Loretta Young was a dazzling actress who took Hollywood’s Golden Age by storm. She came from a religious home and was Hollywood’s saintly good girl, taking on the sweet, innocent girl next door roles. Young kept her faith and values close, but like the rest of us, she made mistakes too. But in her case, straying off the moral path resulted in a life-changing choice.
All Loretta Young wanted was a happy ending, but her love child became one of the longest-kept Hollywood secrets. Her web of lies truly had an effect on the people closest to her. Contrary to her good girl persona, the starlet was also known as the “iron butterfly.” The determined actress wasn’t going to let anything stop her from spreading her wings and achieving her goals.
This the life of Old Hollywood starlet Loretta Young and the web of lies she trapped herself in.
Little Gretchen Young
When Loretta Young was welcomed into the world on January 9, 1913, Loretta wasn’t her name; her birth name was actually Gretchen. Growing up, her recently divorced mother moved the family to an open boarding house in Hollywood.
Little Gretchen had a special spark since she was a toddler and entered the acting world at three years old. She landed her first role in a silent film called Sweet Kitty Bellairs. It seemed as though the whole family had the acting bug. Unfortunately, Gretchen’s mother pushed the kids into the industry because she wanted cash.
She Feared God
Gretchen’s mother had strong Catholic beliefs and raised her children with her faith. She sent her daughters to parochial schools, one being the Ramona Convent boarding school. Her mom would regularly invite priests over to the house for dinner. Naturally, her strict upbringing helped influence Gretchen’s moral code.
Her faith and religion played a big part in the choices she made throughout her life and her career. Gretchen had two sisters, and she wasn’t the only talented one: All three girls became child stars: Gretchen, Polly, and Elizabeth.
The Most Talented Sister
Although the three little actresses were only landing small roles, it still helped with the family’s financial situation. But as it turned out, only one of them grew up to become a successful and blossoming Hollywood starlet. Surprise, surprise, it was Gretchen.
Gretchen was undeniably beautiful and had immense talent, making her destined for greatness. It was like she was born to shine! There was one little thing missing, though; she needed a name to match her aspirations. Gretchen wasn’t exactly the name of a glamorous star.
The Name “Gretchen” Had to Go
After landing roles in more silent films as Gretchen Young, she finally decided to change her name. Stage names are not uncommon in Hollywood; a more dazzling name can help star power. In Gretchen’s case, it came from a rather unexpected place.
When she signed a deal with producer John McCormick, she met his wife, actress Colleen Moore who immediately saw the spark but didn’t think the name “Gretchen” fit her gentle beauty. So, Moore decided to call her Loretta… after her favorite doll. Yes, she was named after a grown woman’s doll, and it stuck!
Making Herself Known
Loretta Young was a very smart and self-aware young lady. She had big dreams and the ambition and determination to follow them. Even when producers cast her in minor roles, she did whatever she possibly could to capture as much screen time as she could.
Even when she played an extra in a roiling crowd, she made sure to push her way to the front, with her star power shining for the camera. She was quoted saying: “I was always sure I was going to be a big star, not just an actress.”
Her Flawless Image
As a teenage Hollywood socialite, Loretta Young had a professional persona she needed to maintain. She always had the arm of a handsome fellow around her and made her rounds to lavish events and exclusive clubs.
As a precaution against scandal, she hired a publicist to keep her rising name on the straight and narrow, especially when it came to gossip columns. But her main priority was preserving her “girl next door” image as pretty, pure, and Catholic. However, this good girl persona was way harder to keep up than she expected.
Crushing on the “Bad Boy”
When she was at the impressionable age of 17, Loretta Young was forced to make a tough decision; one that went against her religious mother’s conservative wishes. On the set of The Second Floor Mystery, Young met Grant Withers, and she couldn’t keep her eyes off of him.
He was the perfect leading man for the actress, but unfortunately, he had his flaws, and it didn’t take long for her to figure them out. He had a real desire for freedom and loved to drink. But like most first loves, she really thought they were meant to be.
