‘I always felt half a person’
When Judy Lewis used to watch Clark Gable movies with her teen-age friends, she had no clue that Gable might be her father.
“It never would have dawned on me,” she said. “Why would I ever think such a thing?”
Yet many in Hollywood were thinking just that. Even her best friends had heard the rumor from their parents, but no one dared tell her.
Jack Haley Jr., a pal from high school days, said: “Our whole group knew who her parents were--and we knew she did not know. But we thought her mother would tell her.”
Her mother-- Loretta Young--hadn’t.
Young herself was the other half of the rumor--that Judy, told all her life that she had been adopted by the actress, was really Young’s child by Gable.
In her recently published autobiography, “Uncommon Knowledge,” Lewis says Young and Gable met in 1935 on the set of “Call of the Wild” and had an affair during which she was conceived.
Young, 81, declined to confirm or deny her daughter’s account.
“This rumor is a product of (a) bygone time. As I have in the past, I have chosen not to give it any further credence,” Young said in a statement from her Palm Springs home.
“Do you have any idea how sad it makes me that she still feels she must state that her daughter . . . is a rumor?” Lewis said in a recent interview.
In the 1930s, every star’s contract had a morals clause. Gable was married to someone else; Young was single and Catholic. Any suspicion of an affair, let alone a child born out of wedlock, would have meant canceled contracts and careers.
Lewis said her parents elected to deny that they had ever had a relationship or a child. Gable backed out of the situation, leaving Young to make the decisions.
She grew up thinking she was adopted “in the home of my real mother,” Lewis said. Whenever the child asked why her biological mother had given her up, or who her she was, Young was evasive, Lewis said.
Lewis writes that her nanny asked Young how to handle the girl’s questions about her father. Young responded, according to the book: “You tell her that her father is dead. That’s what he is . . . dead.”
Lewis, now 58 with grandchildren of her own, said that even having her own family didn’t erase the pain unwittingly inflicted by a mother so remote and relentless in her attempt to keep her child’s heritage a secret.
“I was literally fatherless. It was as if I never had a father,” she said, expressing wonder even now that something so important could have been withheld.
“I always felt half a person, never whole. That’s one reason I had to write the book, to claim both my parents.”
Lewis said she interviewed former nannies, priests, doctors, relatives, family friends, childhood pals and anyone else who participated in a life so painful that she had blacked out huge chunks of it. Through intensive psychotherapy in the past few years, she said, she has been able to retrieve early memories and establish enough self-confidence to “claim my parents.”
Lewis said Young has not spoken to her since 1986, when the actress heard that her daughter might write a book.
Lewis’ book asserts that Young gave birth to her on Nov. 6, 1935, in a darkened hide-out in Venice; left the baby with a nurse, and visited sporadically, only under cover of darkness.
At about 6 months, Lewis said, she was shipped to a Catholic orphanage in San Francisco, where she was cared for until she was almost 2.
“There are no photos of my first two years,” Lewis said, “because no one cared enough to take any.”
Soon she surfaced as Young’s adopted daughter--the one with huge, standout ears like Gable’s and an overbite like Young’s.
Her ears were kept covered so diligently by hair brushing and bonnets that Lewis said she soon came to think of herself as deformed, rushing to cover her ears when her nanny forgot.
By age 7, the ears had been fixed in a surgery that removed reminders of her lineage, but left memories of searing pain. The teeth were corrected soon after.
She recalls being cloistered in small rooms with a nursemaid in a huge Colonial house on Sunset Boulevard in Bel-Air. She rarely saw her busy mother, she said, which eventually made her wonder why the woman had bothered to adopt her.
And she remembers clearly the loss of her first nanny, “who was the only emotional anchor I’d ever had.” She wondered: “Maybe if I had behaved better, tried harder, been a more pleasing child, my nanny wouldn’t have left me.”
It was a pattern of self-blame repeated constantly over the years. Lewis said she grew up trying to please her mother, to win the acceptance and love that seemed to flow so automatically in the homes of her school friends, whether they were adopted or not.
As the emotional distance between them continued to grow, Lewis tried even harder, although it often meant denying herself.
Lewis writes that she did not attend USC as she wanted to because her mother preferred she go to finishing school in New York. She did not study acting there as she wanted to because her mother preferred her to learn secretarial skills. She did not marry the man of her choice, Russell Hughes, because her mother did not approve of him.
In her teens, Lewis said, a combination of her appearance, her mother’s behavior and the rumors led her to begin to suspect that Young was her biological mother, but she had no proof. “Each time I asked, my mother would say, ‘I couldn’t love you any more if you were my own child.’ It was always said with an air of finality, which discouraged me from further discussion,” Lewis said. She had no inkling who her father was until the eve of her own wedding, at 23, when her fiance told her about the Gable rumors that had circulated for years.
Lewis was astounded, but said she was still so frightened of losing the tenuous bond with her mother that she couldn’t confront her yet. She would try to establish a relationship with Gable, she decided, as soon as she could get her mother to confirm the relationship. That would take time--a commodity in short supply. On Lewis’ 25th birthday, Gable suffered a heart attack. Ten days later, on the first birthday of Lewis’ own daughter, Gable died.
Six years later, Lewis still lacked confirmation from her mother.
Lewis wrote that finally, at 31, she confronted her, and Young confirmed that Gable was her father.
The two talked for hours, the first and last such conversation they ever had, Lewis said.
After her own divorce, Lewis enrolled at age 50 at Antioch University in Marina del Rey, working full time as a secretary to afford tuition. She is now a marriage and family counselor in Los Angeles.
“People may wonder, what am I complaining about? I had all the physical things anyone could want. The glamorous homes, the clothes, the movie-star mother,” Lewis said.
“But all that glamour was meaningless to a little girl who felt she didn’t exist. I don’t know how else to phrase it. I was alive, but I felt I didn’t really exist. I was starved for attention, recognition, love.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.