Chat Transcript: Loretta Young Biographer Joan Wester Anderson

Nov. 27, 2000 -- When she died at age 87, Oscar-winning actress Loretta Young was remembered by the world as a devout Catholic who professionally and personally led a seemingly “perfect life.”But as author Joan Wester Anderson learned while writing Young’s biography, Forever Young, no life is perfect. Anderson, who was handpicked by the actress, was given rare access to the very private star — even moving into Young's home to work on the book. What Anderson found was a woman forced by the strict moral code of the Hollywood studio system of the time to keep secrets about her personal life that would have shocked a more conservative America — including a brief teenage marriage and affairs with her costars. But one last secret Young had would forever change her relationship with daughter Judy Lewis. Judy learned she was not adopted, but the result of a romance Young had with screen legend Clark Gable.

Joan Wester Anderson joined us online today to discuss how Young chose to deal with her pregnancy and other secrets of the legendary screen siren. The chat transcript is below.

Moderator at 1:57pm ET

Welcome Joan Wester Anderson.

Kelly J Kitchens from at 1:58pm ET

It is amazing to me that Loretta was able to "disappear" for 6+ months without the gossip columnists and studios finding out she was pregnant. Where did she go and how did she keep those around her quiet?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:02pm ET

Interesting. For her second trimester she went to Europe, and she wore clothes that had full skirts. People saw her in Europe and thought she looked a little heavier than usual, but she was always trying to gain weight. During her last trimester, she gave out the story that she was sick with some "unknown malady." Words floated around like "surgery", "female problems", people didn't get too specific in those days. And, so, she stayed in bed and then, at the very end of her pregnancy, she went to live in a house that her mother owned, and that's where she had the baby, with just a doctor, who was sworn to secrecy, and her mother.

Moderator at 2:03pm ET

How powerful were the gossip columnists during Young's time in Hollywood?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:05pm ET

Gossip columnists were very powerful, but they also had wide discretion. They weren't out to "get" the stars by revealing all kinds of personal things. In many cases, if they liked you, they would keep your secrets, and we all think that this is what happened with Loretta. Loretta staged a sickroom scene and had herself made up to look pale, with a phony I.V., then invited Dorothy Manners in and presented herself as being ill. Dorothy went along with it, and published the news that way, never mentioning a possible pregnancy. But we think that Ms. Manners had to know the truth; she couldn't have not known.

Arlene at 2:08pm ET

Was Clark Gable aware that Judy Lewis was his daughter? Did they ever meet?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:08pm ET

Yes, Clark knew from the beginning that Loretta was pregnant with his child. He saw the baby once, right after her birth. He never saw Judy again, according to Loretta. According to Judy, she and Clark met once when she was 12. Loretta says that never happened.

Bill May from at 2:09pm ET

Does Loretta Young's daughter have any kind of relationship with her half brother, John Clark Gable?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:09pm ET

Not that I know of. That was a question I intended to ask Judy, and I never have so far.

Moderator at 2:10pm ET

Did having her third child in defiance of studio executives hurt Young’s career?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:11pm ET

Temporarily, yes it did. She was at what she considered to be the pinnacle of her career. She didn't know that there was a lot more to come. She had reached the highest salary that an actress could get, and in giving that up, she not only lost her income, she lost what she presumed would be the chance at great stardom. But it was a blessing in disguise, because she decided to freelance after the baby was born, and she did probably her best work then. So, in the long run, while she lost some money, she gained her independence, which was something that was very important to her.

Jan from at 2:12pm ET

When Miss Young refused to have an abortion with her third child, and her studio contract was cancelled, is that when she turned to television?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:13pm ET

Oh, no. She didn’t go into television until the early 50s; that baby was born in 1946, so she had an academy award awaiting her, as well as two or three films which turned out to be her best. "Come to the Stable", and "The Bishop's Wife", have both been assumed to be her best work.

Scott at 2:14pm ET

I’m curious...did Loretta keep many mementos, such as posters, photos, etc., from her days in the movies around her home?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:15pm ET

Interesting question. I wondered about that too, when I visited her. The only memorabilia that she kept, other than her awards statues, were her clothes. She had closets built in on both sides of her garage, with sliding doors, and hung there were costumes all cleaned and labeled with the name and the date of the movie they'd been used in. All of these things were to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s after her death. She had very little in the way of posters and souvenirs. Her motto was "don't look back"; the only thing that mattered to her was the present, the day she was living in. She never kept scrapbooks, either.