Definitely Too Young to Marry
Head over heels in love, Young and Withers flew off to Arizona to exchange vows. The lovebirds starred in another movie together, ironically titled Too Young to Marry, which they had to be laughing about at the time.
As it turned out, the name of their film taught the young couple a tough lesson. The honeymoon phase didn’t last long, and Young was heartbroken that her marriage didn’t even last a year. As soon as her relationship crumbled, so did the picture-perfect reputation she had tried so hard to maintain.
She Wasn’t Perfect
Loretta Young had a constant internal battle and was at war with her own hypocrisies. She so desperately wanted to be the wholesome Catholic girl. She went as far as refusing to utter the word “divorce” in front of a camera. However, her true nature went against her values at every turn.
Unlike the stereotypical Catholic “good girl,” Young enjoyed the company of dreamy men. She also had a very recent and very messy public divorce with a man who didn’t share her faith. So, what else could possibly go wrong?
Vow of Celibacy
In 1933, Loretta Young worked with Hollywood heartthrob Spencer Tracy on the set of A Man’s Castle and fell off the deep end. She fell in love with a Catholic this time, but there was still a giant red flag: He was a married Catholic.
Although Tracy and his wife were separated, his religious morality stopped him from actually seeking a divorce. So, how could Tracy and Young tie the knot? One thing was certain; Young wasn’t going to put her faith on the back burner again. She decided to remain celibate until marriage.
Although Tracy and Young both had a strong faith and prioritized their religion, it didn’t help their relationship. In fact, their devotion to their beliefs was the biggest obstacle in their whirlwind romance.
Heartbroken and devastated, Young wrote a goodbye letter to Tracy where she confessed her love—for him and for God as well. She wrote: “[it will be] impossible for us to see each other again unless we can truthfully and honestly be a good girl and good boy.” Spencer Tracy held on to this letter until the day he died.
The One That Got Away
Throughout the rest of her life, interviews with Young show her everlasting feelings for Tracy as “the one that got away” because of their forbidden love, in the name of God. When she discussed working with him, the actress said he was “an absolute dream.”
She noted that lost loves are romantic forever because they are never fulfilled; there is always that “what if?” in the back of your mind: “They are always in the romantic stage of promise and mystery.” Their deep love was always with her, but her next romance played out quite differently.
Rumors and Speculations
When Clark Gable entered the picture, all bets were off. This Hollywood hunk had unbeatable charm and a reputation for making his way around town (if you know what I mean). Oh, and he was married too. Gable and Young landed the starring roles in Call of the Wild.
While filming, rumors about the leading actors started to swirl. Has the dashing Gable found another dazzling lady to wrap his arms around? Well… let’s be real, it must have been difficult to resist the so-called “King of Hollywood.”
She Was a Flirt
As it turned out, Young couldn’t resist Gable’s charm. They were protected by their chaperones to an extent, but the two actors endured a difficult, cold shoot tormented by blizzards and horrible weather. But the silver lining was the time that Gable and Young spent enjoying a seemingly harmless flirtation.
Apparently, whenever Gable couldn’t find the actress, he would ask the people around, “Where’s my girl?” Young loved the attention, but she also kept her morals in check. She thought that nothing could go wrong… but, boy, was she wrong.
Longing for Tracy…
Even though she enjoyed looking at the handsome Clark Gable, Young’s broken heart was still healing. She spent most days dreaming about a letter boy marching through the snow to bring her a note from Tracy, who was still in Los Angeles at the time. Unfortunately, that letter never came.
As for Gable, Young saw him as a fun, little distraction, but she assumed their fling would end when filming concluded. Meanwhile, the actress was wrapped around his little finger, but as long as they were together, she was fair game.
She Was Vulnerable and Alone
On the overnight train headed back to Hollywood, the actors got individual sleeping accommodations. For once, Young didn’t have a chaperone watching her. Sure, you could look at it as liberating, but the actress felt vulnerable and alone.
