COVER STORY

THE KING OF HOL­LY­WOOD FOUND HIS QUEEN — UN­TIL FATE TRAG­I­CALLY TORE THEM APART

Closer Weekly - - Contents - By LOUISE A. BAR­ILE

Clark Gable may not have given a damn as Rhett But­ler, but when he fell for Ca­role Lom­bard, he learned to care — un­til tragedy cut their love short.

On the last day of film­ing 1932’s No Man of Her Own, a cheeky Ca­role Lom­bard pre­sented her costar Clark Gable with a large baked ham bear­ing his like­ness. The cast and crew broke out in laugh­ter and ap­plause at the per­fect gag gift for the world’s top mati­nee idol.

By the time Clark met Ca­role, he’d been nick­named the King of Hol­ly­wood, and he pos­sessed an over­size ego to match his high­fly­ing ca­reer. A con­sum­mate wom­an­izer, he com­pul­sively cheated on his wives. “He used women for his ego and his plea­sure. That’s just the way it was,” ex­plains Robert Matzen, au­thor of Fire­ball: Ca­role Lom­bard and the Mys­tery of Flight 3. Cer­tainly, Clark never ex­pected that Ca­role — a 24-year-old ac­tress best known for screw­ball come­dies — would up­end his self-cen­tered life and teach him the mean­ing of love, loss and redemp­tion

Born in 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio, Clark didn’t re­mem­ber his mother, who died when he was 10 months old. Raised by his oil-driller fa­ther and pi­ano-teacher step­mother, he sought refuge out­side their home. “His fa­ther was not a warm per­son. Clark just tol­er­ated him,” says Matzen, who notes that Clark de­vel­oped his in­de­pen­dent, manly per­sona dur­ing this piv­otal time of his life. “Clark had a great affin­ity for mo­tor­cy­cles, fast cars, hunt­ing, fish­ing,” he says. “He was an out­door guy, a man’s man.”

THE REAL THING

In No Man of Her Own, Clark and Ca­role played a mar­ried cou­ple, but they be­came friends in­stead of lovers on the set. Ca­role was then wed to the dash­ing movie star Wil­liam Pow­ell, and she con­fessed to a friend that Clark didn’t seem ro­man­ti­cally in­ter­ested in her. “[We] did all kinds of hot love scenes…and I never got any kind of trem­ble out of him at all,” Ca­role con­fessed.

That changed four years later when the two ac­tors met again at the May­fair Ball, a glam­orous an­nual Hol­ly­wood event, and danced to­gether. Ca­role, by then di­vorced, found Clark more charm­ing this time, and

the ac­tor felt a spark with the ac­tress, who had be­come Hol­ly­wood’s high­est-paid woman.

They were per­fectly matched.

“Clark was a very self-in­volved per­son, but Ca­role rec­og­nized that, and she ad­justed her life to fit his,” says Matzen. “He needed some­one good-look­ing on his arm, some­one who would chal­lenge him but also some­one who could adapt to his lifestyle.” De­spite his pop­u­lar­ity, Clark “didn’t re­ally like peo­ple very much,” says Matzen. Ca­role un­der­stood that and took charge of their so­cial cal­en­dar, keep­ing oth­ers away when Clark felt moody.

At times like that, when he re­turned to his child­hood habits and re­treated to the woods for hik­ing and fish­ing ex­pe­di­tions, Ca­role joined him. “She was a tomboy,” says Matzen. “She be­came a ca­pa­ble camper and hunter to please him.”

The cou­ple mar­ried in 1939 when Clark was on a break from film­ing Gone With the Wind. Ac­cord­ing to one story, Ca­role had

read the Mar­garet Mitchell novel a few years ear­lier and sent it to Clark with a note that read: “Let’s do it!” Of course, Vivien Leigh got the part of Scar­lett, and Ca­role wound up on the side­lines, sup­port­ing her man.

“It is an

ex­tra div­i­dend when you

like the girl you’ve

fallen in love with.”

