Clark Gable was didn’t become a five-times-married “King of Hollywood” without stepping on a few “peasants.” As the foremost leading man of Golden Age Hollywood, Gable is best remembered for his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. To those close to him, he was much more complicated, ambitious, lustful…yet sometimes even brave or generous. Give a damn to these 42 controversial facts about Clark Gable.
1. Ladies’ Man at Birth
Born on February 1, 1901, in Cadiz, Ohio, “William Clark Gable” was mistakenly registered as a baby girl at birth. Few would make that mistake about manly-man Gable again.
2. One Big Unhappy Family
Just 10 months after his birth, Gable lost his mother to either a brain tumor or an epileptic fit. The young Gable would shuffle between his Protestant maternal family, his Catholic father, and a stepmother who would give the future actor is his early education in gentlemanly graces and music.
3. Dread to Read
Gable was a lifelong Shakespeare fan. As a young boy, he recited sonnets for fun. His dad even indulged him a 72-volume set of The World’s Greatest Literature, which was a bigger deal in those pre-Internet times. According to Gable’s father, unfortunately, his son was never seen actually reading it.
4. Cleanliness is Next to Handsomeness
Gable was something of a germaphobe. He never took a bath because the very idea of sitting around in your dirty water shook him to his core. The actor opted for several showers a day instead.
5. Keeping the Chemistry On-Screen Only
Gable couldn’t charm every lady in Hollywood. For one, Greta Garbo famously hated him as her co-star in 1931’s Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise). Garbo thought he was a bad actor, and Gable shot back that Garbo was a snob.
6. Not My Time…Yet
At age 17, Clark Gable saw a production of The Bird of Paradise, which first inspired him to become an actor. Of course, he didn’t actually take an honest stab at the stage right away. A handsome inheritance from his grandfather gave the Ohio boy the freedom he needed to give it a Hollywood try.
7. Sugar Mama
Gable owes his career to his first wife, Josephine Dillon. 17 years Gable’s senior, Dillon was a stage manager and acting coach who built up her young beau from nothing. Dillion nourished Gable, trained him in posture, body control, paid for his new teeth and hair, and even trained him to speak in a lower register—he had a naturally higher voice. They married in 1924 and moved to Hollywood to start Gable’s film career.
8. Love You Later
While still married to his first wife, Gable met his future third wife, Carole Lombard, on the set of the silent film The Johnstown Flood (1926). Lombard was only 17, an extra, and did not share any scenes with Gable.
9. Girls Love a Bad Boy
Unsurprisingly, Gable found early stage and sound film success by playing villains. His first role in a “talkie” was as an “unshaven” bad guy in The Painted Desert (1931).
10. Easy on the Eyes, Hard on the Heart
It Happened One Night (1943) truly launched Gable into stardom and won him his Best Actor Oscar. The film’s director Frank Capra liked Gable and the performance, but credited the success largely with his hard-to-like character’s resemblance to the real-life Gable: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable. He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people. He didn’t want to play those big lover parts; he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way he was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that.”
11. The Courtesan’s New Clothes
To advance his early career, Gable worked informally as a “stage gigolo.” Put simply, Gable had affairs with rich, older, and more famous women who could get him gigs. Notably, he had a two-year affair with the actress Pauline Frederick, who was 18 years older than him and who gave Gable a role in her revival of Madame X—also a better wardrobe.
12. Daddy’s Little Secret
Gable fathered a secret daughter in 1935. Said daughter, Judy Lewis, was conceived with Gable’s co-star in The Call of the Wild, Loretta Young. Although rumors about her paternity were present through her whole life (Lewis inherited Gable’s prominent ears), Lewis believed she was adopted by Young and only learned of her paternity five years after her father’s death.
13. From Pal to Predator
Loretta Young had good reason to hide the truth of her daughter’s paternity. After the death of both Young and her daughter Judy Lewis, their family revealed that Lewis was a product of rape committed by Gable against Young. In 1998, Young allegedly told her daughter-in-law that Gable had forced himself upon her mother, resulting in her conception. Lewis never told anyone else, for fear of damaging not only her own career but that of Gable, who she thought of as her friend.