Moderator at 2:15pm ET

Ms. Anderson, what was the reason Loretta Young made the jump to television at a time when movie stars looked down on the medium?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:17pm ET

Oh, absolutely, she was told by her friends in the business, Dore Schary for one, and Louis B. Mayer, that if she were to go into television, her movie career would be finished. So, it was a gamble, but Loretta was pushing 40, and she figured she probably wouldn't have too many good roles coming along from Hollywood, anyway, so why not try tv? Her other primary reason for going on tv was that she could control the product. She would no longer be at the mercy of a director or a studio head who wanted her to take certain parts. She has said those were the happiest days in her career.

Greg Smith at 2:18pm ET

What do you think her motivation was in waiting until after death to reveal her secret? Fear? Pride? Guilt?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:19pm ET

Fear and guilt. I don't think Loretta had much pride — at least not the kind that would keep her from being honest. She always felt that she had a responsibility to live up to her own standards, and if people knew that she had failed, they might be so disappointed or cynical that it would affect their own spiritual faith. She knew she was a role model, and she took that very seriously. Tied into that was the guilt that she, who had such strong convictions, was sometimes unable to live up to them herself. But I kept telling her, "This is the human condition. We're all like this", and people could learn from her mistakes if she were willing to share them.

Linda at 2:20pm ET

Does anyone know why the relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Loretta Young did not get serious enough for marriage? Was he already married then?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:21pm ET

No, oh, no, he wasn't married then, but Loretta always said that Jimmy was never on her "wavelength". When I asked her what that meant, she said he was the kind of man she wanted to marry, but obviously, though he loved her, but was not in love with her. And if that little spark isn't there, most people wouldn't get married.

Moderator at 2:22pm ET

Did movie actresses fight the movie studios when asked to compromise their personal lives or principles?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:23pm ET

The movie studios really owned their stars. They could decide if you needed plastic surgery, if and when you were going to get some time off. It is a well known fact that the studio ran brothels so that their male stars would remain disease free. They also had abortionists available so that their starlets would not hold up a picture by being inconveniently pregnant. There were some movie stars that had so many abortions that by the time they were ready to have a child, they no longer could. It was very unusual for someone to quit when told to have an abortion.

Mike Dougherty from at 2:23pm ET

I remember seeing her show in syndicated reruns, but how was it first received, both critically and commercially, when it debuted?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:25pm ET

It was not received well the first 12 or 14 episodes. Critics were very hard on it. One said "It won't last a week", and after its 9 year run, they blew up that critic's column to giant size, posted it on the wall, and invited him for a party so he could laugh at what he had said. The show got better as Loretta began listening to the people who wrote in. She always asked that the negative letters be given to her, rather than the congratulatory ones, because she felt that she could learn a lot from her fans. This was an untested industry, and no one really knew what viewers were going to want. She says the show got better as they went along.

Joe LaMacchia at 2:26pm ET

Was she married at the time of her death?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:26pm ET

No, she was widowed. She married for a third time when she was 80, and he was 85. They had four happy years together. That was, by far, her happiest marriage.

Greg Smith at 2:27pm ET

I can't get a copy of "Call of the Wild" for the life of me! Where did you find one, and how many times did you watch it during your research?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:27pm ET

I only watched it once. It was on tv when I saw it, and as I watched it I remembered that I had seen it many years ago. There are sometimes clips of it shown during her various tv biographies, but I'm not sure if the entire movie has ever been put on video.

Robert E. SERAFIN from at 2:28pm ET

In your book you related Miss Young had a reading deficiency. How was she able to play her parts in the movies?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:29pm ET

Interesting question. Loretta had dyslexia, but there was no such diagnosis in those days, so people assumed that she was just a little dumb. She ended up memorizing all of her roles, and everyone else's parts as well, so she would know when to speak. In her 50's, she finally discovered that her problem had a name, but by that time she had learned to compensate, and had become a voracious reader.

Nancy at 2:29pm ET

How long did you stay with Loretta to finish the book?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:30pm ET

I stayed with her for what I thought would be a first visit for two weeks. We had a lot of fun. Then I went home to start work on the book. We talked a lot on the phone, and I made plans to come back a year later, in May. That was May 2000. But Loretta was ill then, and I never saw her again.

