Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Loretta Young and the Basketball Hottie: Thoughts on Motherhood in Hollywood

I’ve become obsessed with the passing of Judy Lewis. It’s not that Lewis’s twenty-year career as a TV actress much interests me. Rather, I became intrigued when I discovered her bloodlines.

Lewis grew up believing she was Loretta Young’s adopted daughter, plucked from an orphanage at 19 months by a star beloved for her good-girl roles. Meanwhile rumors swirled that Judy was in fact the byproduct of an affair between Young and the very married Clark Gable. The story – not confirmed until the publication of Young’s memoir after her 2000 death -- was that the two screen icons fell in love for real while shooting romantic scenes in the forests of Washington State for 1935’s The Call of the Wild. Young’s trip to Europe concealed the pregnancy from public view, and Judy was later born in a Venice, California cottage rented by Young and her mother, before being quietly whisked away. As Judy approached school-age, her oversized ears (reminiscent of Gable’s Dumbo-worthy ones) were so alarming to Young that she dressed her little girl in bonnets until the doctors finally scheduled corrective surgery.

Somehow Judy intuited none of this, though she always felt great tension between herself and her “adoptive” mom. The subject didn’t come up between them until 1966, when Young finally confirmed the deception. Young’s reasons for concealing her daughter’s parentage were straightforward. Stars like herself and Gable were bound by morals clauses in their studio contracts. Any hint of sexual impropriety could destroy their careers. Beyond this, Young was a practicing Catholic who took very seriously the notion of sin. The ultimate victim, of course, was poor Judy . To her credit she went back to school, emerging in 1992 as a credentialed family therapist. Fittingly, she specialized in issues relating to adoption and foster care. In 1994 she published her own memoir, writing that “it was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child,” Once the book came out, mother and daughter did not speak for three years.

I thought of Judy Lewis this past weekend while at my gym. Somehow, channel-surfing on the TV set connected with my treadmill, I happened onto a talk show called Basketball Wives, in which some leggy young lovelies (including several actresses and wannabes) gab about their love life. A ravishing creature in blue spoke feelingly about how she’d just separated from her jock fiancé, after a six-year relationship, in order to move out on her own. After all, she’d been with him since the age of 20, and now sorely craved a more independent lifestyle. Mentioned in passing was the fact that this relationship had produced two children. But while she and her supportive circle of lady-friends happily clucked over her new living arrangements, her career aspirations, and her sex life, no one returned to the subject of those apparently discarded kids, whom I suspected were suffering from their mother’s determination to put her personal needs first.

Loretta Young, hampered by the puritanical moral code of her times, put herself ahead of her daughter. (Clark Gable, of course, did the same.) The blithe young “basketball fiancée” can publicly admit to her sexual urges in a way Young could not, but she too – like many in today’s Hollywood -- seems to be putting personal gratification ahead of her obligation to the children she’s borne. Call me old-fashioned, but I worry about the kids. The more things change, the more they remain the same.


  1. It is sad too - there's a whole rant I could go on about the "Teen Moms" and such reality TV - but instead I'll stay on topic. What an incredibly sad story. It seems like something out of an old movie - the 1980 horror film Fade to Black, in fact, features a similar story of hidden motherhood to protect an acting career that leads to madness and murder.

    1. If there's one bright spot in the whole sad story of Judy Lewis, it's that she managed, despite it all, to live a fulfilling and constructive life. Human resilience is a wonderful thing.