Excerpt: “Clark Gable” by Warren G. Harris

It was on this day, June 27th 1939, that Clark Gable uttered the (in)famous parting words in Gone With the Wind: "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn." At the time, the American motion picture industry was hampered by the Hayes Code, a form of censorship that slapped the wrists of any movie brave enough to curse or be sexually suggestive. Even though Gable's words are modest to the modern ear (compared to the toilet-trained lines of screenplay writers today), it earned the director a $5,000 fine, and simultaneously reinforced the image of Clark Gable the rebellious heartthrob. Still, even without the controversy, he was a class act and a Hollywood star, premiering in the history-making It Happened One Night, the first film ever to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay). In "Clark Gable," Warren G. Harris lays out Gable's life in full detail, and he soaks you in the spotlight with one of America's greatest actors. 


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.