Tuesday, 6 February 2018

The Clark Gable Blogathon: The Early Years of the King of Hollywood

William Clark Gable was born on February 1, 1901 in the small coal-mining town of Cadiz, Ohio. His father was William Henry «Will» Gable, a tall and good-looking oil-driller and wildcatter, with a reputation as a womanizer and a boozer. His mother was Adeline «Addie» Hershelman, a striking dark-eyed brunette plagued by a mysterious illness. Both Will and Addie's ancestors had migrated from Germany to America in the 18th century and settled in neighbouring towns in northwestern Pennsylvania. The Gables, however, were Methodists and the Hershelmans were Roman Catholics who did not approve of Will's religion or his crazy pursuit of oil gushers. As a result, the newlyweds were forced to move away to Cadiz to escape the Hershelmans' opposition.

Clark Gable at eighteen months
Weighing ten and a half pounds at birth, baby Clark bore a close resemblance to his mother. He had broad hands and a strong squared face with dark thick eyebrows and large grey-green eyes. Will Gable will later say: «The kid, I always call him that, was a real he-man from the start. He was a regular blacksmith from the time he was born.» He was able to sit up and do things for himself very early, and he was «his father's pride and joy and the light of his mother's short life.

After Clark was born, Addie's health rapidly worsened. She started having convulsions and her personality began to change. The family physician, Dr. Campbell, eventually concluded that she was suffering from a brain tumor, and in those days there was nothing anyone could do prevent it killing her. Despited Dr. Campbell's efforts, Addie's condition continued to deteriorate until her behavior became at times psychotic. Will provided round-the-clock care for her, but the tumor kept growing and her convulsions and violent episodes increased in frequency. Addie ultimately passed away on November 14, at just 31, leaving her 10-month-old son in the care of his grieving father.

Will Gable was now faced with a problem: as much as he loved his son, his work as a drilling contractor was incompatible with raising a child. As a result, he was forced to turn «the Kid» over to the care of Addie's family in Meadville, Pennsylvania while he made his living the best way he could in Ohio. Clark went to live on the farm of his uncle and aunt, Thomas and Elizabeth Hershelman, who had no children of their own. Will gave them about a hundred dollars as an advance against the baby's upkeep. He adjusted well to country life. As soon as he could walk, he helped feed the chickens and gather eggs. He had a pet rabbit, chased squirrels in the woods and learned to swim in the lake. Later in life Clark would remember his time on the Hershelman farm very fondly. He described «a strange feeling of homesickness, a sort of unreasonable depression, whenever I have smelled the spicy odor of cooking tomatoes. It always calls to mind the picture of my kindly grandmother stirring a kettle of old-fashioned tomato ketchup over a coal-burning stove. I used to stand on a wooden stool and watch her.»

Clark and his stepmother in 1909
In April 1903, two months after Clark's second birthday, Will married 32-year-old Jennie Dunlap, who ran a successful business in Hopedale, Ohio as a milliner and dressmaker. Will wanted his family to be complete again and so, as soon as he could, he returned to Meadville to retrieve Clark. He immediately encountered resistance from the Hershelmans, who did not want the boy to be raised as a Methodist. Will had to threaten legal action before the Hershelmans finally gave in.

Clark liked Jennie as soon as he met her. «She was young and sweet,» he said in an interview in 1932, «and she knew just the right way to treat a homesick youngster. No real mother could have been kinder or more affectionate than she was to me. She proved all through her life that I meant as much to her as though I had been her own. I think of her mighty often. You can't forget her type of woman. She was all goodness.» Indeed, Jennie made Clark the center of her universe. She dressed him in the finest clothes she could find and kept him immaculately groomed. He had all the toys he wished, and at Christmas his stepmother would decorate a big tree for him and stack it with gifts.