Linda at 2:30pm ET

With Loretta’s religious convictions it must have been hard for her to even tell her parents when she found out she was pregnant. Were her parents supportive from the beginning?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:31pm ET

Loretta didn’t have a father — her father had abandoned the family when she was four years old, so she was only dealing with her mother. Loretta expected her mother to be furious with her, as she had been when Loretta eloped some time earlier. But her mother was surprisingly gentle and calm about the whole situation, and it was her mother who contacted Clark and told him about everything, setting up a meeting for them all. When Clark said that he didn't want any part of the responsibility of a child, Loretta’s mother took over and arranged for the European trip and the subsequent events.

Moderator at 2:32pm ET

How was Young able to maintain her wholesome image for the public with these indiscretions lurking in her past?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:35pm ET

Well, I think that both Loretta and Clark were quite popular in Hollywood. People genuinely liked them. They were not troublemakers, and they were attempting to work honestly and help the movie business along. When you had someone who represented Hollywood well with the general public, there wasn't the temptation to tear them down. It was, I assume, a conspiracy of silence, and I think that conspiracy could be seen in other areas too. For example, did anyone know there were brothels, or drug situations, or abortions and other pregnancies? I'm assuming there were other actresses who hid babies. It was only when it became public that they had to deal with it. Nowadays, we have the specter of the Globe and the National Enquirer; they didn't have those then.

Scott at 2:35pm ET

I love the movie "The Bishop's Wife." Did Loretta share any information on making the movie or its cast? Was it one of her favorites?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:38pm ET

"The Bishop's Wife" was one of her favorites for two reasons. First of all, she had been a longtime friend of David Niven’s. He had stayed at the Young house when he had first come to this country, and Loretta and her sisters helped him get into the movie business. She was always delighted to work with him. Second, she found Cary Grant to be a very interesting person, because he was seeking a spiritual life, and he and she had many very interesting conversations on the set about that. Cary also had a terrific sense of humor, and Loretta did too. She was a person who laughed a lot, so she said he could give her a look and make her laugh, and that always added a lot of fun to her work.

Greg Smith at 2:39pm ET

What were the circumstances of her choosing you to write her biography? Would you kindly elaborate on the process? How many interviews did you do? Did you tape them and/or take notes? How long did you live with her, etc.? Thanks!

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:42pm ET

Well, I had done six previous books, a series on angels and miracles. The books were wildly successful, beyond my craziest dreams, and one day I was asked by a video production company to be a narrator on a script they were preparing on angels. They said they would come to my house. I had done this for several companies, so I agreed. When our work was over, one of them mentioned that he was Loretta Young's son. I hadn't thought about Loretta in years; in fact, I thought she might have died. But I quickly grabbed one of my angel books, signed it with a thank you for all the good work she had done, and sent it with her son. Months later, she called me and said she had read all of my angel books, and I was the person she wanted to do her life story. I said "no", just because I had never written a biography. I felt she needed someone more accomplished. She said I was the one! *Laughs* Loretta was charming, but when she dug her heels in, you knew better than to argue. So I bought a tape recorder, went out there, and I guess the rest is history.

blackxacto at 2:43pm ET

I am 50, and all I can remember from her television show was her entrance through the double doors. Was it her idea for the door entrance to be some sort of trademark?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:44pm ET

It had been the decision of the director that she should come through the door. The first time they filmed, she simply walked through the door. The designer of the dress she was wearing was on the set, and the designer started to pout. Loretta asked the designer why she was upset. The designer said that she had put more work into the back of the dress than the front, and that no one was going to see the back. So Loretta went back, opened the door again, and came through it with a whirl. People loved the entrance, and she began to do it with each show.

Moderator at 2:45pm ET

Joan, do you have any final thoughts to share with us about Loretta Young?

Joan Wester Anderson at 2:46pm ET

I hope Loretta is remembered as much for the good that she did in people’s personal lives as she is for the entertainment she brought us in her public life. After she left her professional career, she started a whole new life visiting the sick, working with street people, and just bringing joy to ordinary people. Those events are also in the book so that people will be able to understand her whole life and not just the parts we saw on the screen. She left a lot of love, and I think that's what any of us can be judged upon; how well did we love? If that’s the criteria, Loretta scored very highly.

Moderator at 2:46pm ET

Please take a moment to check out recent chats in our Chat archive. Thank you Joan Wester Anderson for joining us.