15. Opposite Impressions Attract
Gable reacquainted himself with the “love of his life” in 1936. Gable was still married, but he found her youth and frankness charming. He once said of Lombard, “You can trust that little screwball with your life or your hopes or your weaknesses, and she wouldn’t even know how to think about letting you down.” In contrast, Lombard once said of Gable: “I love Pappy, even though he’s not the greatest lay.”
16. Big Enough to Float Away
Gone with the Wind helped Gable marry the love of his life. The film’s huge success launched him into Hollywood royalty and enriched him enough to afford to divorce his second wife, Rhea Langham.
17. Better Early Than Never
In March 1939, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard got married during a production break for Gone with the Wind. His divorce from Rhea Langham would not be finalized for another three weeks.
18. It Pays Not to Read
It’s been alleged Carole Lombard was the first to suggest that Clark Gable play the lead role in Gone with the Wind. She bought her fiancé a copy of the original novel. Gable refused to read it, but he took the role of Rhett Butler nonetheless.
19. Too Handsome to Hate
Despite his problematic private life, Gable got along swimmingly with all of his Gone with the Wind co-stars. He was especially close to Hattie McDaniel, slipping her a real alcoholic drink in a scene when the characters are celebrating the birth of his child. Their friendship went beyond drinks: Gable regularly stood up for McDaniel when she faced old Hollywood racism. He was reportedly infuriated to learn the onset facilities were racially segregated. Gable demanded the bathrooms be integrated, or else the movie would lose its leading man. Likewise, McDaniel missed out on the movie’s premiere because she was allowed as an African American woman. Gable almost boycotted the event until McDaniel begged him not to stay home on her behalf.
20. Even Love Looks Elsewhere
Despite his lifelong favor of third wife Carole Lombard, Gable just couldn’t stay faithful to one woman. In 1942, he began cheating on Lombard with his Somewhere I’ll Find You co-star, Lana Turner.
21. Hard to Get a Read
Clark Gable was dyslexic. This impairment was not publicized for most of his life, but it might explain why he was reluctant to read Gone with the Wind.
22. Hit the Books. Or Not.
Gable did not like to be photographed reading while on film sets. Why? He felt being caught would books would be emasculating for his image.
23. Close Call
Gable was eager to fight in World War II, but MGM Studios was less than enthusiastic about risking the life of their chief movie star. During a raid in Germany, a stray bullet pierced through Gable’s shoe and narrowly missed his head. When MGM caught wind of this brush with off-screen death, the studio began to hound the US Army to reassign their most beloved star to less intense duty.
24. The Fan from Hell
Adolf Hitler was a big Gable fan. The dictator even offered a reward for anybody who could capture the enlisted Clark Gable and deliver him to German custody without harm.
25. Go with the Gold
Gable infamously gave his Best Actor Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934) to a random child. The kid thought the statue was pretty. Gable was more concerned with the honor than the actual statue, so he donated his award to the tyke. The Oscar would not return to Gable’s family until after his death.
26. Nothing Between Us
Gable is at the center of am urban legend about men’s undershirts, destroyed markets, and naked scandal. In It Happened One Night (1934), Gabe’s character takes off his shirt to reveal…nothing! To not wear an undershirt in this time was shocking. In theory, this popularized the “bare under there” look, which killed demand for the once-reliable undershirt market. Of course, this story is unverified, but it reflects how influential Gable was perceived in Hollywood.
27. Starlets with Benefits
Gable was lifelong friends Joan Crawford. They worked together on many movies, but the two were sometimes more than friends and colleagues. When Crawford divorced her third husband in 1946, Gable stepped in to keep her “company.” They even lived together for a time, as good friends with benefits do.
