In the February 1932 issue of Modern Screen, Joan Crawford dismissed the rumors of her love affair with Clark Gable as just good acting. “I am supposed to be madly in love with a certain other actor in Hollywood,” she said coyly. “Before the camera, we were in love. Now that the picture is over, we are merely good friends!”
Of course, she wasn’t telling the truth. In the early 1930s, Joan and Clark did begin an affair so torrid and gossiped about that MGM Studios’ brass stepped in and forced them apart. But even Hollywood’s power brokers couldn’t destroy their strong connection, which lasted nearly 30 years. Later in life, Joan even came to Clark’s rescue just when he needed her most. “We had an affair — a glorious affair — and it lasted longer than anybody knows,” Joan confessed in 1968.
The two legendary performers had a lot in common. Both had escaped humble backgrounds and dysfunctional families to become stars in the make-believe world of Hollywood. Gossip magazines breathlessly speculated about their private lives. Clark was said to have seduced all of his costars, while Joan was famed for using her allure to get what she wanted. “She has slept with every male star at MGM except Lassie,” her nemesis, Bette Davis, once sniped. But Joan and Clark were both the marrying kind, too. She tallied up four husbands, while he was wed five times.
Joan was married to fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Clark was engaged to his second wife, Maria “Ria” Langham, when the pair appeared together in 1931’s Dance, Fools, Dance. Joan, who was the bigger star, admitted that sparks flew immediately. “It was like an electric current went through my body. … My knees buckled,” she said. “If he hadn’t held me by the shoulders, I’d have dropped.”
Their affair largely took place on the studio lot, with early-morning and late-night rendezvous in Joan’s trailer — a luxury purchased for her by her clueless husband. “It had been my wedding gift to her, which made [the betrayal] worse,” Douglas said. “I wasn’t quite finished paying for it yet!”
The writer Adela Rogers St. Johns, a friend of both actors, caught Clark and Joan in a clinch behind a bandstand. Joan “had her legs wrapped around him, in a position that only a supple dancer like Joan could assume,” said St. Johns, who received flowers and a spicy message from Joan the next day. “I bet you were thrilled watching,” the note read.
MGM boss Louis B. Mayer threatened to fire them both if it didn’t stop. He pressed Clark, then the less famous of the pair, to take his wife out so that they would be photographed together. The paparazzi also captured Clark and Joan double dating — although it was rumored that they disappeared together at dinner, leaving their spouses alone at the table! Incensed, Mayer pulled Clark off Joan’s film Letty Lynton and replaced him with Robert Montgomery.
Joan’s marriage to Douglas ended in 1933. Two years later, she wed another co-star, Franchot Tone. Her relationship with Clark was still on-and-off, but she didn’t see him as marriage material. “I didn’t think Clark would make a good husband —a great lover, a fine friend, but I imagined him an unfaithful husband,” Joan said. “I thought he liked to live in the moment, to be free of responsibilities. Then along came Carole Lombard.”
Clark and Carole, a comedian best known for her romantic comedies, had costarred in 1932’s No Man of Her Own, but they fell hard for each other when they met up again at a ball in Beverly Hills four years later. Carole became the love of Clark’s life — they never went more than six days without seeing each other. “I’ve been known to like ladies … and I do,” said Clark, who obtained a divorce to marry Carole in 1939. “With her, it’s different. Everything about her is different than with any other gal.”
A year later, when Joan and Clark reunited to film 1940’s Strange Cargo, she grew irritated when her former lover kept her at arm’s length. To make matters worse, Joan had recently starred in a series of box office flops and was jealous of Clark’s post Gone With the Wind popularity. In between scenes, she allegedly whispered unkind remarks to Clark about his new life, causing him to storm off the set. Joan’s hairdresser reportedly quit the film because she couldn’t stand how cruel the stars were to each other.
The film, however, was a big hit with audiences, who were thrilled to see Joan and Clark back together in what would be their final movie pairing.
When Carole perished in a plane accident while on a war bonds tour in 1942, Clark called Joan first. In the aftermath, they spoke daily, and he spent many nights at Joan’s home, drinking heavily and talking through his grief.
Joan went to the studio and asked to become Carole’s replacement in the film she was working on when she died, 1942’s They All Kissed the Bride. Joan donated her entire salary of $128,000 to the American Red Cross, the organization that recovered Carole’s remains for burial.
It’s been said that Joan proposed marriage to Clark, but he joined the Army in Carole’s honor instead. They both wound up marrying others but remained friends until Clark’s death in 1960. Joan, who passed in 1977, always spoke glowingly of him. “Clark Gable was the only man I ever loved,” she said. “Our relationship was private, just between us.”
— By Louise A. Barile