In 1948, Hollywood screen star Loretta Young astonished the pundits by winning the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a Swedish maid in The Farmer’s Daughter. Young had dyed her hair blond, and worked very hard at perfecting a Swedish accent. She beat out the favorite for the award, Rosalind Russell, who was also one of her best friends. When the actress went onstage to accept the award, Academy President Jean Hersholt greeted her by saying, “Loretta, thank God for you. You probably saved the Academy! You’re the only winner who didn’t finish first in the poll!” At first, Young didn’t know what he meant, but later it was explained to her: Would the awards ever again have been considered suspenseful, or even honest, if winners were all but announced ahead of time? That was the last year the Daily Variety took its poll predicting winners before the ceremony.
Below is an excerpt of Joan Wester Anderson’s authorized biography Forever Young: The Authorized Biography of Loretta Young, published by Thomas More Publishing.
The Farmer’s Daughter While Loretta was working on (ironically) The Perfect Marriage, Dore Schary visited her on the set. Schary, a former writer-producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was now the production chief of Vanguard Pictures, run by David Selznick, Myron’s brother. Selznick wished to do The Farmer’s Daughter as his next project. The movie, originally a Finnish play titled “Katie for Congress,” is about an effervescent Swedish-born girl who works as a maid for a United States congressman and his family, and eventually becomes a congresswoman herself. The starring role had been offered to Ingrid Bergman, a genuine Swede, but she had turned it down. Several other starlets had been considered, including the skater Sonia Henie from Norway. Dore Schary had been sure from the beginning that Loretta was right for the role. But Selznick and others had disagreed. Now, with the rest of the players cast, time was growing short, and Schary was given the green light. As they spoke on the set, Loretta expressed doubts about her ability to master a Swedish accent. “I could do southern,” she suggested to Schary. “My mother still has a trace of it, and I’m used to it.” No, said Schary. It was an essential part of the story that Katie is foreign born; Swedish would be better.
Further, Schary had a solution: he would assign Ruth Roberts to coach Loretta. Ruth was Swedish, but had no accent. She had originally taught English to Swedish immigrants in Minnesota, and because her brother, George Seaton, was a Hollywood director (Miracle on 34th Street among other hits), Selznick had hired her to help Ingrid Bergman lose her Swedish inflection. (”We always said Ruth took away Ingrid’s accent, and gave it to me,” Loretta recalled).
Loretta finally agreed because despite her concern she loved the role. Katie was a departure from the glamorous women she usually portrayed but, in many ways, was just like her-determined, headstrong, fiercely principled. The movie also had a patriotic theme, and took a strong stance against prejudice, values Loretta appreciated.
Ruth got tapes of a Swedish friend speaking in English, and Loretta played them repeatedly for the next six weeks. “I was frustrated because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it,” Loretta said. “But after a while I got used to the rhythm of the speech, very gentle, very up and down. Ruth kept encouraging me, and finally we felt I was ready.” Loretta also dyed her hair blond, and wore four-foot-long pin-on braids, wound around her ears. With her rustic clothes, she looked every inch the farm girl.
She and Tom were also thrilled to learn that Loretta was expecting another baby. Schary may not have been quite as pleased, since pregnancies among the stars often led to delays in production, but he knew how much the Lewises wanted a large family, and offered his congratulations. Filming began, and Ruth Roberts proved even more valuable than expected, Loretta said. “We’d do a scene, the director would yell, ‘Cut!,’ I’d think it was fine, but Ruth would stop, and whisper to me: ‘Go a little deeper, say this word softly.’ I’d ask for another take, follow her directions on these small touches, and we were all surprised at how well they worked. If she hadn’t been a woman in that era, she could have been a director, and a superb one, at that.”
Dore Schary was immensely pleased with the dailies, and told Loretta that if she kept going like this, he believed she could win an Academy Award for the role. Loretta laughed. Nothing could be less probable in her mind. But the movie had brought her a new and invaluable friend-Ruth Roberts. “Special people seemed to pop up whenever I needed help or encouragement, whether in my professional or private lives,” Loretta said. “It was no coincidence.”
When Loretta was almost four months pregnant, she lost the baby. She and Tom were heartsick. As Schary had anticipated, he did have to shut down production for about two weeks while Loretta recovered, but even when she returned, she was depressed. Finally, “Tom and I were able to say to God, ‘Well, if it’s Your will, okay. We’ll trust that You have something better in mind.’ It was then that the pain of disappointment stopped.” Later, Loretta began to think of the child as “my little angel in heaven.”
The Farmer’s Daughter was released in spring 1947 to wide acclaim. Moviegoers loved it and so did the critics. Loretta was singled out for much praise, which was unusual since reviewers tended to dismiss her. Delighted, she started work on The Bishop’s Wife, another immensely charming movie featuring Cary Grant and her old pal David Niven. Both men were fun to have around. Cary was a natural athlete, who entertained everyone by walking on his hands between takes, and enjoyed skating in the movie’s winter scene. (Non-athletic Loretta, of course, used a double.) “Cary is probably the only leading man I didn’t fall in love with,” Loretta recalls. “But we were good friends. He was always searching for answers about faith and religion-we had some good talks.” The Bishop’s Wife was released to strong box office receipts in December, 1947. (In 1996, Bishop was redone as The Preacher’s Wife, starring Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington.)
