The New Romance in Clark Gable’s Life
by Frederick L. Collins
Liberty magazine, March 7, 1936
Reading time: 15 minutes, 30 seconds
He is seeking now to tune in on happiness—and here is the girl of his dreams. Maybe you’ll recognize her
Clark Gable gets married every seven years. Got his first wife in ’23; his second in ’30; is due for a third in ’37.
And, with luck, he’ll make it.
For there is a new romance in Clark Gable’s life.
By “new romance” I don’t mean that you or I, or even Clark, can walk up today to some blonde or brunette, short or tall, slim or plump young woman, and say:
“Here, miss, you are the next Mrs. Clark Gable.”
But those who knew Clark Gable best in 1923 and in 1930 could have predicted down to the most minute detail the kind of woman he was most likely to marry in each of those marrying years.
They saw Josephine Dillon and Ria Langham as clearly as if they had stood before them.
Those who know Clark Gable now, who know the changed, developed, and progressed Clark Gable, can see just as clearly the girl of his present dreams—the girl who, when he finds her, will complete his life.
She may be a Hollywood extra girl working with him before the camera and the mike.
She may be sitting right now in a darkened theater in a far-off town following his image on the screen.
She may be reading these pages.
But whoever she is, she is Clark Gable’s girl. He won’t give up until he finds her. And when he does find her he’ll marry her, for he’s the marrying kind.
At twenty-two, when he met his first wife, he was a raw kid from the sticks. He didn’t know what to do with his hands and feet. He had only one flaming ambition: to learn to be a good actor.
There had been girls before: dark-haired Treela of the hold hometown; golden Norma of Akron, where he got his first job as timekeeper in a rubber factory; little Elsa of the oil country, where he went with his father to learn the business from the well up; and Louise, the hotelkeeper’s daughter, whom he met when he was a lumberjack in the north woods. But never until 1923, when he rode into Portland, Oregon, on the roof of a freight car, had he thought of marriage.
He had trouped it and tanked it a good bit by then. He had played everything from Hamlet to Uncle Tom. And now he was that all too common phenomenon, an actor without a job.
While “resting” in Portland, he rustled himself a position as repairman with the telephone company. In that capacity he went to a certain apartment to fix the phone, found that the lady of the house, Miss Josephine Dillon, was the manager and coach of the local Little Theater, and straightway became an actor again.
He also became a pupil of the drama-coaching lady, and subsequently became her husband.
It wasn’t cold blood that made Clark fall in love with a woman who could help him. Subconsciously it may have been his intuition. It has happened to him more than once. But, more than anything else, it was Fate.
“Clark always knew what he wanted,” said Josephine, “and his chief interest was in getting that particular thing.”
Which means, if I understand the boy, that if he should decide to take up singing, Fate would decree that he marry an opera singer. And if she would have him—and I bet she would!—it would probably be Schumann-Heink. But the possibility is remote. The only tune Gable has ever proved he can carry is The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.
Josephine Dillon is no longer Mrs. Clark Gable, but she still teaches drama. In fact, she is one of Hollywood’s best known coaches, and one of Clark Gable’s most faithful fans.
“I never had a pupil,” Josephine once said, “with so great an integrity. I have seen him walk up and down stairs half an hour at a time, and enter a room a hundred times, to learn to do these things right. He would follow a drunk for hours, to watch the man’s movements, so that when the time came for him to play a drunken scene, he could play it accurately.”
To Bill Gable—his name is William Clark Gable and those who know him best still call him Bill—Josephine Dillon seemed like an angel from heaven. For seven years, through dark days and bright—they lived over a garage in Hollywood and subsisted sometimes on nothing but beans—she taught him the art of which he is now a master. The tie which bound them was his need of her, her joy in helping him. When that need no longer existed, the tie broke.
This was the technical-school stage of Gable’s life, and he was graduating from it. He was ready now, although he didn’t know it, for social training. And once more it was his wife, his new wife, who was to give it to him.
Bill Gable knew how to enter a drawing room. But he had probably never entered a real one with all the trimmings, until he entered Mrs. G. Franklin Langham’s East Eighty-first Street residence in New York. Without either of them knowing it, her background of social ease and refinement was undoubtedly a factor in drawing him toward her.
I don’t mean to imply that he married Ria Langham to learn what to do in a drawing room, once he got in, or that she married him for the pleasure of teaching him. They loved each other too sincerely, too deeply. Certainly Ria Langham had no conscious desire to assume the relationship of teacher to pupil in the Clark Gable University of Social Behavior. She was content to fit herself into Clark’s own unpretentious life, in a smallish bungalow with one maid, and Clark doing most of the fixing around the place.
But the social things were forced on her by—of all people!—Mrs. Grundy.
Perhaps you don’t remember the details of Clark Gable’s first year of cinema triumph. By insistent, clamorous public demand he made twelve movies in twelve months, and could have made five times that number if he had been quintuplets.
In less than a season the boy who had played a $7.50-a-day extra in Jack Gilbert’s “The Merry Widow” had surpassed even Gilbert in fan popularity.
