Man’s Man

Fifty-four years ago today, Clark Gable died. He had been hospitalized for days after having suffered a heart attack at the ranch in Encino and was thought to be recovering, but succumbed suddenly on November 16, 1960. He passed out of this world as the logo of the Golden Age of the motion picture. His face, toothy grin, and jug ears were IT for Hollywood. He made only two features that stand the test of time, It Happened One Night and Gone With the Wind, but two were enough. Oh, sure, he made other big pictures and many movie buffs will remember Red Dust and Honky Tonk, but by the time Gable’s wife Carole Lombard died on Flight 3 in 1942, Gable’s best work was behind him. He went off to fight in World War II and came back to a huge box office return in 1945 when he made Adventure with Greer Garson, but this was a bad picture and would be followed by many other pictures that were, if not bad, then indifferent.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

On top of the world, Ma! Or so Clark Gable thought, seen with Carole Lombard here at the announcement of their wedding in March 1939.

Why didn’t the Gable brand endure? Simple. When Carole died, Clark died. He would go on roaming the earth for 18 years as a guy in a Clark Gable suit, but the essence of what made Gable Gable, the swagger, the growl, the I’ll-smack-you-around-and-you’ll-like-it, were gone. Once his character Rhett Butler had thrilled the world by saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and then life imitated art and he didn’t give a damn after his wife died on an airplane on a freezing Las Vegas night.

I was chatting in Detroit with my new friends Joe and Marsha the other day about Fireball, and about the Clark Gable that emerged from the Flight 3 disaster. Joe admires what Gable did with the rest of his life, just as I admire it. Clark learned from tragedy; he appreciated what he had lost; he put one foot in front of the other; he kept breathing; he endured. Gable was never the same man, but he was a man—he was called a “man’s man” and proved it. He gave himself a month to grieve; he went back to work; he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, and he went to Europe to fight. He was 41 then, and served with men 20 years younger. He asked for no special favors and ran the obstacle course just like anyone else. He went up in B-17s and secretly wished to go down in flames so he could experience Lombard’s last moments and then lie with her at Forest Lawn.

But, goddammit, he lived. And he kept on living, always haunted by the woman who blew into his life like a tornado, challenged him, adored him, cast her spell…and then was gone. She haunted him every day, her face, her voice, her perfume, the things she said, the way she said them, always there. But not there, because she was gone.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Just killin’ time, waiting for his ticket to be punched in 1951.

The self-righteous among us will condemn Clark Gable and say from the soap box, “If he loved her so much, why wasn’t he faithful? Why did he carry on with Lana Turner and cause Carole to rush to her doom?” I always go all biblical at that point and advise that those out there without sin should cast the first stone.

There’s nothing in this world quite like sitting with Clark, Carole, and Petey in the Great Mausoleum of Forest Lawn. The three of them and me, sitting there, in utter peace and quiet in a sequestered corridor. It brings so much to mind, first and foremost the sadness of it all, the way Carole and Petey died, and the way Clark, in his way, died with them. Three crypts side by side by side, with simple faceplates and dates of birth, dates of death. There’s a story of a million words there in that tiny little 10 feet of corridor. He purchased three crypts in January of 1942, two for his wife and mother-in-law, and one for himself. He married twice more, but his wishes were ironclad: place me next to Ma.

On this date 54 years ago, Clark finally got his wish. After years of smoking too much, years of drinking too much, years of enemy flak, fast cars, fast motorcycles, eating food too rich for him, he finally, finally got his wish. He punched a ticket to see Ma. He returned to the only human companion who ever made sense to him. This day, 54 years ago.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I wonder if Spencer Tracy (left) is thinking about spending two days with Gable at the El Rancho Vegas awaiting word of Carole’s fate. Here the greats, including Robert Taylor and James Stewart, gather for the King’s funeral at Forest Lawn in November 1960. At this same Church of the Recessional, Gable had endured the funerals of Ma and Petey 18 years earlier. In this shot, Air Force Chaplain Johnson E. West accompanies Kay Williams Gable, widow of the actor, after the service.


  1. What does it say about the product churned out by Gable’s MGM home studio that neither of his two films that best stand the test of time were made by it? The only two Gable MGMs that at least rate a strong mention would be, to me, Mutiny on the Bounty and, stretching it a little, San Francisco (love that earthquake sequence, as well as watching Gable at the peak of his rascally charm).

    Gable had his flaws, like any of us, but I agree that he was admirable in the manner in which he stoically soldiered on after losing the love of his life. Interesting how the same woman who had scooped up the aging king of silent swashbucklers, Douglas Fairbanks, as a husband would later repeat that feat again with the talkie “King” of Hollywood in his post-WWII years, as well.

    I have to wonder if Carole Lombard knew anything about Gable’s love child with Loretta Young. And, if so, with that huge heart that Lombard had, how did she feel about the little girl failing to be acknowledged by the father.

    Gable’s perspective on that Judy Lewis episode remains unexplained. I assume that the wishes of the girl’s mother played a large role in his silence, not to mention the concern of both parents over their Hollywood careers being detrimentally affected by such a scandal.

    Yet it was such a whispered open secret for years within the community (though, again, I don’t know if that was the case when Lombard was alive). When commercial properties are as big as Gable or Young, the Hollywood community and studio systems really were very good at protecting their own.

    The price, of course, was to be paid by an innocent child who only learned the truth about her father years later, and told of crying when she watched the iconic Gable on screen affectionately playing with daughter Bonnie Blue in GWTW. It was only through the fantasy of watching him on film that Judy came closest to envisioning herself with a loving father.

    1. Thanks for the plug on Carole & Co. regarding this article. (And the heads-up since I had forgotten it was due.) I especially appreciate your reference to Fireball as “definitive.” Such a description from Vincent Paterno means a great deal to me. Thank you!

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