Two winners in a row! How could Loretta have doubted God’s hand in her career? She often wondered. She had thought, when she was blacklisted, that her acting days were over. But nothing could have prepared her for the next step. One morning, she and Tom were having brunch with Irene Dunne and her husband when the phone rang. It was Dore Schary. “Do you remember me telling you that you could win the Academy Award for Katie?” he asked Loretta.
“How could I forget?” she laughed.
”Well, you’re one step closer. You’ve been nominated for best actress.”
Loretta was thunderstruck, especially as Schary read her the list of the other nominees. How could this be? Joan Crawford for Possessed, Susan Hayward for Smash-Up, Dorothy McGuire for Gentlemen’s Agreement, and one of her best friends, Rosalind Russell, for Mourning Becomes Electra. It was unbelievably wonderful for Rosalind, who usually did light-hearted parts, and had really struggled through this role, a heavy Eugene O’Neil saga. Once, after Sunday Mass, Loretta had asked her how it was going. “Loretta,” Roz had answered through gritted teeth, “all the director says to me is ‘Hate him!” (the leading man). “Hate him!
HATE HIM MORE!’ I swear, if he says that to me again, I’m going to kill him!” The women had laughed together. They, along with Irene Dunne, were often dubbed “The Three Nuns” by people in the industry, due to their Catholic faith and careful choice of parts, and they understood each other well. But if Katie had been a departure for Loretta, Rosalind had also stepped outside her niche. The two women had already celebrated Roz’s Golden Globe award for Electra, which was usually a ticket to the Oscar. In addition, Roz had been nominated Best Actress last year for Sister Kenny, and had lost. She was the sure winner, Loretta decided.
In those years, after the nominees were announced, the Daily Variety held a straw poll. Rosalind won it by a wide margin, thus confirming Loretta’s views. (Loretta finished fifth, out of five.) But Roz was not convinced she was a shoo-in. On the morning of the awards, she phoned Loretta. “Nervous?” she asked.
“Not really. I’m just happy to be one of the five, and wear this beautiful Adrian dress.” ”Loretta, my mother is getting out of her sickbed to come with us tonight and watch me win,” Roz told her. “But God and I know who’s the real winner. So when you get the Oscar, I want you to unscrew it and throw half of it to me!” “Don’t be an idiot,” Loretta said fondly. “You deserve it, and you’re going to win it. I’ll see you tonight.”
Loretta wasn’t placating her friend. She was so sure she would not be chosen that she had discouraged everyone in the family from attending the ceremony. Judy, Loretta’s daughter, would be allowed to stay up late and listen to it on the radio. And Georgie and Ricardo, her sister and brother-in-law, had insisted on coming, because they felt someone ought to be around to console Loretta. But since the Montalbans’ seats were way in the back, Tom would be the only family member nearby, and that’s just the way Loretta wanted it. (Original plans had called for the Lewises to attend with Dore Schary and his wife but, at the last minute, Miriam Schary got the flu, and Dore didn’t want to leave her. Instead, he gave his tickets to some good friends, who would sit with Loretta and Tom.) Loretta’s only concession to a possible win was the preparation of an acceptance speech, which she had asked Tom to write. “I was so used to following scripts that I felt uneasy talking extemporaneously at an event like this, especially if I bawled and looked unprofessional,” she said. “So I told Tom how I felt, and he wrote it, and I memorized it. Then I forgot it.”
Now the limousine sped through the Hollywood streets. Loretta was excited and nervous, but enjoying every minute. “Our driver happened to pass the Deluxe Theater, where we boarding house kids had gone to all those Saturday matinees.” It seemed like a hundred years ago. Who could have imagined her life now?
The awards were given at the huge Shrine Auditorium, which seated about 6000 people, and the stage seemed to go on forever. It was darkened except for lights following those who walked across it, and there were great white, tiered shelves holding the statues, grouped around a 30-foot Oscar. Today, the Best Picture award closes the ceremony, but in those days, it was presented third-to-last, followed by the Best Leading Actor award, and finally, the Best Leading Actress.
“We had sat through the whole event, and amazingly, every Daily Variety poll winner had also won the actual award,” Loretta said. “There was no suspense remaining for the final two Oscars.” As predicted, Ronald Coleman won the Best Actor award. Then it was the women’s turn. People began gathering their coats. Rosalind Russell, then on to the parties… Frederic March stepped to the microphone, and announced the final award. “And the winner is… ” he opened the envelope, “Loretta Young for The Farmer’s Daughter!”
