Sunday, December 2, 2012

A Gable Girl

We all remember the legendary romance of Gable and Lombard.  We also delighted in movies that starred Gable and Harlow or even Gable and Crawford, but who out there remembers Gable and Norton?  Don’t worry if you can’t recall the pairing—that’s where I come in…

In 1934, British housewife, Violet Norton, went to the movies. On the bill? It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. Imagine Norton’s surprise as she recognized the film’s leading man—her former lover, next-door neighbor and chicken farmer, Frank Billings. He even fathered her child.  She hadn’t seen Billings in years. Now she knew why. He’d left her for Hollywood and the likes of Claudette Colbert.
Norton penned letters to Gable demanding he take responsibility for 'their' daughter. Thinking the whole idea ridiculous, Gable never mentioned it to the brass at MGM. He hadn't been to England during the early 1920s and he’d never once called himself Frank Billings.  Norton then dragged her daughter to Canada where she ran an ad in a movie magazine hoping to grab Gable’s attention. When that didn't work, she wrote to Mae West, the British Consul in L.A. and the U.S. District Attorney. She finally convinced a retired Canadian businessman to take her to Hollywood.

Once in L.A., Norton hired a P.I., who contacted the Motion Picture Producers Association. He wanted blood tests and urged Gable to establish a $150,000.00 trust fund for his illegitimate daughter. If Gable refused, the P.I. threatened to tell the world just what kind of heel their Hollywood heartthrob really was. Once MGM got wind of Norton’s antics, however, studio officials contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Charged with mail fraud, Norton went to trial insisting Gable was Billings. According to Norton: "This 'ere Clark Gybles is an arrant fraud. 'E's Frank Billings, that's oo 'e is, I can tell by the way he mykes love to that Joan Crawford-just the syme as 'e did to me. 'E often cyme to see me, that 'andsome young fellow did. 'E waited till me 'usband went and then 'e cyme in."

Gable had his own defense. Jack Powell, Assistant U.S. Attorney, stated under oath that Gable, an American citizen, hadn't been issued a passport until 1930. The president of the lumber company where Gable once worked provided payroll vouchers during the time period in question. Even Harry Billings, Frank's brother, testified that Gable was not related to him. Norton, however, took the stand with a photograph of Frank Billings in a British Army uniform swearing that Billings and Gable were one and the same.

But it was Gable’s ex-fiancée, Franz Dorfler who sealed the case.  She was Billy Gable’s main squeeze long before he came to Hollywood.  When asked to testify, she never hesitated. Under oath, Dorfler described her romance with young Billy Gable and confirmed that they were together at the Dorfler family ranch in September 1922. That did it. Norton, found guilty of using the mail for fraudulent purposes, was summarily deported.

And just to clarify—Frank Billings never made a movie or kissed Claudette Colbert. Clark Gable never owned a chicken farm or, despite her accusations, kissed Violet Norton. 


  1. Really interesting story. I wonder how often movie stars from this era had to defend themselves against paternity suits...?

  2. It happened. Charlie Chaplin went through it in the forties and despite blood tests that said the child was not his, the jury still found that Chaplin was the child's father. Nowadays, DNA testing would put all the nonsense to rest, but not so back then.

  3. The real Frank Billings was my grandfather, and he was the father of Gwendolyn. He told me how Violet saw him off when he left to come to America, she was holding Gwen and said Frank she is yours. He told me the entire story. He was quite the ladies man, fathering his last child when he was 72!

    1. Thanks for sharing this! Very interesting!