Clark Gable: His Life Story
By Joe McCarthy
Look magazine, October 4, 1955
A few months ago, on a back-country road in Northern California, a man saw Clark Gable returning from a day’s hunting. Gable lolled in his station wagon, carefree and contented, with a local guide behind the wheel. Several birds, already plucked and dressed by hired help, hung in the back of the car. Gable had his arm around an unusually lovely-looking blonde. In his other hand was a tall, cool drink.
As the station wagon passed by, the man looked after it and shook his head slowly. “What more could any man want?” he said.
It does seem right now that Clark Gable has everything. At 54, he is trim and happily married to a new wife, the former Kay Williams Spreckels, the beautiful blonde who was with him on the hunting trip. And in his twenty-fifth year as a movie star, he is enjoying a highly satisfying comeback. Despite a dreary succession of mediocre pictures in the sixteen years since Gone with the Wind, Gable was named in a nationwide poll of women as the most popular male actor of 1955, and Hollywood has decided that he is still its No. 1 sex attraction at the box office. Suddenly, every producer wants him.
Working for the first time on a free-lance basis instead of on salary, Gable is asking, and getting, fantastic money. He is reported, unofficially, to have ten percent of Soldier of Fortune and The Tall Men, the two pictures he made this year for Twentieth Century Fox. It is not a percentage of profits—it is ten percent of each picture’s gross earnings, before any expenses are deducted. If the two movies are only moderately successful, they will bring Gable close to a million dollars. When the deal was arranged, Darryl Zanuck, the Fix production chief, is said to have remarked gloomily, “Gable now owns one half of our studio.”
Explaining Zanuck’s generosity, a Fox executive said, “There are younger guys, like Marlon Brando and William Holden, who appeal to certain types and certain age brackets of women, But nobody else can make all women glassy-eyed the way Gable does.”
Gable’s incredible sex appeal has stirred women for three decades. The girls who swooned over him in 1931, when he appeared with Norma Shearer in A Free Soul and with Greta Garbo in Susan Lenox, her Fall and Rise, are now old enough to be grandmothers. Yet most of his current fan mail, which has tripled this year, comes from teenagers.
“I’m 16,” a girl in Fort Thomas, KY., wrote to him in May, “but when I see you, I feel as though I’m 24.”
Wherever he goes, Gable mesmerizes women. Recently, a magazine editor’s wife who is usually calm and poised, a respected member of PTA and mother of a college football player, accompanied her husband to a Hollywood cocktail party. At one point, the husband saw her standing near the bar, talking with Gable. Something seemed to be wrong with her. Her husband took a closer look. While she tried to carry on a casual conversation with Gable, her whole body was shaking. It was the excitement of being so close to Gable.
“When you walk along the street with Gable in a city like New York, you see women a block away recognizing him and stopping dead in their tracks,” a film-company official said. “They all react the same way. They stop as if something had hit them. They seem to get weak at the knees. They clutch their chests as if they are gasping for breath. I’ve been around a lot in public with other movie stars, like Robert Taylor, Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, but none of them affect women the way Gable does.”
A while ago, Gable traveled by train from Hollywood to New York with Howard Strickling, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio publicity director; Strickling is one of his few close friends. When they changed trains in Chicago, Strickling, an enthusiastic cook, decided to look at kitchen utensils at Marshall Field’s. Gable went along. As the two men were standing at the kitchenware counter, Gable nudged Strickling. “Here they come,” he muttered.
“I turned around and I saw a crowd of three hundred and fifty or four hundred women silently and slowly closing in on us,” Strickling said. “They weren’t making a sound, but they kept edging closer and closer, all of them staring, fascinated, at Clark. I don’t know how we got away from them.”
Along with his movie comeback, Gable has made a comeback this year in his personal life. In Kay Spreckels, whom he married in July, he seems to have found at last the combination of chic elegance and rowdy, earthy tomboyishness that he had in Carole Lombard, his beloved third wife, who was killed in a 1942 plane crash.
