When aspiring actress Lois Clarke was discovered at a rally for 1956 Democratic presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson, James Garner was relieved to learn that she, too, had arrived without a date. They’d met a few days before at a friend’s BBQ while hanging out in the pool. Garner described it as “love at first sight.” “I was completely enamored with this girl. She was stunning.” He didn’t waste any time and invited her to dinner that night—and every night for the next two weeks, leading up to their marriage on Aug. 17, 1956, at the Beverly Hills courtroom.
His family was opposed to the marriage, citing the disparity between him and Clarke. He was a Methodist who was born and reared in Oklahoma, whereas she was Jewish and had lived in Los Angeles her whole life. “But neither of us was ever what you would call religious,” Garner wrote in his 2012 memoir The Garner Files, “so religion wasn’t a problem, at least not for Lois and me.” “None of the skeptics had considered how well Lois and I complimented one another. We found strengths in what they perceived as flaws.”
Clarke was married for the second time, and he had a daughter named Kim. Two years later, the couple welcomed their first child together, a daughter called Gigi. Garner’s adoption of Kim and Gigi’s birth cemented their family.
Despite the fact that their marriage lasted 57 years until Garner’s death in 2014, it was not without its difficulties. After 14 years of marriage, the pair split up for three months in 1970 and then again in 1979. Garner starred in TV’s The Rockford Files and was thought to be dating Lauren Bacall, a guest performer on two episodes, during their 18-month separation. Garner was usually vehement in his denial of such rumors. He told People, “Lois and I were never in severe danger.” “Rockford’s pressures were responsible for 99.99 percent of the problem. It wasn’t us who needed to get away; it was me who needed to clear my thoughts.”
He went on to say, “I’ve worked with a number of great-looking females, and I make it my mission not to detest any of them.” “I also make it a point to avoid falling in love with them.”
Clarke originally aspired to be an actress, but she realized after a few years that fame wasn’t for her. Garner wanted “none of her husband’s public life,” according to a 1985 People cover story. Their old Brentwood, California, home was characterized by writer Jane Hall as a “iron-gated house [that]…offers a vista from every room, but the world is shut outside.”
Garner’s strong support system was still waiting in the wings. “Jim is a difficult man who is trying to hide a lot of pain. He was mistreated, lonely, and deprived as a child “Clarke told People that his mother died when he was four years old, most likely as a result of a botched abortion, and that he was physically beaten by his stepmother. Garner claimed she “stuck with me” as her spouse suffered from ulcers and depression brought on by financial stress in 1980, adding, “I guess she’s stubborn too.” Clarke referred to their long-standing relationship as “a miracle” in a supplement to Garner’s memoir.