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Long Live the King

Excerpt from Long Live the King by Lyn Tornabene.

It is imagine July 1960, a bucolic time in history, and Clark gable is in central Nevada on location for a film called The Misfits. No ordinary film, this, in the eyes of its cast, crew and backers. Arthur Miller has written the screenplay, his first, for his wife, Marilyn Monroe. He brings to the location his air of urbane intellectualism; she brings her own special demons. John Huston, no slouch in the leaving legend department himself, is directing, and brings with him the machismo of a battle-scarred ram. A gangling, energetic book publisher, Frank Taylor, is producing, and has shepherded the special, albeit touchy talents of Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter. The aura created, the mystique promoted is that this is a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage at work on the ultimate motion picture.

For his part in The Misfits, Clark Gable is being paid the highest advance salary anyone has earned to date in the industry: three quarters of a million dollars against a percentage of the gross, plus $48,000 a week for overtime. Right now he is sweating it out, literally and figuratively. The desert heat on the current site aggressively mounts to 1000 degrees after moon, and the workday, which too often begins hours late to accommodate Miss Monroe’s psychoses, is as tedious as it is distressing for an old-line professional like Gable. In Clark Gable’s lexicon, a nine A.M. shooting call means you are ready to work at three minutes to nine; he is congenitally prompt. In his contract, workdays end at five P.M., and that means he walks out at five P.M., willy-nilly.

Clark Gable, at fifty-nine, is the consummate professional film actor, and he knows it. His passion for professionalism begins in his soul. Any "pro", at any thing, is his instant kindred spirit…garage mechanic, egg-candler, bartender, or cinematographer. "He’s a real pro" is the highest compliment he can play a man, and the only recommendation he needs to accept one.

No one alive can fault Clark Gable on his professionalism. In fact, this man, this movie star, at this time in his life, is rarely faulted at all. He is revered by fans, admired and respected by acquaintances, and nearly worshiped by the few people he considers his friends. A New York press agent on the film, Sheldon Roskin, says in an inimitable style," You would have to be a fish not to like this man." And he adds,"Face it, you’re in the presence of the Lord."

Here he stands: 6 feet, 1 inch tall, a husky man, whose girth and look of controlled power make him appear even bigger than he is. An average man wears a size 40 suit: Gable’s suits are 44 long. He measures 45 around the chest, 36 around the waist; average male proportions are 44-39. He fills a doorway, seems squashed in a wing chair. He has remarkable posture and, for a man his size, remarkable grace. He sits erect even in a director’s chair. If he bends as he’s sitting, it’s from the waist. He wears khakis, a red cowboy shirt, cowboy boots—his costume for the film. The pants are cut looser than the jeans worn by most of the other guys around. Frank Taylor describes the mostly masculine and inevitably competitive encampment as "crotchy"; few of the men, he notes, are wearing any underwear and the morning banter is usually concerned with who’s parted on which side of his zipper, and who’s showing how much of what he’s got. Film locations are usually horny places, like merchant ships. Gable, however, isn’t crotchy. Kings don’t compete in such games. Kings are kings.

He looks robust. His hair is thick for a man his age, widow’s peaked, and graying appropriately (touched up for the film). His eyebrows are heavy and have to be plucked a bit. His complexion is ruddy, tanned, and he has blemishes on both his cheeks: warts, perhaps, or moles. A plain movie star would have them removed, but kings can sport warts. His skin is weather-beaten; the complexion of a man with his love of the outdoors could not be otherwise.

His hands are weathered, too. They are ham-hock hands: tough, used. He wears a wedding band on his pinky because an old breaks misshapen his third finger, left hand. His hands are so big he wears his shirtsleeves uncommonly long to hide their size. He does the same thing with shirt collars, wear them high or turned up to disguise the thickness of his neck. He has done this in all his films, which probably explains the fashion in men’s clothing for showing a lot of linen above the collar and beneath the cuffs of a jacket. His huge hands are noticeable no matter, and so are the yellow nicotine stains on his fingers. He’s a heavy smoker, Mr. Gable: Kents wedged into Dunhill filters costing three-fifty per that he wears out at an alarming rate. Sometimes he switches to custom-made Cuban cigars (four to a box labeled "Clark Gable") and consumes fifteen or more a day, inhaling them. Once his friend Z (for Zachariah) Wayne Griffin tried to get him to stop smoking. Gable told him, "Griff old boy, you paddle your canoe and I’ll paddle mine."

The same line was also intended to cover Wayne’s nagging about his drinking, which he does a lot, but not publicly, and not offensively to anything except his own innards. Like the man’s man he is, Gable can really put it away, drink ‘em under the table, store it in a hollow leg. Scotch or vodka, champagne or brandy, or all at one sitting---he never shows the effects. When he’s had enough to put an average man in the hospital, he just goes to sleep.