As World War I broke out in Europe in the summer of 1914, Clark entered his last year of grade school. He was a fair student, good at subjects he liked such as spelling and grammar, but bored with arithmetic, history and geography. He loved music and at thirteen was the only boy among the men in the Hopedale town band. To improve his work in high school, his stepmother started tutoring at home. Jennie persuaded Will to invest in 72 volumes of the Library of the World's Best Literature, William Shakespeare's complete works in thirteen volumes, and similarly sized collections of history, art, science and Bible study. Clark never read any of them in front of his father, but he certainly did develop a love of language and literature as the years went by. His frequent co-star, Myrna Loy, recalled that he would often read to her, «usually the sonnets of Shakespeare. He loved poetry and fine literature, and read beautifully, with great sensitivity, but he wouldn't dare let anybody else know it.»

Clark at about 17, sitting on the front porch
of the Alliance Road Farmhouse
By his freshman year at Hopedale High School, Clark was almost as tall and strong as his father. He took part in athletics, played on the baseball team and was one of the so-called popular kids, although he never saw himself as such. «As a social light,» he admitted years later, «I didn't shine very brightly. I was an awkward, overgrown boy who never was quite sure what to do with his hands or feet. I liked girls, but I was afraid of them. I used to envy the boys who could walk up to them and laugh and talk without blushing or stammering.»

In 1917, as the United States entered the European War, Will Gable began experiencing financial difficulties. At the same, sixteen-year-old Clark lost his virginity to a married middle-aged woman, who apparently lured him into her house one afternoon when he happened to pass by on his way home from school. Hopedale began buzzing with gossip about the affair, so Jennie decided that the family should move away before sex turned Clark into a «tomcat.» As fast as they could, the Gables sold their house and bought a small farm near Ravenna, a rural town about sixty miles north of Hopedale.

With the move to Ravenna, Clark's life changed abruptly. There would be no more parties, church socials, or hanging out at the soda fountain with his friends. Clark became very unhappy at his new high school and he hated the new farm routine. The few weeks that he worked with his father around the farm left him with vivid if slightly exaggerated memories. «I had to get up at four in the morning every day in the year, spring, summer, fall, winter, and the winters were sure cold. I fed the hogs and other stock, plowed in the spring until every muscle ached, forked hay in the hot sun until I was sweating an impressive mop of calluses. I did what I was expected to do, but it takes a certain knack for farming in what was then the old-fashioned way. I just didn't have what it takes.»

William and Clark Gable in Akron in 1920
By Christmas 1917, Clark had persuaded his parents to let him quit school and get a job with the Harmon Creek Coal Company in Hopedale. A few months later, he followed his friend Andy Means to Akron to work at Firestone Tire and Rubber. For lack of a high school diploma, he had to settle for the production line, molding treads on car and truck tires. Luckily for him, so many men were leaving for military service that he was soon promoted to a clerical job in time-keeping.

In Akron Clark Gable finally got bitten by the acting bug. It happened during his first visit to a stage play, at the Akron Music Hall. A resident stock company was performing Richard Walton Tully's The Bird of Paradise, which had been packing theatres since its Broadway debut in 1912. The lurid melodrama told the story of an Hawaiian princess who commits suicide after being rejected by her American lover. Clark was so dazzled that «I clapped until my palms were sore. I'd never seen anything as wonderful in my life, which, I guess, had been pretty drab up until then.»

Every chance he had, Clark hung around the Music Hall's stage door to watch the performers leave. He even took to eating in the same diner in which the actors ate, and eventually he got to meet some of them. From then on, they could not get rid of him. He started working backstag as a volunteer «call boy», and he also ran errands and swept the floors. When Clark was fired from the rubber factory following the Armistice of November 1918, he asked Ed Lilley, manager of the Music Hall's stock company, for a part in one of his productions. Lilley got him a one-line part as a servant. «I thought I'd die while I was waiting to go on,» Clark recalled. «When I didn't fall on my face, I thought I was an actor. It was all over then, as far as my future was concerned. I never wanted to be anything else.»

This post is my contribution to The Clark Gable Blogathon, hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. To view all entries, click HERE.

Clark Gable: A Biography by Warren G. Harris
Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer


  1. Wonderful, interesting post! I didn't know much about Gable before he became a star, so this was great to read. I always loved the fact that he would read Shakespeare to Myrna Loy -- what a lucky lady!

    Thanks for bringing this insightful post to my blogathon! :)

  2. My cousin owns Clark Gables grandmother s house on Gable Hill meadviMea PA