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Made for Each Other: Clark Gable and Carole Lombard’s Real Romance

After Gable suffered a rare flop in the period drama Parnell, Lombard had leaflets distributed on the MGM lot reading, “If you think Gable is the world’s greatest actor, see him in ‘Parnell.’” She played Judy Garland’s fawning “Dear Mr. Gable” so much that, per Harris, Gable later told Garland, “Honey, I love you madly, but please don’t do ‘our song’ anymore.”

But as Matzen explains, Lombard’s true gift was her generous nature. “Carole’s Causes” included countless crew members, a broke Anthony Quinn, the actor turned designer William Haines (blacklisted for being gay), ex-husband William Powell, a young Robert Stack, tuberculosis-stricken tennis star Alice Marble, a skidding John Barrymore, and a floundering Lucille Ball. According to Matzen, Lombard never wanted attention drawn to her good deeds or donations, quipping, “Oh shit, forget about it!’” when someone attempted to thank her.

One gets the sense that Lombard’s giving spirit was a tonic to the motherless Gable, whose hardscrabble childhood had left him tight-fisted and emotionally vulnerable. As he once said, per Harris, “You can trust that little screwball with your life.”

Ma and Pa

So, what exactly did Lombard see in Gable? According to Harris, she saw a charming, solitary, equally unpretentious, gentle man who loved to laugh and calmed her down. “[Clark] had my number so fast, it was terrifying,” Lombard told a friend, per Harris. “He told me what I was—a screwy, neurotic, miserable fool—and he was right. I’ve never been anything else… I just fooled people. But I couldn’t fool him, and I knew it.”

But as Matzen, not quite as starry-eyed as Harris about Lombard, notes, the highly competitive actress also saw Gable as a prize to be won. The fact that an angry Ria Gable refused to divorce Clark infuriated Lombard, and one night she shockingly broke into her rival’s home. “Lombard padded quietly to the doorway, cleared her throat and yelled at the startled Mrs. Gable, ‘Hi, you old witch. If you want to call me a home-breaker now, it’s your fucking privilege,’” Harris writes.

For feminist readers, the lengths Lombard went to make Gable happy—her “Clark comes first” attitude- are heartbreakingly eager and regressive. The thoroughly cosmopolitan comedienne transformed herself into an outdoors woman, practicing fly fishing with Claudette Colbert, learning to hunt, skeet shoot, and braving countless camping trips with Gable while nestled in a sleeping bag lined with her beloved fur coats.

She bought a ranch in Encino, dubbed “The House of Two Gables,” where the two stars lived in contented seclusion, cosplaying as rustic ranchers—riding tractors, raising chickens, and calling each other “Ma” and “Pa.”

In a particularly affecting passage (despite the fact that it seems a bit too pitch-perfect to be true), Harris describes a particularly happy night on the deck at the ranch:

“Gable said, ’Ma, we’re lucky people. We’ve got this ranch… … we’ve both got good jobs, friends, money in the bank and our health. God’s been good to us. Can you think of anything you really want that you haven’t got?’ Lombard sipped on her Coca-Cola before she answered. ’Pa, to tell you the truth, I could use a couple of loads of manure if we’re going to do any good with those fruit trees.’”

Enter The Sweater Girl

Despite Lombard’s Herculean efforts, there were some things her love and care could not fix. Throughout Gable & Lombard, Harris subtly points out that the couple had very real problems, even after they finally married in 1939. According to Harris, Lombard was particularly bothered by Gable’s miserliness. His selfish nature was also exhibited in the bedroom, leading Lombard to quip, “My God, you know how I love Pa, but I can’t say he’s a helluva good lay.”

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