A Personal Story on Clark Gable
By Adela Rogers St. Johns
Photoplay magazine, March 1944
Photoplay is proud to present this story. But most of all we are proud of the real man whom this famous author, his friend, reveals here
A good many years ago, I asked Jack London, who knew rather more about men, women, children and dogs than anybody else I ever met, what he considered the measure of a man.
He didn’t like those over-all questions much because he said there were too many fine shades for any answer to be entirely just. But I was very young then and inclined to want to know everything in plain black and white, so he twinkled at me and after a moment’s thought he said, “If you have to boil it down, I suppose it must be how he behaves when the going gets tough.”
Things like that stay with you and for a good many years I’ve applied that test. I’ve even gone so far as to apply it to myself. There are all kinds of poetical expressions to describe those times in life when man is up against the great forces and the great demands, when he is weighed in the balance and found wanting or not.
When you are at war you need none of them. War itself is the supreme and final test.
In such a war as we are fighting now it is quite plain that no man can remain unchanged, no man will ever be the same after it is over, either to himself or to the rest of humanity. And we have had, each of us, our own bitter disappointments, our own intense satisfactions and our own surprises, good and bad. Some of the men and women we know have turned out a lot better than we thought they would; wiser, stronger, and more unselfish, than we suspected them to be. And some have turned out worse; blinder, stupider, lazier, greedier and less courageous than we believed possible.
Everybody has been put to the greatest test the nation has known in all its history. And the record is there. Either we measured up or we didn’t.
I am writing this story as a small tribute to a man who measured up. I think we ought to know about it and think about it. It is good for the soul these days to find that our idols don’t have feet of clay, but that they are worthy of the love we have given them. More than that, I think we ought to repay them by trying ourselves to live up to the standards they’ve set. The men we know personally, the men in everyday life, can touch only a few people by their success or failure, but a man like Clark Gable touches millions.
When Captain Gable arrived back from the European theater of war, I got to thinking about all these things, and about how much I, personally, owed to Captain Gable. How much my sons owed to him for his kindness and friendship over the years but above all for the fact that when the war came he set so clear and simple an example.
When Clark first became an intimate friend in my household, the boys were youngsters. Of course they still seem youngsters to me, and the years have actually been few, but in those days they were skinny kids, full of their own affairs and keen on movies.
I remember one night in my house at Malibu when Clark Gable and I were sitting in front of a driftwood fire, talking over life in general.
Clark was a little bewildered because try as he might he never could make it all as complex as the Thinkers did. His mind was always as direct and worthwhile as a plow furrow. While we talked we kept hearing noises offstage, whisperings, smothered giggles, bumps and bangs, and the swinging door kept moving in a strange, ghostly fashion.
“Is this house haunted?” Clark said finally, and at that exact moment the door swing wide and a tangle of arms and legs precipitated themselves into the room, accompanied by squeals and protests, and we found that my son Bill and half the boys on the beach had been listening outside the door and peeking through the crack for a glimpse of their idol. Sheepish and a little apprehensive as to what Mom might have to say, they managed to get unwound and on their feet, their young eyes riveted on Gable.
Nobody ever had a nicer laugh than Clark’s. It filled the room. He said, “Hey, why don’t you fellows come on in and say hello? You’ll bust something that way.”
They came in and said hello. They stayed and talked hunting and fishing and horses and the next day they made their report to me. Summed up, it was that Clark Gable was a great guy, he was just as great a guy off the screen as he was on.
I remember another day in Malibu, a raw and gusty day, with a cold wind coming in off the ocean and the breakers as high as the houses. They may call it Pacific, but in the spring it can be a brutally cold and unpleasant ocean. But the kids never seemed to know the difference and they went swimming just the same, turning slightly blue in the process but apparently enjoying themselves mightily. Clark had driven down and the kids found out he was there and then—why, then, of course, he must come swimming with them.
No adult in his right senses, he-man or otherwise, wanted to go swimming that day. But Clark Gable took a look at the expectation in the boys’ eyes—and went swimming with them and thereby consolidated an adoration that never failed.
You see, that’s one of the reasons I owe him so much as a friend. It’s one thing to keep the adoration and respect of those who see a man only on the screen, playing great parts. It is something else again to keep it when boys, with their clear young eyes and uncompromising standards, see you around in a familiar way. It is something to remember that Clark Gable never saw familiarity breed contempt but always respect and affection and admiration.
This is important to me now because later on, when the war had struck, my oldest son, wearing the Air Force blue uniform of the RCAF, and Clark Gable, in the tan of the USAAF, met in England. Gable wasn’t a movie star any longer, surrounded by all the fame and prestige and glamour of that position. He was a man like other men in wartime, and Pilot Officer St. Johns and Captain Gable shook hands as man to man and the boy’s heart was warmed because they were both doing the same tough job up there in the skies. The Big Moose hasn’t let him down. His idol was in tact.*
*On September 3, 1943, Pilot Officer St. Johns, returning from a raid over Germany, was killed in landing his crew and flaming plane on British soil.
