by Bruce Cherney (part 2 of 2)
After reaching Jimmy Robinson’s Sports Afield Lodge along the shore of Lake Manitoba on Friday, September 23, 1938, Clark Gable put on a pair of slippers and made himself comfortable, declaring, “This is swell.”
“Just give me a boat, and a spot to sit, and I’ll be satisfied” (Free Press, September 26).
The intent of the hunters was to take to the Delta Marsh in the morning, but Gable wasn’t content just to sit around. He came to Manitoba to hunt ducks in the largest freshwater marsh on the Canadian Prairies, and the sooner the better. After resting for only a few minutes, the Hollywood star said: “Let’s go hunting now, Jimmy! I want to take a look at those ducks I’ve been hearing so much about. Tomorrow’s too long to wait.”
Before he stepped into the car transporting him to the marsh, Gable said to the reporters on-hand: “Well boys, wish me luck.”
When Gable, Robinson and guide Rod Ducharme reached the boat they would be using, the Hollywood star was so anxious to reach the hunting grounds that he took the paddle and with strong strokes, set out to reap the bounty of the marsh.
“Mallards, canvasbacks and widgeons winged their ways over our heads,” Robinson wrote. “The air was full of ducks. The huge marsh was alive with waterfowl. A golden September sun, reflected on rushes and wild rice, lent color to the scene.”
The hunting party set up their decoys (carved by local guides, the Ducharmes — Duncan Ducharme decoys are highly sought after today) in a little pothole and pushed their boat into the reeds, which acted as a blind. Robinson wrote that it was difficult to push boats through the runways in the reeds and rice, “but we get through.”
The ducks inhabiting the marsh weren’t “punch drunk from shooting” like the waterfowl in California. Within a short time, Gable had his daily limit of 12 canvasbacks (today, the daily limit for ducks is eight).
“‘Boy, oh boy!’ he exclaimed (Free Press, September 26), almost turning over his flimsy duck-hunting boat in his enthusiasm. ‘I’ve done it at last!’”
“‘I’ve fulfilled my life’s ambition, Jimmy,’ Clark shouted,” according to Robinson’s account of the hunt which appeared in Minneapolis-based Sports Afield magazine in December that year. “‘I’ve always wanted to shoot the limit of canvasbacks in a single day — and boy, oh boy, I’ve done it at last!”
After bagging his limit for the first time in his life, Gable was described by the Free Press as “grinning and happier, perhaps, than he had ever been before in his life.”
“Gathering in the ducks and pulling in our decoys, we paddled through the tall rushes and wild rice to the channel which would lead us back to our little duck camp on the shore of Lake Manitoba ...,” wrote Robinson. “Hundreds of mallards, canvasbacks and widgeons whizzed over our heads to settle in the potholes and bayous of the great marsh.
“Clark Gable insisted upon doing the paddling. All I had to do was sit on my seat and give steering directions!”
Reporters had easy access to Gable, even though he was staying in a private lodge surrounded by a high fence topped by barbed-wire. It was reported that Gable’s last film, Too Hot to Handle, which also starred Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon, called for a great deal of work and the expenditure of much energy, so the actor had come to Manitoba for a well-deserved rest. The fence was erected so the actor’s restful holiday would not be disturbed by an adoring public.
But despite the best of intentions, it was soon proven that the fence was no deterrent to the most persistent star-struck fans. The Free Press on September 27 reported two young lads, Alfred Cowie and Ross Cook, both of 379 York Avenue in Winnipeg, had borrowed money and on Friday, September 23, at 9:30 p.m. boarded a train to Portage la Prairie. In the darkness of the evening, “they climbed the fence of the Robinson hunting lodge, where the movies hero is staying.
“They found the door unlocked, walked into the house, woke everybody up, and then became frightened and ran out again and hid in the bush.”
Mustering their courage, three hours later the two Gable fans re-entered the cabin, declaring they were guests from Minneapolis.
“And Gable was friendly. The following day he talked with the visitors, and promised to send them each an autographed photo of himself. They returned to Winnipeg, Saturday, tired but happy.”
According to a Free Press reporter, the reason for Gable being “decent” to “intruding newshawks” was because the actor had years earlier been with a newspaper in Portland, Oregon. In fact, he briefly worked in the ad department of the Portland Oregonian.
When reminded of his past association with the print media, Gable said with his characteristic wink, “But they don’t seem to pay very much, do they?”
“Well, perhaps not quite what you are getting,” the reporter countered.
At the time, Gable was being paid $2,000 per week by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) under the terms of his studio contract, whether he made a movie or not, which was a small fortune during the depths of the Great Depression. Only child star Shirley Temple was making more money than Gable in 1938. Later, MGM would bump his salary up to $7,500 a week.
Gable’s most famous films as of 1938, referred to as the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” included It Happened One Night (1934) with Claudette Colbert, Red Dust (1932) with Jean Harlow, The Call of the Wild (1935) with Loretta Young, China Seas (1935) with Jean Harlow, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) with Charles Laughton, San Francisco (1936) with Spencer Tracy, and Test Pilot (1938) with Myrna Loy, Lionel Barrymore and Spencer Tracy.