“In the evening, he wants you to be better groomed and better mannered than anybody else at 21 or Le Pavillon or the Colony,” a girl whom he used to date said recently. “And yet he hates you to put on airs. He likes you to know how to use a swear word when the occasion calls for it. Now this ideal girl of his must also ride a motorcycle at 90 miles an hour, rough it on a camping trip, cook a meal outdoors, clean out a chicken coop, weed a garden, change an automobile tire and take four or five stiff drinks without getting giddy. Gable doesn’t want much, does he?”
The latest Mrs. Gable at least approaches those requirements. A smartly dressed woman of great natural beauty, she formerly was married to two millionaires. She has been a frequenter of the swankiest nightclubs, but she also could feel at home eating ham and eggs with truck drivers in a roadside diner. “Maybe I know my way around at Bergdorf Goodman’s and El Morocco,” she has said. “But I’m not kidding anybody. I’m just a girl from Erie, Pennslyvania.”
GABLE IS NOW A STEPFATHER
“You should see the way she handles those two kids of hers,” Gable said proudly one day in June. “She really makes them toe the mark. Old Kathleen has an awful lot of remarkable stuff in her, a lot of good, plain horse sense. She can do anything. Even knows how to run a tractor. Grew up on a farm and did her share of the work on it.”
Mrs. Gable’s children, Joan Spreckels and Adolph Spreckels III, are four and six years old, respectively. Last spring, Hollywood gossips were certain that they youngsters would frighten Gable away from Kay. They pointed out that Gable had never had children of his own and that, at this stage of his life, he would not relish the responsibility of bring up a small boy and girl. They did not know that Gable was then building a vacation house in Palm Springs with rooms for Adolph and Joan. Nor did they know that, on his recent European travels, Gable collected dolls for Joan.
On their marriage license, last July, Mrs. Gable gave her age as 37. She has had three previous husbands. The first one, whom she married back home in Pennsylvania when she was 16, was Parker Capps, a General Electric engineer. They did not stay together long. She went to New York, worked as a Powers model and then was married for three days to Martin de Alzaga Unzue. He’s an Argentine millionaire. (At El Morocco, where he spent all his waking hours, he was known as Macoco.) Her third husband was Adolph Spreckels II, the sugar heir. He once drew a sentence of thirty days in jail for beating Kay with her slipper.
Gable and his wife call each other “Ma” and “Pa,” just as he and Carole Lombard did. Like Carole, Kay goes hunting, fishing and golfing with Clark and keeps the conversation spirited and colorful when they are entertaining friends. “She talks like Carole, although of course, no other woman will ever be able to handle profanity the way Carole handled it,” a friend of Miss Lombard said. “She’s the closes thing to Carole that Clark will ever find, and he’s very happy about it. He seems like his old self again. And for a while there a few years back, I never thought he’d make it.”
Gable is generally regarded as an easy-going fellow who throws off worries quickly. Actually, as his first wife, Josephine Dillon, pointed out while talking about him a few months ago, he is a complex, serious man; he keeps his troubles to himself and broods about them. People in Hollywood are always saying that Gable is not an actor, that in every picture he simply plays the role of Clark Gable. Miss Dillon, a dramatic teacher, who showed Gable how to act, disagrees. “He’s a fine actor,” she said. “The Clark Gable you see on the screen, that playful rogue with the happy-go-lucky, mischievous glint in his eye, is not the real Gable. The real Gable is moody and thoughtful and gloomy.” When Carole Lombard was killed, Gable took it hard. For years afterward, his life was restless and empty.
“After Carole’s funeral, Clark was like a wounded animal,” a friend recalled. “He wouldn’t see anybody. He got into his car and drove to Canada alone and stayed there. He came back and still wouldn’t see anybody, and he went away again to the Rogue River in Oregon. I guess he realized he couldn’t run away—his whole life was here, whether he liked it or not. Then he came back and stayed.”
Gable went into the Army Air Force and saw some combat in Europe. But when he returned to Hollywood, he was still weighed down with the Lombard tragedy. For several months, he lived alone in the white-brick house at Encino in the San Fernando Valley that he had shared with Carole. It is a man’s house; Miss Lombard decorated it in early-American style with antiques that she had collected in the East, but she arranged it to suit Gable. The chairs are sturdy. The pictures on the walls are sporting prints. The only feminine room is Carole’s upstairs bedroom. Gable often went there and sat alone.