Clark Gable was aware of her isolation, so he left his compartment and went into hers. What happened on the night train remained a secret for decades. But one thing was clear—whatever happened in there went against the actress’s vow of chastity. Sadly, she had to deal with the dark aftermath.
She Had a Big Secret
Even after filming wrapped, rumors about Gable and Young continued to circulate. Maria, Gable’s wife at the time, wanted to dismiss the gossip by teaming up with Young to shut the tabloids up. As you might assume, Maria believed they were all just rumors.
Maria wanted to host a party where she would stand alongside Gable and disprove the rumors. Young would be there too, and it would put an end to the entire fiasco. However, Young was unable to attend. She had a much bigger problem she was dealing with, a secret to keep safe.
Fooling Them All
To her dismay, Loretta Young found out that she was pregnant. The father? Clark Gable. Apparently, they were only intimate that one time, but the damage was done. Young was petrified to tell her production company for fear that they would force her to get an abortion.
The actress made a drastic decision: She decided to keep her entire pregnancy and the baby a secret. After all, abortion was a mortal sin in her book, and she really wanted to do the “right thing.” So, Young set out to trick them all.
A Genius Plan
But keeping a baby a secret is no easy feat, so Young needed to come up with a plan. At the beginning of her pregnancy, the starlet wrapped filming for two more movies and made numerous public appearances.
In fact, she actually tried to pack her schedule with as many events as she possibly could. She wanted it to look like she had been working her butt off and her social calendar was full… That way, an eventual illness would seem understandable. The girl was overworked. *wink wink*
Her Mysterious Illness
The baby was due in November. But at the end of August, Young came down with a mysterious sickness due to severe exhaustion. Her doctor recommended that she take at least a couple of months off filming and never disclosed her condition.
Everything was going according to plan. The public (and her studio) had no clue that she was pregnant. Under the disguise of being sick, Young was able to hide from the cameras and give birth to her baby in secret. But keeping such an exciting thing, such a big secret, took a toll on the actress.
She Went Stir-Crazy
Awaiting the baby, Young stayed in a cottage away from the nosy tabloids and prying eyes. Still, Young couldn’t help but feel lonely and isolated, which is completely understandable. I mean, for the first time, she wasn’t the center of attention.
She wasn’t able to enjoy any freedoms, like drive-in movies. To make matters worse, the rumors came flooding in. In a final attempt to get the press to leave her alone, an eight-month pregnant Loretta invited a reporter to her house. She knew it was risky, but she was desperate.
She Tricked Everyone
Before the reporter arrived, the actress hid her pregnant belly under piles of blankets and pillows. Then, finally, she allowed gossip columnist Dorothy Manners to come to speak with her. The article that came out was entitled “Fame, Fortune, And Fatigue.”
It turned out to be a good plan. The article really helped squash the rumors and made the actress appear as beautiful and dazzling as ever! With the public and the press finally off her back, Young prepared for the arrival of her love child.
A Tough Choice
Loretta Young gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Judy after St. Jude, the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. Allegedly, an anonymous sender sent a telegram to Clark Gable to notify him about the birth of his daughter.
His apparent reaction was chilling. He reportedly tore the notice up into little, tiny pieces that fell to the ground. Clearly, he wanted nothing to do with the baby. Young, on the other hand, was now left alone with a living, breathing baby and had a difficult choice to make.
Giving Up Judy
Young cared for Judy with the help of her nurse Frenchie for the first couple of months. However, her worries about her studio and career were finally bubbling to the surface. At this point, she had already broken the morality clause on her contract and risked disgrace.
She made a tough decision. In order to save face and keep her heartbreaking secret, Young gave her daughter up for adoption. She put her daughter in an orphanage, but it didn’t end there. The actress concocted a genius plan.
