The entire MGM studio springs into action to protect a grief-stricken Clark Gable from everyone but himself. 3,031 words. Part Two. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The King paced his throne room with deeply un-royal anxiety. He longed for his queen with a passion known only to royals, or so the fairy tales say. Since their celebrated marriage barely twenty months earlier, the two of them had been out of each other’s sight only when affairs of State commanded their separation. And so it was for the past fortnight when he had been compelled by royal obligation to remain within easy traveling distance of the castle while his queen journeyed to the far heartland of their realm on a mission of great diplomacy. For there was a great war. The kingdom was being attacked by forces of evil, and the King and Queen had drawn their country together in spirit even as the details of fighting it tore the royal couple apart.
America was at war. January 16, 1942 was five weeks into a declaration against the Axis powers, and Hollywood was already strutting its patriotism. Every star that wasn’t currently shooting pictures was crisscrossing the country bolstering unanimity and asking the citizenry to pay money beyond their taxes to keep their nation alive and stave off the collapse of the free world. Carole Lombard’s mission took her to the town of Indianapolis for an appearance that drew thousands of people. Clark Gable was the unquestioned king of Hollywood, and, since marrying him, Carole had become the town’s queen. They had been an item even before they got married, but, once their union became official, what belonged to one belonged to the other, including their retinues.
Back in Culver City, Gable was locked into a production schedule on Somewhere I’ll Find You when Lombard boarded the Douglas DC3-382 Skycub prop-liner to depart Indianapolis at 4 a.m. Flight TWA-3 took off as scheduled and then made several stops before the flight resumed from Las Vegas Airport at 7 p.m. The flight gained altitude, yawing slightly in the updrafts that blew up from Potosi mountain, then leveled at 7,770 feet when the aircraft, its fuel, and all 22 passengers and crew aboard slammed nose-first without warning into the side of the peak. The aircraft was going at two hundred miles an hour when its freshly refilled fuel tanks exploded on impact. The shattering fuselage repelled off the steep cliff, accelerated by the fireball. The cold January weather had brought a snowfall that cushioned the sound of falling debris.
The news that Flight 3 had failed to contact the control tower at Burbank airport reached Gable who was waiting at the Lockheed terminal to greet Lombard. He heard the mumbled conversation of gate personnel and asked if there was some kind of trouble. When told that Lombard’s flight was missing, he immediately chartered a plane for Las Vegas where he learned there were no survivors.
By the time he returned to the airport, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s publicity team was in control. Publicity chief Howard Strickling was given carte blanche above his already limitless powers by studio operations manager Eddie Mannix and was simultaneously making funeral arrangements and managing press access. The press, eager to grab photos of a shocked Gable, also knew where their publishers’ bread was buttered and pretended to respect the King’s grief even as they snapped for the archive. Strickling hustled the star into a studio limo and took off for Gable’s Palm Springs home at 222 W. Chino Drive in the Old Las Palmas neighborhood. Before leaving, Strickling phoned Culver City to spread word to assemble the studio Publicity Department in the Gable living room and wait for them to arrive.
The limo was outfitted with mirrors and lighting and a full wet bar. It was that latter service that Gable began hitting on the long drive to his home. By the time the King reached his front door, Strickling had to help him inside. Even though he had not slept all night, Gable passed up the bedroom and headed straight for his den, which had its own wet bar. And something more important: solitude.
Strickling left him there, shook his head in sorrow — for he loved Carole, too; everybody did — and joined his fellow publicists in the living room. “We’ll leave him alone for now,” Strickling said paternally. He looked around the room at his staff and filled them in on what he knew. Strickling parted the curtains to see for himself and was greeted with a flash in the face from a Graflex camera.
“Let’s not let this get out of control,” he continued, rubbing his eyes. “We don’t report on the crash. We show how the studio is united supporting Clark and the public in their grief. “
Then Strickling addressed a young woman with a steno pad. “Take this down: ‘The entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer family joins Clark Gable in his private grief. Miss Lombard gave her life to the war effort and, in her memory, MGM has committed itself to buying 1942 Series war bonds in her honor.’”
“All right, everyone,” Strickling commanded, “from now on until further notice we are all in the Clark Gable business. Starting with the funeral on Thursday, everything we do helps Clark deal with this tragedy.”
Then he added, speaking more softly since the star was sequestered in the nearby den, “And gets him back to work.”
Like a general, which in a way he was, Strickling tasked each publicist with a specific job. “Harry, keep working on the funeral arrangements. Give it class, and make sure the press uses the word class when they cover it. Sylvia — flowers. Carole loved flowers. Josh, you and Brad set up the seating chart for the chapel at Forest Lawn. Look at where we sat people when we planted Thalberg.”
“Can we do that, Howard?” Josh said. “I checked our file copy of Carole’s Last Will and she said she wanted only immediate family in the case of her death.”
“And she wants to be buried next to her mother,” Brad added. “Do you think we ought to try to get around it?”
