Robert Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable, shown here on the golf course, all had something in common in the late 1930s: None were married to the person they loved most.
Gable, of course, was passionate for Carole Lombard, but in 1938, he was still legally married to someone else and thus caught in a bind. Taylor and Stanwyck had no legal hurdles to overcome, and for all intents and purposes they were married. Robert and Barbara were neighbors in the Valley and spent a lot of time together -- both privately and publicly. Other than that they didn't expressly cohabit, their unmarried relationship was somewhat similar to one involving two stars of more recent times, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell:
But in December 1938, the relationships between Taylor and Stanwyck, Gable and Lombard, and several other celebrity couples came under more intense public scrutiny than ever before. That's because Photoplay, whose stories had become progressively tamer as the 1930s went on, struck back with a vengeance in its January 1939 issue with a story written by one Kirtley Baskette. "Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands And Wives" discussed the closeness of these couples...and while it didn't come out and say they were doing more than just having fun together, the inference was obvious.
The movie industry reacted nervously. A Hays office representative told Time magazine, "The article is pretty bad. The title is even worse. ... I don't know what we'll do about it but we'll certainly take some action." What action was done? Probably little more than a slap on the wrist. Photoplay was still a hugely popular magazine, and the film industry, long mindful of the power of press lords such as William Randolph Hearst, were always careful in picking their fights.
The writer, Kirtley Baskette, certainly wasn't blacklisted; he continued as a Hollywood writer well into the 1960s. (He interviewed Walter Matthau for a magazine article in 1968.) Not long before this article, in the November 1938 Movie Mirror, he had written a piece on Lombard's week of handling publicity at Selznick-International.
This is arguably the most famous article ever printed in Photoplay, and here it is online in its entirety:
Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands And Wives
“Just friends” to the world at large – yet nowhere has domesticity taken on so unique a character as in this unconventional fold
By Kirtley Baskette
Every afternoon, for the past three years, a little meat market on Larchmont Avenue, near Paramount studios in Hollywood, has received a telephone call from a woman ordering a choice New York cut steak.
Sometimes she orders it sent to the Brown Derby, sometimes to an apartment penthouse on Rossmore Street, sometimes to the studio.
Wherever George Raft happens to be dining.
The woman who sees that George Raft has his favorite evening meal, no matter where he may be, is Virginia Pine. She is not George’s wife, although there’s little doubt that she would be if George’s long-estranged wife would give him a divorce.
Carole Lombard is not Clark Gable’s wife, either. Still she has remodeled her whole Hollywood life for him. She calls him “Pappy,” goes hunting with him, copies his hobbies, makes his interests dominate hers.
Barbara Stanwyck is not Mrs. Robert Taylor. But she and Bob have built ranch homes next to each other. Regularly, once a week, they visit Bob’s mother, Mrs. Brugh, for dinner. Regularly, once a week, too, Barbara freezes homemade ice cream for Bob from a recipe his mother gave her.
Nowhere has domesticity, outside the marital state, reached such a full flower as in Hollywood. Nowhere are there so many unmarried husbands and wives.
To the outside world Clark Gable and Carole Lombard might as well be married. So might Bob Taylor and Barbara. Or George Raft and Virginia Pine, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. Unwed couples they might be termed. But they go everywhere together; do everything in pairs. No hostess would think of inviting them separately, or pairing them with another. They solve one another’s problems, handle each other’s business affairs.
They build houses near each other, buy land in bunches, take up each other’s hobbies, father or mother each other’s children -– even correct each other’s clothes -– each other’s personalities. Yet, to the world, their official status is “just friends.” No more.
Yet George Raft, a one-woman man if there ever was one, is as true to Virginia Pine as a model husband would be. He has been, for three years. He has just bought her an expensive home in Beverly Hills. Recently, when they had a slight tiff, George took out some other girls, but was plainly so torch-burdened he could hardly stand it. He has never seriously looked at anyone else. Nor has Virginia.
Consider the results – strictly out of wedlock.