She Adopted Her Biological Baby
After spending 19 months as far away from the spotlight as she could, Young made an announcement that was rather surprising. She planned on adopting two little girls: a four-year-old named Jane and a 23-month-old named Judy.
However, right before the adoption was finalized, Jane’s mother changed her mind and wanted her daughter back. So, Young only adopted Judy—her own biological daughter. She cleverly manipulated the system. She was able to reunite with her baby without causing a public scandal. But Loretta Young tried to conceal the truth for the rest of her life.
She Loved Her Leading Men
Loretta Young had feelings (at least a little) for all of her handsome co-stars. While the press was completely unaware of her hidden pregnancy, they definitely reported on her rumored romances with many of her leading men, including Tyrone Power, David Niven, and director Joe Mankiewicz.
It got to the point where tabloids expected it. One gossip columnist wrote: “But it is not to be taken seriously. After all, Loretta is always reported romantically inclined towards her leading man. It is just a gag with her.” Or was it…?
She Wanted Him to Be Involved
Loretta Young invited her baby daddy Clark Gable over to see his child, but she only remembered him visiting Judy once. She even opened a bank account for Judy to allow Gable to provide for his daughter discreetly, but he never deposited a single cent into the account.
Despite her efforts to keep her daughter’s father in her life, Judy was never daddy’s little girl. In order to protect her daughter, she tried to ensure that nobody would ever find out the truth that Clark Gable was her real father. And the older Judy got, the harder it was.
Starting to Look Like Daddy
Unfortunately, secrets always come out at the end. With an unsettling feeling, Young watched her baby grow up into the spitting image of her father: She had his high cheekbones, big ears, and mischievous smile.
In order to hide Judy’s telltale ears, she would always dress her in frilly bonnets as a little kid. But soon enough, some of her features became too obvious to hide… That’s when dangerous rumors started to circulate around Hollywood. But Young wasn’t going to let any speculations expose her strongly guarded secret.
Approved Child Plastic Surgery
When Judy turned seven, her mom decided to take her to get plastic surgery to pin her ears back… after all, they were Clark Gable’s ears. This procedure would fix them and hopefully hide her daughter’s identity even more. But the lies got bigger and even more elaborate.
She even kept these things from the new man she allowed into her life: her second husband, Tom Lewis. He loved Young more than anything and never questioned Judy’s true parentage. If he did have any doubts, he kept them to himself.
Love and Family
Life went on for Loretta Young. She was happy with Lewis, and the pair wanted to grow their family. They welcomed two little boys into the world named Christopher and Peter. For the first time, the starlet didn’t have to lie about her children.
Everyone knew that she gave birth to the boys. Despite having her hands full with motherhood, it never slowed the superstar down. During WWII up until the end of the decade, Loretta Young was at the top of her game and one of the most glamorous celebrities in Hollywood.
Her Career Was on Fire
The 1940s truly helped define Loretta Young’s career. Her Hollywood work was nonstop. She was constantly on the go, and for a golden moment, the actress made up to eight movies a year! And in 1947, she earned one of the highest accolades.
She received an Oscar for her brilliant performance in The Farmer’s Daughter. Her motives were always right, and her character almost always got that happy fairytale ending. The real question was whether she got the same courtesy in real life?
She Knew How to Play the Game
In 1949, MGM pursued Loretta Young to play yet another role alongside her former co-star Clark Cable. The clever and savvy Young could have used the couple’s casting as an opportunity to bury the drama and finally put the Hollywood whispers to rest.
So many people were speculating that Gable was Judy’s father. But if he actually was and left his daughter, why would Young ever agree to take the role? The entire thing seemed too painful for anyone to handle. But to everyone’s surprise, the actress did what she did best and got on board.
Heartbreaking Filming Incident
The filming for the movie Key to the City, starring Loretta Young and Clark Gable, went beautifully… well, at least it did at the beginning. But then, one day, Loretta just passed out on set. Gable scooped her up and swiftly moved her to the safety of her dressing room.
