Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Famous Ladies of Rockhaven – The Woman Who Created Clark Gable

Rockhaven Sanitarium, which was open from 1923 to 2006, has many fascinating aspects to it. It was a business created by women for women in a time when women were marginalized. It redefined the treatment of mental illness, from brutal incarceration to dignified recuperation. It is the last intact sanitarium in an area that was built on the sanitarium industry. But it retains a legacy of having been the final residence of many amazing women, women of power, and great talent. One such resident of Rockhaven was Josephine Dillon, the woman who made a star out of Clark Gable.

Josephine Dillon was born into an accomplished Los Angeles family in the late 1800s. She graduated from Stanford, but had the acting bug. After studying acting in Europe, she returned to New York to act on Broadway. She had a gift for teaching and after moving back to Portland, Oregon she opened an acting studio. She had a romantic fling with a young aspiring actor 17 years her junior. The awkward boy was barely out of his teens. He was skinny, had bad teeth, ears that stuck out, and unruly hair. Even worse, he had a high-pitched voice.

But Josephine saw something indefinable in the boy, a charisma. She took him under her wing and taught him poise and posture, along with her acting lessons. Paying for his teeth to be fixed and hair to be styled, she coached him in building a powerful physique, and trained his voice to a lower pitch. To finish the package, she had young W.C. Gable take on his middle name – Clark. In 1924 the two moved to Hollywood to break Clark into the new booming movie industry. Josephine acted as Clark’s manager and supported him financially while he practiced and auditioned.

Although their relationship was just business at this point, they got married for appearance’s sake. By 1930, Clark Gable’s career was on the fast track, and he signed with MGM. Josephine saw this as her opportunity to bow out gracefully, and return to teaching. She filed for divorce, but the studio, which ran the lives of their stars back then, objected. After some delay there was a stormy confrontation with Louis B. Mayer. Josephine later said she told Mayer, “I intend to get out of Gable’s life. I can’t play hostess to a movie star. He doesn’t need me now!”

The two parted, Gable to go on to fame and a string of wives, and Josephine back to teaching acting, never to marry again. She established a thriving acting coach business, with big name students such as Gary Cooper and Donna Reed. The brief marriage between Gable and Dillon became an issue in 1957 when a gossip magazine fabricated a story about Clark Gable having taken advantage of Dillon, leaving her penniless and deeply bitter. Despite the story’s being a fake, the gossip flew and Gable’s fans vilified Josephine. She lost much of her teaching business from the bad publicity, and nearly lost her house, but her former husband Clark stepped in and paid her mortgage. When he died a couple of years later, his will stipulated that his estate was to provide her with financial support. Nonetheless, Dillon continued to get insulting letters and calls from misguided Gable fans for many years.

In the mid-’60s, declining health forced Dillon to give up teaching, and she moved to Rockhaven. At Rockhaven she could rub elbows with other women who had made a name in Hollywood, such as Billie Burke and Peggy Fears. She lived there peacefully until her death in 1987.

Josephine Dillon is yet another example of the tangible history of great women that Rockhaven Sanitarium represents.

Tragically, last week the Glendale City Council decided to sell this historical treasure for the promise of a quick buck. They have no vision of the great park this could be, and yes, amazingly, they are selling a park for development. Glendale is selling off our heritage. I’m ashamed that I trusted them.

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

2 Responses to "Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler"

  1. Marilyn Foreman   March 14, 2016 at 10:31 pm

    We raised our family across the street from Rockhaven’s back door on Hermosa Avenue for 20 years, renting a little house from Patricia Travis, Rockhaven’s owner. I am devastated to learn about the selling of this historic / sadly valuable / piece of real property. Southern California has little regard for its history, beginning with the opportunists who galloped West then were thrown abruptly from the saddle hitting the Pacific—and seemed to have left morality and responsibility behind. Sadly the world around us now evokes a similar picture.
    God bless Ivan Cole, and all the dear hardworking people devoted to preserving and recognizing what was once—and is—of benefit to this world.
    Thank you, Mike, for all that you do.

  2. Liz Nelson   March 7, 2016 at 11:57 am

    Mike’s columns are always great but this one really blew me away! I’m a Friend of Rockhaven and a Historical Society member so I thought I knew a lot about Rockhaven and its residents. But this was a complete surprise and a total delight. Mike just never grows stale or redundant. I am so grateful that CV Wkly is here to bring treasures like this to us.
    Thank you CV Wkly and Mike Lawler,

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