— Clark

BE­COM­ING RHETT

Clark needed the en­cour­age­ment. He had doubts about the role of Rhett, which re­quired him to cry on cam­era. “Clark thought that peo­ple didn’t want to see that,” ex­plains John Wi­ley Jr., au­thor of The Scar­lett Let­ters: The Mak­ing of the Film Gone With the Wind. Clark even­tu­ally found a way to re­veal Rhett’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity in what be­came a fa­vorite scene that’s both heart­break­ing and manly. “Clark doesn’t sob, but it’s rain­ing, and when the win­dow opens, you can see him feel the cold,” says Wi­ley. “It’s very mov­ing.”

On the GWTW set, some of Clark’s fa­vorite mem­o­ries in­volved Mickey Kuhn, the young boy who played Beau Wilkes. Af­ter Mickey re­peated flubbed his line by call­ing

the ac­tor “Clark” in­stead of “Rhett,” the star “took me aside and said, ‘You’re right, I am Un­cle Clark, but in here my name is Rhett,” Mickey re­calls to Closer. “We shot the scene again and boom — I got my line right.”

TRAGEDY STRIKES

GWTW launched Clark’s ca­reer into the strato­sphere, while Ca­role was di­al­ing hers down. “She wanted to cut back and get into pro­duc­ing and di­rect­ing and have the free­dom to be at home more,” says Matzen, who adds that Ca­role bought Clark a ranch, where they raised poul­try. She also hoped to start a fam­ily but sadly suf­fered sev­eral mis­car­riages. Although he loved his wife, Clark couldn’t change his cheat­ing ways. It drove “a tec­tonic plate be­tween them,” says Matzen. “They were hav­ing tough times.”

On Jan. 16, 1942, nearly three years af­ter the wed­ding, Ca­role, who was on a tour sell­ing war bonds, boarded a Los An­ge­les­bound plane in Las Ve­gas. It crashed on take­off, killing all 22 peo­ple aboard and leav­ing Clark dev­as­tated. “It’s like Clark aged 10 years in one week­end,” says Matzen, who says the ac­tor “lost his drive to be a movie star and started drink­ing a lot more.”

His mem­o­ries haunted him. Fol­low­ing the Ja­panese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, Ca­role had urged Clark to join the mil­i­tary — a sug­ges­tion he’d laughed at. Six months af­ter her death, Clark sought redemp­tion by sign­ing up for the Army Air Force. “Peo­ple said he had a death wish,” says Matzen. “I think he felt guilty about Ca­role’s death. They’d had a huge fight be­fore she left.”

Clark flew sev­eral com­bat mis­sions and re­turned to Hol­ly­wood af­ter his mil­i­tary du­ties ended. Although his days as the King of Hol­ly­wood had come to a close, he con­tin­ued to make movies. He also mar­ried two more times, to Bri­tish so­cialite Sylvia Ash­ley and fi­nally to ac­tress Kay Wil­liams.

Though Clark’s last mar­riage couldn’t com­pare to the fire­works he felt with Ca­role, her loss had less­ened his ego, soft­ened his heart and al­lowed him to love again. “He was rel­a­tively happy,” says Matzen. “Kay tried to em­u­late Ca­role and be the free-spir­ited, down-to-earth woman he loved. She suited him.” That lasted for the rest of his life. When Clark died at 59 in 1960, Kay hon­ored his fi­nal re­quest: to be buried be­side Ca­role, his true love. — Re­port­ing by Amanda

Cham­pagne-Mead­ows

De­spite Clark and Vivien Leigh’s chem­istry in GWTW, there was “no han­ky­panky,” says au­thor John Wi­ley Jr.

Kay Wil­liams, whom the star mar­ried in 1955, gave birth to his only son, John Clark Gable, four months af­ter Clark’s 1960 death.

Clark mar­ried his mu­cholder act­ing coach, Josephine Dil­lon, in 1924. She launched his ca­reer be­fore they split in 1930.

So­cialite Sylvia Ash­ley threw away Ca­role’s be­long­ings — an­ger­ing Clark. “Their mar­riage was a mis­take from the be­gin­ning,” says Matzen of the union that lasted from 1949 to 1952.

In 1931, Clark wed Maria Lang­ham, a wealthy Texas blue blood. He mar­ried Ca­role af­ter their divorce was fi­nal­ized in 1939.

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