Presenting Clark Gable

I knew going into the writing of Fireball that understanding and presenting the real Clark Gable was going to be tough. Some people said this guy was electric in a one-to-one conversation; others said he was boring. How do you get inside the head of a bigger-than-life personality with a public persona crafted and maintained by the publicity department of MGM, the most powerful Golden Era Hollywood movie studio?

I read what there was. Gable biographer Lyn Tornabene helped on two fronts: her 1976 book Long Live the King provided key information about “Billy” Gable’s childhood and upbringing. Tornabene’s gesture of donating all her research materials to the Academy Library placed a great deal of previously unseen and unheard material at my fingertips, and I sifted through it like a geologist, discovering gem after gem. I talked to those few still around who knew Gable.

Fireball: Carole Lombard in Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Clark Gable before.

What emerged were two Clark Gables: there was the self-centered, spoiled-movie-star Gable that existed up until January 16, 1942, and the Gable that survived the crash of Flight 3 and the loss of Carole Lombard, Carole’s mother “Petey,” and Clark’s own best friend, press man Otto Winkler. Imagine for a moment the trauma of that event, especially since he felt partly responsible for actions that led his wife to feel compelled to rush home.

I was interviewed recently by Dick Dinman for his radio show that’s heard via podcast on, among other places. Dick asked about my presentation of Gable and related a story about David Niven, whose wife died in a horrible accident. Dinman said that Gable went out of his way to console Niven, and Dick said that this episode was in no way consistent with my depiction of a self-centered movie star. BUT, I responded, it was perfectly consistent with the empathetic Clark Gable, the survivor of Flight 3 and that horrible weekend in Las Vegas.Did I capture the real Clark Gable? Proof came just this week from someone who would know, Hollywood novelist, screenwriter, and actor Steve Hayes, a friend of Gable and intimate of both Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Steve read Fireball and here are his comments, in part:

“Gable’s character was well laid out and his many facets as a personality have been captured. Since I only knew him after her death, I’ve had to rely on others (Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, etc.) to understand how he was before Carole died. I knew this wasn’t Rhett Butler I was talking to, a man whose charm and sex appeal and charisma were absolutely irresistible. But until Franchot Tone and Walter Pidgeon and others I’ve just mentioned told me how he was in real life before Carole’s death, I really had no way of judging how huge this change was.“I found Alan Ladd, whom I knew after working for 11 weeks on Botany Bay, and then occasionally bumping into him at Paramount and being invited to swim at his Holmby Hills home, equally sad inward, as if carrying a personal tragedy. I don’t know what his sadness was—I know he loved June Allyson and couldn’t break loose of Sue Carol—but it certainly wasn’t of the magnitude of Gable’s loss. But there was a definite similarity between them regarding a strange inner sadness.

Fireball: Carole Lombard in Hollywood by Robert Matzen

Clark Gable after.

“Your portrayal of him is dead on. Anyone who met Gable always remembered how immaculate he was—clothes and toiletry, nails, shaven, etc.—and for a boy from the oil fields of Ohio, he’d certainly come a long, long way. He could still laugh, mostly it seemed at himself—I recall having lunch [at MGM] with Pidgeon, Tone and some other actor, and in came Gable, and he looked lost—in his own studio!  But he brightened up when he saw us (not me, them) and readily joined our table. Everyone in the commissary turned and stared—and I have to admit it was one of the high moments of my life to be part of that group at that moment. Hell, The King had joined us!

“I don’t think that he really cared much about his life after Carole died. He was pretty much an alcoholic and chain smoker—as so many other stars were—and it’s symptomatic of the era. He once said about Flynn, “Well, he’s killing himself with cigarettes and booze—like most of us are.” Yet he was so wonderfully tolerant of Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, constantly excusing her bad behavior in front of the others. So inwardly, he was a gentle giant, and a genuinely nice guy. Which is how I will always remember him.”

