Issue: Vol. 44 / No. 16 / 17 Apr
Gable and willing
Hollywood icon's bisexuality thoroughly vetted
First Published 02/12/2009
by Jim Provenzano
Clark Gable: Tormented Star by David Bret; Da Capo Press, $16.Any movie fan worth their Gay Card knows the famous tidbit about George Cukor being fired from directing Gone With the Wind because he was gay and Clark Gable was antigay. But that's hardly the full picture, not by a two-shot. With Clark Gable: Tormented Star, David Bret, author of numerous celebrity biographies (Rock Hudson, Joan Crawford), weaves encyclopedic research about nearly all the films in which Gable starred, or even had a bit part, and the surprisingly difficult life he led.
Written in a brisk tone that's only occasionally slowed by his overly descriptive plot summaries, Bret delves into the private life of the archetypal "King of Hollywood," from his jug ears, dental problems and other ailments, to his myriad affairs with wealthy women, fellow stars Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard, and several men.
Yes, folks, Clark Gable had sex with several men, which is the point of Bret's book, to posthumously out Gable as bisexual. Bret endeavors not only to name names, but find locations and dates of many of Gable's affairs.
Moving from his tough, working-class background in small towns like Akron, Ohio, and Meadville, Pennsylvania, including his mother's death shortly after his birth, and difficult jobs as a lumberjack, Bret details Gable's desire to leave his angry, hateful father, and his travel to Kansas City, then Portland, where he joined up with a roving acting troupe. It's on that route that Bret finds Gable's first possible homosexual relationship, with actor Earle Larimore.
To build on his suspicions, Bret notes how through his career, Gable "dated" or is said to have had relationships with the likes of Josephine Dillon, "a woman of ambiguous sexuality." She also served as his first Svengali of sorts, cleaning Gable up and presenting him to Hollywood agents in the early 1920s. Although Gable and Dillon were married shortly after their arrival in Hollywood, Bret frames it as a marriage of convenience, in which Dillon ignored Gable's affairs while serving as his sugar momma.
Bret implies a second gay affair in the close friendship between Gable and macho actor Rod La Roque on the set of Ernst Lubitsch's Forbidden Paradise. La Roque was later outed and forced into a "lavender marriage" with actress Vilma Banky.
Bret provides brief sidebar biographical information like the La Roque gossip on nearly all of Gable's friends and conquests, providing a fascinating tour through Hollywood lore as he traces Gable's deliberate remaking, by himself and others, into what became the iconic star. Disbelievers need to recall the pre-Hayes Code era of Hollywood, where sexual affairs of all kinds were common among the newly rich stars and their entourages.
"In these formative years Clark Gable was an opportunist who would sleep with anyone. 'Anything that had a hole and the promise of a couple of dollars,'" Marlene Dietrich told the author.
Among Gable's most verifiable gay affairs at that time, Bret writes, is that with actor William Haines. In his personal life, Haines was openly gay, and a great pal of Joan Crawford. Included in Gable's young erotic adventures were trips to cruisy parks with Haines, where they both cruised working-class men, Gable being more orally passive and occasionally charging money.
Throughout the 1920s and early 30s, Gable acted in theatre touring companies as well as films. It wasn't until It Happened One Night that Gable became big box-office success. That film's moment of manliness – Gable stripping off his shirt without an undershirt – catapulted him further into the manly hall of film fame.
Later on, and for decades of his career, the syndicated (yellow) journalist Ben Maddox remained a close confidante, and a sexual pal for Gable, including being his companion on numerous vacations. Maddox's interfering confidant status, however, led to some stupid decisions on Gable's part, including nearly turning down the film Mutiny on the Bounty. Maddox's pernicious role as a double-talking gossip-trader resulted in other people's heterosexual adultery being traded as fodder for the tabloids, in exchange for his, Gable's, and other gay men's affairs being kept secret.
As Gable continued to gain in popularity, his work and frequent affairs with female co-stars continued, with frequent return engagements with Crawford, who narrowly missed becoming one of his wives.
The harrowing ordeal of Gone With the Wind is given due detail, and the subsequent films, great and forgettable, are given a brief yet illuminating sketch, particularly with details of Gable's decreasing health, frequent injuries, pay scale, and whether or not Gable succeeded or failed in bedding his female co-star.
Gable's short-lived happiness with actress Carole Lombard is told in detail. They married and shared a California ranch before her death in a plane crash. The notoriously foulmouthed Lombard often publicly ridiculed Gable about his sexual shortcomings, despite multiple other accounts of his being aptly nicknamed "The King."
Gable's subsequent affairs included a marriage to "Lady" Sylvia Ashley, "little more than a prostitute," Bret says, who wooed British wealthy men and landed an elderly Lord's hand in a previous marriage.
Bret's account of Gable's final film, The Misfits, includes the odd juxtaposition of the elder Gable befriending gay co-star Montgomery Clift while barely enduring the by-then drugged and unreliable costar Marilyn Monroe.
With a complete filmography, bibliography and index, Bret has produced another biography that combines the scathing scandals of a Kenneth Anger book with the serious research of a scholarly tome.
Woven in with Gable's difficulties on location at dozens of subsequent film shoots is the background of Hollywood's rise and fall, from the silent era through the classics, from Communist blacklisting and the old studios collapse to the uneasy independent production of the 60s. Gable's life, embedded in each Hollywood era, is a fascinating and flawed reflection of the harsh pain and excess of movie glamour, and the toll it took on one man's life.