How does it feel to die
Clark Gable: the strangest story ever told
Source: Photoplay 2/1960, Pg 58, 80-84
Author: Roberta Downs
In the dark, quiet bedroom, Clark Gable sat up suddenly. 'Kay?" he said sharply. "Kay" .. . The tiny clock on his night table read 4:43. "Kay?"... The form in the other bed stirred slightly. "Hmm?" said Kay Gable sleepily. "Huh? What what's wrong?"... Clark let his breath out in a rush. "Nothing. Kay- you all right?" His wife buried her head deeper into flue pillows. "Sure," she mumbled. "Jus' fine-" Her voice trailed off. She didn't move. Soon she was breathing evenly; sound sleep again. With a sigh, Clark let himself slide down under the cover ... Everything was all right. Everything was fine. Kay was fine. A she always was, now. Always. And yet - his mind refused to relax. Restlessly, his eyes wandered through the dim light, picking out familiar objects. The draperies Kay had hung over the wide windows. The big bureau he had picked himself. The chair Carole had bought only a month before she died- Carole Lombard, his third wife. When Kay married him and moved into the big, airy bedroom, he'd said,. 'I suppose you'll want to get rid of the old furniture, Carole's stuff and all. Buy anything you want-" But Kay, wonderful Kay, had smile and shaken her head. "No," she'd said, in the clear, firm voice be loved so well, "Carole had good taste; she bought handsome things. I'm not jealous of the past, Clark. How could I be? I have now…."
"And always," he'd said. He had taken her in his arms and kissed her, and for the first time in years and years he too had felt free of the past, free of its beauties and terrors, its happiness and its tragedies. Free of the memory of death.
But tonight- Death.
The word echoed restless in his head. Now, in the gray dawn, he could remember what had snapped. him suddenly awake. A dream. He had dreamed of death, had wakened, calling Kay, with the cold chill of it somehow all around him.
As death had reached out to so many in Hollywood recently. Shutting his eyes, Clark turned on his side. He wouldn't think about it now. Now he would go to sleep.
Victor McLaglen, his stubborn mind whispered.
The beautiful Kay Kendall…..
In so few months, death had claimed so many.
In Hollywood, people were superstitious. When one died, they waited for the next. "It comes in threes," they said. "Never just one-" It was nonsense, of course, and yet-
Somehow there was always another.
Angrily, Clark swung his long legs out of the bed and stood up. Morbid nonsense, he told himself; He'd get into his bathrobe and make himself some coffee. In an hour or so the sun would be up, then everything would look different. He'd felt low before, and pulled out of it. Like the time- He'd never forget the night Kay lost the baby.
If a man could survive that, he could survive anything.
He was in his fifth marriage and his fifty-fourth year, and he had never had a child.
Carole and he had talked about a family. Beautiful, laughing, wonderful Carole who had left the world of night clubs and parties and adoration she'd lived in so long to build him a home in his bachelor ranch, to wade down trout streams in hip boots and mud, to call hi "Pappy" and enrich his life with her growing vitality, and her love. They would, they decided, raise a family of beautiful iris and husky men, an entire sewing circle and a basketball team. Only there'd been no time…
She'd said goodbye to him at the airport to go on a bond-selling tour. From city to city she'd flown, a dressing meetings and crowds and rallies, smiling at thousands of strangers, and selling millions of dollars worth of bonds, and from every city sending him a message- "Hey, Pappy, you'd better get into this man's army!" But the last message came not from Carole, but from a stranger in an airbase in Nevada. "Your wife's plane has disappeared. Perhaps you want to come down?''
They found the wreckage the next day. Flames, and charred steel and smoke, and somewhere, loss forever, the great love and life that had been is with Carole Lombard.
The child of that marriage was despair.
He joined the Army then. He enlisted as a private and, firing gun from the turret of a plane over Germany, he rose to the rank of major. When the war was over he came home in triumph, the most sought-after, the most lonely man in Hollywood. In 1949 he tried to end that loneliness by marrying again; his wife was a fashionable blonde with an English accent and English ideas-Lady Sylvia Ashley. For eighteen long, wearing months they did their honest best to adjust to each other, to like each other's ways. It was an honorable, but inevitable failure, long before children could even be considered.
