It was January 25, 1936 and Clark Gable had a new car to show off – to a new object of his affections. She was actress Carole Lombard, and the hostess of the lavish White Mayfair Ball, a formal Hollywood soiree, to which Gable drove his 1935 Duesenberg Model JN convertible that night.
The suave actor eventually convinced Miss Lombard to “take a spin around town” with him; when he invited her to his suite a few miles away at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, she famously replied, “Who do you think you are? Clark Gable?”
They weren’t exactly strangers; they had already co-starred together in “No Man of Her Own”. After filming wrapped Miss Lombard presented Mr. Gable with a ham – with his picture on it! But their professional relationship went no further at that point; Miss Lombard was then married to William Powell (she divorced him a couple of years later).
Nevertheless, after they re-connected at the White Mayfair Ball, a scandalous affair ensued; Mr. Gable, still married, was often spotted traveling in the Duesenberg with Miss Lombard from her bungalow on Hollywood Blvd. to night spots, restaurants and hotels all over town. One of those places, The Georgian Hotel in nearby Santa Monica, now advertises the couple had trysts there often.
So, that seemed like an apropos location to meet David Gooding, chief executive of the Gooding & Co. classic car auction house, and talk about that notorious Duesenberg; the car, somewhat miraculously, has outlived its original owner by a half century. And it was scheduled to go across the auction block Aug. 19 at Gooding’s big annual sale in Pebble Beach, Calif.
“This is nothing discreet about this car,” Mr. Gooding said as he pulled up in the glowing Duesenberg, in front of The Georgian. Not exactly the type of car for two famous stars to be seen in – when they are trying to downplay their affair!
“Who’s to say if they even cared what people thought?” Mr. Gooding noted. The car fairly screams “notice me!”. Even now the Duesenberg, which appeared in a couple of actual movies of its own, is a show-stopper.
The collector car community was abuzz with speculation about just how much the famous machine might fetch.
“The record for an American car sold at public auction is $10.34 million, for a Duesenberg – the 1931 Whittell Coupe – which we sold last year,” Mr. Gooding said. “In many ways, however Gable’s 1935 JN is an even finer example.” It is undeniably rare; fewer than a dozen JNs were built – only four of which were convertibles. But no other Duesenberg is like this one. (I will update this post Aug. 19 with the sales price!)
And, then there is the consideration of its celebrity provenance. “I’ve never seen a car with a history behind it like this one,” Mr. Gooding said.
During a test drive around old Santa Monica neighborhoods, the view, down the Duesenberg’s long hood, is commanding – almost regal.
Its 420-cubic-inch straight-8 pulled like a train; it was reputed to have a 115-m.p.h. top speed – “right off the showroom floor,” Mr. Gooding said. It could exceed 100 m.p.h. in the second of its three gears, boasted E. L. Cord, the company’s president at the time. Its wheelbase of nearly 12 feet gives the car a poised, unflappable ride. And its massive steering wheel guides the wheels straight and true – although its vacuum assisted drum brakes provide the car somewhat uncertain stopping power.
It was suggested to Mr. Gooding that the elegant Duesenberg seemed to exude an aura – a spirit of its own.
“I’m glad you said that,” Mr. Gooding replied. “I believe every car has a personality of its own – and I feel that about this car especially.”
Of course, that has often been said about many great works of art – sculptures, paintings, and the like – but seldom about automobiles. Many collectors, however, consider the 18-foot-long Duesenberg, with its flamboyant, following lines, the epitome of automotive art.
The Model JN that Mr. Gable bought originally had a body by Rollston. Mr. Gooding noted, “It was a work of art already.” But Mr. Gable decided it wasn’t audacious enough for his tastes.
So he took it to master coachbuilders Bohman & Schwartz, in Pasadena, Calif., for a complete re-working. And besides, the convertible top leaked – which Miss Lombard reportedly thought amusing; Mr. Gable, however, was mortified.
“Not only did Gable sketch out many of the changes he wanted himself,” Mr. Gooding said. “He also got hands-on with it, and worked on it himself. I don’t recall an example where a celebrity got so involved, and essentially helped craft the car.”
The modifications included body-colored radiator cowl and headlamp pods, raked windshield, extended hood with custom air scoops, re-location of the side-mounted spares to a double-deck “continental kit” at the rear, rear fender skirts, chrome side pipe exhausts (with a driver-controlled bypass lever), functional rumble seat, and a stowable convertible top – that no longer leaked!
It was also re-painted from a pale green to a luminous cream color that seems to glow – apropos of any star of stage, screen or even outer space.
Despite the fact Mr. Gable owned a large, discerning collection of other Duesenbergs, Packards, and Mercedes-Benzes, the JN remained the preferred ride of the inseparable lovers.
So public was their romance that Photoplay magazine ran a feature in December 1938 out-ing them as one of “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives.” Mr. Gable had also been linked in recent years with Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow and Loretta Young (with whom he fathered a love child) – among others. Producer David O. Selznick was ready to cast Gary Cooper as Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind” unless Mr. Gable cleaned up his personal life. So the studio reportedly helped pay for Mr. Gable’s costly divorce from heiress Ria Langham; he got the part. The rest, as they say, is history.
Mr. Gable and Miss Lombard (who lost out in casting for Scarlett O’Hara) eloped in March 1939. In 1941 the happy couple set off in the Duesenberg on an epic vacation – sort of a belated honeymoon – from their ranch in Encino, Calif., up the Pacific Coast to Vancouver, British Columbia. The trip was nearly 1,500 miles, on primitive roads.
It must have been quite a sight: two of Hollywood’s biggest stars pumping their own gas, fixing their own flats, even changing their own oil – the Gables didn’t want anyone else touching this car! – in a car easily worth $35,000 then (Mr. Gable made more than that in one month, in salary, in those years – and Miss Lombard made nearly as much).
“This was at a time you could buy a Ford for a few hundred dollars,” Mr. Gooding noted.
Some months later, however, Miss Lombard was killed in a plane crash near Las Vegas, Nev. Gable, devastated, instructed an agent to sell the beloved Duesenberg – with the proviso that he never would see it again. He never did; he died in 1960.
The Duesenberg became a four-wheeled vagabond, crisscrossing the country, changing hands more than a dozen times. It was re-painted at least four different colors. Its engine was replaced in the 1950s. Parts went missing.
But the current owner, Mr. Gooding said, acquired it in 2006 and ordered a no-expense-spared restoration to its Gable-era glory.
Today, the car’s odometer shows 13,416 miles. “It’s really poignant when you consider how many of those miles were put on this car by Clark Gable himself, “ Mr. Gooding said. “Usually with Carole Lombard by his side.”
[Editor's Note: A shorter, edited version of this story appeared online Aug. 3 at http://www.nytimes.com; yet another version was published in some Aug. 5 editions of The New York Times.]
August 3, 2012
[Editors Note: For more on what it is like to drive this car, check out this Gooding & Co. video featuring David Gooding]