The Story Gable Wouldn’t Tell!
by Ida Zeitlin
Modern Screen magazine, November 1942
Gable, the swashbuckler, died with Carole. The rest of him goes out to do battle against needless heartbreak in a world to come!
On August 11th two men presented themselves to recruiting officers in the Federal Building in Los Angeles, and said they’d like to enlist as buck privates. They were Andrew McIntyre, cameraman, and his friend Clark Gable, movie star. Within a space of thirty-six hours they had taken their physicals, the oath of allegiance and a train headed for the Air Forces Officer Candidate School at Miami, Florida.
Knowing its women, the army kept secret the whereabouts of Gable’s induction. But Clark can’t hide himself under a butterfly’s wing. A girl spotted him entering the Federal Building and spread the evangel. Thereafter it took a bunch of determined m.p.’s to hold down the mob that collected outside the recruiting offices where Colonel Malcolm Andruss was administering the oath.
Gable, blue-suited, emerged mopping his forehead. By now reporters were on the scene. Pressed to say something, he asked: “What is there to say?” But someone had unearthed a human interest item. Giving them their traveling orders, Colonel Andruss had put Private McIntyre into Private Gable’s charge.
For the first time in seven months, Clark’s face broke into a grin that showed no sign of tension. “Fine thing. Here I’m in the service half an hour and bossing a two-man army already. Pretty rapid work if you ask me!”
Five days later, having been accepted for enrollment in the AFOCS, known as the streamlined West Point because of its rigorous schedule, he became Corporal Gable, since there are no privates in that man’s army. They gave him his outfit, including size 11 shoes, instructions in how to make his bed and orders to remove his mustache. Till he’s a first lieutenant, he won’t be allowed to grow it again.
By the time this appears, he will have completed half of his twelve weeks’ training course. Then it will be “whatever the army orders.” He voiced his own preference plainly. “I want to be a machine gunner on an airplane and be sent where the going’s tough.”
It’s not because Carole died that Clark went to war. Forty-one though he is, he might have gone anyway. He and Carole were always staunch supporters of President Roosevelt and his policies. They were at Johns Hopkins last year, consulting physicians about an injury to Clark’s shoulder, when the President invited them to a broadcast of one of his addresses to the nation. Later they had a long talk with him, which left them deeply stirred.
When war broke out, they both wrote him, offering their services in any capacity he might name. He assured them that their most useful contribution at the moment was movie-making, that if they were needed elsewhere they would be called. The first call came for Carole. Would she go back to Indianapolis, her home town, for a war bond rally? She did her job, sold millions of dollars worth of bonds before boarding the plane that would get her back to her husband faster than a plodding train. And so his heart and life were sliced in two, and he goes to war with a difference. Nothing pulls him back, everything pulls him in.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher once wrote a story about a girl whose parents’ love and dependence on each other grew with every passing year. Then her mother died. In the shadow of her father’s desolation, she cried out: “People shouldn’t be happily married. It’s too terrible when one of them goes.”
Of course she was wrong, though in first anguish many might be inclined to agree with her. Cut those three years with Carole out of Clark’s life, take his memories from him, and you’d leave him an infinitely poorer man.
They’d been everything to each other, their devotion more complete than even their closest friends could have foreseen, than they themselves could have foreseen perhaps. They’d both been around. It wasn’t first love for either, but that rarer thing–a perfect blend of love, companionship, undoubtedly treasured the more because they hadn’t found it earlier. Carole went into marriage with the single thought of making Clark happy. His way of life–animals, farming, hunting–hadn’t been hers. She made it hers, knowing he’d be miserable any other way, not caring what way she went so long as it was with him. So they lived on a twenty-two acre ranch, and she hobnobbed with beef and poultry on the hoof and carried pitchers of milk like any farmwife to her lord and master sweating atop his tractor.
Before their marriage Clark had had plenty of friends. Carole had always been the hub of a crowd. Now they were sufficient unto themselves. Not that they turned into solitaries; both were to warm and genial for that. But as one friend put it: “They found something in each other that took care of everything.” they’d spend weeks on the farm, content to see nobody. You couldn’t even get them on the phone.
Clark never wrote letters. The only exception was the letter he wrote once a year on their anniversary to the girl who was living right there in the house with him. Carole wouldn’t work when he was off. he might take it into his head any old time to say, “Let’s go huntin’, Ma.” She wanted to be free to sling their stuff into the station wagon and go. First, second and third she was his wife. Being a movie star could take its chances.
Then came the Friday when he left the studio at five to pick her up at the airport. He raised the top on the car, since she didn’t like it down. With him was a friend whom we’ll call Ed because that’s not his name, and he shrinks from any publicity resulting from Clark’s tragedy.
Ed went in to check while Clark waited in the car. The plane, they told him, would be an hour late, so they drive to a hamburger joint for sandwiches and coffee. Clark was in high spirits, because Ma was coming home. When they got back forty-five minutes later, Ed was informed that the plane had come down at Las Vegas with motor trouble. Clark shook his head. “There must be something wrong.” They returned to the office together.
