Old Wives' Tales
Radio & TV
Toxin du jour
Claim: Clark Gable hit and killed a pedestrian while driving drunk, and MGM covered up the incident by paying an employee to go to prison in his place.
Example: [Time Magazine, 2000]
Origins: We rarely offer our audience a glimpse behind the scenes into how we go about researching a rumor. It's usually a boring process most of our readers wouldn't find at all interesting, primarily because the most time-consuming part of investigating the origins and truth (or falsity) of rumors is often not the legwork of performing research and tracking down background material, but all the time required to collate the research results, organize the information, and write it up as a coherent narrative for others to read. But this item provided an example in which the research itself was every bit as much the story as the rumor, so for a change we thought we'd skimp a little on the "organization" and "coherent narrative" part and take the reader along on a trip through the process.
When we're investigating a rumor about a person who is both well-known and long dead, the first place we usually turn is the most recently published biography about that person (on the assumption that the biographer had access to the most up-to-date, and therefore most accurate, information). In this case the most recent Clark Gable biography was 2002's Clark Gable by
In March  Gable's heavy drinking finally caught up with him. While driving home from a party celebrating the American victory on Iwo Jima, he lost control of the car as he passed through the Bristol Circle, a dense tree-filled traffic island on Sunset Boulevard in residential Brentwood in West Los Angeles. It being around four o'clock in the morning, there may have been no eyewitnesses to what actually happened. But MGM publicists and security chief Whitey Hendry got to the accident scene before it was reported to the police or press.According to this account, Gable was once involved in an automobile accident while drunk, but he hit a tree (not a pedestrian or another car), and he injured no one but himself. And while MGM did feed reporters a story about Gable's having been forced off the road by another driver in order to head off unflattering publicity about his drunkenness, there was no pedestrian whose death needed to be "hushed" by a "pliant press."
[MGM publicist] Howard Strickling later claimed that Gable crashed into a tree on the front lawn of Harry Friedman, a talent agent for MCA. According to Strickling, Friedman knew enough about the industry's penchant for secrecy to phone MGM instead of the cops.
"It wouldn't have been good if a photographer arrived and snapped Clark Gable lying on the lawn covered with blood and his car all cracked up," Strickling said. After a studio doctor arrived to patch up Gable, he was taken to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, and the wrecked car was quickly towed away.
At the hospital Gable required ten stitches for head and shoulder wounds and was detained for "observation." He was in a drunken stupor and kept threatening to walk out, so all his clothes were taken away to lessen the chances. He spent the next three days in isolation, being thoroughly dried out.
The press had so many informants at Cedars of Lebanon that Gable's presence became known within minutes. Amusingly, the story handed out by MGM was that Gable's car had been sideswiped by a drunken driver who immediately sped away! Nobody believed it, but it got printed and also started rumors of what really happened. One of the more extreme had Gable killing a pedestrian and MGM persuading one of its minor executives to take the rap for him! After "confessing" that he had really been driving the car and Gable was only a passenger, the exec supposedly served a year in jail for manslaughter, after which MGM rehired him with a whopping pay increase and pension plan.1
We wouldn't want to dismiss this rumor based on a single source, however, especially since in this case the referenced biography provides no footnotes or endnotes to indicate the source of the author's information. (Biographers often simply pick up and repeat anecdotes from earlier biographies and other printed sources without independently verifying their validity.) Remembering that we had come across this rumor in a recent book about "strange myths and curious legends" associated with
Not surprisingly, there has never been a credible validation of Gable's hit-and-run story. The only recorded episode in Gable's life that bears any resemblance occurred on June 20, 1933 when he drunkenly ran his Duesenberg into a tree. According to the Los Angeles Examiner, he was on his way to visit Strickling when he misjudged the driveway and piled right into a large eucalyptus. According to the Examiner, Strickling rushed Gable to Cedars-Sinai and told reporters that he had swerved to avoid a drunk driver traveling in the opposite direction, apparently to hide Gable's own intoxication. And just to make sure that the public felt sorry for him, Strickling forced him to stay in the hospital for an entire week.Now we were confronted with a legend-within-a-legend: According to this version, the rumor of Gable's automotive mishap dates from 1933 (twelve years earlier than the previous account), and the real story involved no dead pedestrian or even an automobile accident
Gable's mysterious hospital stay in 1933 seems to be the real basis of the rumor. Yet, even that is of questionable origin. In fact, it's likely that Strickling made up the story about crashing into a tree to hide something else, something slightly more embarrassing. According to his biographer, Lyn Tornabene, the real reason for Gable's secretive hospital stay was to get cosmetic surgery on his famously large ears and tobacco-stained teeth, and he didn't want anyone to know about it, including his studio bosses.2
Right away, a few problems with this account jumped out at us:
