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Clark Gable: A Biography

Clark Gable: A Biography

by Warren G. Harris


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Clark Gable arrived in Hollywood after a rough-and-tumble youth, and his breezy, big-boned, everyman persona quickly made him the town’s king. He was a gambler among gamblers, a heavy drinker in the days when everyone drank seemingly all the time, and a lover to legions of the most attractive women in the most glamorous business in the world, including the great love of his life, Carole Lombard.

In this well-researched and revealing biography, Warren G. Harris gives an exceptionally acute portrait of one of the most memorable actors in the history of motion pictures—whose intimates included such legends as Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, David O. Selznick, Jean Harlow, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Spencer Tracy, and Grace Kelly—as well as a vivid sense of the glamour and excess of mid-century Hollywood.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307237149
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 286,088
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.17(h) x 0.96(d)

About the Author

Warren G. Harris has written critically acclaimed biographies of Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, and Sophia Loren, among others. He lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Kid

Clark Gable should not have been born at all. His mother, Adeline, or Addie as everybody called her, had been sickly for most of her life. Doctors warned her that bearing a child might kill her. It did, but she lingered on and managed to have ten months with her son before she died.

That somber episode began on February 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio, a coal-mining town in that southeastern part of the state that borders on both West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Like most babies in those days, Clark was born at home. The Gables rented the upstairs apartment of a two-family clapboard house on Charleston Street. Instead of the usual midwife, Addie's frail health demanded attendance by a doctor. He charged a precious ten dollars and received volunteer help from a woman neighbor from downstairs.

The future "King of Hollywood" was born just ten days after the death of Queen Victoria and a month after the start of a new century. He was very much a child of the Victorian Era, a time of gaslight, horse-drawn buggies, and prudish conservatism. His mother garbed him in long white dresses and tried to train his abundant brunet hair to part in the middle.

His original name was probably William Clark Gable, but the usual authorities in such matters—including birth registrations and school records—contradict one another. The first name must have been in honor of his father, William Henry Gable, an oil prospector or "wildcatter" as they were described in those days. "Clark" was the maiden name of his maternal grandmother. In childhood he was almost always called "Clark," though some friends called him "Clarkie," "Billy," or "Gabe." His father confused things even more by always calling him "Kid" or "the Kid" when talking about him to others.

Will Gable and Addie Hershelman came originally from Meadville, in northwestern Pennsylvania. Both families were long established in that area and had German ancestry, with a bit of Irish mixed into the Hershelmans. The Gables, however, were Methodists, and the Hershelmans Roman Catholics. The latter were also a tribe of hardworking farmers who didn't approve of Will's religion or of his crazy pursuit of oil gushers. The newlyweds moved 120 miles away to Cadiz to escape the Hershelmans' opposition.

Will Gable's idol and role model was John D. Rockefeller, who started his Standard Oil empire in Ohio in 1870 and resided near Cleveland on a huge estate called Forrest Hill. Though Rockefeller and rivals had most of Ohio staked out by 1900, small speculators like Will Gable never gave up hope of discovering a payhole that could make them rich too. His sights were set on the booming oil fields around Scio, a village about twenty miles from Cadiz. Daily commuting was impractical, so for most of the week he lived in a tent with other workers. He headed home on Saturday afternoon and returned to the job very early on Monday morning. Such was the routine for many working people well into the new century.

Cadiz, as the seat of Harrison County and a thriving business center, satisfied Addie's need to be near doctors and emergency assistance. Records of her health problems are few and contradictory. She may have had epilepsy or some other disease of the central nervous system. Dr. Frank Campbell, who delivered her baby and continued to take care of them both, concluded from her symptoms that she had a progressive brain tumor. She suffered convulsions, and her behavior became increasingly psychotic. Campbell treated her with "cabinet steam baths," which were a popular cure-all in those days.

Whatever her illness may have been, it grew worse after the baby's birth. How that affected the sexual side of the Gable marriage can only be guessed at, but they were an odd-matched couple to begin with. Will Gable was tall and good-looking, with a reputation as a womanizer and a boozer. Addie was a plain, thickset country girl. Nearly thirty when she married, it may have been the first proposal she ever received.

