A devout Catholic, Young refused to abort the child as a chagrined Gable, then married to his second wife Ria, urged her to do. Strickling orchestrated the adoption of Judy to Young not out of kindness, but to insure that Gable's paternity was kept strictly confidential.
Clark Gable's career was one of Howard Strickling's crowning publicity achievements. Gable started out inauspiciously as a male gigolo who seduced women who were decades older than he was to advance his acting career. And he may have ended his life as an alcoholic, but in-between Clark Gable became the biggest movie star in the world. He was strapping, handsome, charming, ruthlessly ambitious and totally self-absorbed.
Gable probably had more acting ability then he and many others realized. He projected a rough masculine bravura and a sense of having fun that world-wide audiences and women in particular found irresistible and that many men envied. In the late 1930's he was the acknowledged box office "king of Hollywood". He was still a major star at the time of his death in 1960.
Howard Strickling was there for him all along. He was his mentor and his friend. He protected Gable while he was at MGM throughout the 1930's and 1940's, after he left MGM in the early 1950's, all the way to his grave and beyond. They shared a world view that was not uncommon in Hollywood, past or present. For both image was far more important than reality. And for all their personal charm both could be totally cynical and ruthless in how they went about achieving their goals.
Gable's marriage to Carole Lombard in March of 1939 was a godsend for Strickling. She made his life's work a comparative breeze. Glamorous, down-to-earth, funny and publicity savvy, Lombard was one of the highest paid and best liked stars in Hollywood. She was far easier to sell to the public as "Mrs. Clark Gable" than the first two women Gable had married who were almost 20 years older than he was. But they had been useful to Gable in getting where he wanted to be -- at the top of the heap in Hollywood. See: http://hubpages.com/hub/Clark-Gable-and-the-Many-Women-in-His-Life )
Strickling and Lombard got on well. Carole kidded him good-naturedly about his stuttering and cooperated happily in the blitz of photo shoots that were either taken or set up by the MGM publicity department to provide blanket coverage of the Gable and Lombard courtship and married life. They formed the foundation of the legend of Gable and Lombard in the popular imagination then and do so now in cyberspace.
To their fans the relationship of Gable and Lombard was a marriage made in heaven. It combined fun, class and box office power. Although divorced twice and almost eight years older than Lombard, Gable had the carefully cultivated image of being a great catch. Lombard, a fine actress and comedienne, was thirty when they married, she for the second time, he for the third. They soon became America's favorite couple, in part due to their personal charisma but also because of the focussed publicity and the press coverage they received in large part due to the efforts of Howard Strickling. Yet despite their glamour and friendly, down to earth image, Gable carried with him the habits and baggage of his prior life. And Carole had her issues and memories as well.
Lombard had to use all of her powers of persuasion to cajole Gable into attending both the premiers of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta and in Los Angeles. He detested David O. Selznick, its producer. The Gables left the LA premier midway through the screening at Clark's insistence. They didn't even make an appearance at the after screening party -- creating a serious problem for Carole who had a lucrative multi-picture contract with Selznick International Pictures.
Gable's lifelong habit of casual promiscuity and easy dalliances with his female co-stars did not set well with Carole. She was expected to be loyal to the "king". She expected loyalty, or at least discretion, in return from him. With her medical history of extended periods, Carole learned to tolerate Gable's trysts with hat check girls, script girls and even perhaps rationalized his visits to Hollywood brothels. But sleeping around with leading ladies was another matter. In the close, gossip-ridden world of the film colony, this was humiliating to her. Lana Turner, who would ultimately marry eight times and have countless affairs, apparently had no such scruples.
On Sunday evening, January 11, 1942, Gable and Lombard had a fierce row over his budding relationship with Lana Turner and his roving eye. Gable ended it by walking out on her. This was the night before she left on the ill-fated war bond sales tour. Nor did he show up at the train station the next morning to see her off when accompanied by her mother and Otto Winkler, one of his MGM publicists, they left by train for the Midwest for a tour that she was undertaking on his behalf.