He walked around the 20-acre estate, which has an electrically controlled gate at the entrance to its winding driveway. He looked at the orchards where he and Carole had worked together, spraying and pruning the trees, and he stopped to talk to her horse, Melody, the inseparable companion of his own old steed, Sunny. The two horses are now at Howard Strickling’s farm.
Gable’s walks usually took him to the garage, where he saw the custom-built Dodge station wagon that he and Carole used on weekend hunting trips. He never drove it after her death but he always kept it in immaculate condition. A few years ago, he had to move it from his garage but he refused to let it be sold. He shipped it to the Napa Valley ranch of an old friend, Al Menasco.
THE NEW MRS. GABLE IS AN OLD FRIEND
Then, after months of seclusion, he abruptly tried to change his life. He talked about selling the place at Encino and even put it on the market. But when a buyer appeared, Gable found an excuse to call the deal off. He also talked for a while about giving up bird shooting, his favorite sport. “From now on, I’ll do my hunting at Mocambo,” he said. Night clubs and large social gatherings always had bored him, but now he began to be seen almost every night at Mocambo, Ciro’s and other late-hour spots, and at every big chi-chi party. He became involved romantically with many women—Virginia Grey, Anita Colby, Dolly O’Brien, Paulette Goddard, Evelyn Keyes, Joan Harrison, Edith Gwynne. He kept steady company for a while with Kay Williams—this was after her divorce from Macoco and before her marriage to Spreckels—but that romance, like the others, didn’t last.
“At that time, Kay was a little too proud of being Clark Gable’s girl,” one of her acquaintances said. “She was too willing to tell Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and other columnists all about her dates with him, and that made him uncomfortable.”
Later, at their divorce trial, Spreckels accused Kay of bringing Gable to their house.
“Say what you will about Clark and his love affairs,” a friend of his said, “but he was never mixed up at any time with a married woman. The night that Spreckels had mentioned, Clark was at a party, given by Jack Benny, with Fieldsie and Walter Lang. Fieldsie Lang was Carole Lombard’s old roommate and closest pal. The Langs and Clark met Kay at the party and took her home. That’s all there was to it. I remember a big-name movie actor who once arranged a date for himself and Clark with two girls. When Clark found out that his girl was married, he flatly refused to have any part of the date.”
The plunge into social life didn’t help Gable forget Carole. When her name was mentioned at a party, he changed the subject immediately, but a girl who knew him well said that when he was alone with her, he talked to her for hours about Carole.
“He even tried to get me to wear my hair the way Carole wore hers,” the girl said. “He was an unhappy man. I remember going to his house one Christmas. We were sitting alone in front of the fire. I was being very witty and very gay. He just sat there, staring at the fire, not saying a word. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t you stop trying to knock yourself out?’ I gave up. Neither of us talked after that, and I got up and went home.”
“Of course if I had told my friends that I had spent an evening alone with Clark Gable in his house, none of them would have believed it ended that way.”
Then, suddenly, came his marriage to Lady Sylvia Ashley, the widow of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and the ex-wife of two British peers. She and Gable were married one night on impulse after a party at Charles Feldman’s house. Lady Ashley, like Kay Spreckels Gable,, bears a striking resemblance to Carole Lombard.
Louella Parsons went into ecstasies. “This marriage unites two of the most glamorous figures of our day,” Louella wrote. “I doubt if any characters in history, and that includes Cleopatra and Antony and Helen of Troy and the rest, equal the careers of these two.”
Gable soon found that, except for glamour, they had little in common. Sylvia could not cook with a frying pan over a camp fire on a hunting trip. In fact, she didn’t care for hunting trips at all.
LADY SYLVIA MADE CUTE REMARKS
Obviously, this was no wife for Gable, who sneaked away from the French Riviera a few years ago in order to avoid playing golf with the Duke of Windsor. Gable’s close friends, Al Menasco, Eddie Mannix and Andy Devine, were hardly Lady Ashley’s kind of people. Menasco is a mechanic, a designer of aircraft engines and a former test pilot; he helps Gable take apart automobiles and motorcycles. Mannix, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer executive, did not study at Oxford or the Sorbonne. When the Schenck brothers, Nick and Joe, had an amusement park on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, a group of neighborhood kids were causing trouble on their property. For protection, the Schencks put the leader on their payroll. That was how Mannix got into the movie business. Andy Devine, the hulking screen comedian with the squeaking voice, was also not the Social Register type that Lady Ashley enjoyed having at her table.