Before they met and fell in love, George was the easiest “touch” in Hollywood. He made big and easy money and just so easily did it slip through his fingers and into the outstretched palms of his myriad down-and-out friends. George, who came up the hard way, still has a heart as big as a casaba melon and as soft inside. But he is more careful with his money now. He invests it -– and well.
Before he met Virginia, George’s civic interests ventured little further than Hollywood and Vine, the fights, and a few of the hotter night spots. Now, George Raft has his finger in a dozen Los Angeles business ventures and community interests. He is a solid citizen.
Before George and Virgnia teamed up as a tight little twosome, George gloried in flashy, handsomely-cut clothes. His suits, always immaculately knife-edge creased, had trousers with the highest waistlines in town. His coats were tight across the shoulders, narrowed expertly at the waist. His shoes were narrow, pointed and Cuban-heeled. He was Mister Broadway.
Virginia talked him into seeing Watson, one of Hollywood’s most exclusive tailors. What’s more, she talked him out of the theatrical clothes and into a more conservative taste.
All this is called “settling down.” It usually happens to people after they’ve been married. Only George and Virginia still aren’t married. He lives at the El Royale Apartments and Virginia lives in another building up the street. They just go together. But she orders his meals. And he spoils her little girl to death.
No real father could be more infatuated than George with Virginia’s five-year-old daughter, Joan. Nor would you call George the perfect picture of a family man, either. He has already paid up an insurance policy that will guarantee Joan a nice little stake when she is ready for college. He seems to lie awake nights planning something new and delightful to surprise her with whenever he sees Virginia, and that’s usually all the time.
One of the stories the salesgirls still tell down at Bullock’s-Wilshire, Los Angeles’ swankiest store, is about the day Virginia Pine and little Joan came into the shop. Joan spied something she wanted right then. But Virginia, wishing to impress upon her daughter that a person isn’t always able to have what he or she likes in this world, said, “But, Joan, you can’t have that. You haven’t the money to pay for it.”
“Oh, that’s all right,” stated Joan in a loud, clear voice. “Just charge it to George Raft!”
When Bob Taylor docked in New York from England and “A Yank At Oxford,” he waited around a couple of hours for a load of stuff he had bought over there to clear customs. Most of it was for – not Bob – but Barbara Stanwyck and her little son, Dion.
They’ve been practically a family since Bob bought his ranch estate in Northridge and built a house there.
Northridge, itself, is an interesting manifestation of how Hollywood’s untied twosomes buy and build together. It lies in a far corner of the San Fernando Valley, fairly remote from Hollywood, all of fifteen miles from Bob’s studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. No coincidence can possibly explain his choosing that site, pleasant and open though it is, right beside Barbara Stanwyck’s place.
Barbara was there first. With the Zeppo Marxes, she established Marwyck Ranch to breed thoroughbred horses. She built a handsome ranch house and moved on. Bob Taylor had never been especially interested in either ranch life or horses until he started going with Barbara. But witness how quickly their interests -– deep and expensive, permanent interests -– merged after they slipped into the unique Hollywood habit. Marriage couldn’t have worked more of a change.
Bob bought the acres next to Barbara’s ranch. He started putting up a ranch house within a good stone’s throw of hers. He bought horses. He spent every minute of his spare time working on the place. Overnight, he turned into a country squire. When, in the middle of it all, he was called to England, the work never stopped. Barbara supervised it. While Bob was away she ordered the things she knew he wanted. She oversaw the decoration and furnishing of the place. It was all ready when Bob came home.
Bob’s house and Barbara’s house stand now on adjoining knolls. The occupants ride together and work together and play there together in their time off. Bob trained and worked out for “The Crowd Roars” at Barbara’s ranch. Almost every evening, after work at the studio or on the ranch, he runs over for a plunge in her pool.
If it isn’t fight night –- they’ve long had permanent seats together at the Hollywood Legion Stadium –- or if they’re not asked to a party -– they’re always invited together, just like man and wife -– they spend a quiet evening together at either one or the other’s place.
Or if Bob has a preview of his picture, Barbara goes with him to tell him what she thinks of it, and vice versa. Bob saw “Stella Dallas” four times. Once he caught it in London and bawled so copiously that when he came out and a kid asked him for his autograph, he couldn’t see to sign it! But he was a long way away from Barbara then.