Howard Strickling put out a press release to cover for him. It said that Gable was unable to be at the station because he was in Washington, D.C. conferring with the military on how best he could serve his country. This was a total fabrication and is just one example of the lengths Strickling went to protect Gable's standing with the public. (Gable did go to Washington to confer with the military on how best he could serve, but this was months later.)
Carole Lombard was a trooper and a patriot to boot so she carried on. Perhaps she hoped her success on the bond tour would impress Gable and make him realize her value to him as his wife and consort. Bill Powell, her first husband told her biographer Larry Swindell, that he wasn't entirely sure she was ever really in love with Clark Gable, but there was no doubt in his mind that she loved being Mrs. Clark Gable. And she fought off all comers. She played the role to rave reviews throughout their marriage and particularly well while on the war bond tour. Her decision to cut the tour short and abruptly fly back to Los Angeles was no doubt tied to her unease at leaving her husband back there alone working closely with Lana Turner.
Carole supported Gable in every way she possibly could after they were married. She paid for their Encino ranch out of her own savings, but signed over joint ownership of it to Gable. She changed her life style dramatically and many of her friends to suit him. She even watched the timing of her family contacts far more closely so as not to annoy Gable. But there was one thing that she would not change. She reserved a special place in her heart for the late Russ Columbo. And it was a place that Gable couldn't touch and he knew it.
Larry Swindell said Gable once asked Lombard in front of their dinner guests which of her lovers was better at it than he was? When she demurred he put the question to her another way, asking her to name her better lovers either by studio or by nationality and included an indirect reference to Columbo as a "dago crooner". Carole replied coolly that if he was bringing the dead into the question then it would be easier to answer -- stopping Gable flat in his tracks.
Clark Gable, for all his manly image and varied sexual experience, was not a great performer in the bedroom. Carole joked about it to diffuse her on-going frustration with the situation. But she could not disguise her disappointment with his less than stellar equipment. She is quoted as saying "If his pee-pee was one inch shorter, they'd be calling him the queen of Hollywood." (That candid comment is corroborated by Al Jolson's assesment of Gable. He said, "That Gable ain't so hot. I saw him in the locker room once and, folks, he don't have it.") But even more, she was frustrated by his quick, self-gratifying love making technique. Carole famously quipped to her close friends that Gable was "the worst lay in Hollywood". Gable grew to resent her candor as well as her unspoken loyalty to Russ Columbo's memory. Throughout their marriage "America's favorite couple" maintained separate bedrooms.
Carole Lombard called Russ Columbo "the great love of my life" in an off-the-record comment to Noel Busch during an interview for Life magazine interview in late 1938, almost three years into her relationship with Clark Gable and just a few months before she married Gable. Her comment was shared by her brother Fred with Larry Swindell, her biographer. The depth and seriousness of the relationship has been challenged by Gable fans ever since Carole's death. But Larry Swindell, Lombard's primary biographer, also verified the depth of the relationship of Lombard and Columbo with Dixie Pantges Carlson, Carole's lifelong friend and with Bill Powell, Carole's first husband. (Carole made similar statements in an interview with Sonia Lee and to her close friends and associates over the years, including to Bing Crosby.)
Carole Lombard specified that after her death she wished to be entombed at Forest Lawn in Glendale, California in a "modestly priced crypt" and "to be dressed in white" for burial. A crypt in Forest Lawn meant entombment in the Great Mausoleum. This is where Russ Columbo was entombed in 1934. But what she could not have guessed was that she would die so soon nor that the man that she loved deeply would be slandered after she was gone and could do nothing about it.
Bill Powell, her first husband, told Larry Swindell that he freely recognized that Carole was never in love with him, even when they were married, but he had absolutely no doubt in his mind about Carole's genuine love for Russ Columbo. Carole loved Russ body and soul. Though Powell and Lombard were divorced in mid-1933, Carole leaned heavily on him for psychological support in dealing with her grief after Russ' death in late 1934. In return she helped nurse Powell back to health when he was diagnosed with colon cancer a few years later.