He isn’t drinking as much now, however, as he has at other times in his life. He isn’t eating as much either. To make Misfits, he crash-dieted from a bloated 230 pounds to 195, and he’s staying with steak, tomatoes, and cottage cheese for the duration. Discipline is simple for him. He gained the weight because he didn’t care, lost it as soon as he did. He had to lose the weight to be not only photogenic, but also insurable. Twice he flunked the insurance test for the film, passing only after staying in bed a few days. Twice in the last ten years he has had seizures that might have been heart attacks; once, ten years ago, while driving on a freeway he had chest pains so breath-taking he had to pull off the road and lie down on the ground. The other time he turned ash-gray and slumped in a chair in a friend’s home in Palm Spring. You wouldn’t know it to look at him though. He looks great. Just great.

This is his sixty-sixth talking picture (he appeared in at least six silents) and the sixth in which he will be playing a cowboy or frontiersman. In his first talking film he played a cowboy, and he couldn’t ride a horse. Now he can ride and rope like the Long Ranger. Gable likes westerns. He likes to see them, likes to appear in them. "Horse operas," he calls them. He would have been happy to have been Bill Boyd. "An actor," he has said, "feels more like a man when he has spurs on his boots and is riding across the prairie, the wind leathering his face."

With him in Nevada are his wife of five years, whom he calls Kathleen and everyone else calls Kay, and her two young children by her third husband. Kay, who was a starlet in her youth, is a glowingly beautiful Lana Turner style blonde of forty-three. She has short hair, blue eyes—transparent like an Alaskan husky’s---is 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and has the clear, clean complexion of a soap model. She is curvy. She’s also strong, bawdy, and smart. She calls her husband "Pa," but the relationship between them seems more sexy than folksy. Strangers to their company suspect that whenever the Gables are not in public, they’re in bed; such are the vibes between them.

Clark Gable has had five wives in his lifetime; four of them had a total of sixteen husbands in their lifetimes. He has been divorced three times, a widower once, and a lover too often either to calculate or evaluate.

He is a rich man. In the past five years of independent filmmaking, his acting has earned him $7 million---$2 million more than he earned in the entire twenty-three years he was under contract to MGM. Under contract, he was always on straight salary, at a peak of about $7,500 a week. It’s estimated that the films he made in his MGM days made $500 million for MGM. He never saw a cent of their profits, and it bothers him mightily. Now he owns percentages of everything he makes, and his income is structured to total $1 million a year until 1976. There are richer movie stars than he: people who have earned less, but invested differently. Gable is conservative with big money, frugal with small money. The only major real estate he owns is real estate he uses---his ranch, and a house in Palm Springs. He likes cash, likes the security of $500 to $1,00 in his pocket, where he can put his hands on it. Stashing large sums of money is a quirk he copied in a small way, years ago, from Wallace Beery. When Beery was MGM'’ highest-paid star in the early thirties, he rarely had less than $30,000 on him, and at one point had $2 million in a safe-deposit box. Gable, too, has kept his money in boxes over the years, but now he also has it in saving accounts and in American enterprise. There is a total of 37,783 shares of common stock in his portfolio: 200 shares of Air Reduction Co, American Cyanamid, 200; American Home Products, 150; Bethlehem Steel, 140; Caterpillar tractor, 400; Du Pont, 50; Florida Power and Light, 100; GE, 125; Goodyear Tire, 312; National lead, 100; RCA, 10; Reynolds Tobacco, 200; Standard Oil, 514; National City Bank of New York, 8; Potomac Electric Power Co., 2; House of Westmore, 200; Coal Logs Company, Inc., 20,000; Oaks Springs Ranch Co., 5,000; Hard Rock Land Co., 4; and General Motors, 68. He owns a building site in Palm Desert given him by Marion Davies, who hoped to have him as a neighbor.

He belongs to the Tamarisk Country Club in Palm Springs, the Hidden Valley Gun Club in Riverside, and the Club Patos al Vientos (Ducks on the Wing) near Ventura. These memberships make it possible for him easily to indulge his favorite sports: golf, fowl hunting, and shooting. A king, after all, can’t just wade into a local blind and sit down, he would be besieged. Actually, it is hard to comprehend celebrity likes of Clark Gable’s, hard to imagine how far he must travel, or how calculating he must be to get a sense of normality, or ordinariness. He is probably one of the most familiar men in the world.

He drives a silver Mercedes-Benz SC, which has gull-wing doors that open upward instead of out, and he knows it intimately enough to be able to take it apart and put it back together, nut by bolt. In fact, he knows enough about any car to take it apart and reassemble it. Whenever he’s needed on the set, and not in sight, somebody is sent to look for him under all the parked cars, and usually he’s under one, with a buddy, tinkering. His former secretary, Jean Garceau, who is still his friend and fan, says that whenever she needs him she calls all the service stations on Ventura Boulevard until she finds him. He would have made a first-class mechanic, or he says, a chauffeur. He’s got so much axle grease in the pores of his hands; no amount of scrubbing will remove it.

