Loretta Young, the elegant beauty whose
acting career extended from silent movies to television and
included an Academy Award for best actress in The Farmer’s
Daughter, died today of ovarian cancer, her longtime agent and
friend Norman Brokaw said. She was 87.
Young died at the home of her sister Georgian Montalban and actor Ricardo Montalban early this morning, said Brokaw, her agent for 50 years and chairman of the William Morris Agency.
“She was an incredible lady,” Brokaw said. “I learned from her that if you can handle yourself with class and dignity, you can work as long as you want in this business.”
Both on and off the screen, Miss Young presented the image of serene uprightness. In 88 movies dating from 1927 to 1953, she invariably played the strong-willed heroine with firm principles.
Won Three Emmys
From 1953 to 1963, she appeared on television in more than 300 episodes of The Loretta Young Show, opening the program with her much-satirized trademark of sweeping through a doorway, always in a high-style gown. She was nominated seven times for Emmys as best starring actress and won three times.
“During the series I played every role possible—Chinese, Japanese, Swedish, Indian, old, ugly, young, pretty,” she remarked in a 1973 interview. “It was a marvelous experience for an actress to do everything she had ever wanted to do. I got it out of my system.”
She retired at the end of The New Loretta Young Show in 1963, devoting her time to charities and a line of beauty products bearing her name. She returned to acting in 1986, appearing in a television movie, Christmas Eve.
During her Hollywood heyday, Miss Young appeared opposite most of the top male stars of her time. They included Lon Chaney, Ronald Colman, John Barrymore, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Tyrone Power, David Niven, Joel McCrea, Robert Mitchum, William Holden and Joseph Cotten. A shapely beauty with large blue-gray eyes and high cheekbones, Loretta starred at 15 in 1928 with Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. She was never less than a star afterward. In 1929 and 1930 she appeared in 15 movies, including Broken Dishes with the bluff, hard-drinking actor Grant Withers.
Was Married at 17
She eloped with him when she was 17, and they lived together for eight months before she filed for divorce in 1931, claiming she paid most of the bills. Miss Young never spoke of the marriage, and it never appeared in her official biography.
Her career flourished in the 1930s, with contracts to Warner Bros.-First National and then 20th Century-Fox. In 1934 she appeared in 10 films, including Born to Be Bad (Cary Grant), The House of Rothschild (George Arliss), The Devil to Pay (Ronald Colman), Caravan (Charles Boyer), Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades, Call of the Wild (Clark Gable), Shanghai (Charles Boyer).
Miss Young’s career flourished into the ’40s with such films as The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche), The Doctor Takes a Wife (Ray Milland), Bedtime Story (Fredric March), The Lady from Cheyenne (Robert Preston), China (Alan Ladd), Along Came Jones (Gary Cooper), The Stranger (Orson Welles).
After 20 years of stardom, her career seemed ready for the inevitable decline. Then producer Dore Schary offered her The Farmer’s Daughter, in which she would play a maid who ends up being elected to Congress. “Do you mean you want me to play it with a Swedish accent, a blond wig and all?” she asked. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes, but it could also win you an Academy Award,” said Schary.
No one else thought so. Rosalind Russell was the heavy favorite for Mourning Becomes Electra. When Miss Young was announced as best actress of 1947, the audience gasped in surprise. “At long last!” she sighed as she held the Oscar.
The award bolstered her career, and she went on to such films as The Bishop’s Wife (Cary Grant, David Niven), Come to the Stable (John Lund), Mother Was a Freshman (Van Johnson), Because of You (Jeff Chandler). Her last feature came in 1953 with It Happens Every Thursday (John Forsythe).
“Pictures were great, but there was no real communication with the audience,” she said in a 1966 interview. “The other aspects of being a movie star I can’t knock: the fame, the grand houses, the glamour, the money, friends.”
Worked for Charity
A lifelong Roman Catholic, the actress worked tirelessly for the church’s charities, including a home for unwed mothers and a children’s foundation. She insisted on propriety on her movie sets, and even enforced a kitty for her charities, to which set workers contributed a coin every time they swore. Legend has it that on Rachel and the Stranger, the irreverent Robert Mitchum loosed a spate of profanity and dropped $5 into the kitty.
Miss Young’s daughter Judy, adopted in the mid-’30s, claims Miss Young hid one lapse from traditional morality. In a 1994 book, Uncommon Knowledge, Ms. Lewis claimed she was the result of an affair between a married Gable and Miss Young. According to Ms. Lewis, Miss Young had her baby in secret in late 1935, then eventually “adopted” the child when she was 2.
A spokesman denied it, and in a 1995 New York Times interview, Miss Young refused to discuss the story, calling it a “rumor of a bygone time,” and adding, “I have made peace with my daughter.”
She was born Gretchen Young on Jan. 6, 1913, in Salt Lake City, where her father was a railroad auditor. She had two older sisters, Polly Ann and Elizabeth (who had her own movie career as Sally Blane) and younger brother, Jack.
When Gretchen was 3, her father abandoned his family. Her mother moved the children to Los Angeles and opened a boarding house. She later married and had a fourth daughter, Georgianna, who became the wife of Ricardo Montalban.
An uncle in the movie business found work for the Young girls as extras, and Gretchen started when she was 5. Eight years later, director Mervyn Leroy called the Young house with a role for Polly Ann in Naughty but Nice. “Polly Ann isn’t here; will I do?” Gretchen inquired. She made her acting debut in the comedy, and the star, Colleen Moore, changed the 13-year-old’s name to Loretta.
Throughout her career and afterward, she always appeared the movie queen, with perfect coiffure and makeup, dressed in the latest fashion, upbeat in her view of life. On the screen and off, she always seemed taller than her 5 feet 5 inches. She seldom varied from 109 pounds.
After the end of her TV series, she pursued the things denied her during the hectic years in the studios.
“I decided the whole world was a soundstage, and I wanted to see it,” she told a reporter in 1986. “I traveled for two years. When I came back, I wasn’t anxious to return to work, and I didn’t need to financially. Suddenly the years slipped by. I was living my life. It was quiet when I wanted it quiet and exciting when I wanted it exciting.”
Stayed Out of Limelight
Except for Christmas Eve in 1986, she stayed out of the limelight, pursuing her charities and spending time with her family.
In 1940 she married broadcast executive Thomas Lewis, and they had two sons, Christopher, born in 1944, and Peter, in 1945. Miss Young and Lewis were separated for many years before she divorced him in 1969.
In August 1993, Miss Young surprised her friends by marrying fashion designer Jean Louis. She was 80, he was 85. She told Daily Variety: “We’ve known each other for so long. And when something is right, it just slips into place.”
Jean Louis died in April 1997.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete. She is survived by her sister, daughter Judy, of Los Angeles, and two sons, Peter, of Solvang, and Christopher, of Palm Springs.