Love, Fame and the Clark Gables

By Adela Rogers St. Johns
Photoplay magazine, February 1936

The Poignant Story Behind Their Separation

The parting of the Gables makes my heart ache a little. I think it does yours, too.
Because they were in love with each other, those two. And I know that they expected to live out their years side by side, with love and laughter and courage. I’ve listened to them, in the serene and lovely home Rhea Gable had created, planning things they were going to do, places they were going to see, books they were going to read – always together.
Now they are planning to go separate ways and you can see the heartbreak in Clark’s eyes. Because even with all the other women there are in the world, even if a man were the screen’s great lover, it would be dreadful to wake up in the morning and think you’d lost Rhea – because there aren’t any other women like Rhea, at least none I’ve ever met.
Why?
Why did it have to happen?
Why did two such swell people, both of them real, both of them fine, both of them deserving of happiness, have to come to the end of what seemed to all of us who knew them well, all of us who’d been close friends, an ideal marriage?
I’ve been sitting here looking out at trees that are bare, but that will be green again in the spring, at lilac bushes that today are brown twiggs but that in April will be fragrance and beauty and color once more, and trying to figure it out.
You see, it was like this with the Gables – you felt a wholeness of self when they were together. You felt that they presented a united front to the world and therefore they were safe. I’ve so often noticed them at parties. Maybe they’d be separated the length of a room, the length of a dinner table. Maybe Rhea, stately and elegant in black, would be playing bridge and Clark would be spinning yarns with a gang of men. But every once in a while their eyes would meet in an exchange of sweet understanding, a moment’s greeting, that said, “I’m having such a good time because I know you’re here, in the same room, that we see little things, and laugh over little jokes that belong just to us, and that when the party is over, we’ll go home together to our own home. That’s what really makes everything so nice.”
They weren’t sentimental or gushing. They were too modern for that, too casual, as is the fashion nowadays. But your heart felt a little warmer because they were joined in their own way, and the world is often a lonely place and men and women were meant to be one, so that loneliness would roll back like a wave and stand trembling at the command of love.
Now the Gables are parted, there’s going to be a divorce.
Fame helped to separate them. Fame and the terribly increased wear and tear of every day living that fame brings and which I sometimes think has to be seen to be believed. The old and desperate problem of two temperamental people attempting the most delicate of all human relationships in a sort of glorified gold-fish bowl. The thousand and one little added problems that come with the sort of fame which descended so unexpectedly upon Mr. Gable and the natural changes of character and outlook which such things bring.
A strange fatality has followed the screen’s great lovers.
Rudolph Valentino, the greatest of all matinee idols, loved only one woman in his whole life – the strange, exotic Natascha Rambova – loved her and lost her after a brief marriage.
Jack Gilbert never really loved anyone but Garbo – and they parted.
Estelle Taylor and Jack Dempsey were as madly in love as any two people I ever say. But Estelle couldn’t take the punishment that went with being the champion’s wife, and finally left the most popular ring idol of our generation.
Everyone knows how heartbroken Rudy Vallee, whose voice on the air made feminine hearts flutter and still does, was to give up Fay Webb, and he hasn’t yet found anyone to take her place.
In every case, it has been the woman who has made the break.
It was Rhea Gable who broke with Clark. That I know and know positively. Once before, several years ago, she left him, and he begged her to come back and try it once more, and she did. This time it looks as though the break wouldn’t heal. And strangely enough I am sure, that it is Clark who is suffering and will suffer the most.
And I think maybe I can tell you why. It’s because Clark needs Rhea a great deal more than she needs him, because he hasn’t the resources within himself that she has, because he is going to find the things which he tries to substitute for her love and understanding and companionship will wear pretty thin. Clark’s been lucky enough for quite a long time to have his cake and eat it too, and that because Rhea’s sweetness and fineness permitted him to do it, and when he comes face to face with the fact that he hasn’t that lucky break any more he’s going to be pretty miserable.
I remember one time only a few months ago when Rhea and I were lunching together in Hollywood. I am not, I think, given to over-estimating my friends. Try to love ‘em in spite of their faults, as I hope they’ll try to love me in spite of mine. But I see those faults plainly enough. So when I tell you that I’ve never seen any in Rhea Gable, I mean it. She has tolerance, and humor, and courage, and incredible loyalty. She knows life and men and human nature. More men have been in love with her than with most screen beauties. When my men friends come out from New York – editors and writers and newspapermen – they always fall in love with Rhea Gable instead of any of the pretty gals from the screen to whom I present them.
As we sat over our melon and eggs, Rhea talked about Clark. I know now that she was afraid then this break might come. Her fine brown eyes were steady and her sweet mouth held its upward curve. She said, very quietly, “I sometimes think Clark ought to be free. You see, we were married before he had his great success. Perhaps he’s never really had the benefit of it as he would have done if he hadn’t been married. Clark is definitely a man’s man, he’s not domestic, he doesn’t like conforming to social obligations and things like that. He works very hard and no matter how hard I try, I cannot give him complete freedom. It can’t be done, in marriage. Sometimes I think he would be happier on his own.”
And Clark once told me that the only thing on earth he really wanted was to be free to roam when he felt like roaming, to turn down jobs without any sense of cheating somebody else, to be a sort of soldier of fortune between pictures.
Let’s go back to the beginning of their romance, for it was a romance and a lovely one. I think they’ll always remember it.
