Few actors have enjoyed the professional longevity of the stunning Loretta Young (1913-2000) and even fewer in three media—motion pictures, radio theatre, and television. Her remarkable career, begun as a child extra during the Silent Era of motion pictures, extended through the Golden Age of Hollywood. She attained star status on film as well as on the radio, even though she had no theater or dramatic school instruction. Young ended her film career to become a pioneer of the Golden Age of Television. She was the first actor to win both an Academy Award and an Emmy. Except for absences for serious illness and the births of her children, she was continuously before the cameras from age 12 through the early 1960s, making more than 250 film performances and appearing on more than 300 television programs.
Loretta Young was named Gretchen by her parents when she was born on January 6, 1913, in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her parents were Earl Young, a railroad auditor, and Gladys Royal Young. She joined sisters Polly Ann and Betty Jane (who became the actress Sally Blane); a brother Jack came along later. One day in 1916, Earl left for work and did not come back. Gladys packed up her children and moved to Hollywood, where she opened a boarding house to support her family.
Gladys's brother-in-law, Ernest Traxler, lived nearby. An assistant director for Famous Players-Lasky, he persuaded Gladys to let her older girls become movie extras. When Gretchen turned four, she too started earning money as an extra. Her first role was as a fairy in The Primrose Ring. Mae Murray, the picture's star, liked the little girl and asked Gladys if she could come live with her. Gladys consented when "Maetsie" agreed to take Gretchen's cousin Carleen Traxler, too, and allow them to return home whenever they wanted. The two girls lived with Maetsie and her husband for over a year. Jack also went to live with another family; he never returned permanently. When Young was 10, her mother married George Belzer. The union produced daughter, Georgiana, in 1925. The couple would later remain friends after their divorce.
Young's mother was a devout Catholic who saw to her daughters' educations by sending them to parochial schools, including the Ramona Convent boarding school and Catholic Girls' High School, and by inviting priests for dinner. Young developed a strong faith and moral convictions from which she never wavered, although it might be said she strayed. As a student, Young would get days off from school whenever the studio needed her as an extra. Often her classroom was a corner of the studio stage and her teacher a tutor. With determination and help from others, she managed her academic problems in reading and spelling. She would eventually discover her learning disability was dyslexia.
On movie sets, Young gained attention by doing things a little differently. If the children were supposed to sit, she stood. If they were supposed to move left, she moved right. This attention garnered her juvenile bit parts when she was 11, a studio contract when she was 12, and starring adult roles when she was 14. Young got her first adult part after asking a telephone caller if she could substitute for her sister Polly, who was unavailable, at a casting call. Colleen Moore, the star of Naughty But Nice, in which Young appeared, noticed her uniqueness and talked the studio into giving her a screen test. The studio officials did not like the name Gretchen, though. Moore had a favorite doll named Lauritia and suggested that as a name. Thinking the name too European, it was decided Loretta was a better choice. Young read about her new name in the newspapers. The studio also saw another problem with the girl—her protruding front teeth. Fortunately, Mrs. Young found out about their plan to remove the teeth and replace them with ones going inward. Young would eventually have her bite corrected with braces and retainers.
Naughty But Nice led to a contract and the stardom Young had wanted nearly all her life. In the prologue to The Things I Had to Learn, Helen Ferguson wrote: "By the time [Loretta] was six, she had decided to be a star. In her lexicon, decision and determination have always been synonymous and at fourteen, as the tightrope walker in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, starring Lon Chaney, her sixty-five inches of reedy gracefulness encased in padding and symmetrical created by the wardrobe department, to provide the curves which nature had not yet provided—she did become a star." Joel Morella and Edward Z. Epstein related in Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life that: "the problem of her thinness … had been solved by the wardrobe department. 'I had the most divine figure that ever walked in front of a camera, courtesy of the studio,' recalled the adult Miss Young. 'It was all pads-false hips, false front, false behind."' But the role identified her with star quality. By 1929 she was making a half dozen pictures a year and bringing in $250 per week, when the average family made $50 a month.
Despite her screen presence, some at First National studio did not want to try Young in the "talkies" because they thought her voice was too low. They acquiesced when studio president Al Rockett said he would sign her personally if the studio did not. Young appeared in First National's first sound motion picture, The Squall. Because there were no soundstages then, it was filmed at night when there was not as much noise around. Unlike many silent movie stars, she did have a voice suitable for a soundtrack. In fact, the American Institute of Voice Teachers recognized hers as the "finest female speaking voice on the 'talking pictures' screen" three years running. Apparently the smoking habit that she started at age 9 and continued for more than 50 years did not make her voice harsh.