Given the troublesome facts leading up to the war bond tour and the outright lèse majesté implied by the terms of Carole's will, trivializing her relationship with Russ Columbo and marginalizing Russ himself was something Strickling viewed as a practical necessity. Ever a ruthless pragmatist, it was a matter of creating a smoke screen and burnishing the image of his star, Clark Gable. This he was determined to do.
The Fix had two phases. The first phase involved managing the story of Carole's death for the clamoring press in the short run. Covering over the tension in the Gable marriage and stopping probing questions was job number one. And it was fairly easy to do since the publicity entourage that accompanied Gable to Las Vegas served as an "official source" for most of the reporters that converged there as the tragic news unfolded. Strickling's publicists had several key talking points ready:
- The war bond tour was recast as a single event in Indianapolis alone. This pre-empted and silenced questions about its abrupt termination.
- Clark Gable was said to be unable to accompany his wife on the tour because of his commitment to start shooting a new film and couldn't get permission to be away. This contradicted the MGM press release that stated that Gable was in Washington, D.C. conferring with the military on how he could best serve his country. But apparently nobody noticed. In any case both stories were outright falsehoods. L.B. Mayer, the head of MGM, offered to delay the start of shooting for "Somewhere I'll Find You" Gable's film co-starring Lana Turner, in order to allow him to lead the war bond sales tour as the chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee. Gable declined the offer for his own reasons.
- An apocryphal story about the chance of coin toss was used to explain Carole's decision to fly home. Carole was said to be so anxious to be in the loving arms of her husband Clark Gable. (She was indeed anxious to get back home.)
- In all the news reports coming out of Las Vegas, Otto Winkler was either described as Carole's publicist or working for her studio, neither of which was true. Otto Winkler was an MGM publicist who reported to Howard Strickling and was assigned to Clark Gable. As Carole deduced, his primary role on the tour was to insure that the tour reflected well on Clark Gable as chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee. nbsp
- Gable was cast as a total innocent, a widower overwhelmed by his grief at the loss of his young wife but soldiering on bravely. Undoubtedly he was, but he was also filled with unspoken guilt for his actions that he took to his grave.
The patriotic fervor in the days following Pearl Harbor and the natural inclination to support a grieving widower squelched all probing personal questions, at least initially. (One national columnist felt constrained to apologize for questioning the soundness of the Gables' relationship and marriage in the weeks before Lombard's death.) Decorum stopped all mention in the press of the whispers about the place Carole chose for her burial. Clark Gable, heroic grieving widower, was above public question or reproach. And Strickling was not about to leave it to chance that this continued to be the case.
Putting the final polish on the legend of Gable and Lombard -- that is the adulation of the relationship and marriage of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard was phase two. An important aspect of this effort involved marginalizing Carole's prior relationship with Russ Columbo, reducing him to a pitiful half-man and ascribing Carole's interest in him to her "maternal instinct". This phase started with a vengeance right after Carole's funeral and continues on to this day.
Howard Strickland already had considerable experience in post-mortem slander, so moving on to post-mortem castration was not that much of a stretch for him. As with the 1932 tragedy of the Jean Harlow/Paul Bern, Strickling found a dependable ally in famed writer Adela Rogers St. Johns. And since that time he had also developed Hedda Hopper, a B grade actress whose career portraying society women was in steep decline, into a prime gossip resource. They provided him with the old one, two punch he needed to get the ball rolling.
Adela Rogers St Johns with Gable (left) and Hedda Hopper with him circa 1941 (right) Howard Strickling could reward both writers for cooperation with easy access to Gable and all the other stars of MGM.