“All of Metro is her immediate family!” Strickling pronounced, then thought better. “Okay, we won’t do anything that might anger Clark. Look, send flowers to the cemetery and we’ll plan a separate memorial on Stage Nineteen when the time is right. Good thing you caught that, Josh.”
Just then, Strickling’s eyes fell on a young publicist who was struggling to pry a photograph of Gable and Lombard out of a silver frame on the mantelpiece. “What in hell are you doing?” Strickling finally asked.
I ignored the question until I could answer it by holding up the picture. “We need a two-shot of Clark and Carole for the papers. Nothing in our files is any good. This’ll do.”
“You’re stealing it from the house of mourning?” Strickling was incredulous at my gall. “Who are you?”
“Alan Greenberg” I said.
“Are you with the publicity department?”
I nodded Yes.
“My publicity department?”
Another nod. Strickling turned to address the room. “Does anyone here know what this young man does for us?” Strickling leaned over close enough to me to breathe up my nostrils. “Okay, I give up. Whose relative are you?”
“No one’s, sir. I was hired as a junior publicist fresh out of high school. I work in the stills department.”
He put his hand on my shoulder, squeezed, and said, “Wait here.” Then he turned to the group. “Okay, everyone, you all know what to do. Now go and do it for Clark, for Mr. Mayer, and for MGM.” Then he turned to me. “Good thinking on the picture,” and left the room to check on Gable. No one else moved. They were all staring at me. I’d felt their steely eyes on me ever since I’d started working in the deepest basement of the studio’s publicity building. Now I couldn’t tell if they were offended, impressed, or saw me as competition. In Hollywood, you never know if the person you want to stab in the back is somebody’s relative. Now I had announced myself as an orphan ripe for stabbing, gutting, and removal from the Metro jungle.
Nevertheless, here is where I joined the Gable story.
Even though Mr. Mayer insisted that MGM was one big family, he never let us play together like one. The studio might have had more stars than there were in heaven, but it was made clear to all of us that not all stars were of the same magnitude. The “A” stars such as Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Greer Garson, and, of course Clark Gable, would not mix on the lot with “B” stars who might play supporting roles in “A” moves, but never the other way around. By the same token, those of us pushing pencils, props, or dollies on the lot would never dare to start a conversation with an actor unless we were assigned to serve him or her. Even then, the introduction had an expiration date; you could only say hello to one of the stars for up to six months after working with them. It wasn’t that they were haughty, it was that they met so many people that you never wanted to embarrass them by thinking that they would remember you.
Some jobs were allowed more familiarity than others. Hair, make-up, and costuming were of an intimate nature and produced closer bonds than writing, set dressing, or publicity. Strickling was the only publicist allowed close contact with the people we all kept in the papers. The rest of us merely did his bidding.
I was on the bottom. Invisible. Among its advantages was that people didn’t see me and so talked freely around me.
At the Gable home that tragic morning, Howard Strickling cracked the door of the den and tried to see into the dim smoke-hazy light. “Clark, it’s Howard.” Hearing only heavy breathing and the clink of ice in a highball glass, Strickling entered and shut the heavy door behind him. Gable was inconsolable. Strickling ventured closer to the easy chair where the King had dropped and hadn’t moved except to empty more of a whiskey decanter into his glass.
“We’re all worried about you, Clark,” Howard said tentatively.
“We?” Gable grunted.
“L.B., Eddie Mannix, me – your whole MGM family.”
“Well, stop,” he said. “I got it all figured out.”
Strickling froze. He was used to actors being melodramatic, but not Gable. “You’re not gonna do anything stupid, are you?”
“Nah. Ma wouldn’t like that.”
“What is it, then, Clark? C’mon, you can trust me.”
Gable took another drink. He knew better than to trust Strickling.
Louis B. Mayer could have broken his oak desk in half if he had brought his fist down as hard as he screamed at Strickling, who told him the news, and Eddie Mannix, who had heard it first.
“He wants to do his patriotic duty,” Strickling tried explaining. Mayer was having none of it.
“He can do that on Stage 27. The sonofabitch is really going to enlist?” Mayer repeated disbelievingly.
“Not only that,” Strickling continued carefully, “he said ‘I’m going in and I don’t expect to come back and I don’t give a hoot if I do or not.’”
“He’s talking suicide,” Mannix, a bulldog of a man, said sternly.
“No!” shouted Mayer. “He’s talking murder! He’s gonna kill us. Eddie, find a way to stop him.”
“I’ll keep him under watch, L.B.,” Mannix said. “But how do you stop Clark Gable from doing anything?”
“Get him arrested for something! You’ve done it before for other people.”
“I’ll get him to change his mind when the time is right,” Strickling offered. “Leave it to me.”
“It’s too late for that,” Mayer said, picking up the phone, “not if he’s got his heart set on enlisting.” He pressed the call button on his desk intercom. “Get me President Roosevelt.”
Strickling and Mannix looked at each other, puzzled.