They met in New York when Clark was a struggling young leading man and Rhea Langham was a much courted and fashionable young Park Avenue divorcee, with a son and daughter in their teens. She was almost as beautiful as Florence Vidor and very much the same type. Clark was a virile, intense, ambitious young man who needed a good deal of polishing on the rough edges. The hand of fate intervened.
They fell in love, much to everyone’s surprise, and married.
And then, after they were married, after they were happy together, after they had adjusted themselves to a life of hard work and struggle, with the hope that in time Clark Gable would be a successful actor, the wheels of the gods turned and success descended in a rain of light.
Rhea found herself married to the man every woman in America was in love with, the dream prince of the feminine world. She found herself the wife of a screen star and therefore married to all the problems that such a life entails.
Socially perfectly at home everywhere, or anywhere, used to luxury and money, cultured and highly educated, Rhea Gable had never known anything about professional life, the theater, Hollywood, nor the spotlight. It was all new to her. But, as Clark said to me the other day, “She didn’t like it at first. She’s naturally very shy. But no woman ever did a better job of it. You know that. I want to say now, to go on record for all time, that she was pretty close to being the perfect wife.”
I think Rhea made a tragic mistake. But I think – I know – she did it with every good intention. She oriented herself to the new situation as quickly as she could. Then she decided Clark must have the best of everything. A charming home, such as other screen stars had. A wife who was ready to entertain important people for him, so that he might take his place in the best Hollywood had to offer socially. He must be made to take care of his money, so that in time he’s have financial independence, the independence he had always wanted.
So Rhea Gable, tall and slim and dark, put her whole soul into being the kind of wife she thought Clark Gable, the world’s new matinee idol, the screen star who was flaming brightest upon the horizon, ought to have. Being a lady, she remained a lady, and she ran an exquisite home and everybody fell in love with her and she gave the most delightful parties with the best food you ever tasted. But she went much further than that. She understood Clark’s position, understood the pressure and the temptations of being adored by women everywhere. Her tact and discretion were perfect. She neither saw nor heard nor spoke evil. If gossip linked Clark’s name with that of Joan Crawford, Rhea went to Clark’s rescue by becoming friends with Joan. If Clark got temperamental and yelled at his boss, Rhea used her great social ability to straighten it all out.
Every gift she had as a woman, every social grace, all her beauty and fineness, were thrown into the job of being Mrs. Clark Gable, and it wasn’t as easy job, believe me.
And the tragedy of it all – I think – is that while everything she did seemed right, seemed perfect, everything she did was wrong, because that wasn’t what Clark wanted. There isn’t any use giving a man squab if he prefers corned beef and cabbage.
Clark’s a natural roughneck. He’s one of the grandest guys who ever lived, he’s decent and honest and I defy anyone to know him and not love him. He’s got a sense of humor that lights life for him every day and every hour. He’s got a straight, dynamic, fascinating sort of mind, if it is untrained. His charm is as natural as the charm of a forest of redwood trees at sunset. But he’s a roughneck, even if he does wear the best cut dinner clothes in New York. And he always will be.
He loved Rhea desperately. He still does. He told me the other day that he will always love her, and he means it. In his heart is a deathless gratitude for all she did for him, all the devotion and loyalty she gave him.
But it wasn’t what he wanted.
He wouldn’t have given a darn if dinner hadn’t ever been on time – because then he wouldn’t have worried if he didn’t get home for a couple of nights when he got to yarning with a gang of electricians. He wouldn’t have minded a bit if Rhea had busted a vase over his head some night if she caught him making eyes at some beauty who’d been pursuing him for days. I think it would have amused him. He talks a lot about saving money and independence, but he’ll probably never have a dime he doesn’t earn and he won’t care if he winds up broke. I don’t mean Clark doesn’t know how to behave in Buckingham Palace if Queen Mary should have invited him there, but I don’t think he was ever perfectly comfortable in the perfect, shining, white and silver home in Brentwood. Maybe I’m wrong. But I got that impression.
The only time I ever saw Clark and Rhea Gable even verge on a quarrel – and that’s more than I can say for most of my married friends – was one night when Clark came home tired and had to put on a dinner coat and go out to a party. Rhea looked so beautiful that night, like a duchess, she was so gentle and so swell and so sorry, but – they had to go.
I don’t mean to be unkind, for Rhea Gable surrounded Clark with the most interesting people in Hollywood. Dorothy Parker came there for dinner and made Clark roar at her gentle, biting wit. Charlie MacArthur and Helen Hayes, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg, Dick and Jessica Barthelmess – all the fascinating people of the screen world adored Rhea and came to her home.
But I still think you could encompass the whole trouble in that popular household in the same paraphrase Dotty Parker used to describe Edith Wharton’s slightly dull autobiography. Dotty said “Edie was a lady.” I’m afraid that’s the only criticism of Clark’s lovely wife, Rhea was a lady.
I think it smothered Clark. I felt it a long time ago.
Once I even dared to say something about it. But you see – Rhea was a lady and I don’t think she could understand. I don’t expect she does now.
But in time – the glamour wore off. Clark grew restless.
And Rhea I imagine just didn’t think the job worth doing if she couldn’t make him completely happy.
So the world, and fame, and all its petty trials and tribulations caught up with them. The very virility that had won Rhea in the beginning tortured her. The very elegance and dignity and charm that had won Clark began to smother him.
And beauty drifted away and left hunger on both sides – a hunger that has sent them out to begin all over again.
Edna Millay once wrote, “Tis not love’s going dims my days, but that it died in little ways.” I think we could write that as an epitaph above the love story of Clark and Rhea Gable. And drop a little wreath because they were such swell people, and I wish so that they might have gone on being happy, and because I know Rhea will weep in secret for the boy she so loved, and because I am just a little afraid for Clark without her.