An MGM junior publicist continues his story of survival alongside Clark Gable during World War II. 3,033 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
William Clark Gable raised his right hand to mirror the recruiting officer as the newsreel cameras rolled:
“You, Clark Gable, a citizen of the United States, do hereby voluntarily agree to enlist as a soldier in the United States Army; that you will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that you will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over you, according to regulations, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and the articles of war, so help you God.”
Gable was not the only star to enlist in the war against fascism, but he was the biggest, and he made it a point to start at the Private bottom. Hollywood would leave its honorable mark during World War II. James Stewart flew air raids and achieved the rank of Brigadier General in the Air Force. Lee Marvin was a Private, First Class in the Marines. Charles Bronson was a tail gunner. Glenn Ford rose to the rank of Captain in the Navy. Charles Durning was a Ranger and emerged from the war as one of America’s most decorated heroes. Mel Brooks was a photographer at the Battle of the Bulge. Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and other directors made combat films. And there were countless others from all ranks of the motion picture industry, not all of them stars, but all of them patriots. Actresses such as Bette Davis, Marsha Hunt, Marlene Dietrich, and Veronica Lake joined less famous movie women in the Hollywood Canteen which was open 24 hours a day to give servicemen a cup of coffee, a donut, a smile, and sometimes a dance with a screen legend.
But Gable’s enlistment was the Army’s best recruitment tool. He’d made application to be a gunner, and his next stop was Miami and basic training. That’s where I was to join him.
I was a young assistant publicist at MGM, whose studio boss Louis B. Mayer convinced me to enlist in the U.S. Army along with Gable to keep the superstar safe from all enemies. I arrived at the Collins Park Hotel and Army Base on a muggy day. Miami was steamy, and it was not to let up. Like many other civilian centers, the hotel had been commissioned for the war and transformed into a collision of peacetime elegance and military minimalism. The ballroom served as an assembly area and site of general confusion. Recruits bumped into each other, tripped over their duffel bags, and tried to read their assignments, like an anthill without a queen. From the looks on these kids’ faces, most were away from home for the first time, It was also the first time for most of them meeting people who didn’t look like themselves. The services were still racially segregated at the time and, to make it worse, the South was still infected with Jim Crow, so the recruits of color had it doubly hard. As a Jew, all I had to tolerate was the odd sense that people were checking out my haircut until it hit me that what they were looking for was horns. I told them that we only wear those on high holidays.
Somehow I found my way to the makeshift barracks that had once been luxury rooms and suites. No more. Walls had been knocked out, plush mattresses had been replaced with cots, and there were no doors for privacy. There I met the proverbial bomber crew assortment of fellow recruits with whom I was to experience basic training. Where they had been sent here by the luck of the draw, I had been deposited in their midst by the pull of Metro. If Louis B. Mayer couldn’t keep Clark Gable out of the U.S. Army, then he could damn well sew me to Gable’s side as his guardian angel.
The beds were lined up in two rows facing each other. Each was narrow and single; no bunk beds here. The kids – for that’s what we all were —in our group were all between 18 and 21 and were trying to act older and tougher. A rough-looking, rusty-haired Polish kid named Lewko was giving attitude to a dark-haired Cuban guy, Battista. Molina, an Italian with dark features, and Jeffers, slight and pale and Michigan corn-fed, were playing poker on a green Army blanket stretched regulation-taut over a bunk that was empty except for a duffel bag resting at its foot. The beds on either side were still empty, which I thought unusual, so I took one, innocently asking,. “Either of these taken?”
The others grinned at me in some kind of privately shared joke.
Lewko put his hands behind his ears to make them stick out. “Rhett Butler slept here,” he said. I reached down and looked at the name tag on the duffel bag at the foot of the bed. It had “C. Gable” stenciled on it.
“Is that really him?” I faked disbelief.
Molina groused, “Sure looked like him. Taller than he looks on screen. And he pretended to be friendly”
“Right,” I scowled. “So, uh, where is the movie star now?”
“Getting’ his hair cut,” said Battista.
“Where would that be?” I asked.
“You won’t get lost. Just follow the cameras.”
Oh God, the press was here already. “Okay,” I said, racing from the hall.
Battista was right. It wasn’t hard to follow the cameras. The tough part was pushing through them to take charge without looking like what I was doing, which was a publicist taking charge. The barber shop, set up to shear recruits like sheep, had been cleared for the occasion. Gable sat in the chair, a smock covering his fatigues, with the military barber giving the slowest most attentive haircut ever.
As Bernardo started to really go to work, so did I. I jumped in front of the cameras and held up my hands. “No pictures. C’mon boys, no more pictures.” I was greeted by an angry chorus of “What’s the big idea?” and “Hey, buddy, down in front.”
Gable was more irritated at me than he was at them. “What’s the big idea?” he said. “I told that publicist and I’ll tell you. I’m through with being handled like I’m some precious flower. Let ‘em get their pictures and they’ll go away.”
