This Was the Lonely Heart
By Alyce Canfield
Motion Picture magazine, April 1950
Beneath the Gable charm and gaiety lay hidden the real man, who lived in the past with his memories
How do you go about finding out about Clark Gable, the man? You never will by lunching with him at the studio, letting him parry your questions with a twinkle in his eye. Here is a man who does everything in his power to keep you from knowing what he is like. When you say, “Do your friends see a different side of you?” he replies, “I certainly hope so! I wouldn’t have many friends, otherwise!”
Not that he isn’t charming and tactful. In other words, not that he isn’t Gable. But you can’t get through to him. You’ll never know Gable through interviewing him. He’s long past the point where he thinks any stories about him in magazines can personally do him any good. But he’s a good enough Joe to submit to interviews, flash bulbs and questions because he knows you have to earn a living, too. He hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a little guy.
When Clark married Lady Sylvia, the public was startled. Here was a man, king of his profession, the one and only Clark Gable—with the world’s most beautiful women to choose from. Why this one woman, who was neither young nor beautiful? Why, particularly after the unforgettable Carole Lombard, did Clark marry Sylvia?
It couldn’t have been anyone else. This was something that had to be. To realize why, you have to know the answer to that most difficult question—what is Gable really like.
You have to remember that his career always came first with him. Oh, maybe back in his teen years, when he was terribly in love with a girl by the name of Franz Doerfler, he thought of love. She turned him down because she didn’t think he would make good. Another woman, more adult and more mature, drama coach Josephine Dillon, didn’t turn him down, however. Older than he by many years, but a brilliant woman, she coached Clark. And he, in love with the idea of acting, loved her as part of all that.
But man-woman love? It didn’t come then, and it didn’t come later when he was riding on the crest of his success and took Rhea Langham, a wealthy Texas woman also older than he, for his wife. Through the most prosperous years of his career, he was married to Rhea. He learned social poise, how to mix with the right people, how to play the studio political game from Rhea.
This was far from his natural inclinations and he has long since discarded this set of values, but during those years they influenced his life greatly. Rhea and Clark were very social, great party givers. This was the time he went to night clubs and premieres and on long hunting trips. It was a glamorous, successful, exciting existence for a man who had been an oil driller at 15.
Then came Lombard. Everyone knows that story, that beautiful story of Carole and Clark. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She kidded him when she got emotional or serious about his feelings for her. But she knew, and he knew, how it was between them. That fatal night when she went to her hometown of Indianapolis to spearhead the first war loan drive, he was waiting home for her. The table was set. Even the salad was on the table. Jill Winkler, publicist Otto Winkler’s wife, was with Clark. Her husband was with Carole and Carole’s mother on the ill-fated plane.
Odd how tragedy hurries its way to you. Incredible how the studio chauffeur got in touch with Metro’s Ralph Wheelright and told him, “The plane is down.” Howard Strickling, Ralph and Eddie Mannix went to Gable’s house. Clark didn’t know Carole was dead, only that the plane was lost. Together the men went by chartered plane to Las Vegas.
They walked into the sheriff’s office, where there was a posse being organized to find the plane. “It’s down about there,” said the sheriff, pointing out a spot on the map.
“How do you know?” asked Gable.
“Because that’s where the flames are.”
It was the first time that Gable knew Carole might be dead. H wasn’t allowed to go on the posse to the crash. He waited at the hotel. Finallym they brought her body back. Gable never saw her again for she was completely unrecognizable. He tried to help the men on the posse serving them drinks and getting them steaks when they got back. Somehow, he held on to himself, but doing home on the train he stayed by himself in his compartment. Wheelwright gave him a locket they found in Carole’s belongings; in it was a piece of her hair. Clark kept it with him from that time on, through the war, all the years between. It’s still with him.
Many men survived the loss of loved ones, but maybe they had been young once. Clark was never young. This is something most people don’t realize. He never had a time when he was dating girls; he worked and studied and put love out of his life. His previous two marriages were what he believed love to be, perhaps. But only his marriage to Carole was the real thing.
As the world knows, he finished his picture, Somewhere I’ll Find You, and then went into the Army as a private. He was sent to Officers’ Candidate School to train with 18 and 19-year-olds in Florida. If he hadn’t been quite a hunk of man, it would have done him in. It was tough training. Later, in London, he went on seventeen air missions. He was a gunner, and he stood up all the time on those missions—a tough thing for a man his age to do all the long flights over Germany.
He was lonely then, with a loneliness no one could penetrate despite the always-present Gable charm that endeared him to everyone.