St. Johns was an old friend of Strickling and had recommended him for his job. After producer/director Paul Bern's death she wrote an article published in Liberty Magazine that slandered Bern at Strickling's urging. See: http://www.libertymagazine.com/mysteries_stjohns.htm.
At the time of his death Bern was married to Jean Harlow, who was MGM's emerging female star. The studio wanted her kept out of the scandal. Painting the talented and kindly Bern as a frustrated, wife-beating, pathetically underdeveloped man, St. Johns characterized his death, a probable murder, as a suicide. The name of Paul Bern became an object of ridicule in Hollywood lore for decades until his reputation was rescued in a recent biography by E.J. Fleming. Harlow, to her credit, distanced herself from St. Johns and her supposed "interview".
St. Johns, an experienced story teller, now provided the supposedly heartfelt opening punch for Stricklings publicity campaign to protect Gables reputation and to soothe his fragile ego. She mixed fact, (that she admired Clark Gable), and gross exageration, (that she was a close friend of Lombard's), in an article that was also published in Liberty Magazine in late February of 1942. (Advertisements for her article questioning Carole's "strange relationship" with Russ Columbo were in the press a good two weeks earlier.) She painted Russ as a "boy" that Lombard pitied but never really loved, and the nearly middle-aged family friend and photographer who accidentally shot him as another "boy". The innuendo was unmistakable.
Lansing Brown in 1934, a photographer and long-time Columbo family friend, was in his mid-thirties, when he shot Russ in a freak mishap with an antique dueling pistol.
She then went on to write tearfully about Gable who she described as a brave but anguished widower and how deeply he missed Carole's mother who died with her. (Mrs. Peters wasn't alive to comment.) Carole's brothers inherited the money Carole left to her mother but Gable also sent Stuart Peters, Carole's younger of two brothers, a demand for payment of a very small amount that Carole had personally loaned him. After the funeral of their mother and their sister, Carole's brothers had nothing to do with Clark Gable again for the rest of their lives.
As E.J. Fleming wrote "I've read dozens of pieces by Adela researching various books and it was so very clear that she typically over-stated the strength of her relationships with the people. The only quote-laden, best-pal-type stories she wrote were all done after people died. Hard to believe people didn't see that about her."
Hedda Hopper owed her gossip columnist career to the influence of MGM. She proved herself useful. MGM and Strickling had boosted her to contain the influence of the Hearst newspaper gossip columnist, Louella Parsons. Hedda now repaid her debt to MGM in spades. She followed up with a nasty second punch by painting the talented, hard working and gentle Columbo as a narcissistic fruit. (Would she have dared to write something like that while Lombard was still alive?) She claimed that Russ and Carole's relationship "was based on many things but not sex". She stated further said it was "silly, insignificant and without stature". Hopper thus denied the mutually satisfying physical aspect of their relationship that was present easily and naturally from its beginning -- something that a frustrated Lombard apparently never achieved with Gable over a period of six years. Hopper also ridiculed the soul-mate aspect of Russ and Carole's relationship that was apparent to anyone who ever saw them together.
Howard Strickling's hand was, and still is, at work here. A master at his trade, he picked two sources considered credible by the public at the time and set them to work creating a smoke screen and putting his spin on the story. It almost worked then and it is perpetuated in the innuendo found in many of the books, journal and web blogs that we see on the subject of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Russ Columbo even today. Not surprisingly, many of them draw heavily upon the myriad of articles and photographs that Howard Strickling' publicity department at MGM either created or indirectly commissioned. Adela Rogers St. Johns and Hedda Hopper are considered in-the-know, first hand, and unbiased primary sources by people who are duped by Strickling and enthralled by the romance of the legend of Gable and Lombard.
Clark Gable was heavily involved in managing his publicity and worked closely with Howard Strickling and his publicists thoughout his career at MGM. Leaving Carole's body at Forest Lawn a mere stone's throw from that of Russ Columbo, a man he could never obliterate from her memory, must have gnawed at him. It was something he needed to fix. Despite his grief it is very difficult to believe that he was an innocent bystander to the smear campaign that was directed against the memory of Russ Columbo after Carole's death.