For 13 years, Young worked under yearly option deals. After that a studio offered her a five-year, $2 million contract. To the dismay of everyone she knew, she turned the deal down. Young remarked in The Things I Had to Learn: "Well, I didn't work at all for nine months! But, after that there were studios where I could get the parts I wanted on a free-lance basis and, eventually at the salary Myron [Selznick, her agent] was brave enough to demand." In 1947 she was sent a script that would showcase her acting abilities. Thinking she could not do a convincing Swedish accent, she at first declined playing "Katie" in The Farmer's Daughter. Once she accepted the part, she worked with Ruth Roberts, who had coached the Swedish accent out of Ingrid Bergman, to cultivate one. Young's performance was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The film was the seventy-fourth of her adult career.
Young was nominated for a second Oscar for her role as a nun in Come to the Stable. It was while working on this movie that she placed her first "swear box," which would become a fixture on subsequent projects. Profanity on movie sets was always common, but Young thought blasphemy on the set of Come to the Stable was intolerable. She established a fine of 25 cents for anyone using blasphemous language. Young made nearly 100 motion pictures before retiring from the big screen in 1953. Her last picture was It Happens Every Thursday with John Forsythe.
Like many actresses, Young fell in love with the leading men she played against. In 1929 she was opposite Grant Withers in Second Floor Mystery. The rising 25-year-old matinee idol was considered a catch, even though he was a drinker who had already been married and divorced. Two weeks past her seventeenth birthday, Young eloped with Withers aboard a charter airplane to Yuma, Arizona. Her mother, with whom she was close, disapproved of the marriage and stopped speaking to her. Nine months later, ironically while working together on the movie Too Young to Marry, Young was granted a civil divorce.
Having successfully gone from an ingénue to a leading lady, Young started receiving "star treatment" in 1931 that would continue for decades. She appeared as the subject of a story or cover photo nearly every month that year, although she gave few personal interviews. It is estimated she posed for more than 125,000 photographs during her career, but never in the gauzy drapes that made the model look undressed. Joan Wester Anderson pointed out in Forever Young that "the gossip columnists were usually benevolent where Loretta was concerned. She was easy to like because she genuinely enjoyed people, and she had a fragile, vulnerable quality that inspired protectiveness in others." Not that Young did not provide plenty to gossip about. She dated Howard Hughes until tiring of his jealousy. After working with Spencer Tracy on Man's Castle, Tracy became her escort. He was 13 years older than she, married, and had two children. Months passed before Young realized she was "the other woman" and that Tracy would not divorce because of his Catholicism. She broke off their relationship.
Young's next paramour leading man was Clark Gable. He, too, was married. On location at Mount Baker in Bellingham, Washington, a romance blossomed between the two while waiting for the weather to clear so shooting could be done on their movie, Call of the Wild. In the spring of 1935, Young and her mother visited Europe, then quietly slipped back home. Once the media found out she was home, her family explained she was in bed with an "internal condition." Her "condition" was daughter Judy, who was born on November 6. Fearing retribution from the studio because of the morality clause in her contract, as well as a major scandal (unwed motherhood was a disgrace at the time), Young cared for Judy for a few months then secreted her at an orphanage with which she was involved. The following year, Young announced she was adopting two girls, Judy and Jane, but supposedly before she could adopt Jane, the girl's mother wanted her back. It was not until Judy wrote a book that her parentage was revealed. Not long after adopting Judy, Young became engaged to businessman William Buckner. The engagement was broken after he was found guilty of fraud.
Radio theatre was favorite family entertainment before television sets became affordable. Every week the Lux Theatre of the Air, under Cecil B. DeMille's direction, in front of a live audience and with a full orchestra, presented condensed versions of old and current movies to an estimated 50 million listeners. Young made a record number of star performances on the program. She also made appearances on other radio broadcasts, including the Hallmark Hall of Fame, and was a regular on the Family Theatre of the Air, a radio program focusing on moral problems begun by Father Peyton in 1947.
Young was dating Jimmy Stewart when she met her second husband. The head of the radio department of the Young & Rubicam advertising agency, Thomas H. A. Lewis had recently put together the Screen Guild Theatre radio show. The show's performers donated their salaries to the Motion Picture Relief Fund to build a hospital and retirement home. He asked Young to accept a part. Lewis initiated their first "date" when he took Young to Sunday mass so she would make the rehearsal he had called. They married July 31, 1940, and honeymooned in Mexico. On their second honeymoon, they toured the USS Arizona in Hawaii two months before it was bombed. During the war, Lewis enlisted and developed shows and arranged troop entertainment. Young visited hospitals and induction centers and talked to servicemen. She also appeared on many patriotic radio programs. The couple had two sons, Christopher Paul, born in 1944, and Peter Charles, born in 1945. The studio, not wanting to delay production again so soon, fired Young when she became pregnant the second time and refused to have an abortion. She did only two movies a year after her marriage. The couple divorced in 1969, long after Lewis had convinced Young to sign papers giving him half of her assets, even those she had earned before their marriage.
