The Gable Saga
By Cameron Shipp
Cosmopolitan magazine, June 1954
A solitary figure, Clark Gable towers above the legends of his early life, his discarded
marriages, his war career. Behind all the guesswork lies the truth about this famous—
Clark Gable has been top dog on Hollywood’s totem pole of sex attractions for almost a
quarter of a century. Like “Papa” Ernest Hemingway, the war-making writer he
somewhat resembles, Gable is still champ in his trade and going strong at an age
when some men prefer baby-sitting with their grandchildren to shooting lions and/or
making love to Ava Gardner. Gable is fifty-three.
He is not a great actor and knows it. “The guy’s only claim to fame,” a friend of his
recently proclaimed, “is that he is Gable. He is famous for being Clark Gable like Man
o’War was famous for being a horse.”
Four marriages with unhappy endings, fifty-three motion pictures, distinguished
fighting in World War II and countless love affairs have marked him with white
temples and deep jaw lines. Inaccessible as a fort, he has no living relatives and few
friends, and no one feels free to slap him on the back. He is accustomed to being
addressed as Mr. Gable. He owns a magnificent house, which he dotes on. Every few
months, he puts his home on sale, then backs out when an offer is made. The house
was the scene of his greatest happiness, when he was married to the joyful Carole
Lombard, but he spends little time in it. When he disappears, no one knows where he
goes and he seldom explains.
When he resigned from MGM in March, severing a relationship more than twenty
years old, he made a strange statement for a tough guy: “I wish…to pay tribute to my
friends and associates who are no longer alive…”
By and large, Hollywood thinks Clark Gable is great. Exactly why, they don’t know. By
and large, more women have looked on him as a sex symbol than any man in history.
Even Hollywood, which is supposed to be knowledgeable but is actually more village-
wise than city-wise, is confused by the Gable legend. The belief persists that he is a
phenomenon of the Ohio oil wells and the Oregon sawmills—a kind of Paul Bunyan
with passion. Nothing could be further from the facts. Gable is a small-town, middle-
class, Midwestern product from away back. Here’s how the real Gable story begins:
The late Dr. John S. Campbell, a thirty-eight-year-old graduate of the University of
Michigan Homeopathic Medical School, hurried down the main street of Cadiz, Ohio,
on the wind-bitten morning of February 1, 1901. He turned in at the small clapboard
home of William H. and Adeline (Hershelman) Gable to deliver a baby.
Everything went well. The doctor’s fee was ten dollars. John S. Campbell Jr., who
consulted his father.s books for this information, notes with dead-pan humor that “the
bill was paid”—a fact more significant than you might think. William H. Gable was an
oil wildcatter, and such men are likely to be casual about money matters. A few years
later, the senior Gable became superintendent of a Methodist Sunday school.
The low fee for being William Clark Gable into the world was topped the next day by a
more fascinating oddity: the young Gable heir was registered as a girl. The error was
hastily corrected, but the amendment is still on record in the Probate and Juvenile
Court, Harrison County, Ohio. A red line drawn through the word female proclaims
Master Gable.s legal masculinity.
Adeline Gable, Clark.s mother, was a pretty woman who inspired legends herself. The
most widely told in Hollywood—and no truth in it—is that she had aspired to be an
artist in Paris, failed, and had her only child despite a doctor.s warning that childbirth
would kill her.
Adeline died when her son was seven months old, and this inspired the legend still
widely believed, that Clark was reared by a mean stepmother, ran away from home,
and twice married women much older than himself because he had a mother complex.
Run down through official sources, the facts are plain enough. When Clark was five,
his father married Mrs. Jennie Dunlap, a milliner. Jennie was a gentle, cultured
person, who brought the boy up as her own. The Gables later lived in Hopedale, and
on a farm near Ravenna, both in Ohio. Young Gable was a spoiled only child of well-
to-do small towners. He played in the school band, acted as a Teddy bear in a school
play, had the only bike and the only private pool table (closed on Sundays) in town
and was devoted to his stepmother.
He is remembered by Mrs. Ira M. Bailey, who bought the old Gable home, as a quiet
boy who carried a lantern at night. He was afraid of the dark.
His two years in high school set no scholastic worlds aglow. Freshman year he made
75 in math, 77 in science, 77 in English, 73 in Latin and 85 in spelling. As a
sophomore he did a little better, going to 94 in spelling, a subject he has been good at
When Gable left his home, at nineteen, he left an eleven-room house built in 1870, a
wife, comfortable house with hand-hewn doors, old pewter, old brass and Early
American furniture. Years later, when he acquired his own big home in Hollywood,
that was exactly what he wanted—bigger, better, more expensive, but very much like
the old place in Ohio.