Louella O. Parsons
Louella Parsons and Jimmie Fidler were intense rival gossip columnists and competing journalists but they had one thing in common. They shared very positive personal memories of Carole Lombard and Russ Columbo both as individuals and as a couple. Their fame made them impervious to the ire of both Howard Strickling and Clark Gable. Both continued to reminisce sadly about what might have been for Carole and Russ in their columns for many years after both were dead.
Parsons, "Aunt Lolly" to Carole, encouraged both Russ' and Carole's Hollywood careers in her column. She and her husband were guests at Carole and Russ's Roman party in the days just before Russ died. Dr. Martin, Parson's husband, was also Lombard's personal physician. A very distraught Carole was under his close personal care in the days following Russ' death.
Jimmie Fidler hosted a radio show where Russ Columbo was a recurring guest in 1934. They were scheduled to broadcast together later on the day that Russ died. Russ and Jimmie were also about to announce an expanded joint weekly radio program with full orchestration to be entitled "Russ Columbo from Hollywood" for NBC.
Russ Columbo and Jimmie Fidler broadcasting for NBC in 1934. Russ was an innocent in the ruthless world of Hollywood. That was one of the things Carole and others loved about him. She didn't need to pretend that she was a tough broad when she was with him. Physical intimacy came easily and naturally to them.
Because of his determination and the publicity resources available to him, Howard Strickling might have gotten away with his cynical spin on the facts in the long run if it were not for Larry Swindell and his ground breaking book on Lombard, entitled "Screwball, the Life of Carole Lombard" that was published in 1975. For the first serious biography of Lombard that was published over 30 years after her death, Swindell interviewed Fred Peters, Carole's surviving brother, Patsy Pantages Karlson, her lifetime friend, and spoke off the record with Bill Powell, her first husband, amongst others.
The people Swindell interviewed, those closest to Carole in life, attempted to set the record straight particularly regarding her relationships with Russ Columbo and Clark Gable. They emphasized the seriousness of Carole's relationship with Russ and the depth of their love for each other. They also painted a picture of the Gable Lombard relationship as one that Carole somehow made work but that was far from the romantic ideal that Howard Strickling and the publicity department of MGM presented it as being. (Madalynee Fields Lang, Carole's longtime friend and former social secretary, refused to discuss Lombard's relationship with Gable at all.)
In rebuttal Howard Strickling assisted Lyne Tornabene with "Long Live the King", a biography of Clark Gable that was published the following year. Tornabene blithely accepted Stricking's evasive and untrue description of the events leading up to the war bond tour and the baseless innuendo about Russ as fact. And Tornabene expounds on the Gable legend ad nauseum, turning the tawdry facts of Gable's rise to screen stardom into an all American Horatio Alger story. In Tornabene's book the Gable Lombard relationship is characterized as the great American love story. Not surprisingly, she finds Gable's guilt over Lombard's death as unfathomable and unjustified.
Jean Garcea was hired as Carole Lombard's personal secretary in the late 1930's and continued working for her widower, Clark Gable, until his death in 1960. She fully understood her value to Clark Gable as the guardian of his legend and that of the legend of Gable and Lombard. And so too did Clark Gable. And that is why he kept her on his payroll to the end of his life. Oddly, it was Jean Garceau who inadvertently corroborated the tension in the Gable marriage when she mentioned how "uncharacteristically subdued" Carole was when she left home to begin the war bond tour. Garceau does not mention the fierce argument that Lombard had with Gable the previous evening, perhaps because she did not know about it -- or chose not to know about it. But it is covered in the memoirs of people, (i.e., Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn), who had personal knowledge of what happened that Sunday evening because Gable met with Spencer Tracy, his drinking buddy and brothel companion, after he walked out on Lombard.
Was Clark Gable transformed by the tragedy of Carole Lombard's death?