What is that charm? How can a guy who is Clark Gable not act like Clark Gable? How come he sticks his head under the hood of anyone’s automobile and tinkers with the engine? Several years back, he parked his long, streamlined, custom-built car before a grocery store and went in. Two young, awestruck kids in a jalopy got out and looked at the car. They didn’t know it was his and were looking at the dashboard and exclaiming over it when Gable came out of the store. Instead of blowing his top or getting excited about prowlers, he grinned and asked them if they’d like to trade cars. It was a joke, of course, and the two kids embarrassedly grinned back—for they recognized him. He stood there, although it was pouring rain, and talked with them for a good half hour. This is a guy who doesn’t have to come down off a throne and mingle with the people. He is the people.
Anyone can get to Gable. Maybe you can’t get to Mr. New Star. Maybe Monty Clift, for instance, wouldn’t let you photograph his wedding. But Gable recognizes that along with fame come his responsibilities to it. Don’t think he enjoyed being photographed with his bride. He likes to keep his private affairs private, and no one will tell you so more forcibly than he. But, some parts of his life are not completely his own. Not even the most intimate parts, such as Carole’s funeral, when lines of fans stood weeping, nor headlines of his recent marriage.
And what about Sylvia? Where Gable is King through his own hard work and efforts, so she has attained her position through a hard core of determination, too. She also lost the great love of her life, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Clark’s experiences and hers are strangely parallel. He came from common, good stock and worked his way up to the top; she came from common, good stock and did the same thing.
Then, with varied backgrounds, of a similar age, they met. And it had to be. It had to be because Clark has been lonely for a long time, because—although he has escorted cuties and brilliant, brittle socialites by the score—he has not met up with a woman of maturity whose experiences were of the same cloth as his own. Sylvia admires Carole and doesn’t want to infringe upon the past; just as Clark admires Fairbanks and will let Sylvia keep her memories.
Personal things reveal how lonely he has been, how much he has clung to the past. He has never changed a thing in Carole’s room from the time she died until now. Today, if the house she decorated for him with such loving pride is to be sold, it is far better to bury memories than live with them long year after year. There isn’t a place on the property that doesn’t hold a memory of Carole. The fruit trees they planted together, their rose garden, the big outsize furniture. Down through the groves of trees, there must be many nights when Clark hears Carole’s warm laughter, her throaty stevedore’s vocabulary, her wonderful gaiety.
As a young man, he used to stand for hours, like a martinet, trying to hold a certain posture. His first wife, Josephine Dillon, used to tell him, “Find your most flattering stance and then stick to it.” Hours upon end he would practice before a mirror, learning inch by inch and step by step how to act. Finally, he left his embryonic period behind, distinguished himself in the theater, and went to Metro because he admired Irving Thalberg. He was very successful before Hollywood. True, there had been lean years. He had worked for $7.50 a day, and his wife had taken in pupils so they could eat. But that was years and years before the theater, as it eventually came to know him. When he played the prison pug-ugly in The Last Mile in Los Angeles, every studio in town was bidding for him. He was completely devoted and dedicated to his career.
Look back. Try to find a single place in life before Carole when Clark Gable was really young. Try to think what it must have meant when this, and all it symbolized of his youth and ardor and heart, was lost overnight. Naturally, he walks with her still.
Or, he did walk with her until he married Sylvia.
No woman likes to step into another woman’s shoes. But Sylvia has enough individuality and charm and magnetism to be a personality in her own right. Still, there is about her the echo of someone else—not exactly Carole—but reminiscent of Carole. There is a blondness of skin, a way she lifts her head, a twinkle, a laughter about her. And, without his even knowing it, perhaps, Clark Gable sought this out.
Furthermore, though it’s not generally known, lots of Gable’s publicized dates were for the good of Metro, anyway. When he was photographed with Audrey Totter, he was working with her in Any Number Can Play. When Marilyn Maxwell and he were a “twosome,” they were in Key to the City. Some of his was proximity, it’s true. When you are working all day with a girl, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll ask her for dinner. Just the same, it was peculiar that Gable, who keeps most of his dates very quiet, appeared at La Rue’s and the Mocambo with Audrey and Marilyn.
Lately, however, there were definite indications that Gable was in a marrying mood. Sylvia came along at the right time.
One night, not too long ago, Clark swung out of the Metro lot in his long convertible on his way home to Encino. He had a date with a girl, so he picked her up and then when on to his home where his couple served them dinner. The fire was glowing in the fireplace, and the girl was very cute. But, almost abruptly, Clark asked if he could take her home.
He was, all at once, incredibly lonely.
For Gable is molded from the years he has lived. Many girls have used him for publicity; he is wary about new friendships. As a result, not many people exist who actually care what he does or thinks or feels. And, suddenly, as he listened to the casual chatter of this girl, he didn’t want a casual life anymore. He wanted someone and thoroughly and gayly in love with him. Gayly, for Gable has had enough of tears.
At that precise time, when he was feeling in just that mood, Sylvia and he were thrown together. Carole’s steps had retreated. The time was right for other steps and other paths. Today, he and Sylvia are walking those new paths together. And there isn’t a soul in Hollywood who doesn’t wish them happiness.