When Loretta Young died last August at the age of 87, the Oscar-winning star of more than a hundred movies was eulogized as a beautiful woman with a deep Catholic faith.
In death, as in life, they said she was perfect.
Joan Wester Anderson learned firsthand about Young’s flawed personal life when she moved in with her last year to write her biography. Young told her that as a 17-year-old movie star, she eloped against her mother’s wishes. The marriage would be brief.
The family priest scolded her, asking her to choose between Hollywood or Catholicism. He further told her that the choices she made in her personal life would have a profound impact on the lives of others; words Anderson says Young took to heart.
Judy Lewis, Young’s daughter, agrees. “She made her faith the center of her life,” Lewis says. “She made choices about her life, even her life in Hollywood, based on that faith.”
Hidden Passions Lewis was Young’s biggest secret, something she could not admit publicly for more than half a century.
In the Hollywood of the 1930s, studio press agents invented steamy romances to promote their stars while the actors themselves were held to the rigid moral code of the times. Stars like Young had morals clauses in their contracts.
The combination of her professional contract and personal faith would lead Young to hide her future indiscretions. In 1933, she met Spencer Tracy on a movie set. She was 20, he was 33 and married with children. Anderson says Young fell in love. “Madly so,” she says. “But so naïve that she did not know for at least six months that Spencer was an alcoholic.” Her mother put an end to that romance.
Tyrone Power and Jimmy Stewart were among some of the other Hollywood leading men that were reportedly involved with the actress. Anderson writes that her romance with Power was considered by many to have been manufactured by the studio machine. However, Young’s daughter says her mother’s love for Stewart was real. “She wanted Jimmy to ask her to marry her and he never did,” Lewis says.
Call of the Wild Even at the end of her career, there was one relationship Young was not ready to reveal — even to her handpicked biographer who says the star reached over to turn off the tape recorder when she spoke about Clark Gable.
In 1935, on the set of Call of the Wild, she fell in love with Gable. She told Anderson that although he “pressured her a lot,” she only “slipped” once. From that encounter, Young said she got pregnant. Since Gable was married, she hid the truth and herself from everyone but her family.
Rumors flew about her “mysterious illness” until Young staged the ultimate deception — a sickbed interview with a gossip columnist in her ninth month of pregnancy. She also pulled off a phony ‘adoption’ announcing that as a single mother, she would be raising a little orphan girl named Judy.
Revealing Truths Lewis says that as a child, her mother always told her she was adopted. As she grew up, she says she heard Hollywood rumors, but it wasn’t until 1966 — after she was married and had her own child — that she confronted her mother.
“I said, I really need to talk to you… she excused herself and went into the bathroom and she got sick to her stomach,” Lewis recalls. “Then she came out, and I said ‘OK, Mama is Clark Gable my father?’ and she said ‘yes, he is.’”
“She made me promise I’d never tell anybody else. Which was very difficult,” she adds.
Later, when Lewis suggested she would write about her life and expose the Gable affair, Young was furious. Lewis says that in the ensuing argument she asked Young if she would ever acknowledge her as her child with Gable — Young said no.
They were estranged for 12 years, from the time Lewis first mentioned writing the book, Uncommon Knowledge, which was published in 1994. Young told her biographer that after much prayer she was finally able to call and invite her daughter to a Christmas dinner. The two reconciled in 1997 but would never again bring up the subject of Clark Gable.
Difficult Choices In 1941, Young married advertising executive Tom Lewis and had a son. Throughout her career, she always put her principles above her paycheck.
To illustrate that, she told Anderson the story about the time she asked studio executives for six months off to have her third child. The response was to “skip [the baby] or turn in” her contract. Young refused to have an abortion and was fired.
Young’s long marriage to Lewis eventually dissolved but she found happiness at 80 when she married a longtime friend, designer Jean Louis.
“I believe [she] was a wholesome person,” says Anderson. “She had fallen like all wholesome people do, [but] she got back on that path and kept on going.”