And scrub, he does, Gable’s compulsion about cleanliness has gone so far he won’t take a bath because he can’t sit in water he’s sat in. He will only shower, and does so several times a day. At home in Encino, there is no tub in his bathroom. His bed linens must be changed every day. He shaves under his arms. He is so immaculately groomed and dressed, you could eat off him. A Palm Spring waitress, not usually given to poetry, glimpsed him in a restaurant before he left for Nevada:" I saw this man in a brown suit and a white shirt standing in the doorway. He was so gorgeous, so clean. He looked like chocolate melting in your mouth." By the time she realized who he was, she had turned completely incoherent.

Most people are initially struck dumb at the sight of him, and not only because he is who he is and is handsome; most people will see few men in their lives who are so exquisitely turned out. Even on the hottest California days, if he appears in public, it’s in shirt, tie, and gabardine suit with a white handkerchief in the pocket. His suits and jackets are made for him at Dick Carroll’s in Beverly Hills and Brooks Brothers in New York. He wears white, French-cuffed, button-down Brooks shirts, 16 and a half-36; size 12, Farkas and Kovacs or Peal’s shoes-oxfords or slip on a la Gucci, he started wearying way ahead of their time. He buys ten suits a year from Carroll’s, at about $225 per; and a half-dozen or more sports jackets for $175 or so; tweeds, Shetlands, blazers, bold plaids, all fully lined in silk---all conservatively cut. Other men wear padded shoulders to get the Gable physique; Gable has worn no padding since 1944.

At Brooks’ he orders four or five suits at a time, on an annual buying trip: navy blue, pinstripes, charcoal grays, once in a while a Glen plaid like that the Duke of Windsor wears, or a gabardine in olive or brown, or a hound’s-tooth check. The jackets are three-button, only an occasional one double-breasted. The pants have cuffs, of course, and by special request, buttons on the fly. He chooses four or five sports jackets in British tweeds: heather, brown, or gray; a half-dozen pairs of gray flannel slacks; and some Shetland sweaters. He orders two dinner jackets and a set of tails, then picks out some new Locke high-crown hats. He’s a little eccentric about hats. Whereas most men stand to try on hats and adjust the brim on the head, Gable sits, and rolls the brim on his lap. Once he choose a hat, he will never have it cleaned—a fact that maddens his household staff. In his clothes closet where the vast, spotless, impeccably tailored wardrobe hangs, arranged by color, each jacket dated in a pocket—in among the cashmere and silk, Shetland and gabardine sit row on row of felt hats with soiled sweatbands. There is no explanation for it, only a meek apology from a staff trained to be as fastidious as its boss: "Mr. Gable just loves his old hats."

He has a gun collection worth perhaps a half-million dollars; gold inlaid, beautifully tooled pistols, shotguns, and rifles. "A king’s weapons," a friend calls them. He has the best, most sophisticated fishing equipment from Abercrombie and Fitch: Payne rods, Hardy reels, etc. His leather goods are so fine they seem edible, and so extensive collection is a set of luggage made to match the tan upholstry of his Mercedes. Kathleen has a matched set to match his matching set.

One collection he has would surprise many people who know him, and that is books. He is a voracious reader, and always has been, but is so self-conscious about his love of literature, and in the past, so concerned it would tarnish his manly image, that only his closest friends have ever seen him with a book. There are countless witnesses to his life who claim, out loud, he doesn’t read: Howard Hawks, who went hunting and rode motorcycles with him; Joan Crawford, who loved him; to name two. The Misfits crew will know this deepest secret about him, and remark on it. There are so many hours to kill on this picture, and it is so hot on location, Clark Gable just puts himself in the shade and is what he is.

With amazement, the assembly is finding him courtly, soft-spoken, dedicated, patient, modest, and a great audience for jokes. This group, not a few of whom are card-carrying cynics, is moved by his dignity and courtesy, is responsive to his scowl or frown because both appear infrequently enough to be meaningful when they do. Arthur Miller will one day dedicate the book version of Misfits "To Clark Gable, who didn’t know how to hate."

Frank Taylor, who is surprised by Gable’s elegance, passes on the observation that "Clark Gable is a man de-classed. You can’t guess in any way where he came from or what he was."

Saying so, he credits Gable with achieving the essence of the American dream: not only to succeed, but to pass. Gable, millionaire movie star, now passes as Marlboro man, country squire, sage, and god, because he is all that. Perhaps, when he was what he really was, he didn’t exist at all.

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