The press reported stories about how she had been suffering from complications from an unannounced pregnancy. However, two weeks later, tragedy struck the glamorous actress. She suffered a very real and devastating miscarriage that truly broke her heart.
She Was Resilient
Loretta Young was dealing with a lot. On top of the stress of working with the father of her first baby, the eternal weight of her secret, and now the loss of her unborn child, Young kept it professional and somehow managed to make it through the rest of the shoot.
She even went one extra step and threw the premiere party at her home. For a brief moment, Gable and Judy (father and daughter) were in the same room at the same time and had an informal introduction. Now, Young’s ongoing challenge was keeping Judy in the dark.
Tangled in a Web of Lies
Judy details the extent of her mother’s secrecy in her 1994 memoir, in addition to her own personal struggle with her identity. Young’s secrets and lies left her daughter with an abundance of unanswered questions. She was always wondering what her mom was hiding.
As you can imagine, Judy’s curiosity put an incredible strain on the mother-daughter relationship. At the same time, it made it difficult for Judy to create meaningful relationships or bonds with other people. The truth might have been the one thing that could have set her free.
Judy Found Out
By 1958, Loretta Young could no longer protect her daughter from discovering the truth on her own. Judy was 23 years old and felt a bit of a disconnect with her then-fiancé, Joe Tinney. She tried to break off the engagement and explained that she didn’t believe he knew her well enough, but his response was shocking.
He told her, “You’re wrong. I know everything about you… Your father is Clark Gable.” Tinney had heard rumors about Judy’s real dad for years, and now Judy knew too. It was time for her to confront her mother and get the whole truth, once and for all.
A Broken Bond
Judy spent one memorable Mother’s Day celebration putting her mother on the spot. She demanded the truth. After devoting more than two decades to keeping this secret hidden, everything was about to come out.
Loretta Young was only trying to protect Judy, but she couldn’t even face her daughter to see all the hurt and pain her web of lies manifested. Instead of answering Judy’s questions, she left the room to throw up. After that, the mother-daughter bond was never the same again.
A Walking Mortal Sin
Apparently, behind closed doors, Loretta called Judy “a walking mortal sin”: a reminder of her shame for her immoral actions. Sadly, by the time Judy found out who her father was, Clark Gable had already passed away.
This made the entire situation even more painful because Judy never got the chance to get answers, hear his side of the story, and finally get closure. Judy wrote on the very first page of her memoir: “My life has been filled with hypocrisy and deception from the moment I was born.”
Switching to the Small Screen
Loretta Young stepped away from the big screen in 1953. She decided to turn to a fresh medium: Television. So, what was the reason for this sudden change of heart? I mean, television stars always want to make it to the big screen!
Well, during the ‘50s, things were a little different. In a 1986 interview, Young claimed that television was actually superior. Since it had greater power than film, the actress felt it would help her career and that she could reach a larger audience.
Presenting: The Loretta Show!
Young starred in her self-titled television series The Loretta Show, which aired from 1953 to 1961. For a show hosted by a woman, it broke records at its time. She dazzled viewers on prime time for eight years with her entrance as her trademark; it was all about the drama.
She would arrive at the living room looking lavish in a gorgeous evening gown. Audiences knew they were in for a good time, and everyone adored the beautiful starlet. However, success wasn’t everything. Loretta ultimately paid a hefty price for giving too much of herself.
Trying Too Hard
As the second season of the Loretta Show was coming to an end, Young dealt with a terrifying setback. She ended up being hospitalized after being overworked and exhausted. She acted in and hosted every single episode, but her illness forced her to cut back.
She needed to take some time and focus on her health. So, instead of giving it the usual hundred percent, she went fifty-fifty. She acted in half of the episodes and hosted the other half—her constant drive and determination to do so much ultimately paid off.