When he’s home, he’s a little more critical. But never of Barbara’s ice cream. Bob has never forgotten his Nebraska boyhood ecstasy licking the dasher of an ice cream freezer. That’s why Barbara whips him up a bucketful every week, before they roll off to see the folks.
All in all, it’s an almost perfect domestic picture. But no wedding rings in sight!
Even gifts and expressions of sentiment take on the practical, utilitarian aspect of old married folks’ remembrances when these Hollywood single couples come across. Just as Dad gives Mother an electric icebox for Christmas and she retaliates with a radio. Bob Taylor presents Barbara Stanwyck with a tennis court on her birthday, with Barbara giving Bob a two-horse auto trailer for his!
The gifts Carole Lombard and Clark Gable have exchanged are unorthodox. Whoever heard of a woman in love with a man giving him a gun for Christmas! Or a man, crazy about one of the most glamorous, sophisticated and clever women in the land, hanging a gasoline scooter on her Christmas tree!
For Clark, Carole stopped, almost overnight, being a Hollywood playgirl. People are expected to change when they get married. The necessary adaptation to a new life and another personality shows up in every bride and groom. All Clark and Carole did was strike up a Hollywood twosome. Nobody said "I do!"
Clark Gable doesn't like night spots, or parties, social chit-chat, or the frothy pretensions of society. He has endured plenty of it, but it makes him fidget.
Carole, quite frankly, used to eat it up. She hosted the most charming and clever parties in town. She knew everybody, went everywhere. When the ultra exclusive and late lamented Mayfair Club held its annual ball, Carole was picked to run things. It was Carole who decreed the now famous "White Mayfair" that Norma Shearer crossed up so wickedly by coming in flaming scarlet -- an idea you later saw dramatized by Bette Davis in "Jezebel."
These things were the caviar and cocktails of Carole Lombard's life -- before she started going with Gable. But look what happened --
Clark didn't like it, Carole found out -- quickly. What did he like? Well, outside of hunting in wild country white men seldom entered, and white women never, he liked to shoot skeet. Shooting skeet, of course, is an intricate scoring game worked out on the principle of trapshooting. It involves banging away at crazily projected clay pigeons with a shotgun.
Carole learned to shoot skeet -- not only learned it but, with the intense proficiency with which she attacks anything, rapidly became one of the best women skeet shooters in the country!
Gable likes to ride, so Carole got herself a horse and unpacked her riding things.
He liked tennis, so she resurrected her always good court game, taking lessons from Alice Marble, her good friend and the present national women's champion. Playing with a man, Carole had to get good and she did -- so good that now Clark can't win a set!
It goes on like that. Clark, tiring of hotel life, moved out to a ranch in the San Fernando Valley. What did Lombard do? She bought a Valley ranch!
Carole has practically abandoned all her Hollywood social contacts. She doesn't keep up with the girls in gossip as she used to. She doesn't throw parties that hit the headlines and the picture magazines. She and Clark are all wrapped up in each other's interests. While Gable did all the night work in "Too Hot To Handle," Carole, though working, too, was on his set every night. She caught the sneak preview with him and told him with all the candor of the little woman, "It's hokum, Pappy -- but the most excellent hokum!"
Like any good spouse might do, Carole has ways and means of chastening Clark, too. When she's mad at him she wears a hat he particularly despises. Carole calls it her "hate hat."
Their fun now, around the town, is almost entirely trips, football games, fights and shows. Their stepping-out nights usually end up at the home of Director Walter Lang and his new wife, Madalynne Fields, "Fieldsie," Carole's bosom pal and long-time secretary. They sit and play games!
Yes, Carole Lombard is a changed woman since she tied up with Clark Gable.
But her name is still Carole Lombard.
The altar record, in fact, among Hollywood's popular twosomes is surprisingly slim.
Usually something formidable stands in the way of a marriage certificate when Hollywood stars pair up minus a preacher.
