From the Archives: Loretta Young Dies; Elegant Film, TV Star
Loretta Young, the elegant Academy Award-winning actress who charmed film and television audiences for half a century with her beauty, wholesome image and aura of unabashed romanticism, died early Saturday of ovarian cancer, her longtime friend and agent Norman Brokaw announced. She was 87.
Young, who had been reported hospitalized since early July, died in Los Angeles at the home of her sister Georgiana Montalban, the wife of actor Ricardo Montalban.
Young’s gritty determination to be a star—and her hardheaded business sense—kept her in front of the cameras for decades after most stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age had faded into nostalgia.
Gliding easily from silent films to talkies to television, the ever-slim and smiling Young delighted fans with her luminous eyes, wistful face and elaborate wardrobes.
She made nearly 100 movies, churning out mainly comedies and romances until she left the wide screen for television in 1953.
She played opposite all the romantic heroes of her day: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, James Cagney, Tyrone Power. She acted for famed directors Orson Welles (“The Stranger”), Cecil B. De Mille (“The Crusades”) and Frank Capra (“Platinum Blonde”). And to sear her image into the public’s consciousness, she modeled for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan.
Her lead role in 1947’s “The Farmer’s Daughter"—as a Swedish maid who parlays her smarts into a seat in Congress—won her the Academy Award for best actress. And she became one of the first Oscar winners to pull in a television Emmy in 1955, when she was honored for her anthology series, “The Loretta Young Show.”
Throughout her career, Young remained acutely aware that her movies and television shows appealed to audiences for their sentimentality and glamour, not for their intellectual content. Typical was “A Man’s Castle” in 1933, which featured her gazing adoringly at Spencer Tracy as she cooked and cleaned for him.
“My [TV] shows are not ‘Birth of a Nation,’ ” Young once said. “They’re charming little half-hours.”
She was born Gretchen Michaela Young, the third of five children, in Salt Lake City on Jan. 6, 1913. Her parents separated when she was an infant, and her mother moved the brood to Los Angeles, where she opened a boardinghouse.
As a teenager, Young adopted the stage name Loretta, when studio executives decided that “Gretchen” sounded too clunky for the dainty young actress. Her cash-strapped mother allowed Gretchen and her sisters to act in “the flickers” to raise extra money for the family. Little Gretchen made her debut at age 4 in “The Only Way” as a child weeping on an operating table. She also appeared as an Arab child in Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 classic “The Sheik.”
In every minor role, Young strove to attract attention. She would run to the front of the pack during crowd scenes to make sure her face flashed prominently before the cameras. Forever courting fame, she was candid about her ambition.
“I was always sure,” she reportedly said, “that I was going to be a big star, not just an actress.”
Although she was skinny and somewhat gawky, Young broke into the big time at age 14, with a featured appearance in “Naughty but Nice.” The next year she signed a contract with First National Pictures and appeared in six films, including a starring role opposite Lon Chaney in “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.”
Her ingenuity masked her naivete: She managed to simulate lust for one leading man by pretending she was face to face with a scrumptiously tempting ice cream sundae.
“You had fun if you did your work well. There was no such thing as kidding around or joking. It was a dead-serious business,” she once said. She hired a personal publicist to spin news for the gossip columns. And she appeared on the arm of one dashing man after another as she toured nightclubs and parties in the role of Hollywood socialite.
For all her publicized exposure, however, Young wanted audiences to perceive her as a wholesome, upstanding Catholic.
Sometimes, she was hard-pressed to keep up that image.
Against her mother’s wishes, Young eloped with a freewheeling, hard-drinking vaudeville actor named Grant Withers when she was only 17, flying off to Arizona to obtain a marriage license. They had appeared together in a 1930 film, “The Second Floor Mystery.” Typically, she took advantage of the hullabaloo by filming a movie with Withers provocatively titled “Too Young to Marry.”
The hotly publicized union crumbled swiftly, and Young filed for divorce after just one year.
Keeping an Image for the Screen
That episode exemplified the contradictions between her private life and her public image.
Young refused to utter the word “divorce” in a movie, but was herself twice divorced. She set up a puritanical system to fine fellow actors who cursed on the set, but she carried on blazing love affairs with her leading men behind the scenes.
And she maintained a devoutly religious image while reportedly passing off her illegitimate child as an adopted daughter.
Hollywood has long gossiped about that daughter, Judy Lewis, who says she is the biological child—born out of wedlock—of Young and Gable.
Rumor has it that the two stars enjoyed a torrid affair in 1935, while they co-starred in “Call of the Wild.”
Immediately after filming the movie with Gable, Young reported to Paramount Pictures to star in DeMille’s epic “The Crusades.” But as soon as her obligation to that film ended, she took off for Europe—where she vanished from view for several months. She returned to Hollywood in late 1935 and two years later adopted Judy as a toddler.
Observers noted that Judy was exactly the right age to have been born during Young’s mysterious sojourn in Europe. They whispered that the girl—said to have Gable’s flyaway ears and drop-dead smile—might have been conceived during the filming of “Call of the Wild.”
But Young brushed off the buzz, declaring simply that she wanted to forget Judy was adopted and treat her as a biological child.
When her daughter published an autobiography in 1994, contending that the old rumors were correct, the 81-year-old Young issued a terse statement: “This rumor is a product of bygone time. As I have in the past, I have chosen not to give it any further credence.”