“It’s all right, Mr. Gable,” the clerk said. “Just a little engine trouble. They’re putting the passengers up at Las Vegas overnight.”
“That information hasn’t come through yet.”
“Look, Clark,” said Ed, “why don’t you go home? Maybe Carole’s trying to get you there. I’ll call Las Vegas and find out what hotel they’re stopping at.”
“Come over to the house and do it.”
“No, I’ll do it here.” Why he wanted to do it there he couldn’t have said–call it premonition or natural uneasiness caused by the delay.
He was in the telephone booth, coins in hand, when three men entered the place. He looked at their faces, and knew the worst had happened. Heavily he hung up the receiver and walked out. “How bad is it?”
“Very bad–” They added the few essential details.
He went up to the sky room where and MGM executive was dining. They phoned the studio. Eddie Mannix got the job of driving out to Clark’s house. There had been an accident, he said, that was all they knew. He got back to the airport with Clark as Jill Winkler, wife of the publicity man who’d accompanied Carole, came stumbling out of her car. The radio had blared the news at her as she drive to meet her husband. Clark stiffened. His face went a shade whiter. But his mind refused to accept what his ears heard. His brain was blocked at one point. There had been an accident, that was all they knew, that was all they knew–
The last trip…
The people around him were shadows. All his will was concentrated on getting to wherever Carole was. There were planes on the field, he moved toward them. Someone led him back. Someone said they’d have to charter a plane. It wasn’t easy. Planes were needed for soldiers. At last they managed to get an old crate. Its capacity was limited. There wasn’t room for Ed. He stood on the field, watching it disappear into the sky out of which–short hours or an eternity earlier–they’d been waiting to welcome Carole.
On Sunday Ed went to Las Vegas to bring Jill Winkler home. Otto’s body hadn’t been brought down yet. The regulations were–army first, then women, then male passengers, then the crew. Carole and her mother had been found. Clark refused to leave till they could take Otto back with them. But Jill was prevailed upon to go.
One of the friends who’d accompanied Clark met Ed.
“He hasn’t eaten since we got here. Go see if you can get him to eat.”
“If you can’t, I can’t–”
“Maybe a new face–”
He went in. “Hello, Clark.”
Gable lifted his ravaged face. “Hello.”
His eyes returned to the window. But the sight of Ed seemed to have dragged him back to the incredibly beautiful time when there had been a Carole in the world–back and then forward. He looked up again. ‘We didn’t meet the plane, did we, Ed?”
Ed’s heart turned to water. “No, Clark,” He said quietly, “we didn’t meet the plane.”
Then, a little later, “Want something to eat?”
“Mind if I eat something?”
He ordered a hamburger sent to him there. Maybe it was a lousy idea, but what could he lose? It worked. “Think you could get me some stewed fruit?” asked Clark. Ed was out of there like a bat out of hell. He wasn’t leaving this to the telephone. With the fruit, he brought back a bottle of milk. Clark finished the bottle, by which time Ed had stealthily introduced another. Clark finished that, too. No general ever got more satisfaction from a well-planned maneuver than strategist Ed.
A crumbled world…
Clark kept himself going till everything was done that had to be done. Otto was buried the day after Carole and her mother. He insisted on going. He went with Jill. Then he relapsed into what seemed a kind of stupor. They couldn’t get him to love; they could hardly get him to speak. He just sat.
Gable’s been rated a tough guy, who could take what blows fate handed out and come back for more. Those who wondered over his collapse are those who confused toughness with lack of deep feeling. Sure, Gable’s tough, none of which precludes the softer emotions. Tenderness is none the less tender when wrapped in a gag. One day there had been Carole, warm, alive, the dear companion of today and all the years to come. Next day there was Carole, a searing pain. She’d woven herself into every fiber of his being. Torn out, he was left bleeding. She’d been the heart of his world. When it stopped beating, the world crumbled. He was in no stupor. He’d crawled into the hole of himself, because every outside contact flayed his raw grief.
The few friends he did see where those who had loved Carole, who kept their hands off his grief. Instinctively, as a child does, he grew closer to his father. It was to his father that he first spoke of Carole, and the older man silently thanked the Lord. It was like the shadow of a crack in the ice. Presently he seemed to find his only relief in talking about her–this was what Carole had said, this is what she’d done. He seemed to be walking with her in the past. Between him and the future rose a night of horror. He wouldn’t approach it.
They’d just started “Somewhere I’ll Find You” when tragedy struck. The studio brought no pressure to bear on him. Clark had said: “When I feel I can go back, I’ll let them know.” It was left in his hands. Rumor said he’d never make the picture, rumor said he was going into the army. Someone in Washington did wire, asking Clark to see him if he thought of entering the service. At the time he was interested in nothing. But the picture weighed on him. Not only the studio, but actors and writers and crew were being held in suspension till he moved. After weeks he called up one Thursday to say he’d start the following Monday.
Cast and crew were called together. Whether they or Clark dreaded that first day most was a question. They were told that anyone who so much as breathed Carole’s name would be fired. The warning was hardly necessary, but they were all bending over backward in an agony of protectiveness.
