Scoop in Color: Gable’s Son
by Sara Hamilton
Photoplay magazine, July 1961
The phone rang and a voice said, “This is ‘Laryngitis Gable.’ It’s Kay. I’ve talked so much I’m hoarse.” If you knew Kay Gable, you knew that the little try at a joke was pure bravery. All along she has tried to be her down-to-earth, wonderfully good-humored self. The loss and the grief she keeps where it won’t show, not to burden anyone. Now she talked serenely of how good it was to see her and Clark’s dark-haired baby son in his cheerful yellow and white nursery. I had already seen the delightful first pictures if the baby and his nursery that Kay had given Photoplay as an exclusive. But when Kay commented that John Clark is like a “little king” in his bog canopied crib, the word made a sudden image so sharp it hurt. That had been Hollywood’s—the world’s—name for Clark Gable. The King!
Kay said none of this. She spoke with pleasure of the beautiful baby, and described the loveliness with which he is surrounded. And the joy her two older children, Bunker and Joannie, take in their new little brother.
Bunker’s framed picture is in the nursery. It stands on a writing table where Kay sits, in the charming yellow and white basket chair, when she holds the baby.
The room is all sunny color, right down to the zoo—full of stuffed animals all over the place. A huge elephant, all kinds and shapes of bunnies and dogs, sit on chests, are tucked into bed, peer out from corners. A very comic-looking French poodle on the floor guards the crib, but when you look close—it’s really a play table. The soft covering is so a little boy won’t hurt himself against it when he begins crawling into things. And he certainly can’t feel alone with so many woolly friends around. Even the rug is white bearskin.
The crib, with its high canopy ruffled in yellow and white, carries two precautions. On one post there is a big toy clock with a tag tied right next to the hour hand. “Sh-h-h,” it warns, “Baby’s asleep.” And one of the pillows warns: “Please do not kiss me.”
White drapes and gaily flowered window shades repeat the color scheme. The room is very large and holds much furniture. Besides all the baby’s pieces there is a yellow upholstered day bed where an adult can sleep. And one adorable mother-child bit is a very small knee-hole desk to match Kay’s writing table—the table with Bunker’s picture on it.
Bunker, eleven, and Joannie, nine—Kay’s children by her marriage to Adolph Spreckels—are half-brother and half-sister to John Clark Gable, but they don’t think in halves. He is their baby brother, and every night there’s a hassle between them to hold him first. Kay laughed as she told how they keep count, Joannie usually complaining that Bunker had him longer.
There are times when the big brother acts more like a father. Especially the day when this baby came into the world by Caesarean section. No one show heard how Bunker haunted the hospital waiting room could feel anything but a catch at the heart. Expectant fathers paced up and down, down and up—and among them an eleven-year-old boy, the only man in the family for his mother to lean on now.
Then there was the incident of the christening dress. Kay told me about it on the phone. The christening was to take place in about six weeks, she said, with her close friend Mrs. Carl Leigh as a godmother, and Kay’s brother Vince Williams as godfather. They christening robe had been designed and made by Don Loper.
“The kids and I took it out of its tissue and paper folds, and it’s lovely,” Kay said, “but Bunker was furious. ‘My brother isn’t going to wear a dress,’ he stormed. ‘And a bonnet. If Pa knew, he’d be furious.’”
He knew what Pa would like and what he’d scorn. They’d been close to Pa; they’d been his children too. He loved them dearly—doted on them, in fact. He planned surprises for them, helped them with their homework. Kay once told me of the time Clark and Bunker were both supposed to be in beds with colds. She discovered her husband, not in bed, but with Bunker. They were going over his multiplication tables together. By the time the boy got well they were up to the tens.
Clark wanted the children with him whenever it could be. When he was going to Europe to make “[It Started in] Naples” with Sophia Loren, he told me of his plans to take along Kay and the children and a nurse.
“You know Kay has this bum heart,” he said, “and I can’t get her to slow down or take it easy. Hell, she goes right on as if nothing happened.”
There was a glow of pride about him as he spoke of Kay, but I remembered well his stricken look during the time she suffered her heart attack. It seemed the end of the world for him, and I think it may have been if she hadn’t recovered.
But, blessedly, she did. She went along with Clark to “The Misfits” location and she literally lived for him. Whatever he wanted, she did with a willing heart. She devoted her life to him cheerfully and loved every minute of it. And everybody on the set loved her. When Marilyn Monroe learned Kay was pregnant, she sent over the maternity clothes she herself had worn for the baby she’d expected, hoped for—and lost.
“Hey girl,” Kay later phoned her, “these things had to be let out quite a bit, you know.” (Now Kay said that she thought Marilyn would like to have a picture of Clark’s son. And one of the first to be sent out went to Marilyn.)
The humor and the fortitude for which they all admired Kay—she was to need in the worst crisis of her life.
“I was with Clark—in his hospital room—seconds after his heart stopped,” she said during our phone conversation. “I put my hand to his ear and it was warm. I kept it there to hold on to the warmth and life of him. But the warmth faded and death took over and Clark was gone from me. I kept saying, ‘I love you, Pa. I love you.’ But the Clark I loved had slipped away from me.”
“Many times during the dreadful period that followed I came close to a breakdown. I knew I could never have gone on if I hadn’t been carrying his child. I knew I had part of him with me and it kept me going. Each time I felt like giving in to despair, I’d remember my responsibility to Pa and keep going.”
There was a second’s silence.
“And now,” she said simply. “I’m blessed. I have three wonderful children and the memory of a wonderful man.” She went on then like every new mother since time began.
“The baby’s the image of Clark, isn’t he?” she asked. “A real carbon copy. And so smart.”
Maternal pride all but sang over the wires.
“I know he’s smart,” I told her. “I can see it in the bright little face.”
“Oh, sure,” she laughed. “I told a friend I’m sure John Clark will be up next week answering his fan mail. It pours in by the hundreds. By the way, a columnist insists she’s going to call him Clark, and that’s that. I told her to be my guest, it’s fine with me.”
Kay herself calls him John, as Clark wanted it. He had felt that Clark Jr. would be a burdensome name to carry.
She was so cheerful, this Kay on the telephone. She said, “That dark little heard in his bed—it’s really something to see.”
And then suddenly, like a cry torn from the heart, it came.
“Oh, Sara, if only Pa could have seen him for just one hour! For just five minutes!”
I don’t know how to comfort her. You can’t tell Kay Gable to be brave—she is!
I said, “Kay, Johnny’s a legacy. He’s a legacy to you, and to everyone who knew and loved his father—and everyone who was crazy for him on the screen all those years. Just—take care of our baby for us, Kay.”
The cry went out of her voice. She said quietly, “You’re right. He belongs to everyone who loved Clark. Say a little prayer for the baby, won’t you?”
I don’t think she meant that just for me. I think she was asking everybody who’d loved Clark Gable to say a prayer for the baby he had loved but never got to see. So I took it on myself to answer for everybody. I think it was a safe promise to make:
“We will, Kay—we all will.”
It was silent on the wire for a moment.
But then she said one more thing.
“And, Sara—say a prayer for Pa.”