Clark's heroic consumption of alcohol ceased to be a laughing matter when he wrapped himself around a tree in the middle of the night in March , too drunk to find the Wilshire Boulevard cut-off from a traffic circle. Fortunately for his image, the tree he ran into was on the lawn of agent Harry Friedman, who knew the business well enough to call Howard Strickling rather than the police or an ambulance. It was four or five in the morning, as Howard recalls, and Friedman said to him, "Howard, geez, your friend is bleeding; what shall I do?" Howard told him he was too far [away] to come quickly, so he would send [MGM publicist] Ralph Wheelwright and [MGM security chief] Whitey Hendry. "In the meantime," he said, "tell Clark to talk to no one And have them get the car out of there as fast as they can."Nowhere in Long Live the King did we find anything about Clark Gable's involvement in an automobile accident in 1933, or his striking and killing a pedestrian, or his plotting a mysterious week-long hospital stay, or his undergoing cosmetic surgery on his ears and teeth. The book merely mentions that at some point in his career Gable had his teeth capped, and that there had since been dispute over when the work was performed and who paid for it. (Gable himself said that MGM head
Howard explains, "It wouldn't have been particularly good to have some photographers go out and make a picture of Clark Gable lying on the lawn all covered with blood, and his car all cracked up, because they would all say, 'Who was with him?' you know. They always said, 'There was some woman with him and you hid her.'"
Wheelwright called a doctor, who called a surgeon; the Stricklings arrived in time to take Clark to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. There he got ten stitches in his head and shoulder, and was placed under observation. Howard had to take away his clothes to make him stay in the hospital, but within three days he talked [his secretary] Jean Garceau into bringing him a suit, and his doctor into releasing him.
Once he was hospitalized, there was no way to keep the press from closing in. The story the reporters were told was that Clark had swerved into the tree to avoid hitting a drunken driver, who did not stop at the accident. The press printed it, but no one believed it. Those who were told what MGM claimed was the true story behind the newspaper story didn't believe that either. Rumors persist that the true true story was so damaging that MGM issued a fake true story to fog it. "Who was with him?" people still ask. "What were they hiding?"3
Working on the charitable assumption that the author of L.A. Exposed didn't just make up his own version of the Gable rumor but somehow misreferenced his source, we kept looking for additional information to resolve the discrepancies. Since an essential component of "dead pedestrian" rumor is that MGM chief
Mayer had an impossible Joan Crawford on his hands. OnHere the lack of detail concerning some key points arouses our suspicion. This account doesn't tell us anything about when all this activity supposedly occurred (the most the reader can infer from the context is that the events described supposedly took place sometime in 1933), it doesn't provide any information about the putative accident victim, it doesn't identify the "proposed picture" that Mayer allegedly canceled because of the incident, and it doesn't tell us anything about the MGM employee who purportedly took the rap for Gable (other than referring to him by a pseudonym). And the details that are checkable reveal a writer sloppy with the facts: The film Today We Live premiered in March
Clark Gable was irritated at the publicity surrounding the Mayer-Crawford fight because he was getting only $2,500 a week. He complained that he was suffering from adhesions following the gall bladder operation, and he was annoyed that Mayer was lending him to Columbia Pictures, considered the Siberia of the industry, to make a picture entitled Overland Bus (later, It Happened One Night). He began to drink heavily, partly because of the fact that Miss Crawford had dumped him in favor of the handsome young Franchot Tone. While driving drunk down to Sunset Boulevard from the Hollywood Hills, he rounded a bend too sharply and struck a pedestrian, killing her instantly. Mayer acted immediately; he laid him off salary for ninety days, canceled a proposed picture, cut his salary in half for all future movies and told him to lie low until it was time to make the Columbia movie. Somebody would have to say they were driving the car, since the press would get onto the fact if the court dockets were burned. The dead woman's family was howling for blood.
Mayer went over the list of his executive staff to find the one he could definitely spare. He selected an executive I will call Mark Pine and summoned him to the office. He told Pine that, whatever happened, the studio must not be damaged or destroyed by the exposure of its leading star to charges of manslaughter; that Pine had an opportunity to save everyone's neck. Pine would be offered a guarantee of life employment at
Clearly, we needed more information to be able to sort out the conflicting accounts. Since we had two versions of the rumor that set Gable's automobile accident in 1945 and two others that set it in 1933, the first order of business was to determine whether Gable was involved in two different accidents or just one, and when they took place. The 1945 incident was easy enough to verify by making a trip to the UCLA research library and checking their microfilm archives: Gable's accident was front-page news in both the
CLARK GABLE INJURED IN FREAK AUTO CRASHThese accounts conform to the version of events given in the two Gable biographies cited above: Gable ran his car into a tree during the early morning hours of
Clark Gable, the motion-picture actor, was in Cedars of Lebanon yesterday recovering from injuries he received in a freak accident late Saturday
Gable, according to a report to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, was driving east on
The actor received a laceration of the right leg which required several stitches, and a bruised chest, the studio reported.