“Clark is a real fellow,” wrote a Free Press reporter. “He swears a bit, drinks a bit, smokes a lot (a pipe mostly), doesn’t take dessert because it makes him fat, and hates prunes.
“‘What’s a few pounds?’ asked one of the American visitors, as he dug into a big piece of pie.
“‘It means a lot to me, when we’re on location,’ he replied.”
According to a story related by Gable to a reporter as they sat together on a home-made trunk in the Robinson lodge, he had been offered prunes while having breakfast in Winnipeg at the Royal Alexandra Hotel, “but I turned them down cold. Just can’t seem to get used to them, that’s all.”
Although apparently common breakfast fare at that time in Manitoba, most would now agree with Gable that it seems to be a rather strange fruit to indulge in so early in the morning. Was it because prunes were then considered a healthy way to be “regular?” After all, prunes do contain a mild laxative. Due to this association, fruit distributors now prefer to use the term “dried plums” instead of the word “prunes.”
Gable was the first to get up each morning. “Usually it was the sound of his ax biting into the chunks of the woodpile that awakened me,” wrote Robinson. “Our typical schedule was breakfast at six, then out to the marsh, ready to shoot, by sun-up.”
At noon, they returned to the camp to rest and talk about hunting and fishing.
En route to Manitoba by train, Gable made a brief stop at Kansas City, Missouri, where he commented, “Where I’m going duck hunting in Canada, people don’t ask for autographs, we just sit around and lie to each other” (International News Service, September 23, 1938).
During the talks at the lodge, Gable revealed he made frequent trips to the Kaibab Forest area of Arizona to shoot mountain lions, which he claimed took a “terrific toll among deer.”
Gable may not have particularly liked mountain lions, but he did show an affection for other animals. At his Hollywood home, he had three dogs, two cats, four canaries and seven turkeys. When he married Carole Lombard in 1939, they purchased a ranch in Encino, California, and raised horses, cows and chickens, as well as a menagerie of cats and dogs.
Afterward at the Delta Marsh lodge, Gable and the guests — referred to as “the boys” by the actor — engaged in daily afternoon baseball games, using a soft ball. Robinson, who had played baseball while growing up in Manitoba and later with a semi-professional team, adeptly caught “all flies with one hand.”
Clem Shields in his column, The Whirligig (Free Press, December 17, 1938), described Robinson as still being talked about in Morden “as one of the finest catchers Manitoba baseball has ever produced.”
Robinson lived in Manitoba from 1900 to 1922, where he also played hockey and had served overseas with Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War. When Robinson returned to live in the U.S., where he was born in Kent, Minnesota, in 1897, “I would arrange to spend a month hunting ducks and sometimes geese ... I have not missed a single year of hunting
there since” (Sports Afield magazine, reprinted in the September 15, 1970, Free Press). Because of the many celebrities who were guests at his popular Delta Marsh lodge, the renowned sportsman and writer became known as the “Squire of St. Ambroise.”
Clark Gable took his turn at fielding, “and did a mighty fine job of it (Free Press, September 26, 1938).
“Then he took up the bat, and kept the rest of them on their tip-toes, catching his flies.”
Robinson described Gable as “quite a ball player,” who connected with ball to bat “often enough to be classed as a fair hitter.”
Robinson said Gable was “strong as a bull” and “fast as a cat — and in tip-top condition. Not only did he out-shoot me on the marsh but he also out-walked me in hiking to the marsh. In fact, he out-did me in almost everything except eating.”
Gable said his reason for his selective eating was that he had to watch his diet, although at the Robinson lodge, he did break that habit.
“His appetite ran away with him,” according to Robinson, “when Mrs. Robinson served a canvasback hot from the oven, at the supper table each night.”
He also insisted that pickerel (Robinson used the American term wall-eyed pike for the fish) from Lake Manitoba caught by the guides “were the best-eating fish he ever ate.”
Each evening, Gable helped Jimmy’s wife, Clara Robinson, to clear up the dishes.
His affable manner and helpful ways made Gable a “firm friend” of all those at the lodge.
According to Robinson, the hunters went to bed at 10 p.m., “except one night when we played poker for a 25-cent limit. That’s Gable’s top limit out in California.”
Among the visitors to the lodge Gable greeted was Jack Handily, a Manitoba game warden. The two men talked about hunting in the “North Country.”
A well-documented characteristic of Gable was that he was such a passionate hunter and angler that he talked about these subjects whenever he was engaged in casual conversation, even on the film set after the cameras stopped rolling. Carole Lombard recognized his passion for the outdoors and took up duck hunting and skeet shooting so that she could spend more time with her husband.
Other visitors to the lodge were several RCMP officers, who stopped by to say, “Hello.”
“Gable liked our Manitoba marsh country,” Robinson wrote. “Every day we visited a different section of the marsh. In spite of the warm summer days, the birds were flying early in the morning and in the evening — the cream of the waterfowl population of the entire continent.
“‘I didn’t know there were so many ducks in the world!’ said Gable.”