And then Kay came into his life. She came like a dream of peace and contentment. She came not to mother him or change him-but only to love him. She was not a girl as Carole had been, nor a Lady as Sylvia had been-she was a woman, having known sorrow and joy, having survived two broken marriages, having borne two wonderful children. She had wit, and a temper when angered-and the patience of a saint to wait for the man she loved to know he loved her, too.
And he finally did. He woke up finally one day in 1955 when Hollywood- was flooded with rumors that they were engaged, secretly married, just good friends, split-up, bitter enemies-and knew that he wanted with all his heart to marry Kay.
What he and Kay had together was not what he and Carole had known-but what he and Carole would have had in years to come if they were very, very lucky.
He knew he was lucky, beyond belief, right now.
From the beginning, their marriage, was good. The same kind, firm discipline which Kay gave her children, she gave to the running of Clark's home. He did not like a lot of servants about, preferring the few he had known and felt comfortable with for years; Kay made it her business to get to know and like them, too, to make whatever changes she required slowly and carefully, without hurting feelings or disrupting routines. Clark liked to live out-of-doors as much as possible; Kay provided herself with slickers and boots and went with him. Clark liked to take off suddenly, on impulse, for a short trip or vacation; Kay wisely kept suitcases easily accessible and turned down invitations that arrived too far in advance.
And when they had been married less than a year, she told him she was going to have a baby.
If she had handed him the moon to hold in his hands, she could not have made half the impression. She had never in her whole life seen a look of such absolute, incredulous joy; she had not known till then that a strong man's eyes could fill with tears and he would not be ashamed.
"Are you sure?" he whispered.
"We'll have to wait . . . and see."
She knew what he meant. 'Wait and make sure before allowing himself to fully feel this joy, before giving way to such a tremendous pride, before building new rooms, planning a new life- As if he held his breath, as if he walked on tiptoe. Clark waited. And on the day the doctor confirmed Kay's pregnancy, he burst loose. They went to a party that night; he ran from guest to guest, like a boy, distributing cigars. The famous grin spread from ear to ear; the famous deep laugh rang out all night. He was a man who had finally come into his own.
The next day the carpenters came to build a nursery wing. The furniture salesmen arrived with cribs and bathinets suitable for princes. Saleswomen from department stores sent layettes. If Kay hadn't laughed at him, Clark would probably have registered his unborn child in half-a-dozen colleges.
Congratulations poured in from all over. One couple, close friends of Clark's and Kay's, suggested a final fling to celebrate, "before you have to start worrying about baby sitters." They planned a short trip to the Valley of the Moon; they'd rough it together; fish, have a ball. Kay would be in her eleventh week of pregnancy then; ready and able to camp out.
But in her tenth week, Kay picked up a virus. Her face was flushed, her eyes too bright, but she refused to go to bed. "Nonsense, I'm fine. I've got too much to do to Just lie around. After all, were leaving in a few days."
Finally, Clark called the doctor. He came over and silenced her protests with a thermometer. Then he looked at Clark. "Sorry, but you're going to have to cancel the trip."
The doctor left, his eyes worried. In her bed, Kay Gable hid her face and wept. "I'm failing you," she sobbed. "You wanted to go so much, you hate to be cooned up in the house…"
He held her to his heart. "Anywhere with you is where I want to be. Now stop crying and rest. You'll see, it'll turn out to be a good thing, canceling the trip. The Valley will be flooded,, or something. It did turn out to be a good thing. Not because of The Valley. - But because on the day they would have left, Kay's fever suddenly climbed. Her forehead burned, she shivered violently, begged for more and more blankets. By the time a terrified Clark had reached the doctor, his wife was in a coma. The physician arrived, sat by the bed for twenty-four, hours while Clark paced miserably, up and down. By morning, the fever was lessened, but Kay was weak-and exhausted. Even after she could leave the bed, she looked pale and ill. Every afternoon her energy seemed to disappear; Clark would lead her carefully back to her room, lower the blinds, cover her feet and watch anxiously until she fell into heavy, restless sleep.
