In 1937, paternity tests hadn’t yet evolved to the sophisticated science that provides highly accurate results (and much talk-show drama). A man who denied fathering a child—even a movie icon as “the King of Hollywood”— would have to mount a traditional court case to prove himself.
Thus was the case for Clark Gable, who in 1937 had yet to star in his most-remembered role (that’d be Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, which came out in 1939), but had already collected a Best Actor Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night. He was a mega-star, in other words. And he attracted mega-star-sized attention, for better and worse.
In April 1937, Gable entered a Los Angeles courtroom to face Mrs. Violet Wells Norton, who claimed he was the father of her 13-year-old daughter, Gwendoline. She’d been arrested in January of that year on charges of mail fraud, for writing to the actor and demanding money from him. The letters, however, had begun arriving in 1932.
Mrs. Norton, the government charges, wrote Gable for money on the claim that he “wooed and won” her in England in 1922.
Mae West was also called in the trial to testify that she received a letter from Mrs. Norton asking for a chance in the movies for her daughter, Gwendoline, “Gable’s child.”
Mrs. Norton claimed in her letters that she knew Gable as a tutor in England. Gable claims that he was selling neckties and lumber-jacking at the time.
Gable’s testimony, another article noted, “consisted mainly of ‘noes’:”
On direct examination, he said he was never in England, certainly not in the early 20s, when Mrs. Norton claimed she carried on an illicit romance with one Frank Billings. The defendant says she recognized Gable in pictures years later as Billings.
Gable had other witnesses, including Franz Doerfler, the woman pictured with Gable above, testify on his behalf; she’d dated Gable during his lumberjack days in Oregon, and vouched that he’d been nowhere near England at the time.
In addition to Doerfler and Mae West, other witnesses included a “movie commentator” named James Fidler, who received an 18-page missive detailing Norton and “Billing’s” supposed English affair, as well as how Clark Gable (born William Clark Gable in Cadiz, Ohio) became Frank Billings, taking his first name from the local grocer and his last name from the shop itself, “The Gables.” Sure.
At a certain point, the real Frank Billings apparently stepped up and identified himself as Gwendoline’s father (he was said to have a passing resemblance to Gable, so maybe Norton wasn’t completely off her rocker, though she still maintained Gable was hiding his secret British past). The jury found her guilty of mail fraud and she was sentenced to a year in prison; she was subsequently deported to Canada.
Gable, as Golden Age of Hollywood fans well know, did have quite the way with the ladies. He was married five times; his fifth wife, Kay, gave birth to his only son in early 1961, months after Gable’s death in 1960. And it turns out he did have a daughter with unconventional parentage, but it wasn’t Gwendoline Norton. After Gable and his co-star in 1934’s The Call of the Wild, Loretta Young, had an on-set tryst (some allege it was not consensual), she gave birth to daughter Judy Lewis in 1935.
Lewis, who became an actress herself, died in 2011, and her New York Times obituary told the strange tale. She didn’t know that Gable was her father until six years after his death, when she was 31. What’s more, she didn’t even know that Young—who’d claimed to have adopted her as a ruse to cover up her pregnancy—was actually her birth mother, too:
Young was 22 and unmarried when she and Gable, 34 and married to Maria Langham, had their brief affair. She spent most of her pregnancy in Europe to avoid Hollywood gossip. Ms. Lewis was born on Nov. 6, 1935, in a rented house in Venice, Calif. Soon she was turned over to a series of caretakers, including St. Elizabeth’s Infants Hospital in San Francisco, so that Young could return to stardom.
When Ms. Lewis was 19 months old, her mother brought her back home and announced through the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the child.
Ms. Lewis grew up in Los Angeles, cushioned in the luxury of her mother’s movie-star lifestyle even as she endured what she later described as an outsider’s isolation within her family and the teasing of children at school.
They teased her about her ears: they stuck out like Dumbo’s. Or, as Hollywood rumors had it, they stuck out like Clark Gable’s. Ms. Lewis’s mother dressed her in bonnets to hide them. When Ms. Lewis was 7 her ears were surgically altered to make them less prominent.
Until Ms. Lewis, as an adult, confronted her years later, Young did not acknowledge that Ms. Lewis was her biological daughter, or that Gable was Ms. Lewis’s father. When Young married and had two children with Tom Lewis, a radio producer, Judy took his name but remained the family’s “adopted” daughter.
In 2001, Larry King asked Lewis if she’d ever wished that her Oscar-winning parents had stayed together, married, and raised their daughter together out in the open:
“I would have liked them to have,” she replied. “But that is just my dream, you know. Life is very strange. Doesn’t give us what we want.”
Top image: Clark Gable and Franz Doerfler at the mail fraud trial of Violet Norton, April 22, 1937 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo)
Middle image: Gwendoline Norton, 13, shown in the court of Los Angeles, April 22, 1937. (AP Photo/Frank Filan)
Bottom image: Judy Lewis on Nov. 11, 2000. (AP Photo/Jill Connelly, File)