“I’m with the studio,” I said.
Gable looked at me sharply, then made that “I shoulda figured” grimace that made him famous, and shot back, “Well, I’m not.”
“Please, sir, I’m just here to run interference. Pay no attention.”
“I’m not planning to, and I’m not ‘Sir,’ I’m a Private.”
Gable stared at me.
“I’ll explain,” I said out of the side of my mouth.
“You’d better,” he said out of the side of his. Then he smiled at the press. “Okay, boys, this won’t take long. When we’re through I’ll give each of you five minutes alone.” With that, they grumbled but left to wait outside.
“Who the hell are you?” Gable asked me.
“Who sent you?”
“MGM Publicity Chief Howard Strickling. And Mr. Mayer.”
“Protecting their investment, eh?” he said, running through a selection of facial expressions. I ignored them all.
“Protecting you,” I said firmly.
“I can take care of myself.”
"Oh yeah? Like letting those photographers shoot you with your ears sticking out like a taxicab with the door open?"
Gable got silent, then offered me his hand. He offered me his hand. “Private Gable.” We shook.
“Private Greenberg,” I added.
“What outfit you with?”
“Where are you bunked?” he asked suspiciously.
“Next to you.”
Gable rolled his eyes. It was another of his famous expressions that, without question, meant, “You wanna bet?”
“I don’t need a publicist,” he said. “This is not a movie. I am not the star.”
I pointed out the barber shop window to the reporters gathered to interview him and the cameramen waiting to take his picture. “Tell them. Tell the public. People everywhere want to know everything about your enlistment, Private Gable. You’re the best recruiting poster there is. You’ve got to know that.”
“No way,” Gable said. “I will not be known as the only private in the United States Army with his own orderly.”
“How do you think the orderly feels about it?” I said in frustration.
“Since we agree,” he said, “one of us should transfer. I volunteer you.”
I started to laugh but from behind us a loud voice shouted, “Ten-HUT!” We both snapped to attention as a drill sergeant circled around and got in Clark’s face. His name tag said “Sgt Daly” and it was stuck on a chest that looked as solid as the anger glowing in his tiny eyes. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, who in his right mind would want to be a drill sergeant, but whatever it took, Sgt Daly was a good one. The problem was that he was not a good man.
“Just because you’re famous, don’t think you’re gonna get special treatment,” he spit at the King. “You’re just another dumb-ass green recruit like all these other scumbags. Don’t you ever forget it.”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Gable answered clearly.
Sgt Daly’s face searched for a clue whether Gable was being wise or a wise-ass. Not figuring it out, he said, “I got your number, movie star. I’m gonna make you my career.” Then, seeing that he had left me out, he bent into my face and said, “And you’re gonna be my hobby.” Standing again, he barked, “Dismissed!” and we moved on.
Are you sure you want this gig?” I asked Gable.
He responded, “Are you sure you don’t?”
Immediately, I realized that I had just spent the first day being chewed out by the biggest movie star in the world. Only I didn’t feel chewed out, I felt like I wanted this man as my best friend. That’s why he was popular with both men and woman everywhere. Without even trying, he was the Real Thing. I don’t care how immune you think you can get to seeing movie stars in person, when Clark Gable kicks you in the ass to wake up, nothing will ever be the same again.
‘Up and at ‘em, Junior,” Gable said as he planted his combat boot in my rear. I would have rolled over and pulled my Army blanket over my head but I knew the next kick would be in my groin.
“What time is it?” I said as reveille died out in the distance.
“Five a.m.,” Gable said and yanked on the blanket, dumping me onto the barracks floor. “Seventeen years of six a.m. studio calls, twelve hour days, six and a half days a week, taught me how to wake up at five and be civil.”
“You don’t have to be so goddamned cheerful about it,” I muttered.
“I’m not here to do MGM a favor or make your life easier. I’m here to fight a war. The sooner other people realize that, the sooner I’ll be able to get down to business. See you at mess, Junior,” he said, and left for breakfast while the others stretched, coughed, and scratched themselves. Two minutes later, Sgt Daly stormed in and scared all of us awake, into the showers, and out of there in five minutes flat.
When Clark sat down with his tray to join the other guys in the mess hall, all of them acted like he was invisible. I sat across from him, but this time he acted as if I were invisible. Gable looked as if his mind was three thousand miles away. He just shoveled in his food as fast as he could, bussed his tray, and walked out into the Florida sunrise.
“Movie star,” Battista griped, “wouldn’t say hello or anything.”