Clark turned up in Akron in 1920 as a worker in a rubber factory. He saw a stock
company play, abandoned talk about becoming a doctor, and followed the theatre from
then on. No one knows exactly what inspired this. A good guess is that Jennie Dunlap,
who brought books and conversation to the Gable home, may have unconsciously
influenced him. At any rate, Clark was an extremely inept actor until 1924, when he
found himself in Oregon, out of funds, and temporarily employed as a telephone
Gable’s life has been influenced by women all the way through. First there was Jennie.
And then came Josephine Dillon. Josephine was not old enough to be a mother-
replacement, like Jennie, but almost. She was both brilliant and patient, the most
remarkable combination possible in an actress. She had played Broadway and had
been leading lady to Edward Everett Horton. She was—and is—a gifted director and
The extraordinary Miss Dillon took Gable on and did considerably more than tech him
the fundamentals of acting and get him his first hobs as a motion picture extra. On
December thirteenth of that year—1924—she married him.
Josephine Dillon, a mature, professional woman, was approaching thirty-seven when
she married Clark Gable, a lanky, half-educated, twenty-three-year-old Ohio farm boy
who was reputed to have the biggest feet in Hopedale and who couldn.t act. He and
Josephine were married for six years, and during that time Miss Dillon did make an
actor of him, one way or another.
Gable has confirmed this several times. “She gave me timing,” he has said, He never
credited any other teacher—because he never had any. Miss Dillon will not discuss
Clark Gable today, nor will he talk about her.
After Josephine Dillon, there were many other women and one true love. The true love
was Carole Lombard, who was a blonde cutup in Los Angeles High School the year
Clark and Josephine were married. She was born October 6, 1908; the daughter of Mr.
and Mrs. Frederic Peters of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the same year Josephine Dillon was
a graduate from Stanford University. She became famous as one of the most madcap,
most delightful, and most profane beauties Hollywood has ever known. But fourteen
years and another woman were to intervene before Clark married Carole.
Coached by Josephine Dillon, Gable moved onward and upward. He went to Broadway
and learned to wear spats and carry a cane. He appeared competently but without
distinction in “Blind Windows”, “Gambling”, “Hawk Island”, “Love, Honor and Betray”,
and “Machinal”. He saw Spencer Tracy create the role of Killer Mears in “The Last
Mile” in New York and did a fair imitation of Tracy in a Los Angeles stock company.
Then he worked for Lionel Barrymore in “The Copperhead” and failed in a screen test.
But one morning in 1931, Barrymore walked onto the set of “A Free Soul”, his
Academy Award-winning picture, and was struck as speechless ad you can strike a
Barrymore. What silenced Lionel was a movie spectacle now routine in Hollywood.
Clark Gable had a woman in his arms. Mr. Barrymore likes to tell the story.
Gable, lean, hungry and unknown, was embracing Norma Shearer, who was then one
of Hollywood.s most glittering stars and the wife of Irving Thalberg, production head of
Gable flipped Mr. Barrymore a casual salute, as if he swallowed great actresses before
breakfast every morning. “He took it for granted,” Lionel says.
But not long before that, Gable had flubbed two chances with Barrymore. Appearing in
Lionel’s stage hit “The Copperhead” in Los Angeles; he had blundered on stage in a bit
part. He had dropped his hat in a prop well, supposedly forty feet deep, then calmly
dipped in and picked it up while the audience howled like a Cheyenne war party. “Did
it all with the savoir-faire of a kid with a quarter.” Lionel reports.
Next, Barrymore had made a screen test of Gable as a naked native with a hibiscus
blossom behind his ear. The test was a flop.
But now, suddenly, out of nowhere, there he was, kissing Miss Norma Shearer.
“Looked like a lean and hungry young Jack Dempsey,” Lionel recalls. How he got the
chance, no one to this day is sure. But there he was, and with that one scene he
became a star.
This was the year Josephine and Clark divorced.
Just before Gable hit the Hollywood jackpot, he had worked in a stock company in
Houston, Texas. There he had met a beautiful divorcee, Ria Langham. She was a
society woman, reputed to be rich, and eleven years older than Gable. These,
apparently, were the qualities gable now thought he required in a woman. He divorced
Josephine, and married Ria on June 19, 1931.
Now the lush years began. Gable.s big pictures were “Possessed”, “Strange Interlude”,
“Night Flight”, “Men in White”, “Mutiny on the Bounty” (probably his best
performance), “It Happened One Night” (Academy Award), and the saga said to have
grossed $35,000,000, “Gone with the Wind”.