In fact, there were so many ducks that American sportsmen and local businessmen established a number of hunting lodges at Delta Marsh. Mallard Lodge, which now is part of the University of Manitoba Delta Marsh Field Research Station, was built in 1932 by Winnipeg businessman Donald H. Bain.
In the 1920s, James Ford Bell, sportsman and founder of food giant General Mills in Minneapolis, purchased 5,000 acres of land at Delta Marsh. His purchases included York Lodge, named for the Duke of York who hunted at Delta Marsh in 1901, from Senator John Nesbitt Kirchotter.
When Manitoba hunters began to grumble that Americans were shooting all the ducks, Bell quipped: “Well, if that’s the case, I’ll return three of them for every one I shoot.”
True to his word, Bell established a duck hatchery and raised and released about 10,000 birds, but it’s doubtful that he was solely responsible for shooting over 3,300 ducks during his years of hunting at Delta Marsh. The 1901 hunting expedition with the Duke of York — actually, it was more like a slaughter — was responsible for shooting over 200 ducks in one day. The Duke of York, who became King George V, reportedly shot 52 ducks in five hours. In the course of two days and just three sessions of hunting on the marsh, the party shot 600 ducks, with 82 bagged by the duke.
With such mass killings, it’s little wonder that duck numbers were decreasing over the years. Although today, duck hunting is strictly controlled at the marsh and diminishing numbers are also known to be influenced by environmental factors, such as the invasion of hybrid cattails that exclude plants favoured by ducks, as well as the proliferation of carp, which uproot duck-friendly vegetation.
In order to further resolve the declining duck population, Bell in 1938 also approached Aldo Leopold, who is considered to be the father of wildlife management in the U.S., about establishing a waterfowl research station. Leopold agreed and brought in his graduate student Hans Albert Hochbaum from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hochbaum completed his graduate work at the Delta Marsh on canvasback ducks and became the scientific director of the Delta Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Station. Bell donated all his Delta Marsh land and buildings, including York Lodge, which had been moved 20 kilometres in the 1950s to its present location at Delta Beach, for use by the research station.
In a November 5, 1953, Portage la Prairie Leader article, Robinson said that 25 years earlier, “nobody cared whether hunters shot all the ducks and geese out of the sky in one day. But today, people like Dr. Albert Hochbaum were carrying out experiments which among other things showed hunters that if they shot too many ducks this year, there wouldn’t be any left for next year.”
Each year, beginning in 1935, Robinson conducted a duck survey of Western Canada, the results of which were eagerly anticipated by hunters and appeared in hundreds of newspapers across North America.
After completing his Delta Marsh hunting trip, Gable was scheduled for a fishing trip to Dryberry Lake, a few kilometres south of Kenora, but instead the Hollywood legend slipped away unnoticed to the U.S. on September 28. Accompanying Gable in the car taking him to Minneapolis were Jimmy and Clara Robinson. The trio avoided Winnipeg by crossing the border at Hackett, Manitoba, which is directly south of Winkler.
“Thus the Hollywood star dashed the hopes of hundreds of Winnipeg girls, who had been waiting anxiously for his return, calling up hotel clerks at all hours of the day and night to ask if a certain Mr. Gable had registered yet” (Free Press, September 30).
In Minneapolis, Nick Kahler, who staged sportsman’s and outdoor shows in the Minnesota city, held a party in honour of Gable. Following an afternoon at Lake Minnetonka, near Minneapolis, Gable returned to Hollywood.
At the end of his article about the duck hunting adventure at Delta Marsh, Robinson wrote: “Clark Gable is an A-1 companion on a hunting trip — a first-grade sportsman. We would enjoy hunting with him again.”
On November 15, 1938, Gable wrote Robinson, apologizing for not dropping a line to him earlier: “I have alibis and this isn’t an alibi-ing letter. I feel as though I have a fairly good excuse for not having written sooner. I arrived home Sunday morning going directly from the station to the studio and haven’t been idle one day since then. This has been the busiest and most difficult picture (Idiot’s Delight) I have ever made ... I am writing this between shots on the stage.”
In Idiot’s Delight, which co-starred Montreal-born Norma Shearer, Gable sang and danced for the only time in his film career. In the movie, which wasn’t a musical, Gable, sporting a wide-brimmed straw hat and carrying a cane, sang and clumsily hoofed his way around a stage (six weeks of dance lessons didn’t help him) to Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ on the Ritz.
Gable’s letter to Robinson continued: “Needless to say I had a marvelous time up there (Delta Marsh) with you and all the fellows from Minneapolis ... When I told Harry Fleishman about the canvass back (sic) and mallards he looked at me with a rather dubious eye, however, having seen as many as I did I had a convincing ring in my voice. I know, because all the guys here are now saying, ‘When you go up there again take me with you ...’”
Gable never did return to Manitoba, but tales about the Hollywood legend’s one visit — when ducks, not women, were the star’s favourite game — persist to this day. For the film idol, his 1938 trip to Manitoba was among the happiest times of his life, which he continually emphasized to reporters and Robinson during and after his stay at Delta Marsh. After all, it was the one and only time that the avid hunter bagged his daily limit of ducks.
Gable died at age 59 in Los Angeles, California, on November 19, 1960.