By Ruth Biery
Movie Classic magazine, March 1936
Before you talk about the parting of Clark and Ria Gable, read this understanding story and ask yourself what would you have done in the situation they have just faced!
Clark Gable stood at the rail of a steamship coming from South America. His dark hair caught the mist from the sea and went unnoticed. His eyes watched the emptiness of the horizon and brooded. Water and then more water; sky and then more sky—trying to meet, seeming to meet, yet never touching. Is life like that? Do we roll along—along—trying to reach for a sky?
We all have such thoughts when we stand on a ship and gaze at the endless blue above and beneath us. There was not a passenger on that liner who did not stand thus and ponder. Yet there was not one who did not wonder why Clark Gable stood at the rail and brooded.
Clark Gable! Surely he was one man whose sea and sky had met. What more could one man have—what more could he want? He was handsome, virile, a world hero. Why, in South America, no man had such adulation since Rudolph Valentino! “He makes five thousand dollars a week,” the travelers whispered to each other.
One passenger spoke for all of them when he said, “If I were Clark Gable, I don’t think I’d be brooding.”
If he had been Clark Gable! If any one of them had been! They knew what they would do!…But did they? What would they have done? What would you have done if you had been Clark Gable then? I wonder.
I wonder also how widely scattered those passengers were when they picked up their moning papers three weeks after that South American liner had docked. To each, the faces of the other travelers already were blurred, perhaps forgotten. All but one—that of Clark Gable, standing at the rail, brooding.
“So that was it,” any of them might have said. “According to this story, he and his wife were already separated. Now, I wonder what the real trouble was. Anyway, he wasn’t happy about it!”
I do not think Clark Gable’s parting from his wife is so different from the average marital separation. It does carry one extra burden. You or I could stand at a ship’s rail and brood without having our little ship-world pay is too much attention. We could go through a court action without having the whole world headline it. But what we felt—would that be so different?
They were so happy when they arrived together in Hollywood—hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. They were beginning a new adventure. Clark had tried Hollywood before, but one failure did not insure a second. Now, he had that stage triumph in The Last Mile to his credit. Now he had Ria—a charming, spirited, inspiring bride to help him. Now, he had two fine stepchildren to make success more important. Few people know hoe Clark liked—really liked—those young people. Few understand how proud Ria was that her children could respect and be respected by this man she had married.
I remember an incident that has never been recorded. Clark’s young stepdaughter—a lovely girl, who has recently married—decided that she would like to try motion pictures. I doubt if many stepfathers as famous as this one would have applauded such a decision. If she passed her test, she would certainly be billed as his stepdaughter. No film company would overlook the publicity to be gained from the connection. But Clark was delighted by her ambition—and he was determined that she should have every advantage…A studio had offered a test—to be made at once. Clark stopped the rush.
He saw to it that she had a special wardrobe, a special make-up woman, a special part in a play, voice training. And he decided that the man who would play opposite her in a test would be: Clark Gable.
I could see, however, that Clark was perturbed, despite his enthusiasm. There were tiny creases in his brow. Some casual remarks gave him a hint of the reason: “There’s a man who loves her. A fine chap. If she really loves him, she shouldn’t have started this acting. She’s lovely. She’d make a fine wife and mother. I wouldn’t want to see her try to have both marriage and a screen career.” Clark shook his head. “No matter how hard they try, so few can succeed at both jobs.” And I sincerely believe that Clark was glad when his stepdaughter decided that she did love this “fine chap” and dedicated herself to one career.
Clark and Ria Langham Gable always seemed to be inspiring others. Helen Hayes, long before she left Hollywood, told me, “You know, a few friends I have found out here make Hollywood so worthwhile—friends like Ria and Clark Gable, Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg. Why, you feel better just to watch Ria and Clark enter a room together!”…Two years later, in New York City, Helen told me: “I didn’t really dislike Hollywood so much. How could I when it brought me friends like Ria and Clark Gable?”
I doubt if I have heard a finer compliment paid two people. But I have heard so many compliments for these two. I remember shopping at one of Hollywood’s exclusive stores, and discovering that all of the clerks in one department were crowded around one woman. Not one saw me until she rose to go. She was Ria Gable. When she had left, I chided the girl who waited on me, “I suppose you have to be Mrs. Gable to get attention like that!”
She was shocked. “Oh no! We are not allowed to give more attention to one customer than another. It isn’t because she’s Mrs. Gable. It’s because she’s so charming. She is so kind to us. We didn’t even know who she was when she first came here and we felt that way about her even then. She’d ask, ‘And how do you like this?’ in a way that made us feel that she really wanted our opinion. There’s something—well, it’s hard to explain, but we really forget about everyone else when she is here. She’s just that kind of person. And when Mr. Gable comes with her, he is like that, too. You know, just regular people.”
Only a few months after this experience, another girl told me something else about Clark Gable, whom she had met on a lot as lesser employees do meet and work with stars. She confessed to me: “I had never had a crush before. But there it was—so I tried to interest him. Do you know what he told me? He said I was too nice a kid to be making eyes at men—especially married men. And did I get mad? I did not. He was so kind that I had to run away because I was crying. And he has been a friend, in his big-brother way, ever since he told me that I was a nice kid. And I’m staying a nice kid, too. I couldn’t do anything else after what Clark Gable told me.”
Why, then, are two such grand people separating?… I don’t know. When the rumors began, months and months ago, I asked both. There were the usual denials of any intention to separate, but through those denials I received an impression. I am going to pass it on to you.
A man and a woman who might be wonderful friends, unmarried, may become miserable when married, because of different temperaments.
Year ago, Clark Gable told me that he was born with wanderlust in his blood. He talked of the days when this urge to see new places and do new things had led him into the Northwest lumber country. He recounted an argument with a husky lumberman and how they had fought it out—muscle against muscle. He recalled the time he had ridden a freight train, without a ticket, across the northern part of the United States. “My hands nearly froze. I was so nearly frozen, I almost slipped off the roof of a car. But I didn’t!”
Then, he went to Hollywood. He was ambitious. He wanted to prove to Hollywood what he had proved to the lumberman: he could fight and he could win. And when he should have proved it?—“I want to have money enough to care for my family and care for them darned well! But when I have done that and have perhaps a hundred dollars a week for myself, then I’d like to board a tramp steamer and start going.”
I sometimes wonder if certain types of men—wanderers, adventurers—should be married. And yet I have never seen one of these wanderers who did not wish he were like the “other fellow,” and could settle down and be happy.
So Clark Gable stood at the liner’s rail and brooded. And Ria Gable remained in Hollywood and suffered. Two magnificent people who have done their best to become “one” when they are “two.” A man and a woman who have struggled to remain together because they once believed they would live that way “forever after.” An actor and his wife who worked harder than most of us to remain married because they feared a curious world might not understand if they separated.
And a world will misunderstand. It will cry, “Hollywood.” It will watch every girl with whom Clark is seen; every action that Ria makes.
It would take great courage for them to remain together. It takes terrific courage for them to separate. It is not easy to break the habit of matrimony when a man and woman like one another. Both will be lonely. Both will feel a vacancy that may never be completely filled. Both will have memories that cannot be wholly forgotten.
Courage! The courage to continue together—unhappy, incompatible. The courage to separate—also unhappy. Which takes the more courage? What would you do if you were either Clark or Ria Gable?