He also made “Parnell”, his worst picture. In this one he tried to act like a man who
was not Clark Gable.
Gable became the biggest attraction in Hollywood, or the world, and by far. He was
crowned “King of the Movies” by 1937. He had won all the chips, hands down. He did
not need Ria. They separated in 1935.
Josephine Dillon then made one of her rare public statements. “Clark told me when we
were divorced that he wanted to marry Ria because she could do more for him
financially. He is a born actor but a “double Dutchman.. He is hard to live with
because his career and his ambition always come first.”
From the gentle Josephine, this is high-grade evidence. And it is ironic, Ria’s money—
if indeed, she had a considerable amount—meant nothing to Gable. He made a fortune
in Hollywood after their marriage. He became that phenomenon of the twentieth
century, a movie star, a creature more famous and fancied than any king. After
marrying two women, both of whom were older, wealthier, and more important than
himself. Gable discarded each in turn as he no longer needed her.
The affair Ria closed with a $283,000 property settlement on the lady, an oddity.
Ria’s daughter by her first marriage became the mother of a boy in 1936. When Gable
left Ria, he divorced himself from being a step-grandfather.
Other women, some famous and some infamous, began to take the stage as early as
1935. That was the year Gable was linked with Loretta Young, with a British actress
named Mary Taylor, and with Elizabeth Allan, a Long Island society girl.
In 1937, an English woman seized the headlines by declaring Clark Gable the father of
her thirteen-year-old daughter, Gwendolyn. Mrs. Violet Wells Norton said Clark Gable
came to England in 1922-23, masqueraded as a tutor under the name of Frank
billings, and seduced her. The allegation was false, but it had to be refuted in Federal
court, in which Mrs. Norton was charged with using the mail to defraud.
In his dilemma, Gable invoked the most unlikely person a man ever called on to
defend his honor. He sent for the girl he had jilted when he married Josephine Dillon,
two wives ago. She was a minor Hollywood actress named Franz Dorfler.
But Franz was full of good will. She swore Gable couldn.t have been in England
because he was with her in Oregon in 1922-23. As a matter of fact, she said, during
the times they were not on stage in little hand-to-mouth stock companies, Gable often
lived at her father.s farm.
Later on Miss Dorfler expanded her story. She said the parts Gable played in Oregon
included a baby, a barker, and a Negro mammy. Between shows he worked as a mule
“We planned our marriage and decided on two children,” Miss Dorfler said.
But, she said, Clark grew bored with her after he met Josephine Dillon. And one
morning she learned by telephone he had married Miss Dillon.
In the wings waited Carole Lombard. Carole was a fun girl, seven years younger than
Gable. She was not much more than a schoolgirl when she became a Mack Sennett
bathing beauty. She then became a comedienne, one of Hollywood.s best, and briefly
Mrs. William Powell.
She liked nonsense. Once she invited a number of celebrated Hollywood fixtures to a
formal dinner party. When the guests arrived in white ties and minks, they were
ushered into a drawing room from which all the furniture had been removed. The floor
was knee-deep in hay.
Carole was also notable for employing the profanest feminine vocabulary ever enjoyed
in Hollywood society. She became the third Mrs. Clark Gable in 1939.
Jean Garceau, Gable.s secretary-business manager and chatelaine of his ranch house
today, likes to show the waxed pine table that Gable and Lombard beat with chains,
burned with cigarette stubs and married with knives to make it look antique—
laughing fit to kill all the time. Many of the fine things in the big house were Carole.s
choice. All these things stand today, burnished and treasured exactly in place, as
carefully and thoughtfully handled as the fifteen expensive hunting rifles in Gable.s
private study. For all her frivolity, Carole was as precise and tidy as Gable himself.
Carole was a boudoir girl, but soon learned to ride, to shoot, and to sleep on hard
ground because Gable liked these things. She kept up with her man.
In his marriage to Carole Lombard, Clark Gable resolved himself. He was now a
mature, celebrated, and rich man, not an uncertain country boy from Ohio, and at last
he had married a woman he had something to give.
This peak of Gable.s life lasted only thirty-four months. That was the duration of his
marriage to Carole Lombard, but this marriage was not ended by divorce. It ended
with Carole.s death. And in this crushing experience we can see the man in his most
As westbound planes fly past Las Vegas toward the peaks jutting between Nevada and
California, a passenger may sometimes turn and see a scar on a high mountain. Pilots
and airline hostesses never mention it. But the scar is there, and there are times when
tricks of light seem to reveal a shadow of the crippled hulk. This is where Lombard
perished, gay in a new evening dress, with jeweled pendants in her ears, casually
shouldering her best furs.