And then one night at nine o'clock, watching television, she cried out suddenly. "Clark-honey-"
"What is it?"
"I don't 'know!" Her voice was sharp with fear. "'I don't know! I feel-terrible!"
Within minutes an ambulance was at the house. Holding Kay's hand on the way to the hospital, Clark prayed. Then he had to say goodbye to her at the door of a private room and go into the corridor. Doctors and nurses hurrying by scarcely saw the tall, sturdy man with his head bent over his hands, waiting, waiting.
At four-thirty in the morning, Kay's doctor found him.
"I've been trying all night to save the baby. I'm sorry.You're your wife's sake, she'll have to lose the child," Clark raised his head. "Go ahead," he said hoarsely. "Just don't-don't let anything happen to my wife!"
At five O'clock the operation was performed.
The moon was taken away from him. Weeks later, he brought his wife home from the hospital. He settled her in her room, and then he went down to walk by himself across the rolling hills of his land. When he had been out for an hour, he heard a call behind him, and turned. Bunker and Joan waved to him to wait raced toward him across the grass. He watched them come.
Bunker got there first. "Pa-Mom said we should come out and keep you company."
Joanie said, "Can we walk a ways with you, Pa?"
He stood looking down at them. For some reason he never could explain, he had to say, "You know-you know, I'm not your Pa."
They grinned up at him. They chorused: "Yeah we know - Pa."
And he felt the fear and sorrow of the days just past slip slowly away from his heart.
The nursery wing the carpenters had begun would never be completed now. But there would be time for building of another sort; time to create a structure more enduring than stone and brick. He would build his life around the children he already had; he would be, in the truest sense, a father after all.
He began slowly to refer to Bunker and Joanie as "my son" and "my little girl." - He, began to help them with homework, worry with Kay over the choice of a school. One night, the Buckleys School, where he, and Kay had decided at last to send them, put on a show. Bunker and Joanie both had roles in it, so of course Kay and Clark attended. A thrilled little usher showed them to seats in the auditorium; amid a crowd of other proud parents they beamed while the house lights dimmed, the curtains part and their offspring appeared on the stage.
But the first act was hardly halfway through, when a noise was heard in the audience. A second later, a small child ducked out of his seat and dashed down the aisle, mounted the step to the stage, planted his feet firmly dead center and started in on the first verse of Shirley Temple's famous song, "The Good Ship Lollipop." Astounded, the other children on stage forgot their lines, let their jaws drop, and stared. A giggle went up from the parents, and then another. The child paused, said, "Ssshhhhh!' and began again. And Clark Gable started to laugh. It began with his usual chuckle, passed slowly into a roar, then into bellow, then into a chokes with Kay pounding him on the back and tears streaming down his cheeks, he staggered out of his seat and into the aisle. He was still laughing when he got outside, an hour later, when he picked the kids up backstage, he continued to crack up every now and then.
That night, as they lay quietly in the dark, Kay said thoughtfully "Clark-you know, this is the first time I've seen you able to relax that much. You looked at peace tonight."
In the dark, he smiled and he realized a man would be a fool to want something he's already got. He had two children already.
Yes, Clark Gable told himself, remembering, as he measured coffee into the electric percolator in the silent kitchen- a man can survive tragedy and come out smiling.
The coffee began to perk in the pot, noisily, but Clark scarcely heard it. His mind had filled again with other sounds, from other times. He remembered the night, only such a short time after Kay had recovered from the loss of their child, when again she had cried out in sudden pain, when again the doctor had come with his reassuring voice-and terrifying words:
"Let's get her back to the hospital, Mr. Gable. There's something going on around her heart!"
The dragging hours ... The lonely trip to the diner for coffee; the hurried walk back - to the hospital. And at last, the doctor:
"Angina Pectoris. A very painful and dangerous condition of the heart. But with care, she'll be all right."