And she was quoted in the book “Hollywood Royalty” as saying: “They were rumors then, they’re rumors now and they’ll always be rumors. Gossip sometimes . . . [takes on] such a life of its own.”
Ever coy, however, she added a tantalizingly suggestive coda: “Clark Gable certainly was everything that he appeared to be.”
Her reputed relationship with Gable may have attracted the most attention, but Young was linked romantically with a dozen actors, directors and athletes over the years, including Tracy. Finally, at age 27, she married Tom Lewis, a successful radio and advertising executive 11 years her senior.
Three years later she gave birth to a son, Christopher Paul. Then, in 1945, Young had a second son, Peter Charles.
But she hardly retreated into the home.
For all her feminine wiles and soft smiles, she was known as a tough businesswoman. Long before she adopted her stage name, her sisters had nicknamed her “Gretch the Wretch,” in wry recognition of her stubbornness. And as an adult, she was sometimes dubbed “The Steel Butterfly” or “The Iron Madonna.”
Using that legendary persistence to win her prime roles, Young rushed from movie set to movie set throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Even after her second marriage, she averaged two films a year, a schedule that sent her into occasional bouts of exhaustion.
After World War II, Young earned special praise—and a photo on the cover of Life magazine—for her performance as a woman who discovers that her husband is a Nazi in “The Stranger,” a 1946 film starring and directed by Orson Welles.
Two years later, she won the best actress Oscar for her role in “The Farmer’s Daughter.” She had thrown herself into the role, dying her hair blond, reading books about the immigrant experience and hiring a tutor to teach her a Swedish accent. The film, an inspirational comedy like many of her movies, became one of the biggest box-office draws of 1947.
Still, Young scarcely expected the Oscar—and was stunned into numbness when she heard her name called. Finally, her husband nudged her to stand up and accept the honor. Young floated to the stage in her frilly green taffeta dress, clutched the statuette and said with typical frankness, “At long last!”
She received a second Academy Award nomination for her portrait of a nun in 1949’s “Come to the Stable.”
Her film career slowed as she entered her mid-30s, while television was gaining in popularity. She expressed a desire to try her hand at the new medium—with her own show.
Her actor friends criticized her for turning her back on feature films. Young, however, was determined to try to “visit” with her fans in a more relaxed, chatty format than the silver screen afforded. Each half-hour show, she decided, would open with a letter from viewers and close with an uplifting, moralistic quotation, usually from the Bible.
On Sept. 20, 1953, “The Loretta Young Show” (then called “A Letter to Loretta”) premiered on NBC, starting an eight-year run.
Today, fans may remember the show for Young’s trademark twirl as she entered her studio “living room.” Gracefully pirouetting to close the door behind her, she showed off a different gown each week—all designed to look sensational but not ostentatious.
Earning $5,000 a week, she scrutinized every aspect of “The Loretta Young Show”: the story lines, the publicity shots, even the meetings with lawyers.
She delighted in the chance to play, as she put it, “parts no other producer would dare give me.” She decked herself out as the Egyptian queen Nefertiti in one episode. In another, she portrayed an impoverished Indian widow. Wrapped in a kimono, hair pinned primly in a bun, she played an Asian woman in several popular shows. Other roles included an alcoholic, a shopgirl, a floozy and a nun.
But always, Loretta Young opened the program as herself—out of concern that audiences might interpret her costumed character roles as a sign that she had aged. “After the audience has seen me well groomed,” she said, “I can wear horrible clothes, wigs, ugly makeup and false noses during the show without having people wonder whether I’ve aged overnight or something.”
After the show’s cancellation, Young began writing. In 1961, she published a book of philosophical homilies called “The Things I Had to Learn.”
Still, she itched to return to the cameras.
So she put together plans for “The New Loretta Young Show"—a demure weekly sitcom in which she played a writer supporting herself while raising a family. The show premiered in September 1962. But lasted only until March.
With both her career and her marriage foundering, Young turned to the church, long an important part of her life. She and Lewis divorced in 1969.
A few years later, Young moved to Phoenix to live with the nuns at St. Joseph’s Hospital, aiming to create a program for underprivileged children. But that effort, too, failed, and she returned to Los Angeles, where she volunteered to help homeless women and the mentally ill on skid row. She gave money to Catholic charities and presided over dazzling fund-raiser balls, dressed in flowing gowns and sparkling jewels.
Young emerged from retirement in 1986 to film her 98th movie: the made-for-TV special “Christmas Eve.” In the melodramatic tear-jerker, she played a wealthy Manhattan matriarch at odds with her son until she is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Three years later, Young resurfaced in the television movie “Lady in a Corner"—playing a magazine editor determined to save her publication from slipping into smut.
Asked why she selected the role, Young gave a typical answer: “It’s got a lot of pretty clothes, a lot of nice sets and a subject that interests me. It is a tiny little spear against pornography.”
Keeping up her pure image, she added, “Sex is fine, but not lust.”
Although some critics suggested that “Lady in a Corner” might spin out into an ideal television series, Young quickly rejected the notion of transferring the one-time appearance into a sitcom character.
“I would end up doing bits,” she said. “I never have played bits. I don’t want to start now.”
In August 1993, Young surprised her friends by marrying fashion designer Jean Louis. She was 80; he was 85. An Academy Award-winner for his costume designs, he died in 1997.
Young, who had lived most of her retirement years in the Palm Springs area, is survived by her sister and her three children.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
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