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