In Hollywood popularity, too.
Most good screen lovers make rotten real lovers. At least, that’s what the girls say. But there was something about the Gable boy that made you feel that he was the exception. There was the same fervor and vitality, the same animal magnetism, the same emotional excitement off the screen as on; and the same compelling, confidence-inspiring dependability.
Lupe Velez, who had tamed the ex-cowboy, Gary Cooper, and who was later to conquer even the mighty Tarzan, made Mexican passes at our hero. Estelle Taylor, whose glow had melted the defenses of the great Dempsey, trained her batteries on him.
But there was no dice. Clark went home to Ria and fixed the lawn mower.
Then came “vivid, heart-hungry Joan.”
There had been a bargain-day rush among Metro’s women stars to land this amazing newcomer for their leading man. Garbo, Shearer, Crawford. They all wanted him, and they all got him. But Joan got him oftenest and hardest. Not since Garbo and Gilbert made “Flesh and the Devil” had there been love scenes in Hollywood so—what shall we say?—sincerely played as the Crawford-Gable scenes in that torrid titbit, “Possessed.”
How far the thing went off the set nobody knew except Clark and Joan. Probably not very far. But people talked, and people will; and the talk must have reached the ears of Ria Gable, for on March 8, 1932, she packed her bags and, with her daughter and son by a previous marriage, hopped the Santa Fe for New York. It reached, also, the highly sensitized ears of the guardians of Hollywood morals—and, incidentally, of Hollywood investments in socially strayward stars.
Presumably, the “repression bureau” got busy. Anyhow, Miss Crawford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., after posing for dozens of loving photographs, sailed suddenly for Europe. Mrs. Gable was persuaded by Clark to leave New York and go into residence once more in Hollywood. Fan writers were graciously permitted to state that “two of our most important stars have faced temptation with strength.”
From which you may gather that it isn’t especially easy to be married to the most popular man in the world.
How would you like to have love-starved girls storming up fire escapes to get into your husband’s bedroom?
How would you like to enter the same bedroom unexpectedly and find a cow-eyes chambermaid softly stroking the cheek of your sleeping husband?
How would you like to have a girl stop your husband in the street, tear open the front of her dress, and demand that he autograph her brassiere?
How would you like to have a girl write your husband offering to have a baby by him, saying she had talked it over with her parents and they approved, adding as a final argument: “I am sure that your wife, being a woman, would understand”?
Well, anyway, up to the time of the alleged “great renunciation,” Hollywood bigwigs had been jolly well pleased to forget that there was such a person as Mrs. Clark Gable. Wives are not considered assets to promising juvenile leads. But to save two valuable pieces of theatrical property it was decided that Ria Gable should take her place in the Hollywood social sun.
Doors hitherto closed to her opened wide. She was invited everywhere. They were invited everywhere. The turtleneck sweater gave way to the boiled shirt. And it was inevitable that Bill Gable, the ex-lumberjack, should turn to Ria Langham, the ex-Park Avenueite, for guidance in the ways of the world from which she came.
He liked it at first—the social life I mean. The excitement of the big parties appealed to him. He was greedy for life, not easily bored, wholly responsive. Everybody made a fuss over him and he couldn’t help liking it. He is as modest as they make them. His head is very much on the shoulders and in his hat. But he is a man; he has a normal masculine vanity.
One night a hostess, at whose side I happened to be standing, greeted him as “Mr. Gilbert.” Clark loved that. Gilbert had been his hero, Hollywood’s hero. And now!—well, he grinned all over.
At the duller parties—and there were plenty of them—he would disappear for an hour at a time. Usually he would ease himself into a group of men smoking and drinking highballs and telling stories in a corner.
Sometimes he wouldn’t want to go home, even when he knew he was facing a nine-o’clock studio deadline the next morning—and then Ria would have to take up the white wife’s burden, and remind him of the clock.
“Poor Ria!” he would say. “She has to make me go to parties, and then she has to make me go home.”
After a while, though, the excitement and novelty of this sort of thing wore off. Gable’s studio schedule is a heavy one. He is often desperately tired at night. In the end he was in open rebellion.
“I’m a Pennsylvania Dutchman,” he said, “and did you ever see one who went in for frills and this la-di-da business? If I was on my own, I’d never show up at a party.”
Then there was the matter of the new house. Naturally the Gables couldn’t go on accepting and accepting and never paying back. You know how it is. When it was decided to look for a bigger house, someone asked Clark what kind of house he wanted.
“Any place,” he answered, “where I can wear a lumber jacket instead of a dinner jacket.”
What he got was a “Mediterranean-colonial” mansion—that’s a good one, isn’t it?—in the exclusive Brentwood section of Beverly Hills, café-au-lait carpets, rose-upholstered chairs, gold mirrors, satinwood cabinets, flowered overcurtains, a taffeta bedspread with flounces—and a solarium!
Clark stood it as long as he could—and so did his fans. They knew there was something wrong with their big boy from the bush. He wasn’t pushing his women around anymore.
“You threaten to become a gentleman,” wrote one suffering admirer, “and it won’t do.”