Sylvia did accompany Gable to Durango, Colo., when he was making Across the Wide Missouri, one of several dismal pictures Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer pushed him into. Her ladyship did not take to outdoor life on location. The actors were quartered in log cabins. She insisted on having a tall hedge planted around the Gable cabin to insure privacy. She went along with Gable when he spent an afternoon fishing. Gable takes his fishing seriously. Sylvia sat on the stream bank, distracting him with cute remarks.
“She had one of those small, fancy lap dogs that she fussed over,” a member of the company recalled. “Clark had to carry it wherever they went. He looked pretty silly holding that little dog, and he knew it. I said to myself, right then and there, ‘I don’t think he’ll be carrying that dog too much longer.’”
On the other hand, as Sylvia said later to friends, she felt like the second wife in Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca.” She lived in Carole Lombard’s house with the furnishings Carole had selected and with the servants who had worked for Miss Lombard. The old station wagon, with its memories of Gable’s hunting trips with Carole, was still in the garage. The roses in the garden had been planted by Carole. Jean Garceau, Miss Lombard’s persona secretary and devoted admirer, was always in the house. She was Gable’s secretary and had an office off the living room.
Lady Ashley wanted a British butler to replace Rufus Martin, the Negro houseman who had been with Gable for years. But Martin stayed. Instead, it was Sylvia’s personal maid who went. Gable couldn’t understand why his wife needed a maid to look after her, and that was that. Sylvia did succeed, however, in getting Jean Garceau out of the house. Gable built a guest cottage on the grounds and moved Miss Garceau’s office into it.
The marriage really lasted only a little more than a year, although the divorce arrangements were not worked out until long after the disenchantment. As Sylvia explained in court, Gable came to her one day and announced that he no longer wanted to be married to her or anybody else. “I couldn’t believe he was serious,” she said. “I stayed on at the house but he scarcely spoke to me.” Martin, the houseman, testified that after dinner every night, Gable went upstairs alone and his wife sat by herself downstairs, looking at television. Then she took a trip to Nassau. When she returned, she found her charge accounts closed and the locks on the doors at the Encino house changed.
If there was a large cash settlement, as rumored, it was not publicly disclosed. The court decreed alimony of ten percent of Gable’s annual income for the first year and seven percent of his pay for the following four years, plus a property settlement of $6,002.46. Sylvia was already well fixed. Douglas Fairbanks left her a million dollars when he died in 1939. Last December, she married again to her third titled nobleman, Prince Dimitri Djordjadze, a Georgian who escaped from Russia in the 1917 revolution.
After his divorce from Lady Ashley came a refreshing interlude in Gable’s life—the trip he made to Africa with Grace Kelly for the filming of Mogambo.
The journey gave Gable a stimulating change that he needed badly. It made a new man of him. For the first time in years, he found himself enjoying acting. Mogambo was a new version of the old hit, Red Dust, which he had made with the late Jean Harlow in 1932, and it was directed by a master, John Ford, who makes every picture an exciting experience for the actors and actresses.
HE ENJOYS GRACE KELLY’S COMPANY
Gable loved the African countryside. “The bird shooting over there was just wonderful,” he said, “and that’s the only kind of shooting I really care about.” He also enjoyed the company of Grace Kelly. His old friend Ava Gardner was in the troupe, too, but on days when no work was scheduled, Miss Kelly would get up at dawn to go on hunting trips with Gable while Ava slept late in her tent.
“Make no mistake about it, that Kelly is quite a girl,” Gable said recently. “One day, she crawled right beside me into the middle of a herd of elephants. I was taking 16-millimeter movies. The big old bull elephant was only fifty yards away from us. He lifted his head and started looking around. The profession white hunter who was with us was dying. He wanted to get out of there, but fast. But not Kelly. She was enjoying every minute of it. Yes sir, quite a girl.”