It happened at dusk, January 16, 1942.
On that Friday evening, Gable was home on his twenty-two acre ranch in the San
Fernando Valley. He and Martin, his Negro butler and friend, and Miss Garceau were
preparing a small party for Carole.s homecoming. Carole was returning from a war-
bond tour on which she had been immensely successful—two million dollars worth,
for example, in her home state of Indiana. With her on the plane were her mother,
Mrs. Elizabeth K. Peters; Otto Winkler, her press agent; the pilot; co-pilot; and fifteen
Terrible news seldom comes at once, dramatized as in second-act curtains on the
stage. A quiet telephone call said the big plane was delayed. No one worried. Once
before, returning from location, Carole.s plane had caught fire. That time, there was a
tiger aboard, a press agent had said. It had made a good story.
“Carole.s plane is down,” Gable said. “They are coming to pick me up. I.m afraid
something has happened to Ma.”
He realized the truth, Miss Garceau believes, on the way to the Burbank air terminal
to charter a plane. At Las Vegas, he went to the police station where a posse was being
organized to go into the mountains. They had to fight him. They held Gable back, and
they said t was like holding an animal.
Eddie Mannix went up, not a big man, past fifty, tearing his feet in the snow, and saw
Carole—the little there was to see: a strand of hair, a burned script near her hand,
the trinkets, and the clips from her ears.
After this, they all say, Gable was the strongest man on hand. Back in camp, when the
pack animals came down with their burdens from the scar and the snow, Gable served
steaks to the men who had helped. One aged cowpoke lacked the teeth to eat properly.
Gable palmed a hundred dollar bill into a deputy.s hand. “For God.s sake,” he said,
“buy Bill some teeth.”He shed no tears, asked for none, and was unapproachable.
“There goes one hell of a lot of man,” one laborer said.
Gable went home and arranged a double funeral. Carole.s mother, too, had died on the
mountain. He considered it primarily her funeral, as he thought Carole would have
considered it, a funeral for Mrs. Elizabeth K. Peters, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, with her
daughter Jane Peters Gable.
Many of the Gable legends start now. A persistent tale is that he threatened to sue the
airline until it made cash settlements to the families of all the men killed in the crash.
What he actually did was refuse to sign a legal release until the airline paid $100,000
to Otto Winkler.s widow. Gable then picked up the mortgage on the Winkler home and
paid it out of pocket.
A few months after this, while hw as completing the picture ironically titled
“Somewhere I.ll Find You”, a sentimental story began to make the rounds. Some
persons close to Gable insist it is true. Others equally close, and especially Miss
Garceau, deny it. Here is the story:
When he returned, Gable closed Carole.s bedroom and enshrined it with all her pretty
things untouched, just as she left them: the perfume bottles, the brushes, her fine
dresses, her riding clothes, even the splash of lightly spilled powder on the mirrored
dressing table—just as the yellow-haired girl had left them when she went to war. Late
at night, Gable would enter the room…and nothing was disturbed, not a slipper or a
Another tale is true only in part. Gable, they say, went into the Army as a tribute to
Carole.s sacrifice and as a private because of Carole.s democratic principles. The fact
is that Carole wanted Gable in from the beginning, but she thought he ought to start
as a major general. The last message Gable received from her was a telegram date-
lined Amarillo, Texas: “Hey Pappy, you.d better get into this man.s army.”
He had planned to enlist, and after Carole.s death, he followed the plan they had
agreed upon: after consulting his old friend General “Hap” Arnold, he enlisted as a
private—number 19125047—but only to get to officer.s training school as fast as
Gable was commissioned a second lieutenant on October 28,1942—number
0565390—in the upper third of his class at Miami Beach, Florida. He was sent to
Flexible Gunnery School, Panama City, Florida, then to Advanced Gunnery School,
Fort George Wright, Spokane, Washington. Then he was transferred to the 34th Bomb
Group, a B-24 outfit, and finally to the 351st Bomb Group Heavy.
Gable was forty-one years old and as famous as an actor can get. His first Army
assignment was to help his classmate Andrew J. McIntyre scrub the lobby of the
Collins Park Hotel.
In England, he was promoted to captain in a routine table-of-organization order. This
was routine, McIntyre says, because a heavy-bomber group loses men so fast that any
survivor automatically gets promoted.
