Clark Gable had just about every known lifestyle risk factor for the heart attack that killed him at the very young age of 59. Perhaps best known for his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind (1939), he was the leading man in more than 60 motion pictures and was nominated three times for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He appeared with Joan Crawford in eight films, Myrna Loy in seven, Jean Harlow in six, Lana Turner in four, Norma Shearer and Ava Gardner in three, and Marilyn Monroe in one. He was one of Hollywood’s best paid actors for 16 years.
Gable’s mother died when he was ten months old, and his chaotic childhood set him up for his self-destructive lifestyle as an adult. He was dyslexic, so he failed terribly in school and quit high school at age 16. He worked in an Ohio tire factory and decided to become an actor after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise. He toured in stock companies, worked in oil fields and sold ties. In 1924 he reached Hollywood with the help of a Portland, Oregon theater manager, Josephine Dillon, who coached and later married him.
Before marrying two women 17 and 14 years older than he was, and before he made it in Hollywood, he worked as a stage gigolo for several older actresses. He later told the press, “I have been accused of preferring blondes. But I have known some mighty attractive redheads, brunettes, and yes, women with grey hair. Age, height, weight haven’t anything to do with glamour”.
Five Marriages, Many Lovers
Marriage #1: Josephine Dillon (1924-1930) was 17 years older than Gable. She paid to have his teeth repaired, supported him financially and managed his early career.
Marriage #2: Maria Langham (1931-1939) was a Texas socialite who was 14 years older. In 1933, he had cosmetic surgery to bring his ears closer to his head. In 1934, he had an affair with actress Loretta Young that resulted in a daughter, Judy. Young denied that Gable was the father, but in her book published after her death she admitted that it was true.
Marriage #3: Carole Lombard (1939-1942). They met when they were making a movie while she was still married to actor William Powell and he was still married to Langham. In 1939, he made enough money from Gone with the Wind to reach a divorce settlement of $500,000 with his second wife. In 1941, he was leading man to Lana Turner in four movies, that billed them as “the team that generates steam.” Gable was 20 years older than Turner. His wife at that time, Carole Lombard, told Louis B. Mayer to tell Lana Turner to stay away from her husband off the screen. On January 16, 1942, Lombard had finished her 57th movie and was on a war-bond tour when her plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing all people on board.
After Lombard’s death, Gable enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He flew five combat missions and was awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. In May 1944, Gable was promoted to major and was assigned to make pictures for the war effort. His films were so inspirational to the Allies that Adolf Hitler offered a reward to anyone who could capture and bring Gable to him.
Gable then lived with Joan Crawford after her third divorce. They had enjoyed an on-and-off affair for years and starred in pictures together eight times. He also continued a relationship with Paulette Goddard. In 1948, he proposed marriage to, and was refused by, Nancy Reagan.
Marriage #4: Sylvia Ashley (1949-1952), a British divorcé who had royal titles from three of her many marriages and was the widow of Douglas Fairbanks. In 1953, Gable was to appear in Mogambo with Gene Tierney, but she had emotional problems and the directors replaced her with Grace Kelly. He was rumored to have had an affair with Kelly even though she was 28 years younger than him.
Marriage #5: Kay Williams (1955–60), a former fashion model and actress who had divorced sugar-refining heir Adolph B. Spreckels for “beating her with one of her slippers”. Kay and Clark had a son who was born on March 20, 1961, four months after Gable’s death.
During and between these marriages, he was associated with some of Hollywood’s most famous stars including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Susan Lenox, Greta Garbo, Marion Davies, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh. He was widely quoted as saying, “Hell, if I’d jumped on all the dames I’m supposed to have jumped on, I’d have had no time to go fishing.”
A Predictable Death
On November 5, 1960 Gable had a heart attack while changing a tire on his jeep. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a close friend and heart attack survivor, sent him a get-well message. A few years before, Gable had suffered two “seizures” that were really heart attacks. In one of them, he was driving along a freeway and had chest pains so severe that he had to pull off the road and lie down on the ground until he felt well enough to resume driving. On November 16, 1960, while sitting in his hospital bed, he suffered a fourth and final heart attack. Attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Gable was a walking time bomb who spent his life accumulating heart attack risk factors:
• He smoked at least three packs of cigarettes and/or two pipes of tobacco a day. His lungs were so damaged by his smoking that he rattled when he talked.
• He drank way too much. Binge drinking, in particular, damages the heart muscle and arteries to markedly increase heart attack risk.
• He was often overweight and would go on crash diets for movie roles. For his last picture, The Misfits, he went from more than 235 pounds to 190 lbs. Every time he lost weight, he lost fat and muscle, including heart muscle. Every time he regained weight, he gained only fat, so at the same weight, he would be much fatter and have a weaker heart than he had before the diet. Fat in the liver and muscles blocks insulin receptors to increase risk for diabetes and heart attacks.
• He exercised too little. It is incredible that a film star whose fame was based on his masculinity had such small muscles and did not exercise.
• His typical meat-heavy diet would block insulin receptors to increase risk for diabetes and heart attacks. In 1933, he had his gall bladder removed, the result of a fatty liver and weight gain.
• He had many sexual partners, which may have exposed him to infections that cause inflammation that increases risk for heart attacks. Inflammation causes small holes to form in the inner lining of arteries because a person’s immunity, which is supposed to attack germs, instead attacks one’s own body, including the inner lining of arteries. Then the raw areas bleed and clot and a plaque starts to form. This can be the first step in the progression toward a heart attack. Then his overactive immunity probably caused plaques to break off from his heart arteries to cause his several heart attacks.
All infections cause inflammation. Promiscuous people can carry many venereal diseases and each new sexual contact exposes a person to new germs. Even today, many venereal diseases have no cure.
What You Can Learn from Clark Gable’s Death
Heart attacks are caused primarily by the things that you do, not just by your genes and family history (J Am Coll Cardiol, 2014;64(13):1299-1306). In a study of 20,721 men who were followed for 12 years, researchers found that those who followed a healthful diet, severely restricted alcohol, did not smoke, exercised regularly, and had little belly fat were 86 percent less likely to have heart attacks.
Gable’s generation knew far less about the causes of heart attacks than we know today, yet heart attacks are still the leading cause of death in North America. You can help to protect yourself from suffering a heart attack:
• avoid smoking and alcohol
• eat a healthful high-plant diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and other seeds and is low in sugared drinks, sugar added foods and other refined carbohydrates, red meat and fried foods
• exercise daily and grow muscle
• avoid overweight and reduce excess body fat
• avoid exposure to sexually transmitted diseases and other infections
• keep blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 20 ng/ml
William Clark Gable
February 1, 1901 – November 16, 1960