Gable openly admits his fondness for Miss Kelly, but he felt that there was too much difference in their ages for him to become serious about her. “If I had been fifteen years younger, I would have made a real play for her,” he said once. At the time of the African trip, Miss Kelly was 23 and Gable was 52.
One day while Ford was directing a scene, Gable shot a crocodile that was crawling unnoticed toward the camera crew. “The natives looked up to Clark after that,” Frank Allen, the company’s African guide, said later. “Another day, I saw him kill four animals with four bullets—a zebra, a reedbuck, an impala and a topi. Rather decent shooting, I must say.”
But gable never attempted to kill a lion or an elephant. “What would I do with them? I don’t want them stuffed in my living room. I’d rather have them alive in the jungle.” He feels the same way toward the big fish that he hooks on deep-sea excursions off La Paz in Lower California.
“When we go fishing, I use a line as thick as a clothesline but Clark uses light, thin nylon thread to give the fish a break,” Howard Strickling said. “He hooks a big one and fights it for two hours. Finally, the fish get exhausted and Clark pulls it in to the side of the boat. Then what happens? He lets the fish go. He says, ‘If it wants to live that bad, I let it live.’”
Joan Crawford suspects that Gable’s attitude toward catching fish is similar to his view on love-making. Miss Crawford does not conceal the fact that she was crazy about Gable one time in the thirties when she appeared opposite him in several pictures. “But I always had the feeling that Clark was more interested in the chase than in the prize,” she said a few years ago.
Grace Kelly was reported to have been in tears when she parted company with Gable in London after the completion of Mogambo. A few weeks later, he was being seen everywhere in Paris with Suzanne Dadolle, a French fashion model. Then, Miss Dadolle showed reporters a topaz ring Gable had given her and told them that he had proposed marriage to her ten days after they had met. She said she was looking forward eagerly to living in Gable’s house in Encino. When Gable saw that story in the newspapers, his interest in Miss Dadolle cooled.
Gable stayed on in Europe to make Betrayed in the Netherlands with Lana Turner. Invigorated by his journey to Africa and by a new feeling of ambition and determination, he decided to break away from the past and to gamble on a fresh start. He told Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, his contract employers for 23 years, that Betrayed would be his last picture on a salary. He was leaving the company to go out on his own as a free-lance independent.
Eddie Mannix, the old friend who had walked seven miles through waist-deep snow to recover Carole Lombard’s body, tried to talk him out of leaving Metro. Mannix traveled to Europe to offer Gable a big participation deal. If he stayed at Metro, Mannix said, he could produce his own pictures with a choice of story, director and cast and a budget of two and a half million dollars.
Gable turned the offer down. He is a sharp man with money; he figured that after the studio had deducted general overhead expenses, the two and a half million would be down to around eight hundred thousand. Besides, he wanted new surroundings, new people and no unpleasant memories.
Gable had never forgotten that Metro had not given him a percentage of its vast earnings on Gone with the Wind, the big moneymaker of all time. If it hadn’t been for Gable, Metro would not have gotten in on the Civil War classic. David O. Selznick, who produced Gone with the Wind independently, had been forced by public demand to cast Gable as Rhett Butler. Selznick had another actor in mind for the role, but people all over the country said they wanted Gable to play it. To get Gable, Selznick had to give Metro a big share of the picture’s profits and the valuable distribution rights. All that Gable got out of Gone with the Wind was his usual weekly salary while he worked on it.
And there were other things—the poor pictures Metro gave him after his return from the war, a run that would have ruined any other actor. Mogambo was an improvement, but if it have Gable any thoughts about remaining with Metro, his next picture, betrayed, dispelled them. Gable is well aware that his current popularity is mainly due to the recent reissue of Gone with the Wind. On the day last spring that he received the Woman’s Home Companionaward as the most popular actor of the year, he said to a bystander, “You can be sure as hell I didn’t get this for Betrayed.”