In Clark and Carole's case, of course, there is a very sound legal barrier. Clark is still officially a married man. Every now and then negotiations for a divorce are started, but until something happens in court, Ria Gable is still the only wife the law of this land allows Clark Gable.
George Raft can’t marry Virginia Pine for the very same good reason; he has a wife. Every effort he has made for his freedom has failed.
Some of them, like Constance Bennett and Gilbert Roland, go in a perfect design for living, apparently headed for perpetual fun with each other. Connie maintains one of the most luxurious setups of them all, with a titled husband in Europe and Gilbert Roland her devoted slave in Hollywood. Years have passed and the arrangement seems to please everybody as much now as it did at the start. Why should it ever break up?
On the other hand, the unmarried partners sometimes get a divorce -– or at least a separation, a recess, a moratorium – whatever you care to call it. Calling the case of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard requires more than a bunch of handy nouns.
No one has ever been able to yet to say definitely whether the gray-haired Charlie and his young, vivacious Paulette were ever married. Such things as public records exist for just such purposes, of course, but in spite of the fact that none can be unearthed, a strong belief hovers around Hollywood that Charlie and Paulette did actually take the vows, some say on his yacht out at sea.
But when, a few months back, Charlie was seen more and more in the company of other young ladies and Paulette began stepping out with other men, an unusually awkward contretemps was brewed. What was it? The breaking up of a love affair? Or the separation of a marriage? If a divorce was to be had, there had to have been a marriage. But was there? Charlie wouldn’t talk; neither would Paulette. Hollywood relapsed into a quandary. It’s still there as concerns the Chaplin-Goddard unmarried marriage. Meanwhile, both Charlie and Paulette seem to be having a good time with whomever they fancy. But the interesting thing is that Paulette still entertains her guests, when she wishes, on Charlie Chaplin’s yacht. So maybe she has an interest in it that a mere separation couldn’t efface.
The most tragic, as well as perhaps the most tender match of them all gave way to an irresistible rival wooer, Death. At the time of Jean Harlow’s untimely passing, she and William Powell had reached an understanding that excluded any one else from either’s thoughts. Both had fought for happiness in Hollywood without finding it, until they found each other. Then Death stole Jean away and Bill has never recovered from the effect of that stunning blow.
There was only Jean Harlow’s family, her doctor and William Powell in her hospital room the night she lost her fight for life. Jean died in Bill’s arms.
In every way since, he has acted as a son-in-law to Jean’s mother. He bought the crypt where Jean lies today and arranged for perpetual flowers. This year, on the anniversary of her passing, Bill Powell and Mrs. Bello, Jean’s mother, went alone to visit Jean’s resting place. He sent Mrs. Bello on a trip to Bermuda last winter to recover from the severe grief she has suffered since Jean’s death. She visited Bill regularly during his recent spell in the hospital. Both have one regret -– that Bill and Jean never got to be man and wife.
And that, it seems, would point a lesson to the unique coterie of Hollywood’s unwed couples -– Bob Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, who could get married if they really wanted to; George Raft and Virginia Pine, Carole Lombard and Clark Gable and the other steady company couples who might swing it if they tried a little harder. You can’t take your happiness with you.
For nobody, not even Hollywood’s miracle men, has ever improved on the good old-fashioned, satisfying institution of holy matrimony. And, until something better comes along, the best way to hunt happiness when you’re in love in Hollywood or anywhere else -– is with a preacher, a marriage license and a bagful of rice.
Not long after this article ran, Clark Gable won his freedom. Here's how Time noted the news in its March 20, 1939 issue: "Divorced. Clark Gable, 38, all-round cinema heman; by his second wife, Maria ('Rhea') Langham Gable, 48, Texas oil heiress; in Las Vegas, Nev. Grounds: desertion. Said Cinemactress Carole Lombard, whose friendship with Gable was publicized in a fan-magazine article on 'Hollywood's Unmarried Husbands and Wives' (TIME, Dec. 19): 'When he gets a few days off and I am not busy perhaps we will sneak away and have the ceremony performed.' " ("Cinemactress"? Ah, the glories of Time-speak.)
And before the month was out...
Taylor and Stanwyck followed suit in May.