Not mentioning Carole’s name was easy. The hard thing was to keep from running to cover, to approach him naturally, to say “Hello, Clark” as if it had been any day. They managed. So did he. The only observable difference was that, instead of chinning around with the gang between scenes, he went to his dressing room and closed the door.
Lana had a late call. Clark was already there when she reached the set, heart quaking. She’d sent him a note, saying the things one does say on such occasions, with a wretched sense of their futility.
Now she said, “Hello Clark, how are you?”
“Fine, how are you?”
She scrabbled out words about the weather, tires, the war, searching in panic for something talk about next. Then she caught a glimpse of the strained blue eyes above her. “You darn fool,” she told herself savagely. “Best thing you can do for him is go away.” So she said she’d be seeing him and went.
He’d always lunched in the commissary. Now he lunched in his dressing room. “We can’t leave him alone in there day after day,” said Howard Strickling, his friend and head of publicity. But you couldn’t force yourself in on him either. Strickling had a bright idea. Clark had always been a newsreel fan, especially keen on anything to do with the war. Otto Winkler had been in the habit of running newsreels for him every week. “How about having a tray in the projection room,” Strickling suggested, “and we’ll run off some newsreels?” Clark thought that would be fine. They censored all planes out of the films at first, but after one had slipped through an oversight, left them in.
He began doing a little work on the farm, tinkered with machines again. He bought a motorcycle and, when the picture was finished, he’d go off on solitary trips, park at a lonely spot on the beach and lie in the sand, with the sea in his ears. He’d drop in to see and old saddle maker he knew or a man who runs a gas station out in the valley. With them he was less vulnerable. He didn’t feel their thoughts probing, however sympathetically, into his feelings. They didn’t regard him primarily as a movie star who had suffered the tragic loss of his wife. He was a fellow named Clark Gable who liked to gab about horses and hides and motors. That’s what they talked to him about. One night a friend drove into the station for gas. A bunch of motorbikes were parked in back, a bunch of cops and messenger boys were gathered round a guy who was answering questions about this clutch and that wheel. The guy was Clark, and his friend sneaked away like a thief in the night.
Gable and son…
His father came in every morning for breakfast. There wasn’t much chatter between them. Gable senior’s another tough guy. Meeting him, you spot the source of much of Clark’s charm.
“Hello Dad. How’s your lawn?” This was something of the old quizzical glint. They disagree on Dad’s ailing grass.
“You stick to your trade, son,” the old man would advise kindly,”–acting, isn’t?–and I’ll show you a lawn.”
Al Menasco, his closest friend, tried to buy a cycle, but by that time there weren’t any. He persuaded Clark to a hunting trip instead. They were driving through Arizona when a shiny new motorbike whizzed past. Al, at the wheel, caught up with it. “Want to sell that motor?”
“Not on your life,” said the owner.
But he couldn’t resist the offer of five hundred spot cash. With the cycle stowed in their station wagon, the hunters drove home.
Little by little he regained mastery over himself, but the void remained. He couldn’t fill it with acting. He couldn’t fill it with fighting either, but America was at war, and he wanted to carry his share. Many still felt that his wartime job was motion pictures–for the public morale. He didn’t, and nobody makes his decisions for him. Whether he’d have gone in this way at this time, had Carole lived, is beside the point. Every instinct but his love for her urged him into it. Death had snapped the one cable that held him.
For five months he’d remained in seclusion, his nerves wincing from exposure to the stares of the curious. In June he steeled himself and went to Washington. The girls in the war department broke loose. Clark had always laughed that kind of thing off with complete good humor and as many autographs as he could manage. This time he skulked in corners and hid behind pillars.
Just what happened in Washington few knew, and none are telling. He took a preliminary physical. The papers said he was closeted for three hours with General Hap Arnold, head of our air force, and that he was to be commissioned as head of a morale division. Clark came home and said nothing.
True to tradition…
“In the army, son?” his father asked.
“I don’t know, Dad.”
“You’d better be. Hasn’t been an army since 1861 without a Gable in it.”
The best guess is that he was offered a commission and turned it down. Enlisting, he said: “I hope they don’t put me into morale work.” To reporters who asked if he couldn’t have found an easier road to a commission, he said: ‘I think this is the right way to go.”
People as, will he get over Carole’s death? Does a man get over losing his right arm? The scar heals, but the arm is gone. The man continues to live his life, usefully to himself and others, but he’s still a man without his right arm. The swashbuckling, devil-may-care, hell-and-high-water Gable died with Carole. The rest of him lives on.
It is fitting that the final scene of his final picture should have been what it was. Seeing him stand there, grim-faced, blazing-eyed, hearing him hurl his defiance of “More coming–!” you can’t but thrill to the personal implications. This is no war of vengeance. The issues are too great, the sacrifices too terrible to admit of private hates. But if there had been no war, Carole needn’t have died. So it is fitting that her husband should go out to fight against needless death and heartache in the future. It is fitting that, among the millions of MORE COMING! Clark Gable should be one.