you. You’d shrivel and die.’”
“I’m glad you didn’t try it,” Gable said. “It could have been brutal.”
“Have you reached the point where you’re shy about mentioning the date of your birth?” I asked him.
“February first, Nineteen One,” he said. “It’s simple to check. The county courthouse in Harrison County, Ohio, will tell you the day when I was born, and the hour.”
“I used to lie a year about mine, but I’ve given it up,” Kay Gable said philosophically.
“I’m about through, unless you have something on your mind you’d like to add,” I said.
“The only thing I’ve got on my mind right now is a holiday,” Gable told me. “Kay and I’ll go up to Del Monte. We’ll stay at the Lodge and we’ll play a little golf. We haven’t played any golf lately because she’s been sick.”
“She doesn’t look sick,” I said.
“I have angina pectoris,” she told me. “I get pains.”
It was odd listening to her say she was ill when she seemed so bursting with energy and animation, and I said the obvious thing, “You can’t tell there’s anything wrong by looking at you. Do you carry those little dynamite pills around with you?”
She corrected me, “You mean nitro-glycerin. Yes, I have them right here.”
“She had a scare when she was on location with me not long ago, up in Utah,” Gable said; “she thought she had indigestion.”
“I ate pounds and pounds of baking soda,” Kay Gable told me.
“You did everything you shouldn’t have done,” Gable said to her reprovingly.
“I was doing the cooking,” she said. “Naturally I thought it was indigestion.”
“Not to change the subject,” I said, “but as you get older,” I asked Gable, “do you think your leading ladies ought to be older too? Do you have any feeling of self-consciousness when you play opposite a young girl?”
“That,” Gable said, “is an interesting question, and before I answer it I want it make it very clear that I’m not criticizing any other male star, even by implication, for what he does or doesn’t do.”
“This is just about you,” I said. “No one else.”
“Ok,” Gable said. “In that case, yes, I think we actors with a touch of gray at our temples ought to have leading ladies who balance us age wise. It should be possible to find a leading lady who’s not too young or too old. As you can see, my leading lady here is not too old.”
Looking at Kay Gable, I said, “I haven’t any idea how old she is.”
“It’s no secret,” Kay Gable told me. “I was born in 1916. I’m forty-one.”
“I think there’s such a thing as having a leading woman too young,” Gable went on, “but that’s not for me to say. Casting is done by a studio or a producer. That’s their business.”
“You’d think he didn’t tell anybody anything about making one of his movies,” I said to Kay Gable. “You’d think he does exactly what they tell him to do.”
“You ought to work with him for a while,” she said. “You’d find out.”
“I’ve told you the truth,” Gable said. “I admit I have taken evasive action with you sometimes, but you’ve asked me some pretty sharp questions.”
“I wasn’t trying to be sharp,” I said.
“I know,” he said, “but there are some things I just can’t say.”
I said, “Have you ever considered retirement? What do you think about your future?”
“That’s a logical question, and I’ll give you a logical answer,” he said. “When the public doesn’t want me any longer, I’ll quit.”
“How will you know?” I asked. “Other actors and actresses have told me the same thing, but when the showdown came, they were slow getting the public’s message. I remember one actress who swore to me that she wouldn’t wait for her popularity to fade; that if she ever dropped out of the first ten at the box office she’d quit, but the public practically had to carry placards saying, ‘Jane Doe, go home!’ before she got the hint.”
“They won’t have to slug me over the head,” Gable told me. “The day they stop coming to see my pictures, I’ll know they don’t want me.”
This doesn’t seem likely to happen in the near future. He had just signed to appear in a submarine story, Run Silent Run Deep, with Burt Lancaster. Shooting is set to begin this fall. This picture will be the third picture Gable has worked in since last January, giving 1957 the heaviest work load he’s undertaken in recent years.
“You have no dream of sitting on your rear and reading and fishing?” I asked.
“Not me,” he said.
“I feel the same way,” I said. “I hope I keep on working till I die.”
“By the same token,” he told me, “I don’t want to stay around long enough to bore people, and I won’t. They have their own way of expressing themselves, and unless an actor deliberately looks the other way, he can see the warning. But, after all, it’s their own money people are spending to go to my pictures, and as long as they still do it, I’ll do my best to entertain them.”
“You travel a lot, you go fishing and hunting,” I said. “But the news of your comings and goings doesn’t hit the gossip columns. There are no photographs of you arriving or leaving, yet you get there somehow. Do you have a private plane?”
“I have a station wagon,” he told me. “Kay and I go in that. Sometimes when we go to Mexico, we tow a jeep behind us.”
“Do people recognize you?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, “but I don’t molest them, so why should they molest me?”
“You’re lucky,” I told him. “When I was working with Bing Crosby on his story, ‘Call Me Lucky’, I went to Europe with him on the Liberte. He had to give up eating in the main dining room and have his meals served in his cabin because a couple of women got loaded on cocktails every evening and made his life miserable.”
“That I understand,” Gable said. “That could happen. But it isn’t common. The truth is people are no trouble as far as I’m concerned. I respect them and I hope they respect me.”
“What do you think about television?” I said. “Do you have any reticences about that subject?”
“I can tell you in a few words what I think about it,” he said. “I don’t want any of it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s hurting a profession I’m very grateful to—motion pictures,” he said. “TV is here, and I know it’s not going away, but I’m going to help as much as I can to keep the picture business strong as long as I can. I owe motion pictures that much, as well as the people who have worked in them with me for years. Television is fine, but as a medium of entertainment I don’t think it’s in the same class with motion pictures. Not with that tiny screen. I’m still a motion-picture personality and I intend to stay one as long as I’m around.”
“Has there been pressure on you to try television?” I asked.
“No,” he told me. “I let the television people know where I stood right away. I said it emphatically. I said it was a medium I didn’t intend to try. That word got around very quickly.”