The driver of the other car apparently did not realize that Gable had had an accident and did not stop, it was reported.
About an accident in 1933, we
So, we were left trying to reconcile how Clark Gable could have run over a pedestrian in
Prior to starting work [on Dancing Lady], Gable joined some friends on a hunting trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After his return onThe contemporary newspaper accounts we dug up confirmed Gable's hospital stays: Variety noted in its
The diagnosis was grim. Pyorrhea had developed in Gable's always-troublesome teeth and gums. The infection was rapidly spreading through his system and threatened to kill him.
After several days on drugs, Gable rallied. Oral surgeon George
That night Gable developed another high fever and landed back in the hospital. His previous infection had apparently reached his gallbladder, which became inflamed and had to be removed. Doctors said it would be at least a month before he'd be strong enough to work.
Selznick wanted to replace Gable with Robert Montgomery, but
Since he first missed work on
Feeling fully recuperated, he finally returned on
Within four days, Selznick assembled a rough cut for a sneak preview to gauge public reaction. The screening at the Fox Wilshire Theater in Beverly Hills was well received except for numerous comment cards expressing shock over Gable's haggard looks in the
Gable was furious and became angrier still when informed that his next trip would be a loan-out to one of Hollywood's "poverty row" studios for a comedy about overnight bus service.
A Hollywood legend claims that
Two days into production [of Dancing Lady], Clark Gable was due on the set from a bear-hunting expedition with Marino Bello, when the same problem that had afflicted Mayer in Rome struck him down. Gable had long neglected his teeth, and now a major infection invaded his gums, the result of very advanced pyorrhea. Mayer was afraid he might die;
We also noted another item that, although it didn't involve Clark Gable, might have some bearing on this rumor. Higham repeats a story he picked up from Lawrence Grobel's The Hustons, about actor-writer (and later world famous director) John Huston:
On September 25 , John Huston, son of Walter Huston and a promising writer in whose welfare Mayer took a strong interest, ran over a woman while driving on Sunset Boulevard and killed her instantly. He claimed that he was sober. Walter Huston was still one of Mayer's favorite actors and worked on and off at the studio. There was no way that this episode could not be kept out of the papers: John Huston was a nobody, and Mayer could not again pull strings. It was announced on(It's far more likely Huston escaped prosecution because there was no strong evidence that he was at fault in the accident than because Mayer "invested $400,000 to suppress the matter"
Huston escaped the charges, and it was arranged that he would leave the country and go to England for an indefinite period. 4
At this point we had enough to reconstruct the true arc of events, and a likely scenario for the rumor.
The truth: On Monday,
Gable was out for another month before finally returning to the studio in September; meanwhile, the producer considered replacing him, production on Dancing Lady was shut down, the film ran $150,000 over budget, and Mayer docked Gable over two months' pay. (Actors under studio contract were not paid per film; they were paid weekly salaries, whether they were currently working on films or not. Illness was considered a poor excuse for missing work when it delayed production and incurred additional expenses for the studio, so contract actors were often penalized for taking sick days.) After Dancing Lady finally wrapped in October, Gable (displaying a notable lack of enthusiasm) was sent over to Columbia Pictures for the film that would eventually become It Happened One Night because Mayer had no other project lined up for him and could cover his salary (and pick up a little extra) by loaning him to another studio. Nearly twelve years later, Gable ran his car into a tree on Sunset Boulevard after a night of heavy drinking. MGM was notified of the accident before the police or the press, and they floated the story that Gable's car was forced over the curb by a wrong-way driver. A
The rumor: Sometime after Gable's 1945 automobile accident, a rumor began to spread that Gable had hit a pedestrian rather than a tree. Gossipmongers whispered that the poor woman had been killed and the studio had arranged for someone else to take the rap to protect Gable. Perhaps Gable's 1945
If this lengthy exercise in sleuthing teaches anything, it's the danger inherent in accepting any one source's version of an event as gospel. Each of the resources we consulted mixed up bits of fact with rumor and included some mistakes (which could have been avoided with some minimal research), and some presumably "authoritative" accounts weren't just slipshod but egregiously in error. Yet they all shared one thing in common: each account was presented as truth of the "No need to question this" variety. Had we merely cracked open one book
Last updated: 9 August 2007
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