“The chip has been knocked off your shoulder,” complained another.
And then, as a sort of summation of all the wails:
“Tear off that boiled shirt and let us see the hair on your chest once more!”
Finally Clark went to South America.
It wasn’t Ria’s fault that her husband rebelled against the social slavery which their life together had entailed. But it was her hard luck. Like Josephine Dillon, she had done her job; and, like Josephine Dillon, she had found out that it wasn’t a permanent one. Both of these marriages had been inevitable. Both divorces will, I believe, have been equally inevitable.
These two women, Josephine and Ria, were as different in most things as two women could well be. But they had one thing in common which might, in itself, have been enough to wreck their wedded life—their age.
Each was ten years older than the man she married.
Which brings us to the third Mrs. Gable.
Will she, too, be an older woman, to whom Clark will turn for guidance and help?
Well, he doesn’t seem to need much guidance and help so far as his profession is concerned. There was a tendency in the days of his first success to minimize the man’s ability as an actor. Even his employers were frankly puzzled to put their fingers on the reasons for his success.
He was healthy, of course, and big and rough and tough. But so was Vic McLaglen. So was Wally Beery. And they didn’t get the fan mail Gable got. They didn’t get the fan female at all. (Clark would love that one. He’s the worst punster I know.)
He had guts. He wasn’t afraid of God or Garbo. You could see that in his challenging eye, his mocking grin. You could feel it in the grip of his big walloping fit. But there had been brave men before—Richard the Lion-Hearted, the boy who stood on the burning deck, and a lot of others and the girls never mobbed them in the streets or stole the tops of their pajamas.
The kid was a man, all right. But an actor? Hell, no!
So they fell back, as they usually do in Hollywood when they cannot think of anything else, on the over-worked word “personality.” That was it. He had personality. And they were right! But it never occurred to them that he had anything else—that they had, in spite of themselves, stumbled on to a great artist of the theater.
His success was no accident. He had slaved and starved and frozen for it. And studied. How he had studied!
“A Free Soul”—where he walked off with the acting honors in a cast featuring Norma Shearer, Leslie Howard and Lionel Barrymore—wrung from the critics their first ungrudging acclaim. “It Happened One Night” brought the official Academy blessing for the best masculine performance of the year. “Mutiny on the Bounty”, even against the superlative performance of Charles Laughton, caused the great Charlie Chaplin to say, “Clark Gable is the best actor in Hollywood.”
No, our hero doesn’t need any guidance and help in the acting line, and, with all modesty, he knows it. He is not likely to be attracted again to a woman who might be able, or think she is able, to give it to him.
As for social guidance, he has had enough of that to last him the rest of his life!
He has had enough guidance of every kind, if you ask me. And there is where the new romance begins.
School is over for Clark Gable. The long vacation has begun. And he isn’t going to spend it with a teacher.
For a while he will go off in a regular fireworks display of big cars and beautiful girls. He has already bought the big car. It is a nice one. And he has made a pretty good start on the girls. They’re nice too. They always will be with Clark Gable. And, of course, the newspapers are already in a dither about them.
Elizabeth Allan, the pretty little English girl who played with him in “Men in White”, was the first. He sat next to her at a party in a nightclub, and the early editions had them married—anyway on the altar steps. Of course the Gables weren’t even divorced and it takes a year in California before a divorce becomes effective; but to stop the rumors, poor “Liz” Allan had to hop a boat for England, rout out her perfectly good husband, Bill O’Bryen, and go on a much advertised second honeymoon.
The next day Clark heard that Loretta Young, who had played with him in “Call of the Wild”, was seriously ill in a Hollywood hospital. Naturally he telegraphed her flowers. Roses they were—but the tabloids turned them into orange blossoms. Loretta had a relapse.
Then he took little Jean Parker, one of the sweetest girls on the Metro lot, to the benefit performance for the Will Rogers Memorial. Cameramen followed them everywhere they went. “The most popular man in the world and his bride-to-be.” Miss Parker is very young. Let’s hope she is too young to mind.
Miss Allan, Miss Young, Miss Parker—he might fall in love with any one of them. It would certainly be an easy thing for most men to do! But my own guess is that next month it will be Miss Brown, Miss Jones and Miss Smith—and that he won’t have any more thought of marrying them than he would have of marrying Wally Beery.
The boy has to go places and do things for a while. God knows he has never had a chance!
He wanted to be a great actor, and he married the woman who could help him become one. He wanted to be a man of the world, and he married the ideal woman to make him that. Now he wants to be himself, and he’ll marry the woman who will help him to realize that ambition.
In short, what he is trying to do is to tune in on happiness.
What he needs is the kind of wife Barbara Stanwyck was to Frank Fay, the kind of wife Ann Dvorak is to Leslie Fenton; a girl who will say, as Ann said the other day, “I am not ashamed of having a love that fills my life to the exclusion of everything else. I’m happy it is that way.”
That kind of girl is rare. But she must exist somewhere for Clark Gable.
You would probably recognize her on the street.
Who knows? If you are a woman, you might recognize her in your looking glass!