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.
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 TCM.com, 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.
“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.”