She Calls Him “Pappy” but She Calls Him “Darling”
Photoplay magazine, February 1957
“Well,” the slim, blonde, suntanned woman asked Barbara Nichols, “what do you think of my old man?”
“Do you really want me to tell you?” asked Barbara.
The woman before her stiffened. Her blue eyes frosted over. “Why, yes,” she said, “of course I do.”
Barbara Nichols grinned at Clark Gable’s wife, Kay. “It’s a good thing you’re not a jealous woman, because to tell you the truth, I’m mad about the man. I think he’s the handsomest, the kindest, the nicest—“
Kay laughingly put up a protesting hand. “All right, all right. I know the rest of it. As a matter of fact,” she confided, putting a light, friendly arm about Barbara’s shoulders, “I’m afraid I have to agree with you. I feel that way, too. I always have and I always will. I’ve got it bad—real bad.”
It was easy for Barbara Nichols to understand why. After two weeks of working with Gable on location for “A King and Four Queens,” Barbara had written home to say that henceforth when she thought about marriage, Gable was her idea of just what a husband should be. And, she added, the Gable-Spreckels marriage was her idea of what a marriage should be.
“Clark calls Kay ‘Mom’ or ‘Ma,’ and she calls him ‘My old man’ or ‘Pappy,’” Barbara wrote. “But the way she says it—or maybe it’s the way she looks at him when she says it—makes it sound like the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard. I don’t mind admitting I’m in love with him—in a nice, polite, respectful way, of course. But Kay doesn’t need to be jealous—I never saw two people more in love.”
Not that Mr. and Mrs. Gable show a lot of sentiment in public, but you know it from the way they look at each other, the way Clark puts his arms around her, the way Kay touches his cheek. They laugh a lot together over all kinds of foolish little things, and you can see them look at each other knowingly when they’re amused, or when they are touched my something that happens.
Kay Williams Spreckels Gable is the stunning woman Gable married in July, 1955. Even women who don’t ordinarily like other women admit that she clicks with them right away. “Maybe,” Barbara decided, thinking over her own favorable reaction to Kay, “it’s because she has so many of his qualities—humor, naturalness, interest in people.”
During the shooting of “A King” at St. George, Utah, Clark and Kay Gable kept house in a rented cottage while the rest of the cast and crew lived in nearby hotels. Barbara and Kay saw quite a lot of each other and Barbara enjoyed being around so happy a couple. Everyone who worked on the picture, and who had a chance to observe Clark Gable in the role of husband, came away with the feeling that he had really met his mate—and his match—at last. It was obvious that he was finding in this, his fifth marriage, all the things which he’d had in his gloriously happy but tragically short marriage to Carole Lombard, and had never found again. Until now.
Clark had married Carole Lombard in 1939, and for three years they were utterly happy together, sharing their love of hunting, riding, fishing and the calm, casual life on their sprawling Encino ranch. In addition to being a beautiful and talented actress, Carole Lombard was an extremely witty and charming woman, always gay, friendly and exuberant. Clark loved her deeply and passionately, with all his heart. Tragedy struck in 1942, when Carole, returning home from a record-breaking bond-selling tour, was killed in a plane crash in Nevada. Her death left Clark a bitter, brokenhearted man, and no amount of friends, fame or money could comfort him. For years, he was unhappy and lonely, a man who found little solace in the fact that he was King of Hollywood. While he went through a series of meaningless romances with such stars as Virginia Grey, Joan Crawford and Paulette Goddard, those closest to him knew he was seeking, but never finding, someone like Carole Lombard.
Then, in 1949, Clark married Sylvia Ashley, whom he had known casually for fifteen years. At the time, everyone rejoiced in the event, saying Clark and Sylvia were perfect for each other. Clark seconded the motion by saying, “I’ve never been happier.”
But, although Sylvia Ashley had much of the gay charm and exuberance that had typified Carole Lombard, she did not share Clark’s love for sports, or for the quiet, casual life. Within three years, their marriage came to an end. Clark vowed, “I shall never marry again.”
By the time another three years had passed, that promise had flown out the window. Clark married Kay Spreckels, whom he had also known casually for some seventeen years. Since then, the twinkle in Clark’s eye has been brighter, his smile broader, his mood gayer. And, while Kay is mainly responsible for the change, there are two other important factors—namely, her children, Adolph “Bunker” Spreckels III, who is seven, and Joan Spreckels, who is five. Clark has always yearned to have children of his own. While this wish has yet to be granted, he is deriving a tremendous pleasure from Kay’s youngsters.
Inevitably, the comparison is made between Kay and Carole Lombard. Like Carole, Kay is beautiful, witty, charming, sophisticated. As did Carole, she calls Clark “Pappy.” Kay is also a homebody and a sportswoman—as well as a good sport, which is of prime importance to Gable. She willingly goes along with him on anything, and her deep love for him is reflected in all her actions, big and small.
For instance, one day when Barbara Nichols wasn’t needed on the set of “The King and Four Queens,” Kay showed her how to do needlepoint, putting tiny, meticulous stitches into a pair of slippers for Clark. Barbara, who is twenty-three, remarked that she didn’t think she would ever have the patience to do that for anyone. Lifting her smooth, golden head, Kay smiled and said, “I’ll admit you have to love someone an awful lot to have this much patience. And yet, I’d hate to think you might go through life without finding that kind of love. I’m sure you will find it someday.”
