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Loretta Young, Sweet Beauty of Hollywood

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Loretta Young promotional shot from 1943

Loretta Young promotional shot from 1943

Loretta Young will forever be remembered as the mother of Clark Gable's illegitimate child but this is doing a fine actress an injustice. She was the first and one of the few top Hollywood stars who successfully bridged the era between silent movies and television and she achieved a success in each media which has not been achieved since. She had great beauty and great talent and is rightly regarded as a Hollywood legend.

Her movie career actually started as a child actress before talkies began. She then had great success, in terms of both quality and quantity, in talkies during the great age of Hollywood, culminating in 1947 with a Best Actress Award for her role in The Farmer's Daughter. After this, she entered the new medium of television and garnered three Emmys for the smash hit, The Loretta Young Show.

Early Years

She was born Gretchen Young in 1913, in Salt Lake City, Utah, the youngest of three sisters and one brother. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was three and her mother ran a boarding house there. Her father shortly after deserted his family and her brother, John, was taken from the family and adopted. All the sisters, as they got older, helped their mother run the boarding house and all three, helped by an uncle who worked in a studio, became child actors in the burgeoning movie industry in nearby Hollywood.

In 1929, at age 15, with Lon Chaney in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh"

In 1929, at age 15, with Lon Chaney in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh"

Career Launch

Gretchen first appeared on screen at four years old, joining her elder sisters Polly Ann Young and Elizabeth Jane Young (later to become better known as Sally Blane). Then after convent school at age 14, Gretchen made an appearance in Naughty But Nice in 1927. The star, Colleen Moore, suggested she change her name. From then on, the actress Loretta Young was born. It was the start of a successful career, initially in silent movies such as The Magnificent Flirt and The Head Man, both in 1928.

Her first leading role came in 1929 in Laugh Clown Laugh with Lon Chaney, one of the last silent era films. The same year, she entered talkies with The Squall, and she was signed onto a contract with Daryll Zanuck of Warner Brothers. When Zanuck left Warners for Twentieth Century Fox in 1934, she followed and made many successful films for him.

Hollywood Fame

During the following years Loretta, worked diligently at her new profession and made several movies each year. In fact, between 1927 and 1953 she made no less than 88 movies appearing with most of the leading men of the day.

In 1930, she appeared in The Second Floor Mystery with fast-living, hard-drinking actor, Grant Withers, who was divorced and nine years her senior. Later that year she made headlines by eloping with him but the marriage did not work out and was annulled the following year. Loretta privately complained that she had been paying all the bills. The marriage was never mentioned in her official biographies.

Her reputation for quality and hard work paid off and she was given better and better parts but invariably in second rate movies. Nevertheless by the mid 1930s she was regarded as one of the premier leading ladies of Hollywood and as such in 1935 she was chosen to play the female lead in The Call of the Wild with the current undisputed screen superstar, Clark Gable. It would change Loretta's life forever.

Loretta Young advertising for Lux Toilet Soap, 1945

Loretta Young advertising for Lux Toilet Soap, 1945

Gable, Children, and Marriage

Loretta and Gable had an instant rapport which worked miracles onscreen. It also continued offscreen. They had a passionate affair, and Loretta became pregnant. At that time all contracted stars had strict morality clauses in their contracts, and it was unthinkable for a female star to have a baby out of wedlock, and the fact that Clark Gable was married made matters worse.

Loretta went to Europe with her mother — ostensibly on vacation — to have the baby, a girl whom she named Judith. She announced to the world that she had adopted the girl. In 1940, Loretta married businessman Tom Lewis, and from then on the child was called Judy Lewis, although Tom Lewis never legally adopted her.

Judy did not discover, until years later, who her biological father was. She herself briefly became an actress before becoming a psychologist and she later wrote a book, Uncommon Knowledge, with the truth of her parentage.

Four years after her marriage to Tom Lewis, Loretta had a son, Christopher Lewis, and later another son, Peter Charles.

Hollywood Success

Loretta did not neglect her movie career and she continued to appear in several films each year. In the late 1940s, she finally began to see real success. She was impressive in Orson Welles' The Stranger in 1946, slowly realising that the husband she idolised was a renegade Nazi.

Then, in 1947, she received (and won!) her first Oscar nomination for The Farmer's Daughter, a comedy about a Swedish-born girl who works as a maid for a United States congressman, until eventually, she becomes a congresswoman herself.

In the same year, she also starred in The Bishop's Wife, another successful movie, which is a Christmas television favourite to this day. She also received an Academy Award nomination for her role in Come To The Stable in 1949.


The Loretta Young Show

As her movie career faded in the early 1950s, Loretta turned to the new medium of television. She hosted her own show which ran for a decade and was very popular.

Premiering under the title Letter to Loretta, the series was renamed The Loretta Young Show during the first season. Originally, the series was framed as the dramatization of viewers' letters. Each teleplay dramatized a different letter/story/message. Even after the letter device was dropped, Loretta still introduced and closed each story. At the beginning of each episode, she entered a living room set (supposedly her living room) through a door. Turning around to close the door and swirling her designer fashions as she walked up to the camera, Young was consciously putting on a mini-fashion show, and the spectacular entrance became Young's and the series' trademark. Glamour and fashion had been important elements of her film star image, and she considered them central to her television image and appeal.

She opted for the 'anthology' type of programme which allowed her to act as hostess and both showcase her fashionable couture and also deliver moral messages at the end of each programme. Loretta became television's first First Lady, and her popularity now exceeded anything she had known in the movie industry.

The messages at the end of the programme were important to Loretta, who was a strict Catholic. Scripts had to include the resolution of moral dilemmas and carried upbeat messages about family, community, and personal conviction. Numerous civic and religious groups honored her for this. She also won three Emmys, the first in 1955 as best dramatic actress in a continuing series.

Final Years

Loretta and Tom Lewis divorced in 1969 and then, to the surprise of her friends and family, Loretta got married in 1993 at the age of 80! This time, it was to fashion designer Jean Louis, who was five years her senior. Jean Louis died four happy years later.

Loretta Young lost her struggle with ovarian cancer on August 12, 2000. She was 87.

Loretta Young with President Reagan at the White House, June 12, 1985

Loretta Young with President Reagan at the White House, June 12, 1985


Tracy from San Francisco on May 13, 2010:

There is much here that I did not know about Loretta Young. She captured my heart in The Bishop's Wife.