Classic Hollywood: Gable & Niven: Star-crossed Stars
Like us mere mortals, actors form close friendships, too. Myrna Loy and William Powell shared a tight bond, on screen and off. Before they were legends, James Stewart and Henry Fonda were roommates and lifelong BFFs. But when it comes to bromances – and tragic coincidences – few tales top the 25-year friendship of Clark Gable and David Niven.
Gable was already famous in 1934 when he met Niven, then baiting hooks on a charter fishing boat between movie-extra gigs. The next year, Niven crossed paths with Gable after signing a contract with producer Samuel L. Goldwyn, who cast the charming Brit in the acclaimed pics Dodsworth and Wuthering Heights. By 1939, Gable was killin’ it in Gone With the Wind, while Niven’s star was rising fast in Raffles and Bachelor Mother.
Weekends found Niven golfing, fishing, and hanging out with Gable and his wife Carole Lombard, a big star in her own right. However, once England entered World War II on September 3, 1939, Niven ditched show biz to join the British Army. The Gables hosted a farewell dinner in his honor; Niven went on to see action in Dunkirk, Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1940, Niven met debutante Primula Rollo in London. Within two weeks, they were married. Back in L.A., Gable and Lombard continued making films, but three days after Pearl Harbor, Lombard offered her services to President Roosevelt. On January 16, 1942, flying home from a bond-selling tour, Lombard died in a crash. That summer, her grief-stricken husband joined the Army.
By 1943, Gable was stationed in England. He often visited the Nivens’ cottage, where the couple did their best to console their heartbroken pal. Niven recalled, “The terrible wound of Carole’s death seemed to be healing, but the very happiness of our little group would sometimes overwhelm him. Primmie found him one evening on an upturned wheelbarrow in the garden, his head in his hands, weeping uncontrollably. She held the huge bear of a man in her arms and comforted him.”
After the war, Gable and Niven headed to Hollywood to jump-start their careers. Six weeks later, Primmie followed with two Niven tots, and the family joined Gable on a trip up the California coast. That weekend, Primmie wrote to her father that she had “never been so happy.” Upon returning home, the Nivens dined at Tyrone Power’s house, where the guests played a hide-and-seek game called “Sardines.” In Power’s darkened kitchen, Primmie opened a door, stepping into what she thought was a closet. Instead, she plunged down a flight of stairs, fracturing her skull. Hours later, Primmie was dead.
Now it was Gable’s turn to console Niven…but it wasn’t long before both men made impulsive matrimonial mistakes.
In 1948, Niven wed a former Miss Sweden after a whirlwind courtship. David and Hjördis Niven stayed together until his death in 1983, but the marriage was reportedly stormy. In 1949, Gable rushed into marriage with Lady Sylvia Ashley, with whom he had little in common, save for her eerie resemblance to Lombard. After 18 months, that marriage was toast.
In 1955, Gable tied the knot with Kay Williams. Five years later, Kay became pregnant with Gable’s first child. Unfortunately, the couple’s joy was short-lived: Gable suffered a fatal heart attack on November 16, 1960. Four months later, Kay gave birth to “The King’s” little prince, John Clark Gable…the son he always wanted.
Classic Hollywood posts appear bimonthly on The Music Hall blog.