“Sure,” Barbara replied, “but where do you find another guy like Gable?”
Although Barbara is hardly the outdoor type, and is definitely more at home in night clubs and plus surroundings, she said “yes” in a hurry the day the Gables asked her to go fishing.
“Can you imagine having Clark Gable put a worm on your hook?” she exclaimed. “And showing you how to cast a line? I caught two trout—it was thrilling!”
They went fishing, with permission, on private property, and after a while the owners came down to meet them-with camera in hand. Clark and Kay obligingly posed for pictures, and Clark even posed for one with the mother of the family, putting his arm around her as if she were an old friend. “I don’t think they’ll ever get over it,” Barbara told the other girls later.
On location, the Gables were good mixers, but they maintained a certain reserve. Kay visited the set only once—during night shooting—and never interfered in any way with Clark’s work. She respects his feeling that wives shouldn’t be involved with their husband’s business. They had brought along their own cook and were living a quiet, domestic life. Kay went to one big barbecue party, given for the entire company, but mostly they stayed to themselves or went hunting and fishing together.
At first, the citizens of St. George were impressed with Clark Gable, the famous movie star. Then, after they got to know him, they were even more impressed, because he was such a regular guy. Sometimes they went to his house to ask for autographs, not realizing that he was tired out and wanted to rest and be alone with Kay. But Clark was always willing to make an effort and never turned any away.
One night, in making a scene in which Clark had to go into the river, the evening had turned chilly and the water was terribly icy. He came out with his teeth chattering and had to be wrapped in blankets. But when a group of youngsters crowded around him with their autograph books, he laughed and began signing away. All the children in the community adored him and followed him everywhere. Since Kay’s two children had remained home in California, Clark and Kay were constantly shopping for little presents to send back to them.
Clark Gable, among other things, is known as a practical joker. As such he had a wonderful time on location, especially with a prankster pal like director Raoul Walsh to help out. One day Walsh gave Barbara some lines to say that weren’t in the script, and certainly couldn’t be left in. They caught Clark so by surprise that he laughed all through the rest of the take and ruined it. Another time, Clark provided some additional lines of his own, which caused Barbara to break up.
Another scene in the picture called for Clark to dance with each of the four “queens.” He kept insisting he couldn’t dance, that he had two left feet. Actually, Clark is a very good dancer, as he has proved in many of his other films, but like a little boy he is self-conscious and shy about it. The shyness, as well as the boyishness, came as a surprise to the people who hadn’t worked with Clark Gable before.
Barbara discovered that while he is sometimes shy about his own talents, Clark always strives to give others confidence. “I had done a great deal of television in New York,” she said, “and had learned to appreciate helpful friendliness from most fellow actors and directors, but I really didn’t expect that kind of help from a star like Mr. Gable. When one particular scene bothered me, he took me aside and sat down with me, discussed the scene and rehearsed all the lines with me. It was a difficult bit, in which little nuances, conveyed in only a few words and gestures, were all-important.”
Everyone said he was giving Barbara all the breaks in their scenes together, and she could see it. Clark coached her on where to look, showed her where her key light was. The crew can spot a phony a mile off, and their respect for Gable impressed Barbara, confirming her own first impressions of him.
“How old are you?” he had asked at their first meeting in the studio office. “How old do you want me to be?” Barbara had replied, and everybody laughed, Clark the hardest of all. “I was off the ice then,” Barbara said.
She kept thinking, “How sweet he is,” knowing it was a word he would not like, but the only one she could think of to describe him. She didn’t know then the kind of part for which she was being considered or how old she was supposed to be. She just kept hoping she was the right age and the right type, because by that time she wanted that part more than she had ever wanted anything else.
Clark began to explain the kind of girl Barbara would play in “The King and Four Queens.” “He made her so real to me,” Barbara recalled, “that I began to feel like that girl. He asked what other things I had done. I told him about the role of the burlesque dancer in ‘Miracle in the Rain,’ and my bigger and more recent part in ‘Beyond a Reasonable Doubt,’ with Dana Andrews and Joan Fonatine. Mr. Gable listened attentively. Then he asked if I would mind making a test with him. Would I mind?”
She never did have to make the test, because they looked at the ruses of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” and were satisfied that she was right for the part of Birdie. The other “queens” are Eleanor Parker, who co-stars with Gable as Sabrina, Sara Shane, who plays Oralie, and Jean Willes, who plays Ruby.
Barbara and Jean Willes became good friends, and after they both got to know Gable better, they kept telling him how wonderful he was, whereupon he would just grin and look embarrassed. He never seemed to take praise for granted.
Barbara never told him how she had adored him when she was a schoolgirl, but she did tell him that she had seen most of his movies, after which he promised to show her some he had made with Jean Harlow, whom he admired tremendously. Both Clark and his make-up man—who had also worked with Jean Harlow—thought Barbara looked a lot like her.
If there was one complaint Barbara felt it was her right to make, it was the lament with which she finished “A King and Four Queens.” “All those love scenes,” she wailed, “and everybody got to kiss him but me.”
More seriously, Barbara added, “To me, Clark Gable is what a movie star should be—and so often isn’t. I think any woman who meets him even once could never forget the meeting.” She would always remember the things he had said to her, and how she felt about him. Not only about Clark Gable, the actor, but about Clark Gable, the man: The man who is a woman’s man as much as a man’s man, and who has kept two—and now three—generations of women sighing with adoration. The man Kay Gable adoringly calls “Pappy.”