It was 50 years ago Tuesday that Clark Gable, second husband of Carole Lombard, left us at age 59. His passing came late in the day -- 11 p.m. (Pacific) -- and here's how it was covered the following afternoon in the old Los Angeles Mirror, the evening paper of the Los Angeles Times:
The lead few paragraphs, from staff writer Lee Belser, are as follows:
"Clark Gable, undisputed king of Hollywood for 30 years, is dead.
"The handsome 59-year-old actor raised himself up in bed, gasped once, fell back on his pillow and died without a word at 11 p.m. Wednesday in Room 209 at Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital.
"His fifth wife, Kay, who is expecting their first child in March, was summoned from Room 211, where she had been sleeping, but by the time she reached her husband's side he was dead.
"Death came just 10 days after he was stricken with his first heart attack in the Encino ranch home where he had lived for 23 years, and four months before the expected birth of his first baby.
"The cause of Gable's death was officially listed as coronary thrombosis by his physician, Dr. Fred Cerini, who reached the actor's side minutes after the attack but was unable to revive him.
"Gable's body was taken almost immediately to the Cunningham & O'Connor [Mortuary]..."
Of course, Gable had only resided on the ranch since 1939, a total of 21 years. And the note about "the expected birth of his first baby" must have brought a wry smile to Loretta Young, whose child secretly fathered by Gable, Judy Lewis, had celebrated her 25th birthday on Nov. 6 -- the day Clark suffered his heart attack and two days after he had completed work on "The Misfits" with Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
Here's another story from the Mirror that day:
There was some sloppy copy editing there, referring to Lombard as Gable's second wife, although a few graphs later, Maria Langham is correctly labeled as wife number two. The arrangement of earlier paragraphs made it look as if Clark's decision to join the armed forces came on his own and had nothing to do with Carole's death. Perhaps the person who wrote the copy was still a child at the time of Pearl Harbor.
However, Gable was correct in prophesying that his upcoming child would be his son -- although, sadly, he never got the chance to see him arrive.
Just before finishing work on "The Misfits," Clark told reporters, "When I wind up this picture I'm taking off until the baby is born. Isn't that something -- and me 59 years old. But then I always was a late starter.
"This is a dividend that has come to me late in life. I want to be there when I happens, and I want to be there a good many months afterward...This is my 90th picture and it's been a tough one. I'm not doing any more for a long while, I want to enjoy my son."
Gable and James Cagney arguably redefined the male film role in the early 1930s, although Clark probably would have admitted he was nowhere as versatile as Cagney (or his close friend Spencer Tracy). However, at MGM, Gable didn't need to be; he was shaped as a star more than an actor, and his charm won him both men's admiration and women's desire. But it should be noted that Clark gradually changed his persona from the brute of the early 1930s (typified by his work in films such as "A Free Soul" and "Night Nurse") into the suave, devil-may-care Gable that made him a box-office champion (and MGM's meal ticket) during the middle and late 1930s. Even late in his career, he still had the magnetism; check out his chemistry with Doris Day in 1958's "Teacher's Pet" for proof.
Say what you will about Gable's relationship with Lombard, but there can be no doubt that he was an integral part of her life (even if it too often is reduced into his reflection, which isn't fair to either of them). His final wife, Kay, understood that, was never threatened by Carole's ghost (unlike his fourth wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, who to Clark's disdain tried to erase all aspects of Lombard at the Encino ranch), and thus carried out his wishes by putting his crypt next to Carole's at Forest Lawn. (Kay would be buried in a nearby vault.)