28. My Fair Lady
Gable’s fourth and most disastrous marriage was to British model and socialite, Sylvia, Lady Ashley. They married in 1949 after a whirlwind courtship, where Gable called her a “wildcat in the sack.” Unfortunately, he found this cat to be less cuddly in their domestic life. Ashley’s spending and parties began to wear down on him. They divorced just three years later in 1953.
29. Supporting Lady in Chief
In 1948, Gable was alleged to have proposed marriage to actress Nancy Davis. In any case, they never made it to the wedding aisle: Davis was destined instead for the White House. Nancy Davis would go on to marry President Ronald Reagan and become First Lady of the United States.
30. Lights, Camera, Let’s See Other People
In 1953, Gable conducted another high-profile affair with another Hollywood legend, Grace Kelly. Unfortunately, the relationship wrapped up as soon as filming for their movie Mogambo did.
31. Home Sweet Home
In 1955, the aging Gable made his fifth and final marriage to sugar-refining heiress Kathleen Williams. By all accounts, Gable delighted to play stepfather to Williams’s children, and his famous wandering eye began to settle down.
32. The Next Generation
Despite his five marriages by 1960, Gable had failed to produce any (acknowledged) children with his wives or girlfriends. This changed that year when his wife became pregnant. Unfortunately, their impending domestic bliss was not to be.
33. Take a Bow
Gable’s widow was six months pregnant with his only legitimate child when the actor passed away suddenly on November 16, 1960. Gable was filming The Misfits alongside Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Cliff. Production had wrapped just four days ago when that life of drinking and smoking came with a vengeance. He was 59 years old and would never meet his son.
34. Save Our Final Date
As requested, Clark Gable was buried next to his third and favorite wife, Carole Lombard, in the Great Mausoleum at Glendale’s Forrest Lawn Memorial Park. Over 200 people attended his funeral.
35. Postpartum Gift
Just three months after his death, Gable’s widow gave birth to his only legitimate child, John Clark Gable. The baby was born in the same hospital his father had passed away in just months earlier.
36. Long Live the King
In life, Gable was known as the “King of Hollywood.” The title went to the grave with him. Many think “Golden Age Hollywood” died with Gable too.
37. What’s Less Manly Than Love?
While Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind became Gable’s most famous role, it was hard to get the actor into it. For one, he really didn’t want to do it, calling the movie a “woman’s picture.” He felt doing a Southern accent and romance scenes would damage his macho reputation.
38. Stick to the Curtains
Another critic of Gable’s “talent” was stage legend Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore initially lambasted Gable for “amateur” performances. Somehow, they Barrymore and Gable became lifelong friends, with Barrymore eventually encouraging Gable to keep trying for an on-stage career.
39. Trading Up
If you asked Gable, he never consummated his first marriage to his manager Josephine Dillon. They divorced in 1930, and just days later he married the socialite Maria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham, or “Rhea” to her friends. Gable was upfront to Dillon about the cause for their break-up: he wanted to be successful in Hollywood, not just the stage, and he needed a richer woman to get him there.
40. A Breath of Fresh Aaugh!
By the time he was 32, Gable sported a full mouth of fake teeth. Thanks to a 1933 gum infection, the actor had to get nearly all of his teeth replaced. Bad breath was a side-effect. Even his co-star in Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh, couldn’t ignore his bad case of halitosis and frequently complained about the unhandsome stench.
41. One-Way Ticket to Widowhood
In 1942, Gable tragically lost his third wife Carole Lombard to a plane crash…which may have been tied to his infidelities. Lombard was away in Indiana raising war bonds for World War II; Gable was elsewhere shooting a movie—and reportedly engaging in an extramarital affair with his co-star. Rumors reached Lombard, who immediately scheduled a flight back home. The plane crashed into Potosi Mountain, killing everybody aboard.
42. Rhett Gets Ready for War
Gable was emotionally destroyed by the loss of Carole Lombard. After claiming her body, the actor retreated into their once-shared ranch and fell into binge drinking. A sobering up, Gable enlisted himself in World War II, either in apology or as a death wish, depending on who you asked.