These days, it’s very good to have a friend as simple and direct as Gable; it’s very good for all of us who have been lucky enough to be his friends either in person or on the screen.
Because when you come right down to it, Gable is a representative American. We used to call him the Dutchman around the studio—he comes of sturdy Holland Dutch ancestry and has all the essential stubborn determination of his forebears. But he grew up on a farm, he climbed telephone poles and fixed wires as a linesman, he sort of drifted into being an actor, perhaps because his adventurous spirit had nowhere else to go then but into the realm of make-believe.
I can’t remember the name of the picture, but I do remember very well that in one of his first important screen roles he had to learn to ride horseback like a cowboy. Up to that time, he explained, his only association with horses had been from behind a plow. “They look different,” he said, with a grin. For days he limped around with a rueful countenance and ate his meals off a mantel, as it were. But the cowboy who taught him told me later that he never saw anything like the stick-to-itiveness of that guy Gable. “I never thought any man could do it,” he said, “and I gave him the works, all right.” When the picture came out the fans had every reason to think that Clark Gable had been born on a horse.
No man who has ever attained stardom in Hollywood, and I think I have known them all, was ever so little touched by the applause, the idolatry, the fame and fortune, the intrigues and fashions of Hollywood. It isn’t quite accurate to say he remained unchanged. But it is the absolute truth to say that he grew up as normally, as straight, as unaffected by it all as though he had gone on growing up anywhere else. Unless you know Hollywood and have seen what it sometimes does to people you can’t realize how miraculous that is.
One day while he was doing a personal appearance at the Capitol in New York, I went to meet him in his dressing room and go out to dinner. It sounded simple enough, but getting out of the theater was another matter. Crowds gathered at every door, and it was literally necessary to fight our way through with considerable damage to our clothes and a good many delays while Gable signed autographs and such. When we finally got away someone said to Gable, “Isn’t that awful! How do you stand it? How can people behave like that?” And Clark, with that irresistible smile of his, said, “Maybe it’s awful, but I’m going to feel a lot worse when the stop.”
No other star I have ever known has as much courtesy and consideration and real gratitude to the public for its friendship and support. He was always a little shy about it, a little inclined to wonder if it could all be for him, but they were always dear to his heart. He likes people.
Don’t misunderstand me; Clark Gable was never any angel. He had his love affairs, and some of them were hectic enough, before his happy marriage to Carole Lombard. He was a reasonably good drinking man, but he drank as the old saying goes, “Like a gentleman.” He got into fights occasionally and sometimes he put his ears back like a mule and nobody on earth could move him an inch.
But you may believe me when I say that I think more of us went to him, in trouble, for his opinion and his advice, than any other man in Hollywood. Spencer Tracy, Ty Power, the producers and directors on the lot—the list would be endless.
It need be no secret now that there were a great many people who did not want Clark Gable to enlist in the Army Air Corps. All the arguments were used. He could do more good on the screen for morale. He could do more selling of War Bonds. He could reach more people, a million times more; he could entertain the men in service; his pictures would be just what men in training would want; they would keep up the spirits of civilians. He wasn’t a kid, after all. Some men in very high places insisted that he ought to go on making movies.
It surprised Clark gable very much. As usual, he saw things without any trimmings or sophistries. He was a man of fighting age and physical and mental soundless. His country was at war. At war for a great and holy cause. Little people were getting kicked around and killed and enslaved by bullies, murderous, maniacal bullies. Women and children were being tortured by an enemy to everything that he looked upon as sacred since the day he was born in a free land. He had taken all the good that free land had to offer, all the opportunity, all the protection, all the happiness that went with being an American. He had been willing to trust the men appointed and freely elected by the people of America to lead them in times of peace and prosperity. Now those leaders saw that his country must take place in the fight to keep humanity free and on the upward road instead of being beaten and kicked back into the horrible slavery of the Dark Ages.
In a case like that, said Mr. Gable, there isn’t anything for a man to do but go and fight. Other people could make pictures. He didn’t consider it anything heroic. He just simply didn’t see any other thing to do.
So Clark Gable went to war, into the thick of it, and it will be an inspiration to see what he learned in those flights over Germany that won him the Air Medal; it will be something to know whether people find him changed and how.
We have, I think, a debt to Captain Gable and some promises to make to him. No man in our fighting forces gave up more, voluntarily, against opposition, to take on one of the hardest parts of our fighting jobs,
He won’t be much impressed by this story. He will wonder what all the shooting is about. It will not have occurred to him that any man could have done less than he has done. Just the same, there is a good deal more to say on that subject, whether he likes it or not.