“But L.B., you hate FDR. You called the New Deal a Communist plot.”
“And you’re the chief fundraiser for Hollywood’s Republican party.”
“I am! And after Roosevelt does me this one little favor, I’ll go back to hating him again. You both happy?”
Neither executive had a response that sounded any less ludicrous. In their silence, Mayer’s secretary buzzed. “Mr. Mayer, the White House says they’ll have to call you back. They say the President is busy with World War II.”
This time L.B. did slam his desk with his meaty fist. “God damn it, who does he think he is?”
When Roosevelt returned Mayer’s call, the studio chief campaigned. “Clark Gable is a national treasure, Mr. President. He’s the biggest movie star in the world. He’s also forty-one. You don’t take men that old, do you?” Pause. “Oh, you do?”
L.B. changed his tactics. “I’m not asking for anything you haven’t done for others. You’re keeping John Wayne and Ronald Reagan out of combat, aren’t you?” Mr. Mayer covered the mouthpiece to tell Mannix, “He says that’s because they didn’t want to go.” Immediately, L.B. snapped back on the line, “What’s that, Mr. President? Oh, I see. Yes, sir, I’ll look into it. And my regards to Mrs. Roosevelt.”
Apparently forewarned about Mayer’s call, FDR had Gable’s enlistment papers showing that Clark had volunteered. And FDR had already called Gable himself and tried to talk him out of it. To no avail.
At this point I made the mistake that plunged me into a starring role in the most ludicrous plot of the war. Out L.B.’s office window just at that moment, I was seen by Strickling. So when Mannix asked him, “Who do we have here who’s expendable?” my name came up.
The next thing I knew, Mayer was guiding me into his office.
“I need your help. You may not believe this, but you’re the only person in our whole Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer family that I can ask,” he told me. “Do you think you can find it in your heart to do Uncle Louis a favor? I would be in your debt. Very few people hold L.B. Mayer’s marker.”
I gulped. “What do you want me to do, Mr. Mayer?”
By now he had guided me to his leather couch.
“We have a problem with Clark Gable. He’s just done something very hot-headed. Do you know what he’s done?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“He’s gone and enlisted in the Army Air Corps.”
Mayer was waiting for my response. I knew it was a test. If I said, “But we need him at Metro” that would sound like sucking up. If I said, “That’s great. What a patriot,” it might sound like I chose America over MGM. In the end, all I could think of to say was, “I hear they’re a good branch.”
“Oh? You know about them?” Mayer asked.
“I tried to enlist, too.”
Behind me, Mannix and Strickling exchanged doubting looks.
“No, really,” I said. It happened to be true. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, millions of American men including me had raced down to the local Army recruitment office and tried to sign up.
“Yes,” Mayer continued, “and it broke your heart when they turned you down. You were classified 2-A, weren’t you? Wasn’t he, Eddie?”
Mannix opened my personnel folder. “Occupational deferment based on your employer’s work for the U.S. Government,” he read.
“That means you make training films,” Mayer asked softly. “On your Army application, it said you make training films at Fort Roach. But you don’t really make training films, do you? What I want you to do is take charge of one special account. Can you guess what account? Don’t bother, I’ll tell you. Only the most important star we have here at the dream factory. The most important star in the world. I want you to take charge of Clark Gable.”
I was, as Sam Goldwyn might say, both flabber and gasted. “You want me to handle The King?”
“That’s right,” Mayer chuckled. “Side by side, you and Gable.”
Foolishly, I said, “I don’t know what to say, Mr. Mayer” and then, with equal foolishness, I shook his hand.
“You’ve just done Metro a great service,” L.B. pronounced, rising to his full short height. “You’ve done me a great service, too. Mr. Strickling will take you right downtown.”
“Of course,” Mayer said. “You can’t handle Gable without joining the Army. That’s where he enlisted, remember?”
“Whoa, did I miss something?” I protested.
Suddenly L.B. went from Uncle Louis back to being Mr. Mayer. “Eddie, talk to this kid.”
“Look,” Mannix said, “Gable volunteered and his induction is next week. Then he’s going to Miami for basic training. You take the train and meet him there. We’ll tell the Army you got reassigned here at the studio and aren’t making training films any more. That’ll free you up to enlist. We’ll pull a few strings and get you assigned to the same unit as Clark. You stick with him and handle the press and keep him out of trouble.”
“What he means,” Mayer said, becoming intense, “is that you keep him alive. He wants to go up in a plane? You nail him to the ground. He wants to pick up a gun? You take it away from him. You get him back here safe and sound. Got it?”
Mannix reached into his pocket and handed me a train ticket. “You’ll have a few days to get your affairs in order here, then you’ll ride to Florida and hook up with Clark at the Collins Park training center.”
“How does he feel about this?” I managed to ask.
“Ask him yourself,” Strickling said, pushing me out Mayer’s door and closing it behind me. “He hates publicists and he doesn’t know you’re coming.”