Gable took part in the raid on the heavy-water plant in Norway, and he and McIntyre
were together when the big planes blasted the Ruhr Valley. “All I can say is we were
lucky to get back,” McIntyre says. “Gable did his job. The Army didn.t give Gable a
Gable did what had to done, was liked by his men, won the Air Medal, and came out a
major. Other men not so famous, not so on-the-spot, did as well. But Lieutenant
General Ira Eaker, U.S. commanding officer during the air raids, cites a notable
German Air Minister Hermann Georing announced a preferred list of Americans he
wanted taken dead or alive. He wanted Colonel Hubert Zemke and Lieutenant Colonel
Francis Gabreski, two of our leading fighter-pilot aces, and he wanted Captain Clark
Gable. For the captain, he offered $5,000, a furlough, and immediate promotion.
Zemke and Gabreski scored twenty-eight fighter kills each and were shot down in
1944. Gable was the only one of the trio to escape German gunfire.
On gunnery missions over enemy territory, Captain Gable wore a silver chain around
his neck. The chain held a little box. In it were Carole Lombard.s jeweled ear clips.
It was a long time before Gable married again. Meantime there were various women,
from Anita Colby, the beauty with brains, who was fun and apparently not serious, to
Miss Millicent Huddleston Rogers, of the Social Register. Stories about these ladies
made column items, but none came close to marriage until the appearance of Sylvia
Miss Hawkes was the daughter of a London pubkeeper. She began her career as an
actress, but soon discovered her best talents embraced drawing rooms and men of
distinction. With her first marriage, she acquired a title she never relinquished,
despite three succeeding husbands. She became Lady Ashley and never forgot it.
Lord Ashley was the twenty-six-year-old son of the Earl of Shaftesbury. His mother
was Extra Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Mary. The marriage ended in divorce.
Lady Ashley, by now a figure in international society, soon began another adventure. It
was a whopper.
In 1934, she cruised the world with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., then married to Mary
Pickford. Fairbanks was a broken man, his days as a swashbuckling movie star long
since gone. He was even jealous of the rising talents of his own son, Doug Junior. Miss
Pickford reluctantly divorced him, a shocking circumstance that destroyed the fable of
pose and serenity surrounding America.s sweetheart, and he married Lady Ashley.
Fairbanks died in 1939, tired and beaten, and his widow.s next husband was Baron
Stanley of Alderley. Sylvia divorced him in 1948, ignored his name, by-passed the late
Mr. Fairbanks, and became Lady Ashley again.
She was forty-two years old when she met Clark Gable in Hollywood. She was pretty,
gay, mannered, haute monde, haute couture, important in café society and bore a
striking resemblance to Carole Lombard. Gable had been unmarried now for seven
On Wednesday, December 21, 1949, Sylvia and Gable went to a party at the home of
Charles Feldman, the agent. Gable made up his mind at 2:30am on the way home. He
took Sylvia to Santa Barbara and married her, with publicist Howard Strickling as
best man and Jean Garceau to stand up with them.
Sylvia.s voice trembled during the ceremony. Her hand shook as she cut the wedding
cake with a sword. She spilled her champagne. Gable gently helped her wipe it away.
No first-time maiden could have behaved more like a bride.
Three weeks later, his close friends say, Gable knew he had made a mistake.
Lady Ashley is a froufrou girl. She likes butlers in white ties, and Martin, Gable.s man
and old friend, is not a white-tie butler. Sylvia thinks a gun is a showpiece a British
gentleman aims in a shoot while beater bestir the grouse, not something a lady kills
animals with. But Sylvia was fun. Sylvia Hawkes-Ashley-Fairbanks-and-so-forth had
been trained to please. But Mr. Gable is not a man who wants a lady delicately sitting
around, waiting to please him. He was making a half million dollars a year then and
he and Sylvia spent it all.
In 1951, Sylvia filed for divorce. Her attorney was the renowned Jerry Giesler, who had
defended Flynn and Chaplin in their court scandals.
Various reasons were adduced for the breakup. Both confessed they were hard to get
Besides, Sylvia said, Carole Lombard.s ghost was always present. The house was full
of the pewter mugs, the brass, the pine, the maple, which Clark and Carole had
polished together. And Jean Garceau, who had idolized Carole and still does, was
always about as secretary. Sylvia had moved her out of the house first thing, not no
farther than a new house nearby, which Gable built for her. Miss Garceau is on hand
to this day.
Eventually, both Sylvia and Gable filed for divorce, Sylvia in Los Angeles and Gable in
Reno. She won a decree in April, 1952. There was an eleven-page property settlement
involving a large but unspecified sum and a lien of ten percent on Gable.s income for
one year. Sylvia once again became Lady Ashley.
And there you have it.
Whether the adventures of an Ohio country boy on his way to becoming a fabulous
motion-picture star point any moral, or whether they have made Clark Gable happy,
you will have to decide for yourself. One thing is certain.
He plays Clark Gable better than any man who ever lived.