Gable, too, had outlasted many of his old associates on the Metro lot. Louis B. Mayer, his boss during most of his career, was gone. Irving Thalberg and Victor Fleming were dead. Thalberg, the young genius whom Hollywood regards as its greatest movie maker, gave Gable his start and forced him, against his will, to play the role of Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty. “I didn’t want to wear those knee britches and, frankly, I didn’t want to play in a picture with Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone,” Gable said later. “I thought they’d show me up.” Thalberg and Gable met one night at the Trocadero, the swanky cabaret of that day, and had a bitter battle about it. Thalberg won. Now Gable feels that Mutiny on the Bounty was by far the best movie he ever made. He shows it often at his home.
Vic Fleming, a tall, rugged and exuberant man, was Gable’s favorite director. He spent his Sundays with Gable and Al Menasco; the three would roar through the country on motorcycles at 100 miles an hour. If Mayer had known how his biggest star and his most valuable director were risking their lives, he would have suffered a nervous collapse. Fleming directed Gone with the Wind. A memorable scene in the picture is the one in which Rhett Butler, burning with passion, runs up the long flight of stairs with the limp Scarlett O’Hara in his arms. When Gable and Vivien Leigh played the scene, Fleming expressed dissatisfaction. He ordered Gable to do it again and again. “A little faster this time, Clark,” he would tell the panting star, and Gable would pick up Miss Leigh once more and make another run up the stairs. Finally, Gable complained. “This dame’s getting heavy as lead!” he shouted.
Fleming laughed. “We got it the first time you did it,” he said. “I just wanted to see how long you could keep it up.”
LEAVING HIS OLD STUDIO WAS NOT A SAD OCCASION
When Gable came home from Europe early last year, he went to the Metro studio in Culver City, appeared in a few added final scenes of Betrayed and then cleaned out his dressing room. On the whole, it was not a sad occasion for him. Glad to have made his decision and looking forward to starting a new chapter in his life, he felt somewhat like a high-school boy after the last of the final exams. But he couldn’t help thinking about Thalberg and Fleming. As much as he hates to display sentiment, Gable felt obliged to make a statement for the formal announcement of his departure from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “I wish to pay tribute,” he said in it, “to my friends and associates who are no longer alive.”
The decision to try his luck on his own turned out better than Gable had hoped. This summer, as he enjoyed an undisturbed honeymoon with his new wife at Al and Julie Menasco’s ranch in the Napa Valley grape country, he had no worries about his future. There was the million dollars that he is sure to get from two recent Fox pictures, and he was looking forward to making three more movies on the same rich percentage agreement—one for Fox, a story about a jet test pilot for Warner Brothers and a comedy for Russfield, the independent company owned by Jane Russell and her professional football star husband, Bob Waterfield. The Russfield film will show Gable in an interesting situation. Entitled The Last Man in Wagon Mound, it has to do with the adventures of the only remaining male in a settlement of rugged pioneer women.
Everything considered, 1955 has been Gable’s best year since 1939 when he married Carole Lombard and appeared in Gone with the Wind. There was only one unpleasant note. He was annoyed by the publication of an article in a scandal magazine.
The article accused Gable of neglecting his first wife, Josephine Dillon, who divorced him in 1930 before he became a movie star. It depicted Miss Dillon as a poverty-stricken old lady, living in a barn on a North Hollywood back street, while, a few blocks away on Ventura Boulevard, Gable roared past every evening “in the back of a sleek, chauffeur-driven limousine—bound for one of his new and youthful conquests.” The article said that Miss Dillon had asked Gable for money a few years ago when she was in a hospital, critically ill and penniless, but that Gable had ignored her. It also said that Gable’s age was 61 instead of 54.
Gable’s lawyer and his friends urged him to sue for libel. “I wouldn’t dignify them with a suit,” he said.
Gable recently purchased Miss Dillon’s house, arranged to have it painted and repaired, and leased it back to her, rent-free, for the rest of her life.
Miss Dillon,a woman of pride and dignity, was more embarrassed than Gable. The “barn” that was described as her home is a studio in which she gives dramatic lessons. She lives in an adjoining house. The studio is an old building but hardly in a state of collapse, and it is attractive inside. It is filled with books about the theater and is tastefully furnished with antiques.
