Robert S. Levinson: Clark Gable, Mama, and the Velour Stetson

Robert S. Levinson, who wrote “Little Miss Somebody” in our July/August issue, has been entertaining AHMM readers since 2003. Drawing on his years working in the entertainment industry, Bob infuses his stories and novels with the creative energy of Hollywood, and its destructive currents. His latest novel, The Evil Deeds We Do, is a thriller centered around the music industry in L.A. Here he writes about the source of his fascination with Hollywood.

Hello, my name is Bob.

I’m a show business junkie.

Most of the stories I’ve had the good fortune to see published in AHMM and elsewhere have somehow dealt with some form or other of show business, set frequently, albeit not exclusively, in the “Golden Age of Movies,” an era when MGM boasted that its talent menu offered “More Stars Than There Are in the Heavens” and justified the claim with Garbo, Gable, Tracy, Harlow, Shearer, Powell, Loy, Crawford, Beery, Dressler, Turner, Taylor, Lamarr, Rooney, Garland, the Marx Brothers, and even a couple Barrymores.

I begin this memory voyage back in time with MGM, not studios like Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal, Fox, RKO, or Columbia, because it was MGM where and when I believe my love affair took root, all thanks due my mother.

She was barely out of her teens then, a devoted Gable fan, who decided one day she had to meet the King, her screen idol. First, though, there was a little obstacle to overcome. The family was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Gable was three thousand miles away in Culver City.

Mama’s solution: We had to move west. My father, a hat maker, had no objection. Gable? Gable was competition for his wife’s affection only in her wildest imagination. Besides, Dad was anxious to escape to a new life with the family far from the Brownsville friends he’d grown up with, many of whom had graduated to Murder, Inc.

En route to Los Angeles, Dad found work making hats in Dallas, where he hand-formed a one-of-a-kind velour Stetson for Gable, who (long-arm of coincidence) he’d read somewhere loved and collected hats. Once settled in L.A., with three-year-old Bobby in one hand, an oversized hat box in the other, Mama set off by bus and trolley for Culver City, where the scene at the entrance to the MGM lot went something like this:

Mama: I’m here to see Clark Gable.

Security guard: Is he expecting you?

Mama: (Displays the hat box) No, but I have a hat for him. It’s a surprise gift.

Security guard: Sorry, missy. If you’re not expected by Mr. Gable, I can’t allow you in.

Man (Approaching): Aren’t you pretty. You got pretty violet eyes, you know? Is he your little brother?

Mama: He’s my son. My Bobby.

Man: Son? You don’t look old enough to be married. You sure you’re married?

The guard (Laughs): Pretty funny, Chico.

Chico! Now Mama recognizes him as one of the Marx Brothers. Her eyes grow misty telling him about Gable and the hat. He nods understanding, uses the security guard’s phone to make a call that results in a studio pass for us; is briefly our tour guide before halting a tram full of costumed extras heading for distant locations in the vastness of the MGM back lot, and instructs the driver to drop us off close as possible to Gable’s set. As the tram starts down the street, he returns my wave and blows Mama a kiss.

A cowboy directed Mama to an oversized trailer outside a soundstage. Gable, dressed in cowboy garb, was relaxing in a director’s chair, laughing it up with a pair of stagehands. Mama gasped at the sight of him, took a deep breath, and waited with as much patience as she could muster until the stagehands left and Gable resumed studying his script. Commanding me to stay by her side, she marched the most direct line to Gable and stood staring, silent, hesitant to interrupt him. Finally, he looked up. He saw Mama first, but the smile was for both of us.

“I got something for you,” Mama said at last.

“I don’t suppose it’s the little fellow here.” He leaned forward, picked me up, and sat me on his knees.

Mama offered Gable the hat box and launched an explanation.

Gable carefully removed the velour Stetson and held it delicately in his large hands. He studied its contours and smoothed the Stetson knowingly with the backs of his fingers. He tried it on and expressed delight at the perfect fit.

“I have to have a look,” he said. He took me into his arms, stood, and urged Mama to follow us up the stairs into his dressing room trailer.

He didn’t have to ask Mama twice.

In front of the vanity mirror, he tried the hat at various angles, studying the effect of each position, commenting as the tilt went forward and back, the angle left and right. Finally, he passed judgment. “It’s going to be one of my favorites,” Gable said.

They talked while I wandered the trailer. When it was time for him to head back to work, he first found two photographs to autograph. After signing one to Mama, he wondered about inscribing the other to my dad.

“That’s all right,” Mama said. “You can do it again for me.” Gable gave her a curious look. “It’s in case I lose one.”

He broke out what I came to call the Gable grin. “Then please thank your husband, and give him this from me,” he said. He gave Mama a hug and a handshake. “And this, Helen, is for you,” Gable said. He pushed back the Stetson, took Mama in his arms and kissed her gently on the lips.

That began my infatuation with the movies and, when I was a pre-teen, chasing after autographs.

I was much older, a newspaper guy with the Riverside Press-Enterprise who covered the major studio sneak previews that occurred regularly in town, the year Gable showed up for his Paramount picture, But Not for Me, and got a standing ovation when he entered the theater.

He and his wife Kay settled in the row directly behind my wife, Sandra, and me. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and ask him if he remembered Mama and the velour Stetson. Too many years had passed.

Maybe I should have.

What do you think?


Filed under How'd That Happen

4 responses to “Robert S. Levinson: Clark Gable, Mama, and the Velour Stetson

  1. Robert,

    What an amazing story! It reads like fiction. I was fascinated. I see why your writing is so successful.

  2. That’s a great story, Bob. Makes me love Gable even more.

  3. Robert Lopresti

    What a great story! As a Marx Brothers fan I loved to hear about Chico’s part in it. I always look forward to your tales about Hollywood. As you know my favorite was the one about the Garden of Allah…

  4. I’m glad your mother’s wish came true. I doubt something like that could happen today–security’s probably too tight.

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