The Gable baby weighed ten and a half pounds at birth and showed every sign of becoming a big bruiser like his father. His hands and feet were whoppers, and his ears stood out like cup handles. His large gray-green eyes and thick brows were obvious gifts from his mother. His father boasted that he was a "born blacksmith."

When the infant turned six months old, Addie persuaded a neighbor to take them to the nearest Catholic church for a christening. Since there wasn't one in Cadiz, they had to travel by horse and buggy to Dennison, twenty-five miles away. The priest berated Addie for delaying the ceremony so long, but that reproach was nothing compared to the tongue-lashing she received from her Methodist husband when he found out. Some of his anger may have been caused by the church certificate, which identified the anointed as Clark Gable rather than William Clark Gable.

In September came shocking news of President William McKinley's assassination, which placed "Rough Rider" Theodore Roosevelt in the White House. By that time Addie was so ill that Will had taken her and William Clark to the Hershelman farm in Meadville so that her family could take over nursing them. Addie died there on November 14, exactly 286 days after her son's birth.

According to one of the relatives who took care of her, Addie had become all but unmanageable: "In a fury, she once hurled Clark's bottle through a window. She went crazy, and then she died."

Only thirty-one years old, Addie Gable was buried in St. Peter's Catholic Cemetery near Meadville. The official death certificate cited a six-month case of epilepsy as the cause, even though epilepsy is not a killer disease. Crazy though such a diagnosis may seem, it is all we have to go by. Epilepsy is also not inherited, so whatever effect Addie's death had on her son was psychological rather than physical.

Many claims have been made that Clark Gable spent the rest of his life looking for a substitute mother. Whether his mind at the age of nine months was developed enough to be able to grieve or even to notice the disappearance of his mother is debatable, especially since a doting grandmother and an aunt were the dominant caretakers during Addie's final phase.

Will Gable left his son with the Hershelmans when he returned to Ohio after the funeral. No way could he take charge of the infant until he had made new living arrangements. Due to his fondness for the ladies, it seemed inevitable that he would marry again, but he apparently had no one specifically in mind. It took him well over a year to find her.

In the meantime "the Kid" was placed in the care of an uncle, Thomas Hershelman, and his wife, Elizabeth, who had no children of their own. Will gave them a hundred dollars as an advance against the baby's upkeep.

Clark's temporary guardians fell so in love with him that they wanted to adopt him. He adjusted easily to farm life. As soon as he could walk, he helped feed the chickens and gather eggs. He had a pet rabbit and chased squirrels in the woods. In later life he said that certain smells always made him homesick for the farm: tomato ketchup cooking, gingerbread baking, cocks crowing, crickets chirping.

In April 1903, two months after Clark's second birthday, Will Gable married thirty-three-year-old Jennie Dunlap of Hopedale, Ohio, an oil boomtown about seven miles northeast of Cadiz. They first met when Will rented a room in the Dunlap family's home on Church Street. Jennie ran a millinery shop and made many of the hats herself. Though not a beauty, she had great flair and was always stylishly dressed and coiffed.

Will Gable's second marriage was another odd coupling. What did a woman with such taste and talent see in a one-track-minded "oil monkey"? But Jennie's "career" proved to be only a substitute for what she really wanted from life: to be a wife and mother. Hopefully little Clark would be the start of a family that would eventually include children of her own.

The Gables decided to continue living in the Dunlap home until they could build their own house. Meanwhile Will placed a $150 deposit on two vacant lots on nearby Mill Street. Plans were drawn for a two-story, six-room house that he would construct himself, with help from Jennie's three brothers, who were coal miners. Needless to say, it became a part-time project as well as a lengthy one. It took five years to save the money for the house and another two years to build it.

When the time came for Will to retrieve his son from Pennsylvania, he encountered resistance from the Hershelmans, who'd made a sacred promise to Clark's mother that he'd be raised as a Catholic. Besides being a Methodist like Will, new wife Jennie also taught Sunday school! Will had to threaten legal action before the Hershelmans gave in. To keep peace in the family, he promised to send Clark for a long visit every summer.

