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Joan Crawford Said Her Affair With Clark Gable "Lasted Longer Than Anybody Knows"

The frequent co-stars fell for each other off-screen too.

Old Hollywood stars Joan Crawford and Clark Gable were paired in eight films during the '30s and '40s, thanks—in large part—to their scorching onscreen chemistry. That chemistry sparked off-screen too, until a barely concealed affair between the two married stars nearly ended their careers. Although the romance left the public eye, after Gable's death, Crawford admitted that the affair didn't stop just because the rumors did. In fact, she said it "lasted longer than anyone knows." Read on for details on the lifelong love between Crawford and Gable and how she helped him through the most tragic time of his life.

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They sizzled on the screen.

Gable was first cast alongside Crawford after she requested him for her 1931 film Dance, Fools, Dance. Gable was reportedly originally set to play a smaller part, but producer Irving Thalberg rewrote the script to give Gable more scenes with Crawford, who was at the time one of MGM's highest-grossing actresses. Unlike Crawford's then-husband, Hollywood scion Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gable came from humble beginnings and was, like Crawford, undereducated and insecure amid the glamour of Hollywood. This may have contributed to their powerful onscreen chemistry and why MGM brought in Gable to replace her original co-star, Johnny Brown Mack, on Crawford's next film, Laughing Sinners (1931), according to a 1932 issue of The Modern Screen Magazine.

Crawford and Gable starred in yet a third movie that same year with Possessed (1931), which thoroughly captured the strong attraction between the two who were, by then, embroiled in a torrid real-life affair, according to Closer Weekly.

MGM tried to put an end to their affair.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Joan Crawford in 1932
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While Crawford was married to Hollywood royalty, Gable was engaged to his soon-to-be second wife, oil heiress Maria Langham. As word of the illicit romance spread, studio boss Louis B. Mayer worried about the repercussions of an affair between two married actors, and even sent Crawford and Fairbanks on an extended honeymoon (pictured above) in a failed attempt to lure Crawford back home, according to The Daily Mail.

At the time, MGM included a moral turpitude clause in its contracts, Crawford said in Roy Newquist's 1980 book Conversations with Joan Crawford, and forced them to put an end to things, according to Closer Weekly. ("I really should have had 'Property of MGM' tattooed on my [expletive]," she would later say of the studio's management of her personal life in a line reiterated in the film version of Mommie Dearest.)

Alongside the studio's strong publicity department, Crawford also did her best to cool down rumors of their affair, telling Modern Screen in 1932, "Before the camera, we were in love. Now that the picture is over, we are merely good friends!"

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Crawford said their affair went on "for longer than anybody knows."

Joan Crawford in 1962
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Even as things quieted publicly between the two stars, they continued to connect throughout Gable's marriage and rising stardom, Crawford revealed during the filming of 1962's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. "Yes, Clark and I had an affair, a glorious affair, and it went on a lot longer than anybody knows," she admitted in an interview published in Conversations with Joan Crawford. Despite their ongoing attraction to each other, she added that they never married for a few reasons: Both were always involved in other marriages and "skittish about making any more commitments" due to those marriages' failures. "And finally, and maybe the most important thing," she said, the two icons from humble beginnings "became good friends."

Gable found love—and loss—with Carole Lombard.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in 1939
Keystone/Getty Images

The womanizing Gable eventually fell hard for screwball comedy queen Carole Lombard, who became the great love of his life, per Closer Weekly. They were married in 1939 after Gable obtained a divorce from Langham. When he and Crawford reunited for their eighth and final film together, Strange Cargo, the next year, Crawford was jealous of both his new love and Gone With the Wind-era success. According to the same outlet, she allegedly whispered such cruel things about his new life to him that he left the set in a huff.

Despite this, it was Crawford who Gable turned when Lombard was tragically killed in a plane crash on Jan. 12, 1942, while on a tour to promote war bonds less than three years into their marriage. "I just held him," she told Newquist. "He was drunk, he had to get drunk, and he cried like a baby, as though his life had ended, and maybe, in a way, it had." Crawford replaced Lombard in what was to be the actor's next film, They All Kissed the Bride (1942) and donated her entire salary to the Red Cross, which had found Lombard's body after the crash, according to Closwer Weekly. Meanwhile, the grief-stricken Gable soon enlisted in the Army Air Force, reportedly with a death wish. Although he survived World War II and eventually went on to marry again, he mourned Lombard until his death of a heart attack in 1960 at age 59.

"When he died I was so stunned I couldn't even cry," Crawford told Newquist. "All I could do was remember the good times we'd had together." She went on to admit that even her final husband, Pepsi-Cola CEO Alfred Steele, had never filled Gable's place. "I still wonder what would have happened if we'd married, but I'm glad we didn't," she explained. "What we had, between us, was so special… when he went, a part of me did too, and as much as I loved Alfred, that part of me was never revived."

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more