In 1937, Violet Norton, a cockney British woman, was brought into court for trying to “obtain money from Clark Gable under fraudulent pretenses and promises.” According to Mrs. Norton, the mother of four illegitimate children, she had a brief fling in 1922 with a man named Frank Billings which resulted in the birth of a daughter, Gwendolyn Edith. She claims Frank deserted her upon learning she was pregnant.
In 1935, Violet saw It Happened One Night and, lo and behold, according to her, there was Frank Billings on the screen wooing Claudette Colbert. Violet promptly wrote to Clark, advising him of his paternity of Gwen and asking him to do right by her. Clark said, “The letter was so fantastic, I threw it away.” Undaunted, Mrs. Norton and Gwen set out for Canada, in order to press their claim on Clark from a closer vicinity. Violet advertised in fan magazines for a father for “Clark Gable’s child”, wrote to Mae West (randomly!) to enlist her support and tried to sell her story to many newspapers. She finally earned enough money selling her fictional tale to get to California where she hired a private detective to put the squeeze on MGM and Clark. The studio promptly notified the district attorney’s office and Violet was brought to trial on April 22, 1937.
The courtroom was a circus. Fans prodded and grabbed at Clark on his way into the courtroom, ripping his clothes and mussing his hair. Vendors sold peanuts and photographs of Clark outside the courthouse. Mrs. Norton, red-faced, gray-haired and looking much older than her age of 47, introduced as proof a photograph of Frank Billings in a British Army uniform. She said in her cockney accent, “He is arrant fraud! He’s Frank Billings, that’s who he is! I could tell by the way he makes love to Joan Crawford!”
Clark was the first witness for his defense. His testimony was short and to the point:
Q: Were you ever in England?
Q: Were you ever known as Frank Billings?
Q: Do you know Mrs. Norton?
Q: Are you the father of her daughter, Gwendolyn?
To Clark’s defense came people from his early life–friends, employers, family–to vouch for Clark’s whereabouts during that fateful year of 1922. The star witness was Franz Doerfler, Clark’s former sweetheart, who gave a Clark a perfect alibi by testifying that in the autumn of 1922 (when Gwendoline was conceived) Clark was a guest of her father’s ranch in Oregon. She concluded her tale stating that Clark had even proposed marriage and even though she did not accept, she was still Clark’s number one fan. Clark gallantly led his former sweetheart to and from the witness stand, kissing her on the cheek. A surprise witness for Clark was Harry Billings, brother of the phantom father of Gwen, who testified that Clark was not his brother. The final proof was that Clark had never even been issued a passport to leave the United States so it was not fathomable that he could have been in Britain to father a child in 1922.
Undeterred by any of this evidence, Violet pointed to Clark and screamed, “He is the father of my child!” in the middle of the court. The jury of twelve men reached their verdict after an hour and fifty five minutes–Guilty! Violet was convicted of using the mail to defraud and was sentenced to five years in prison or a $10,000 fine. Her attorney, Maurice Levine, appealed for a probationary sentence, which permitted Mrs. Norton to leave the United States immediately and never return. She was not heard from again.