A popular Hollywood myth is that Gable was somehow transformed into a caring, sensitive person by the sorrow he experienced after the loss of Carole Lombard. But was he really? His ongoing treatment of and even his final actions towards his own daughter make this a dubious hypothesis.
In late 1960, Howard Strickling guided Kay Gable, Clark's fifth wife and widow, with the arrangements for his burial at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. Image conscious to the end, Gable pointedly disavowed any living children in his final will, thus disowning and disinheriting his only living child, Judy, that he fathered with Loretta Young in 1935. (A son, John Clark Gable, was born to Kay five months after Gable's death.)
Christopher Lewis, Judy's half-brother, told her that his father and Judy's stepfather, Tom Lewis, once asked Clark Gable if he was Judy's biological father. Gable denied it, saying that he would love to have a child and adding, "Do you think I would let anyone else bringing up my only child?". But in fact Tom Lewis was bringing up his only child.
Gable fans put his total estrangement from his daughter on the shoulders of Loretta Young. They argue that her "priggish religiosity" was the reason he stayed away. Yet Loretta Young raised her daughter, she didn't abort her nor did she abandon her after birth. Clark Gable was among those invited by Young to Judy Lewis' wedding in June of 1958 just as he had been invited to her high school graduation a few years earlier. He declined both invitations and didn't send a gift. And Gable, who once told an interviewer that his one real regret in life was that he never had any children, completely ignored the grandchild Judy soon bore.
Judy acknowledged that her vision of her father may not be realistic. "I've tried to make my peace with the past, and I'm now happy to think of Gable in my own idealised way. I've purposefully made that choice, because I never was given the chance to know him and ask: 'Where were you?' She is also quoted as saying that as much as she would like to think her father cared about her, it was also possibly true that he "frankly didn't give a damn." Judy carried the burden of these questions to the end of her life.
John Clark Gable steadfastly refuses to acknowledge Judy Lewis as his half siste
Judy Lewis and Loretta Young, the mother who was there for her all along, if not always in the way that Judy wished her to be, circa 1978.at the American Film Institute cocktail party aboard the Pacific Princess cruise ship in 1978.
Newsreel footage of Clark Gable's funeral shows Strickling hovering near Kay and guiding her through it. Kay agreed to relegate herself to the position of a consolation prize and after her death in 1983 would be buried one level beneath and three positions to the left of Gable. Clark Gable was buried directly alongside of Carole Lombard, thus enshrining forever the legend of their perfect marriage.
The Last Supper Window at Forest Lawn. Russ Columbo is entombed to the left of it in the Sanctuary of Vespers while Carole Lombard and her mother as well as Clark Gable and his fifth wife, Kay, are entombed in the Sanctuary on Trust to its right.
The creators and keepers of the Hollywood legend
Howard Strickling played the role of fixer for Gable to the end, a role that he seemed to relish. After all, the myth and the legend that was Clark Gable, if not his real talent and screen performances, had in large part been Strickling's creation. The legend of Gable and Lombard was simply a logical extension of the Gable legend. The vast amount of publicity material that MGM created to feed the Gable legend sustains it to this day. In this instance publicity images have been transformed over time into a core Hollywood legend. Retiring from MGM in 1969, he died in 1982.
Howard Strickling seen here in the late 1960's after catching a whopper rather than telling one.
Gable inherited Lombard's papers and diaries that were at the ranch at the time of Lombard's death in 1942. What survives today is what he and Jean Garceau thought was appropriate. They had 18 years, from 1942 to 1960, to consider that question. After Garceau's death in the late 1980's her work perpetuating the myth of the eternal love of Gable and Lombard has been carried on by her chosen keeper of these carefully culled documents. And so the myth making continues on to this day.
For more on Carole's relationship with Russ Columbo see: http://cinemafan2.livejournal.com/2514.html
And for more on the Carole's relationship with Clark Gable and her death see: http://cinemafan2.livejournal.com/7511.html