Stargazing with Susie

by Susie Hodgson

Once Upon a Time, Loretta Young was under contract with Warner Brothers and went on to become a big star. Chances are you saw her recently in the Christmas classic, The Bishop’s Wife, with Cary Grant and David Niven.

But she was not born Loretta. Her first name was actually Gretchen. Virtually discovered by film star Colleen Moore, herself a rabid doll and dollhouse collector, Colleen renamed Gretchen after her favorite doll, Loretta. Moore was known not only for her intense love of all things dolls, but also for her short pageboy (the “bob” hairdo) and for being a stock market expert!

Loretta made her start as a child star. She even acted with Lon Chaney. But the first time she went by the name “Loretta Young” wouldn’t come until 1928. And, at the age of 17, Loretta eloped with the 26-year-old B-western actor Grant Withers (no relation to Jane). Their brief marriage was annulled, around the time the pair starred in the ironically-named movie Too Young to Marry. Withers went on marry again and again, but overall lived a tragic life, dying far too young and far too sadly.

But Loretta just did better and better. In 1935, she famously starred in Jack London’s The Call of the Wild with none other than Clark Gable. But more on that later.

By the 1940’s, Loretta was making about eight (!) pictures a year, including The Stranger with Orson Welles, the 1947 hit The Farmer’s Daughter for which she won an Oscar, and the aforementioned Bishop’s Wife, which was remade in 1996 as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington, Courtney Vance and Whitney Houston.

And then there was television. Who remembers The Loretta Young Show? Loretta would dramatically enter a living room, clad in a very fashionable designer gown to introduce the anthology-style show. She’d then return at the end to recite a religious passage or famous quote. Interestingly, Loretta had it written in her contract that any future reruns may NOT show the introduction or ending as her gowns would date the program! Years later she sued NBC when they didn’t abide by that clause and Loretta won, making herself a half a million dollars!

Loretta’s television show was enormously popular, playing throughout the 1950’s, 60’s and even up to the 70’s both on air and in syndication. Loretta won three Emmys for that TV program.

But let’s go back to 1935. Remember The Call of the Wild with Clark Gable? Rumor had it (and the rumor was right) that Loretta had a fling of sorts with Clark Gable. Soon Loretta found she was “with child” and didn’t know how to handle it. She knew the studio would have her terminate the pregnancy which she absolutely refused to do as she, a devout Catholic, considered it a mortal sin. So she only told her very closest family members who devised a way for her to hide her pregnancy and set it up to look like she adopted the child. Loretta named the baby Judith, after St. Jude, the patron saint of difficult situations. This adoption ruse was a very well-known “secret” in Hollywood. Judy even looked like Clark!

But Loretta never told Judy. Judy never found out the truth until she got married and her new husband mentioned it to her as if it were no big deal. Judy flipped, confronted her mother who also flipped and refused to talk to her daughter for three years.

Loretta finally admitted that Clark Gable was the father in an authorized biography of herself, but would not let them publish the book until after her death. Later still, while watching The Larry King Show on TV, Loretta learned what date rape was and told only one very close relative that was what happened with Clark! Still, she would not let anyone hear such a thing until after both she (meaning Loretta) and Judy died.

Loretta Young was a lifelong Republican, almost as devoted to the party as she was to her close-held belief in Catholicism. She supported Ike, Nixon, Reagan and more. In retirement she volunteered at charities and churches, ever faithful to Republicans and the Catholic church (but not necessarily in that order).

Meanwhile, Loretta remarried a movie producer named Tom Lewis with whom she had two sons, Peter and Christopher. Peter went on to join the 1960’s rock band Moby Grape. Christopher became a director who got caught up in a lascivious scandal about his not-so-clean movies. Roughly 30 years later, Loretta and Tom divorced.

Next Loretta married a multi-Academy Award nominee fashion designer Jean Louis (he created many of Loretta’s gowns, not to mention dozens of other famous outfits). Louis also won an Academy Award for his fashion designs in the Judy Holiday film The Solid Gold Cadillac as well as earning 13 other Academy Award nominations in the same category. The two were married until he died at the age of 90.

Loretta died of ovarian cancer in 2000, forever a legend for radio, film, television, lavish gowns and a certain daughter.

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