In his great burst of relief, Clark scarcely heard the words. But Kay, coming slowly out of her illness, heard them over and over in her mind. Care for, a heart patient, meant practically invalidism. Long hours of rest. No strenuous activity. Not too many steps to climb, not too many parcels to carry. Hunting? Fishing? Camping? Out of the question.
She had married Clark Gable to make him happy, to share with him his pleasures, to join with him in his rugged life, to be his companion. Now, her heart wept, she was to tie him instead to a house, a bedroom, an ailing woman. Of course, he protested none of that mattered. Of course, he told her, as he had told her before, that all he wanted was to be with her-anywhere, anyhow. Of course, he meant it.
By the time she war out of the hospital and home, other people had begun to speculate about what Kay's illness might do to the marriage. The columns were full of hints, veiled in sympathy, of the destruction Kay's weakness could cause.
Clark, reading them, slammed the papers down in fury. Kay did not. She bit her lips thoughtfully.
It was then she vowed she was not going to be an invalid.
She was going to be Clark's wife, just as she'd always planned.
She was going to get well.
And with a resolution stronger than any medicine, she set about her own cure.
At first she pushed too fast. Clark, leaving her to nap, would come to find her cleaning bureau drawers, sorting the children's clothes. Firmly, he would take her back to the bed. "Kay, please. For me. For the kids. Rest!"
"I'm not tired."
"If you don't stop all this activity, you will be."
"Good. I'll rest then!"
She might have done herself serious damage if a friend hadn't spoken up."Kay, don't think I don't know what you're trying to do. I know. And I believe in you. You'll succeed. But only if you take it easy now. Otherwise you'll make yourself so ill you won't have a chance."
She stared at her friend, with bright eyes. "You think I can do it? Get better? Go fishing again-everything?"
"Everything. Everyone who knows you knows you can do it. Only take it slow!"
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I will. You really think it will work, don't you!"
She felt, after that, as if not only her own will, but those of hundreds of others were working for her. She took strength from her friends, from her children, from the thousands of letters and cards that poured in from Clark's fans. She took strength from the look in her husband's eyes when, over and over again, he gently persuaded her to take a nap flow, a rest later. The look that said: "I understand. Believe me, it isn't necessary-but I love you all the more for what you're doing. My wonderful wife-"
And she got well.
Clark, poured coffee into a cup and sat staring into it. He could remember still the first time after the attack when she'd slid beside him into a heated swimming pool, and paddled the length of it. He could remember the first time she'd packed their bags to go fishing again. He could remember the first time she'd gone with him on a long walk. Those nights he had wakened a dozen times to make sure she was all right, had leaned on his elbow until the sound of her quiet breathing convinced him that she slept peacefully.
He could remember now how slowly, quietly, almost unnoticeably, she'd brought the old way of life back to them again-a little slower, to be sure, a little gentler, a little more concerned with not being out too late, fishing too long, walking too far- but still, the old, beloved life. He could remember the times when she'd paled suddenly or gasped and he'd said, "What is it? What is it?" Always she had managed a smile for him. Always she'd said, "Don't worry. It's nothing. I'll rest a little, that's all-" Then, for a day or two, while he hovered anxiously, she would take it easy, nap in the afternoon, cancel a date or two. But by the end of a week, she would be back in stride again.
Finally he'd talked to the doctor about it. "Doctor, tell me, should I let her do all -this?"
The doctor had smiled. "Mr. Gable, you try to stop her and you'll do her more harm than four heart attacks. She's learning how much she can, and can't do; she's taking care of herself. You have an extraordinary wife, my friend. I didn't cure her. Medicine didn't cure her. You know what brought her around this way?"
"Will power," he said.
The doctor nodded. "But what gave her the will power? One thing. I think you call it-love."
I think you call it love.
Yes, Clark Gable thought now, holding the coffee cup. You call it love, and it's all that matters. If you get it, it doesn't matter if it comes from another man's children or your own. It doesn't matter if it comes from an amazon or someone a re little more fragile. It's the love that counts.