Book Review: “Long Live the King” By Lyn Tornabene

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There are two essential facts that anyone with eyes and ears knows about me.

My name is Sarah and I love Clark Gable.

Clark Gable was the star that first got me into classic film. If it wasn’t for the balmy, rainy night when I stumbled upon It Happened One Night by chance,  I would not be the woman I am today. Classic film went on to shape me, define my personality, my style, and my ideology. Naturally, Gable was my teenage crush, and he’s probably my forever crush, the standard by which I measure all the men in my life.

The Gable obsession was all-consuming. I completed watching his entire filmography, one movie after another, like a machine. I read articles, firsthand accounts, and pored over countless grainy photographs. At that point, I probably knew Gable better than he knew himself.

However, one tiny hitch nagged endlessly and uncomfortably at the back of my brain.

There was not one good biography of Gable out there. The King of Hollywood was sadly slighted in the book department. Warren G. Harris’ biography of Gable was okay, but for a seasoned fan such as myself, it was kindergarten-level information that plodded through each of Gable’s films one by one, not really shedding much light on the man himself. And David Bret’s biography…well…let’s not even go to that circle of Hell.

I searched and read and asked high and low until I learned of Long Live the King by Lyn Tornabene. Touted by many as the definitive source of all things Gable, it also happened to be a rarity that had been out of print for ages. After a two year search, I finally snatched up a copy from the Strand, waiting for me in the wrong aisle all this time.

Tornabene’s biography of the King isn’t one hundred percent perfect (then again, I am nitpicky), but it does come darn near to it. The quality of Tornabene’s research is unparalleled, including countless interviews with Gable’s peers, colleagues, and even with those who knew him from his childhood days as a small-town Ohio boy. Unlike the other Gable biographies out there, Tornabene strove to paint a truly complete picture of her subject, mapping out every facet of his life. She goes beyond his trifecta of crowning-glory roles: Rhett Butler, Peter Warne, and Fletcher Christian.

At the stage that I was in when reading this book, the only things more that I could’ve hoped to learn about Gable were small factoids, intriguing nuggets of information. Tornabene’s biography provided these in profusion, telling you everything from Gable’s suit measurements to his middle school grades.

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Baby Clark!

Another thing that set Tornabene’s biography apart from the rest was its focus on pshychological analysis. Tornabene placed great importance on the death of Gable’s mother, Adeline Herschelman, when he was 10 months old. According to her, Gable spent the rest of his life trying to find a lover who could also serve as a “mother” substitute. He eventually finds this in Carole Lombard, only to quickly lose her six years later. Here, Gable is shown as a much more complex man than the carefree, virile image the studios created for him. He was a sensitive, intelligent man, fraught with nerves and insecurity, wholly dependent on the women in his life, as much as a child as he was a powerful man. Some of the greatest passages of the book were the effect he had whenever he walked into a room: how he seemed to fill the space and arrest the attention of all present.

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One of my favorite images of Gable and Lombard, from their only film together, No Man of Her Own (1932).

So now you’re probably wondering: what was actually wrong with this book? The thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy was Tornabene’s seemingly constant tendency to get up on a proverbial soapbox and expound endlessly on her opinion of the facts. I’m a huge stickler for biographies that stick only to what really happened. So while Tornabene’s research is top-notch and her attention to detail excellent, her veering off into the land of the subjective somewhat frustrated me. As a reader of biographies, I should be free to form my own opinions on the facts.

Overall, this is perhaps the best biography of Gable so far, even though it has some faults. I’ve yet to read Chrystopher J. Spicer’s biography of the King, so we have yet to see if that will trump Tornabene’s!

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