The entire audience gasped. Then Georgie, from somewhere in the back, yelled, “Oh-h-h, Gretch!” The auditorium erupted in astonished applause.
Tom pushed Loretta out of her chair. “Go get it! Go get it!” He laughed. She flew up the stage stairs in absolute shock. Was this a dream? Had she done it? And where was Roz?
By the time she got to the stage, however, she could see Roz. She was standing, leading the applause. Loretta was overwhelmed. And what had she been planning to say? Her mind was a blank. “Holy Spirit, help me!” she prayed. And suddenly, the words were there. “The Academy Awards has always been a spectator sport for me,” she began as the clapping died away. “But tonight I dressed for the stage, just in case!” Everyone laughed. “And as for you,” Loretta held up Oscar, “at long last!” She kissed it, said “good night, and God bless you,” and walked in a daze off the stage.
Jean Hersholt, the Academy president, was standing in the wings with his arms out. “Oh, Jean!” she gasped, “isn’t this wonderful?”
“Loretta, thank God for you.” He hugged her. “You probably saved the Academy! You’re the only winner who didn’t finish first in the poll!” (Loretta didn’t know what he meant, but later it was explained to her: Would the awards ever again have been considered suspenseful, or even honest, if winners were all but announced ahead of time? That was the last year the Daily Variety took its poll.)
Loretta bolted to the phone backstage, and immediately dialed Gladys’ number. “Mama!” she cried, “It’s Gretch! I won!”
”That’s nice, dear,” a sleepy Gladys answered. “What did you win?” Gladys had never been impressed with the Academy Awards, considering them just another public relations ploy. It would be years before she recognized the significance of her daughter’s achievement.
There were so many reporters waiting for Loretta backstage (the studio had not even made up a biography on her) that by the time she posed for the last photo, and answered the last question, the auditorium had emptied, and the streets were practically deserted. Tom and Loretta came outside to discover that their limousine was gone, probably grabbed by another group. “I remember looking up at the buildings across the street from the auditorium, still clutching my Oscar, while Tom went to find a cab,” she said. “I was in a fog, but a woman hung out her window and shouted congratulations to me. It was marvelous.”
They went on to Ciro’s for the studio party. Each studio had its own table, and since Roz and Loretta’s movies had both been made at the same studio, they were to sit together. But where was Roz? The luster of Loretta’s evening would be dimmed forever if her friend had decided to skip the party. Oh, dear. She noticed the waiters quickly changing the card at the winner place setting from “Rosalind Russell” to “Loretta Young.” How embarrassing! Everyone seemed to be watching her or the entrance, waiting for the two women to meet.
All of a sudden, a stir went through the room. Roz and Freddie had appeared at the door. It seemed to take them forever to work their way through the crowd, but they were coming straight to her and Tom, and Roz was smiling. At last! The two women embraced. “If I couldn’t have won, thank God it was you!” Roz whispered.
“And that,” Loretta said years later, “was Roz.”
Loretta and Tom got home at dawn, to a stack of congratulatory messages. Amid them was one from Sister Marina, her first-grade teacher. Sister had sent blessings from her infirmary sick bed to a favorite pupil, one who now obviously had her own secretary! (And a Catholic husband too.) Just a few hours later, Loretta’s entire extended family-Mama, siblings, nephews and nieces-arrived for a gala breakfast.
The Academy Awards ceremony had been a major event for Loretta. But no one who knew her well was surprised when, the following weekend she avoided the limelight and went off to her annual religious retreat at Marymount. God was there for asking, but also for thanking and praising. And she needed a quiet place where she could think.
She was especially worried about the deteriorating relationship between Tom and Judy. Although he had once treated his stepdaughter with great affection, Loretta had noticed a change the moment Christopher was born, even more pronounced when Peter arrived so soon afterward. His sons were now Tom’s focus, and when he did cross paths with Judy, he was critical of her activities, her grades, her friends. Part of the difficulty was that Tom was unemployed, with time on his hands, thus able to get involved in everything that went on in the household. While the boys loved having a Mr. Mom, Judy longed for privacy and freedom.
“I talked about the situation to Tom first,” Loretta said. “Then I talked to Judy. As gently as I could, I suggested he’d get over it as soon the boys grew up a little. Judy tried hard to believe me, but in time we both knew I was wrong.” Loretta felt guilty. If she wasn’t gone so much, maybe she could calm the troubled waters. But her Oscar had made her a “hot commodity”-she and Tom (along with the Hopes, Robert and Betty Montgomery, and several others) had even been invited to the wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth of England and Prince Philip! One can only imagine Loretta’s awe at her own achievements. She, a fatherless boarding house girl, was now not only the most famous actress in America, but traveling to London for a Royal Command Performance of The Bishop’s Wife as part of the wedding festivities. Understandable that, in the midst of the excitement, she found herself uttering the mantra of the busy woman: God, please show me how to handle it all.
Reprinted from Forever Young by Joan Wester Anderson by permission of Thomas More Publishing. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.