What Loretta Said (or Didn’t Say)

The good news this week is that long-departed film legend Clark Gable is in the headlines. The bad news is that it’s because he’s been accused of date rape an astonishing 80 years after the fact. And he wasn’t accused directly but by hearsay. I’ll let you pick through the wire stories if you feel the need to catch up, but forgive me for being a Caucasian male film historian (and criticized for same after being quoted in Lou Lumenick’s piece in the New York Post) who dares say, show me the evidence. Any more, all one has to do is level a charge, no matter how nebulous, and it sticks. Newswires pick it up, special interests start wagging fingers, and a famous name is covered in goo.

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

Loretta and Clark in a publicity shot from Call of the Wild.

I grant you Gable invited scandal by denying what was so painfully obvious, that the child born to Loretta Young in 1935 was his child. The birth mother acknowledged it; the birth child did too. As one who, while writing Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, had to try to sort out the psyche of this guy who denied what everybody knew, there comes a point when I could only scratch my head. The best I can figure it, Clark Gable denied his involvement in the conception of Judy Lewis because either:

  1. Like many of the big stars, he was protective of his image above all, and couldn’t acknowledge any blot (even a blot everyone knew about).
  2. Gable was too cheap to let the money go it would have taken to raise the kid. He figured she was the daughter of Loretta Young, a successful movie star turned TV star, so money would never be an issue for his child.

Is it possible that he felt intense guilt because he forced his attentions on Loretta and a baby resulted? Sure, it’s possible. Old Hollywood skewed sexist, and women were anything but equal except at the highest levels of stardom. But in the case of this charge against Gable, let’s look at some facts:

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert MatzenLoretta was indeed a practicing Catholic all her adult life and would, in the 1950s, be recognized as a pillar of the Hollywood community. But Loretta was no naïve schoolgirl at the time of Call of the Wild in 1935. She had been married at 17 for almost two years (marriage annulled), and by age 20 was peddling her own flesh in naughty pre-code features including Play-Girl, Weekend Marriage, and They Call It Sin. A fourth, Employees’ Entrance, had the tag line, emblazoned over Loretta’s head in the ads, “Give me a job—at any price!” This was no naïve kid in 1935 at age 22 who didn’t know better than to innocently flirt with Hollywood’s most virile sex symbol. This was an already-around-the-block married woman.

A pal of mine has accessed the Fox production files due to a love of Call of the Wild and reports that the company first went on location to Mt. Baker, Washington, then reconvened for an extended stay in Feather River, California. It was here, according to my source, that the timeframe matches up with Judy Lewis’s birth nine months later.

The new allegation quotes Loretta as claiming that Gable forced himself on her on the train ride back from Washington, which predates the second round of location work in California. So did he come back and force himself on her again at Feather River? And then maybe again? She didn’t claim that.

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

Judy Lewis, all grown up and looking like Clark Gable.

Or is the director of the picture, William Wellman, to be believed when he wrote in his memoir decades ago that Gable and Young were engaging in “monkey business” on those location shoots. According to Wild Bill, theirs was far from the innocent flirtation Loretta allegedly described late in life when she was intent on legacy protection. Wellman recalled having to single Gable out in front of the company for their indiscretions.

Loretta Young sinks the family’s claim herself in a 1985 quote uncovered by Lou Lumenick. Of Clark Gable she said, “As rough and tough as he played many of his parts, you will notice that in all of those love scenes, particularly in Gone With the Wind, he is so gentle with women. And does treat them with such tenderness, such sweetness . . .”

You’re telling me she’s describing her date rapist here?

Lastly, Loretta worked with Gable again on a picture in 1950 when Judy was a teenager and neither mother nor father seemed put off by the experience.

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

Gable and Young, chummy making Key to the City in 1950.

The facts do not seem to align in this allegation against Gable. Were this a court of law, he would be innocent until proven guilty and walk for lack of evidence. No such rules seem to apply in the court of public opinion, where the charge itself constitutes a guilty verdict.


  1. Robert, I wholeheartedly agree. That was my first thought, as well, when I read that she asked to have date rape explained to her. My gut feeling was that she was trying to shape the legacy of how she would be remembered — she may have even convinced herself that she had not been a willing partner. I would also like to add that men who rape — who penetrate a woman without expressed consent — tend to do that more than once. There has never been even a whisper of that accusation by anyone else. Granted, our definition of rape has changed over the decades, but even then that behavior was undesirable and would not go without comment. To have the only accusation come from a third party who claims Loreeta said that is, of course, pretty lame. I suspect that the Cosby thing has The Public more than ready to believe anything about any beloved star at this point. And look at the whole Gawker/James Franco thing. For some reason rape accusations are in the zeitgeist right now.

  2. You gotta admit , at least in passing, that this might be true before dismissing it, as both parties who could clarify are long dead.

    From there, admitting it is true, provided you wanted to really write about it, you should tackle the attitudes toward sex, and rape of the time; if it was clear what “date rape” was back then; and what would be the attitude of a victim ( at that time) towards the aggressor and the “result” , considering only the facts you know.

    It got me thinking and I posted on my blog about it. You can rationalize whatever you want , but you find it hard to understand what goes on with a woman that suffered a date rape: what I can assure you is that , for what I read from you and Vieira, you both are way off the mark.

    On the other hand, perhaps you both were just defending your opinions on the claim and not trying to see it it was possible or not to have happened. You both just felt comfortable enough enumerating the contraditory actions of Loretta Young as a proof that it did not happen.

    It was, of course, your choice in doing so. But , as a woman who has experience in dealing with sexual abuse, it made me feel deeply uncomfortable, I will admit.

    1. Vieira and I are merely looking at production files and quotes from eyewitnesses because it’s all we got. Of course we can’t know for certain what happened; we can only look at available evidence. Is it possible that Clark Gable forced himself on Loretta Young one time, and a child resulted? Yes. Is date rape an unjustifiable crime, whether in the last century or this one. Yes again. Does 80 years of documentation make this particular claim unreasonable? Yes, very much so.

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