Becoming “Old News”
Loretta Young won three Emmy awards for her immense talent and hard work. In fact, she was the first Hollywood star to ever win an Academy Award as well as an Emmy. Once her show ended in 1963, she attempted to revive it as The New Loretta Young Show a couple of years later.
Unfortunately, viewers didn’t respond to the middle-aged actress the way they had. The ratings were horrendous. After one unsuccessful season, the network canceled it. It looked like it was time for Loretta Young to step away from the spotlight.
She Blamed Herself
Judy’s memoir shined a critical eye on her mother’s life while giving her father more sympathy and the benefit of the doubt. Young, tangled in her web of lies, always acknowledged and took responsibility for what she did with Clark Gable on that overnight train.
She believed that the only time a man would give in to temptation was if a woman provided an opening in the first place. Loretta Young spent her entire life believing that the pregnancy was her fault. But one day, her understanding of the crucial night changed forever.
The Big Revelation
In 1998, the actress appeared on an episode of Larry King Live, and it completely changed her life. It made Young aware of a new term (it was new then) called “date rape.” The next evening, Young invited her daughter-in-law Linda over and asked her to explain “date- rape.”
She explained to the actress that it didn’t necessarily have to be an act of violence. She said it simply meant, “when your no isn’t no,” and the realization stunned the actress. It was like all the pieces fit into place. Her response to Linda was, “That… that’s what happened to me.”
Keeping Her Mouth Shut
Once again, Young wanted to protect Judy from this newfound realization. She knew that Judy idealized Gable in her mind and this disturbing information could ruin it all. It seemed best not to tell Judy. Especially since at that time, they were finally starting to mend their mother-daughter bond.
Young desperately wanted to see her daughter happy. For the first time in a long time, the actress was at peace. The burden of guilt was alleviated because she understood that it wasn’t her fault… and that’s the only thing that really mattered.
She Just Wanted a Happy Ending
Young made a decision to publish her biography after she died. She worked with author Joan Wester Anderson and intended to give the world what they wanted- what they had been speculating about for years! The admission that Clark Gable was Judy’s real father.
However, the book never discussed the assault. Instead, she attributed her night with Gable as a moment of weakness, a mere slip in her chaste ideals. The world knew just as much as Judy did. While one truth came out, the other remained hidden.
The Girl Next Door? Or the Iron Butterfly?
After she retired in the ‘60s, Young devoted her time to Church, charity, and volunteer work. She always kept her Catholic faith close and hoped for a moralistic legacy of magnanimity, which basically means giving back by helping others. This side of the actress earned her the reputation of a “miss goody two shoes.” But her other reputation kind of contradicted this.
Young was also dubbed the “iron butterfly” by living her life on her own terms. She called the shots, created people’s interpretation of her, and did everything to live the life she wanted. Young admitted that this reputation was correct, at least in some respects, and she needed to be the “iron butterfly” to survive Hollywood. “I am in an industry that demands everything from you, plus your gratitude.”
Took Her Secrets to the Grave
On August 12, 2000, at the age of 87, Loretta Young passed away from ovarian cancer. Her daughter Judy followed her in 2011, after her battle with lymphoma. It was only once both of them were gone that her son Christopher and his wife Linda finally revealed the shocking truth.
They opened up about the big secret Young wanted them to keep – Clark Gable’s alleged assault. For years, they wondered if they made the right choice. In light of the #MeToo movement, it’s important that people open up about these issues, especially in Hollywood, where sexual harassment is not uncommon.
Telling Her Story
Obviously, neither Loretta Young or Clark Gable are here to defend themselves, deny any accusations, or tell their side of the story. However, that doesn’t mean the whole truth didn’t come out. Christopher and Linda wanted to put her story out there, knowing the backlash and criticism they might receive.
In one interview, Linda admitted, “When you’re the keeper of this information, it’s a terrifying story to tell for the first time. It’s so dramatic. The onus is on us to prove it, but you can’t prove it. It’s ‘he said, she said.’ But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell the story.”