Classic Hollywood #137 – Clark Gable & His Father In A Bizarre Court Case

Clark Gable And His Dad At Trial – 1937

Clark Gable and his father April 20, 1937 photo: Los Angeles Daily News

The support of your parents is helpful especially if someone is trying to extort you.

Clark Gable (1901-1960) is seen here talking with his father William Henry Gable (1870-1948) at Federal Court in Los Angeles.

The senior Gable was serving as a witness against Mrs. Violet Wells Norton and Jack L. Smith, a private detective, who were charged with attempting to squeeze money from his son Clark.

The 47-year-old Mrs. Norton was charged with mail fraud, claiming movie star Clark Gable was the father of her 13-year-old daughter Gwendoline Edith.

An Unlikely Claim

In 1922 Violet Norton was living in Billericay, Essex, England and hired Frank Billings to tutor her son. Violet Norton became pregnant and Frank left her soon after being informed of the pregnancy.

In 1932 Gable first became aware of Violet Norton when she wrote Gable a letter claiming he was Gwendoline’s father. Gable said the letter was “so fantastic” that he threw it away.

But Violet did not relent, demanding support for Gwendoline. She moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba and began to write letters to anyone, including actress Mae West, in a position to influence Gable to own up and pay for his daughter’s expenses.

To keep bad publicity from harming Gable, private detective Smith made a suggestion to Fred Beetson, the secretary-treasurer of the Motion Picture Producers Association that a $150,000 trust fund be set up for Gwendoline’s support.

When the story became public that Violet Norton was demanding money, claiming Gable was the father of her daughter, Gable said “I have never been in England and do not know the woman in question.”

A Short and Ludicrous Court Case

The New York Herald-Tribune reported, when Violet saw Gable in court on April 20, 1937, she shouted in a strong cockney accent, “That’s ‘im, …that’s ‘im… that’s Frank Billings,”

“I’d know ‘im in a million…every move and every gesture of  ‘im is Frank Billings. He knows in ‘is heart ‘es the father of me child. I’ll see that ‘e tykes care of ‘is own.”

Gable took the stand to testify. After giving a brief background of his early life, Gable’s testimony was succinct. U.S. attorney John Powell questioned Gable:

Q: Were you ever in England?

A: No.

Q: Did you ever know Mrs. Norton?

A: No

Had you ever seen her before?

A: No

Q: When was the first time you saw her?

A: In court here today.

Q: Did you ever know her daughter Gwendoline?

A: No.

Q: Are you the father of Mrs. Norton’s daughter, Gwendoline?

A: No.

Q: Were you ever known as Frank Billings?

A: No.

Clark’s father, William’s testimony was very short, merely affirming Clark’s birth date and to the best of his knowledge that his son had never been in England.

Testifying on Gable’s behalf was Franz Doerfler who would be the star witness.

Doerfler was Clark’s girlfriend in 1922 while the two were touring in an Oregon theatrical company. She testified that she had seen Clark almost daily from July 1922 when they first met until early 1923. It would have been impossible for Clark to have been in England during the time Mrs. Norton got pregnant.

Even Gwendoline’s older brother declared that Clark Gable was not Frank Billings.

The jury took just under two hours to find Violet Norton guilty. The sentence was one year in prison.

After serving a few months in the Orange County jail, the decision was reversed on October 28, 1937 by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Violet was to be released from prison and deported to Canada where she had been previously living.

Rather than go to Canada, Violet chose to remain in prison and try and raise money to return to England.

On February 2, 1938 Violet was deported to Canada and she went to stay with her sister in Vancouver, still insisting that Clark Gable was Gwendoline’s father. Gwendoline however, stayed in Los Angeles at a private school arranged by a religious institution and would remain there until June.

Violet was forbidden from entering the United States for a year, and then only with permission from the Secretary of Labor, which would not happen.

Violet Norton was never heard from again.

What became of Gwendoline is unknown. If she is still alive she will be 100-years-old in 2023.

4 thoughts on “Classic Hollywood #137 – Clark Gable & His Father In A Bizarre Court Case

  1. Craig Mayer

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoy your website and the truly engaging stories. Thank you for doing such an excellent job!

    1. B.P. Post author

      Thanks for that. Since most people do not have access to ancestry (the library edition of ancestry which I have will not allow the hyperlink you provided to go through) can you possibly cut and paste some / any of this additional information?


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