"The best day of my life was the day I met my stepmother," he recalled many years later. "She was a wonderful woman, although I didn't realize it then. She was always looking out for what I needed. She must have loved me very much, because I was certainly not what you'd call well behaved. I was rather spoiled."

Some of the spoiling came from Jennie's brothers and sister. They'd all lived for years without a child in the household, then suddenly had one to lavish attention on. Clark never lacked for toys, but his favorite was a wooden stick pony. He tied it to the bedpost every night to make sure it didn't run away while he slept.

Clark grew up among attentive adults and became used to receiving rather than giving. In later years he always made it plain to those around him that he expected favoritism.

Although Jennie Gable longed to have children of her own, she never would, so she made Clark the center of her universe. She also may have been trying to compensate for Will Gable's neglect of his son, which was partly due to the demands of a job that kept him away from home for 90 percent of the time. But Will also had a stern nature: he wasn't the sort of father who could easily be a buddy to his son.

Friends and neighbors from Hopedale would later remember movie star Clark Gable as a very shy boy who always seemed to be smiling. "We all liked him," said Eunice Haverfield, "but he was not an unusual boy at all. Nobody expected him to go places in the world."

When he started first grade in the town's two-room schoolhouse, Clark loved the sing-alongs led by teacher Frances Thompson. Taller than the rest of the kids in the class, he also had the loudest voice, which landed him in the chorus for the Christmas entertainment. Stepmother Jennie could play the piano and started teaching him at home. She also sent him for brass instrument lessons when he expressed interest in joining Hopedale's town band.

Behind many a star has lurked a so-called stage mother, but it's doubtful that Jennie Gable had such dreams for Clark. For most Americans who lived outside metropolitan areas in the early 1900s, show business didn't exist, except in occasional visits from traveling circuses or tent shows that featured plays, vaudeville, and a new form of photography that actually moved when projected onto a screen. By encouraging Clark's musical talent, Jennie was just trying to cultivate him, to save him from ending up a grimy wildcatter like his father.

Jennie also taught him personal cleanliness. She dressed him in the finest clothes she could buy and kept him immaculately groomed. All of his life he was well dressed, and as a female admirer once quipped, "He was so clean that you could eat off him."

At age eight he decided he wanted to become a doctor. But that dream vanished when he fell madly and forever in love with the newfangled invention known as the automobile. "If some rich man who owned a car that fascinated me had hired me as his chauffeur, I think I would have been happy for the rest of my life, driving it and keeping it in shape," he said many years later.

Automobiles also improved Clark's relationship with his father. When Will Gable bought a Ford roadster for $175, he was able to commute to work every day and spend more time with the family. Very mechanically inclined, he taught Clark how to strip down engines and to put them back together again. Cars and gabbing about them became their main bond over the years.

In 1910 Will Gable finally finished his house-building project on Mill Street, and the family moved in. Clark got one of the three upstairs bedrooms for his own and could also use the empty one for play space until a sibling came along. As homeowners, the Gables became more respected in the community. Will Gable now served as Sunday school superintendent of the Hopedale Methodist Church.

In March 1913, a month after Clark's twelfth birthday, the entire state of Ohio suffered some of the most devastating floods in its history, with 430 people killed and property damage of $250 million. Luckily for the Gables, the western part of the state was hardest hit, but for a solid week the rains poured down and threatened to wash away their three-year-old home.

Clark's Catholic mother probably would have disapproved, but he had just joined the Methodist youth group, the Epworth League. The Hopedale chapter met every Sunday evening and also held frequent "socials" such as dances, sleigh rides, taffy pulls, and berry pickings.

A belle named Marjorie Miller was Clark's first girlfriend, if not sweetheart. "The only time that I became angry at him was over a kissing game," she remembered. "Whenever we played post office, he always insisted on being postmaster, because then he didn't have to kiss me or anybody else."

The future superstud was a slow starter. "I was just an awkward, overgrown boy who never quite knew what to do with his feet. I liked girls but I was afraid of them. I used to envy the guys who could walk up to them and laugh and talk without blushing and stammering," he once recalled.

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