Going through drills and exercises, I underestimated Gable. Here was a 41-year-old guy drilling with a company of 18-to-22-year olds. I’m 23 and even I had a tough time keeping up. How does he do it? He must be right about the rigors of filmmaking keeping him in shape. And between pictures when he didn’t have to be on the set and ready to go by 6 AM, there were his legendary hunting, fishing, and outdoor activities. Gable was indeed a terrific shot. What I didn’t tell them, of course, was that, instead of a normal target, Gable had managed to get photos of Mr. Mayer to tack up in the bulls-eye spot — and he hardly ever missed.
But the men still avoided him even as he tried to pull them into whatever he did. The result was a sad tug-of-war. For example, one day I saw Jeffers look up from a poker game and snatch glances at Gable. Gable ignored him — in fact, he had perfected the ability to ignore everything — but after a while it was obvious that Jeffers was searching his brain for some excuse to come over and simply say hello. To do this, however, meant that he would have to brave the harassment of Lewko, Molina, and Battista. Gable sat quietly spit-polishing his shoes, completely unconcerned about the studied indifference around him.
Something came over me: I was trying to protect a man who had spent his career, if not his life, protecting himself against people who said they were trying to protect him but actually wanted something from him. Gable didn’t need protecting. He needed company. No, he didn’t. He needed Lombard.
In the summer of 1942, Florida’s fear of German U-Boats was real enough that the government built watch towers along the coast and ordered guys like Gable and me to staff them. It was Sgt Daly’s idea, however, to have us do it in full battle dress starting on a ninety-degree afternoon. “Just in case,” he said with the sneer that came easily to him. Typical of the Army, we had only one pair of binoculars between us. By the time we trudged through the sand and pulled our way to the glorified lifeguard station, we were exhausted. A storm was brewing and, with our luck, it would probably start pounding us just as we had to walk back to the barracks.
After an hour of this, I asked Gable, “See any U-Boats yet?”
“No, and I don’t expect to any more than the Sergeant does,” he said. “Remember when somebody thought they saw a Jap sub off Santa Barbara and all hell broke loose? They called it the battle of Hollywood.”
“Yeah,” I said. “How can people be so gullible?”
“Why don’t you tell me? You’re a publicist.”
That was unnecessary, I thought, and decided, King or not, I’d had enough. “Why don’t you stop riding that horse?”
“Admit it,” Gable said, digging, “your job is to con the price of a ticket out of people and make up hooey about guys like me.”
I was steamed. “I know you don’t like me ‘cause I’m a publicist. Or maybe you just don’t like me, period. I don’t care. But there’s a bigger war to fight, so how about we call a truce between us and take on Hitler?”
I thought I’d made my point. I was breathing hard. I felt tense. Gable lowered his binoculars and stared into my eyes. Then he laughed that Gable laugh. “That is some of the worst dialogue I’ve ever heard, including in my own pictures.”
I cracked a smile and laughed along with him. He also relaxed and, for the first time, seemed to see past my job and into me as a person.
“Look, Junior,” he said, “I’m lucky and I know it. It’s just, the hard thing about bein’ Clark Gable is that everybody expects you to be Clark Gable. The only one who never fell for that malarkey was Ma.”
Gable’s eyes drifted and I realized too late that I had opened up a King-sized can of worms.
“I called her Ma and she called me Pa. We met at a party, some movie thing. We weren’t free at the time, but that didn’t stop her. At first we hung out, then one thing led to another and the romance was on. She could swear better’n the guys, and she knew what the words meant, but she was all woman. God, people loved her.”
He turned away from me and talked into the approaching storm clouds. “I’m the one who sent her on that bond drive, you know. I’m the reason she took a plane home. It shoulda been me.”
A bolt of lightning cracked. It hit the tower and the wood burst into flame.
“Jesus Christ!” I screamed. Gable didn’t flinch. He stood there, just stood there. I grabbed his shirt and pulled him to the ladder, but he didn’t move. He shrugged me off and just stood there like a statue.
“Come on, let’s go!”
“Save yourself, Junior.”
“For Chrissake, you don’t want to die in basic training, do you? The ladder’s right here.” The glow of the fire showed me the stoic look on his face. This was stupid. It wasn’t even enemy fire.
“CLARK!” I’d never called him Clark before. “Clark, move your goddamn ass.”
He snapped back to reality. “You go first, Junior,” he said calmly. The fire caught onto the roof. We only had seconds before everything collapsed on us.
“Not with your death wish, I won’t,” I said.
“You go first!”
“Get out now,” he said and pushed me from of the tower onto the sand and tossed my gear on top of me. Then he casually climbed down the ladder to safety. In the distance we could hear the fire brigade working its way toward us. I tugged at Gable’s shoulder to get him to follow me, but he sluffed me off.
“Come on, we gotta go before the reporters get here. You know that.”
But Gable didn’t move. He was staring at the fire. No, he was staring through the fire. I took a chance and said into his ear, “You didn’t make the plane crash, Clark. Do you understand that? It’s not your fault. Clark? Clark?”
I know he heard me. He turned and followed me back to the barracks, saying nothing. But I knew he heard me.