Fireball: Carole Lombard in Hollywood by Robert Matzen

The always-immaculate Gable, seen at the Encino ranch in 1947. It was the place he felt closest to the one he called “Ma” and “Mrs. G.”


  1. Well, I just finished Fireball, which I couldn’t put down once I started reading it. Great stuff, Robert.

    One of the key aspects of the book that I most appreciated and found intriguing was your portrayal of the two Gables. The self absorbed and pampered film star who, after suddenly suffering a great tragedy in his life, changed, becoming a sadder man, to be sure, but one also capable of greater sensitivity than before, and an ability to empathize with the sorrow of others that would have been alien to the Gable that had been married to Lombard.

    It is ironic, indeed, that Gable had to lose the love of his life in order to start to slowly evolve into the kind of man that Lombard might well have loved even more than the big moose she had adored but found so exasperating in many respects.

    Gable is certainly not as complex a guy as seen in your earlier portrait of Errol Flynn, but it’s impossible not to be touched by what he had to endure. He was lost in so many ways after her death, eternally searching for that Lombard replacement that he never found, and always, through his stoicism and drinking, conveying an impression of sadness to those around him.

    It’s interesting that Steve Hayes, whose two Googies books I have also recently read, compared Gable’s sadness to that of Alan Ladd. Hayes had some great perceptive portraits of Hollywood giants in his books, with particularly memorable portrayals, I feel, of Flynn and Ladd.

    But I also well remember Hayes’ description of that last conversation that he had with a dog tired Gable sitting alone on a Paramount set – just one week before his fatal heart attack. I’m glad that Steve Hayes, one of the few people around today who knew the King, validates your portrait of Gable.

    I was under the impression, Robert, that when you first started your research on Lombard and Gable, you were a little uncertain as to where your research on Gable’s personality was going to finally take you, as you had seen a number of less-than-admirable aspects to his character. That related primarily, I believe, to the younger Gable. I’m glad, Robert, that your investigations also lead you to the touchingly sad portrait of the post-Lombard Gable.

    He was a man who, carrying that anguish within him of a great loss, became a more sensitive soul capable of reaching out to others who also suffered from a great loss. I think you discovered, Robert, that he did evolve into a pretty darned nice guy, after all. And, through reading Fireball, I was able to make that discovery, as well. For that, among many other reasons, I want to thank you for your book.

    The aging star who emphathized with the demons that plagued an insecure Marilyn Monroe during the Nevada location shooting of The Misfits was a real human being. I think Carole Lombard would have really liked that man.

    1. Thanks for reading Fireball, Tom, and for your comments about it. And it’s great that you’ve read Steve’s Googie’s books too, which I consider some of the best insider stuff about Hollywood in the 1950s that I’ve seen anywhere. Of course the devil’s advocates point to Gable’s treatment of Judy Lewis as a character condemnation, and Carole was wary of the way Gable walled himself off from Judy. He was a complex character and a flawed one, but I found him a good guy, all in all.

  2. More questions (quickly becoming obsessed!) for if and when you have the time:

    – any opinion as to how or why on earth Tornabene left the whole judy Lewis issue out of what otherwise seems an incredibly well researched biography? She had to know – and to have deliberately left all mention of it out. It seems such a mammoth event in terms of understanding this man’s personality that avoiding it really devalues her substantial work (IMO). There are so many Loretta young quotes in her book that I can’t help but wonder if she agreed to remain silent on it in exchange for interviews..,

    – Carole had to know of judy lewis’ existence too. Did you come across any evidence that they ever discussed it? On the one hand I cannot imagine Carole being silent about, well, anything… but on the other I can imagine Gable simply locking this particular topic away and never discussing it with anyone.

    – did you come across any information in your own research as to the current whereabouts of the locket which Gable had made for the “lock” (patch) of hair and jewelry bits recovered from the crash site? I’m assuming his son would have possession of it unless Kay Gable otherwise “disposed” of it along with all things Lombard…

    Thanks! (Again)

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