When James Garner spotted aspiring actress Lois Clarke at a rally for 1956 Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, he was happy to see that she too had arrived dateless. They’d met each other a few days earlier while hanging out in the pool at a friend’s barbecue. Garner called it love at first sight, saying he “flipped out over this girl. She was gorgeous.” Not one to waste time, he asked her to dinner and they went out that night—and every night afterward for two weeks leading up to their marriage at the Beverly Hills courthouse on Aug. 17, 1956.
His family was against the marriage, pointing to how different he and Clarke were. He was Methodist, born and raised in Oklahoma; she was Jewish and a lifelong Los Angeleno. “But neither of us was ever what you would call religious, so it wasn’t an issue, at least not for Lois and me,” Garner wrote in his 2012 memoir The Garner Files. “None of the naysayers had stopped to consider that Lois and I complemented each other. What they saw as weaknesses, we saw as strengths.”
It was a second marriage for Clarke, who had a daughter, Kim. The couple welcomed their first child together, a girl they named Gigi, two years later. Gigi’s birth and Garner’s adoption of Kim solidified their family
Though their marriage ultimately spanned 57 years until Garner’s death in 2014, it was not without trial. The couple separated for three months in 1970, after 14 years of marriage, and again in 1979. That separation lasted 18 months, during which Garner was starring in TV’s The Rockford Files and was rumored to have been dating Lauren Bacall, a guest star on two episodes. Garner always denied such gossip. “Lois and I were never in serious trouble,” he told People. “Ninety-nine percent of the problem was the pressures of Rockford. It wasn’t us, it was me needing to get away to get my head together.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of great-looking actresses, and I make it my business not to dislike any of them,” he further clarified. “I also make it my business not to fall in love with them either.”
Clarke once dreamed of an acting career for herself, but over the years came to realize celebrity wasn’t for her. As People noted in a 1985 cover story on Garner, she wanted “none of her husband’s public life.” Writer Jane Hall described their former Brentwood, California, abode as an “iron-gated mansion [that]…affords a view from every room, but the world is locked outside.
She remained Garner’s steadfast support system, waiting in the wings. “Jim is a rather complicated man and is covering up lots of hurt. Growing up he was abused, lonely, and deprived,” Clarke told People, presumably referring to the death of his mother, likely from a botched abortion, when he was 4, and the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepmother. When her husband suffered from ulcers and depression irritated by financial strain in 1980, Garner said she “stuck with me,” adding, “I guess she’s stubborn too.” In Clarke’s addendum to Garner’s memoir she called their longstanding union “a miracle.