Clark Gable had roles in over 60 films during his 37-year career in Hollywood, playing the leading man in most of them. He was often referred to as “The King of Hollywood”. In this video, we’re going to look at his tragic death as well as those of two of his wives. Be sure to watch to the end to learn how Gable’s image lives on in popular culture. And don’t forget to click like and subscribe to the Facts Verse channel below so you don’t miss any of our upcoming videos.
Clark Gable was born on February 1, 1901 in Cadiz, Ohio. His father, William Gable, was an oil field worker and his mother, Adeline Hershelman, a farm girl. Tragically, his mother died when he was only a year old. His father remarried when Gable was 4, marrying Jennie Dunlap. The family then moved around Ohio until his father took up farming.
Young Clark Gable got his first job in a Dayton rubber factory when he was only 15 years old. It was while he was working there that he saw his first play. He was immediately stagestruck and gave up his night schooling to become a doctor so he could get a job as a call boy in the theater, where he earned no salary whatsoever. He slept in the wings and lived off of whatever money the actors tipped him.
He was doing walk-on parts when he was called home because his stepmother was dying. After her death, Gable joined his father in the Oklahoma oil fields for work. After two years there, he left to take a job with a stock company theater. He bounced around between jobs for a while until traveling to Hollywood to start a film career in 1924. From 1924 to 1926, he appeared as an extra in several silent films. From there, he progressed to supporting roles for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios and he landed his first leading role in Dance, Fools, Dance in 1931. That first role was alongside Joan Crawford, who had requested him for the part.
His next role in the romantic drama Red Dust in 1932 was alongside the reigning sex symbol of the time, Jean Harlow. That movie cemented him as MGM’s biggest male star. Gable went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1934 for Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. He was nominated for the award twice more, for his role as Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty and as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.
He found continued success throughout the 1930s, until he joined the armed forces as an aerial cameraman and bomber gunner in World War II. He enlisted as a private in the Army a few months after the United States entered World War II, at the age of 41. He later entered the Army Officer’s candidate school at Miami Beach, where he emerged a second lieutenant in 1942 and won his wings as an aerial gunner. He ended up going overseas and was awarded the Air Force Air Medal for exceptionally meritorious achievement in five combat missions.
Under the watchful eye of his first wife Josephine Dillon, who ran an acting clinic in Hollywood to help actors prepare for the big screen, Gable acquired the acting chops that helped shoot him to stardom. He divorced Miss Dillon in 1930, later marrying Rita Langham in 1931. Their marriage only lasted a few years, ending when they separated in 1935 and finally divorced in 1939.
After his second marriage ended, Gable married Carole Lombard. They were married in Kingman, Arizona, in 1939. After the ceremony, the couple drove back to Los Angeles to get back to work. The pair both had a lusty sense of humor and quickly became legends in Hollywood circles. Lombard was killed in a plane crash shortly after the start of World War II, which we’ll get to in more detail shortly.
Gable was single for several years after Lombard’s death, until he married Douglas Fairbanks’ widow, Lady Sylvia Ashley, in 1949. His fourth marriage also only lasted a few years, until Ashley divorced him in 1952. After another couple of years of bachelorhood, Gable married his fifth wife, Kay Williams Spreckles, in 1955. She was several years younger, at 37 compared to Gable’s 54. The two stayed married until Gable’s death in 1960.
Clark Gable’s film career included many well-known pictures in addition to the ones we’ve already mentioned. Some of the most famous include Hell Divers, Strange Interlude, Call of the Wild, The Hucksters, Command Decision, and Too Hot to Handle.
His film catalog doesn’t only include Hollywood blockbusters though. When he returned to the United States from overseas in 1943, he helped assemble the film Combat America for the Air Force. The film was originally intended to be a recruiting film for aerial gunners but ended up being a documentary about air combat over occupied Europe since the need for gunners had already lessened.
Gable was promoted to the rank of major in June 1944. He hoped for another combat assignment but by this time, he had been placed on inactive duty and on June 12, 1944, his discharge papers were signed. Interestingly, those papers were signed by Captain Ronald Reagan, who would later become President of the United States. Because Gable’s film schedule made it impossible for him to fulfill the duties of a reserve officer, he resigned his commission on September 26, 1947 — a week after the Air Force became an independent service branch.
Apparently Adolf Hitler favored Gable over all other Hollywood actors. During the war, he offered a large reward to anyone who could capture Gable and bring him to Berlin unharmed. Fortunately, that reward was never collected.
After returning to civilian life, Gable became known as a loner. Many of his movie roles were rugged, he-man types but in real life, the actor was a shy man who got nervous in crowds. His on-screen characters made women swoon long before the days of Elvis and the Beatles. Gable once said he had received over 5,000 marriage proposals in the mail.
Gable was hospitalized on November 6, 1960 after being stricken with a heart attack. He appeared to be doing fine but on November 16, Gable put his head back on his pillow and died on the spot. Doctors assumed it was another heart attack that ended up taking his life.
Gable’s third wife, Carole Lombard, was Hollywood’s first casualty of war. When the United States was polarized about entering World War II, Lombard had been an outspoken supporter of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She was one of the first to volunteer to help the war effort and U.S. Treasury officials put the star to work selling war bonds to help finance the enormous cost of the military and industrial response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On January 15, Lombard kicked off the country’s first bond drive at a rally in Indianapolis. Being a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the location was personal for Lombard. The Treasury Department’s goal was to sell $500,000 worth of war bonds and stamps. Lombard’s energetic pitch ended up generating more than $2 million. After the event, Will Hays, the president of Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, sent a wire to Gable, saying “Great day here today. Carole was perfect.” The wire went on to say she had sold $2,017,513 worth of bonds and to express Hays’ personal appreciation.
Lombard, along with several others, boarded a commercial TWA flight around 4am on January 16. The flight stopped in Albuquerque, where four passengers disembarked to make room for 15 Army Air Corp aviators and enlisted men. The flight stopped again in Las Vegas and shortly after getting airborne after that stop, it hit the high peak of Nevada’s Mt. Potosi, about 50 miles southwest of Las Vegas.
The wreckage spread for miles and was hard to reach in the middle of winter. The damage made it difficult to identify the bodies of the 22 victims of the crash. Gable had been waiting for his wife at the Burbank airport and he chartered a plane and headed to the scene as soon as he heard. Lombard was only 33 years old when she died tragically in the plane crash.
Kay Williams, Gable’s fifth wife, was pregnant with his first child when he died in November, 1960. Their son was born several months after Gable’s death and only knew his father from what he saw on screen. Williams raised him alone but was active in the Hollywood community, working with various charities and fundraising organizations. She also helped with Ronald Reagan’s first campaign for Governor of California.
In May, 1967, Kay suffered a mild heart attack, the first of a number of heart problems that would plague her for many years. She continued to promote Gable’s legacy throughout the 1970s and even planned on writing a book about his life. While the book ended up being published, it was without Williams’ authorization. The book, Gable and Lombard, was also made into a movie, which must have been difficult for Kay given it was about the actor’s relationship with one of his earlier wives.
After suffering from heart problems for a number of years, Kay was admitted to a Houston hospital to undergo cardiac tests. While she was there, she succumbed to her recurring heart problems on May 25, 1983.
While Clark Gable has been gone for over 60 years, his image continues to live on in popular culture. According to his creators, Bugs Bunny’s nonchalant carrot-chewing standing position was inspired by one of Gable’s scenes in It Happened One Night. And along with Kent Taylor, Clark Gable was the inspiration behind the name of Superman’s alter-ego Clark Kent.