“Whoever wrote the story doesn’t know much about furniture,” Miss Dillon said. “This rug on the floor is a genuine Oriental. That desk came to California around Cape Horn. It belonged to my grandfather. That piece in the corner is an original George Washington music cabinet. It’s true that I don’t have any money. What teacher does? But I’ve never asked Mr. Gable for anything. I refused to accept alimony from him. My people don’t believe in alimony. I’ve been in a hospital once in my life. That was an Army hospital. I went there to entertain the soldiers.”
THE TELEPHONE REPAIRMAN WAS GABLE
Miss Dillon,a judge’s daughter, is a graduate of Stanford University. She played leading roles in the Broadway theater before she began to coach Hollywood stars in the era of silent pictures. Rudolph Valentino was one of her pupils. In 1923, she went to Portland, Oregon, to direct a pageant and to coach a theater group. One day, the telephone in her office was out of order. The phone-company repairman who came to fix it was Clark Gable.
Gable was then 22 years old. He had been working in the Oklahoma oil fields and in the lumber camps of the Northwest since he was 18, and he was big, hardened and much older than his years. It was not strange that Miss Dillon, almost 40, was attracted to him. He was fascinated by her. He had a burning ambition to be an actor and had traveled with small-time stock companies. Miss Dillon knew more about acting and the theater than anybody he had ever met.
When he had fixed her telephone, he stayed and talked with her for more than an hour. He saw her constantly the rest of the time that she was in Portland. She gave him lessons in diction. Taught him how to walk across a stage and how to make an entrance. She found him an acting job in a local theater. When she returned to Hollywood, he followed her. A year later, they were married.
There have been all sorts of legends about how Clark Gable became a movie star overnight. One story, which quite a few people in Hollywood believed for a long while, was that Louis B. Mayer pulled him down from a telephone pole and signed him on the spot for a feature role opposite Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance. Actually, he struggled for several years in Hollywood as an extra ($7.50 a day for a few days a month) and on the stage in California without attracting attention. When he finally did land his first steady acting job, it was not in the movies. It was with a stock company in Houston, Texas, at $75 a week.
Meanwhile, he and Miss Dillon lived on the outskirts of Hollywood in a $20-a-month cottage. “We tried to keep aside 25 cents a week so that he could go to a movie and study the acting of the male lead,” she recalled. “Some weeks when we managed to save up to 50 cents, I went with him.” Gable acquired an old jalopy in which he drove to the studios, looking for work. Another extra whom he often saw at the employment offices was a girl named Janet Gaynor. Sometimes, he gave her a ride home. Long afterward, Miss Gaynor said that she could tell when Gable’s gasoline was low. Those nights, he dropped her off at the corner of her street and Sunset Boulevard instead of driving to her door. “That’s right,” Gable affirmed. “I could measure that gas to the last drop.”
“But he was never discouraged,” Miss Dillon said. “I never saw such determination and such enthusiasm as he put into the work of making himself an actor. He would sit for hours at the piano, trying to bring down the tone of his voice until it reached the proper register. When I first met him, his voice was too high and hard and nervous, as it is in many big men. He had the straight-lipped, set mouth of a do-or-die character and the narrow eyes of a man who has had to fight things through alone. These had to be changed. As we worked on his speech, lowering his voice and developing the easy firmness and remarkable resonance that it has today, the muscles in his face relaxed. His eyes opened, his forehead smoothed, his lips began to be flexible and his now-famous smile was born.”
When she had helped Gable to develop a deep, exciting voice and a roguish smile, she had made an actor but lost a husband.
The countless stories about Gable’s life that appeared in the newspapers after his marriage to Kay Spreckels did not have much to say about Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham Gable, his second wife, Ria, as her friends call her, has always been a rather vague figure in Gable’s past. Most of his biographers refer to her only briefly, and inaccurately, as “a Park Avenue widow.” But in Houston, Texas, where she is still listed in the Social Register under the Gable name, Ria is very well known.
“You want to know about Ria?” a woman in Houston said a few months ago. “Well, she’s a very interesting, and a very fascinating woman. Just to give you an idea, she was a married woman when Clark Gable was born and yet today, at the age of 71, she’s still being romanced by a millionaire in New York. Or was, last I heard. Instead of writing a story about Clark Gable, you ought to write a story about Ria. There’s plenty to tell about her.”
Maybe so. But there could hardly be more than about Gable.