The early 1950s saw many radio and motion picture actors moving to television; Young wanted to be one of them. In 1953 she retired from motion pictures and developed a television pilot that Proctor & Gamble snatched up. "It was a new medium, and we all felt like pioneers," Anderson quoted Young. Titled Letters to Loretta, Young's weekly show began with her reading a fan letter at her dressing table, which posed a question answered by a presentation. Though ratings were adequate, they were not great, "and some critics were not kind, labeling 'Letters' 'treacle' and 'a disappointment,"' said Anderson. Thirteen weeks into the program, the show was renamed The Loretta Young Show and the format changed. The show now started with Young making her trademark entrance—twirling into her television studio living room in a lovely gown to introduce the evening's story. As she stated in The Things I Had to Learn: "My entrance on The Loretta Young Show meant much more to me than any actress's entrance I'd ever made. Every time I opened that door I was a hostess greeting very welcome guests." Young acted in 165 teleplays for The Loretta Young Show, playing the lead in many, and hosted 300 programs. In 1955 she became the first actor to receive both an Oscar and an Emmy when she was awarded an Emmy for best actress, an award she would win twice more. The show itself became television's most awarded anthology program. Also in 1955, friends filled in 18 weeks for Young while she recovered from a life-threatening infection. None used "her living room door;" all ended the show with "Goodnight, Loretta."
Morella and Epstein noted that "Loretta's shows had moral themes, but never overtly religious ones." Yet Proctor & Gamble cancelled their contract in 1958, saying the content was "too religious." The same year she was named television's most important female personality. Two other sponsors soon picked up the program, which ran another two years. Young never allowed the show's focus changed to compete with melodramas. The New Loretta Young Show cast Young in the recurring role of a widowed mother of seven children and lasted just one season.
In 1959 NBC bought 176 installments of The Loretta Young Show. Always fashion conscious, Young stipulated in the contract that her trademark entrance would be cut out from the reruns shown in the United States and in foreign markets. On a visit home to England, Young's housekeeper was excited to see her employer on TV twirling into the room. Young was concerned that being seen in outdated fashions, hairstyles, and makeup would ruin her reputation. In 1972, after five years of litigation, she was awarded $559,000 from NBC. In 1970 Young had successfully defended her reputation by suing to have clips that used her face and dialogue as double entendre removed from the motion picture Myra Breckinridge.
After retiring from acting, Young, who had always devoted much time to Catholic charities, continued to support favorite causes, including a home for unwed mothers and a children's foundation. She also engaged in business ventures, including bridal salons, fashion and self-improvement courses, and a line of cosmetics. In 1961 she published her philosophy of life in a book titled The Things I Had to Learn. During 1966 she answered teens' questions in a column she wrote for the Catholic News Service. Filmex (the Los Angles International Film Exposition) honored Young as the subject of a film retrospective in 1981. In 1983 she was elected to the Fashion Hall of Fame. That award added to the numerous others she had been given by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, teachers' associations, milliners, magazines, broadcasters, and other organizations.
Young eventually returned to television for selected projects. She acted in the pilot Dark Mansions in 1985, which never sold. Her performance in 1987's Christmas Eve garnered her a Golden Globe award for best actress in a television movie. At 76, she performed her last role with Brian Keith in the made-for-TV movie Lady in a Corner.
In 1993 Young married Jean Louis. An award-winning fashion designer, Louis had designed many of her dresses and was the widower of her good friend. He died in 1997. Young retained her beauty throughout her life. Referring to a photo of Young in the 1998 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair magazine, Liz Smith wrote: "At 85, described simply as 'The Face,' she was the most beautiful woman in the entire magazine!" Young died of ovarian cancer in 2000. As Smith noted, Young was "the last mega-star leading lady who presided over the end of the Silent Era and the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as the Golden Age of Television."
Anderson, Joan Wester, Forever Young: The Life, Loves and Enduring Faith of a Hollywood Legend, Thomas Moore Publishing, 2000.
Morella, Joe, and Edward Z. Epstein, Loretta Young: An Extraordinary Life, Delacorte Press, 1986.
Young, Loretta, as told to Helen Ferguson, The Things I Had to Learn, Bobbs-Merrill, 1961.
"Biography for Loretta Young," http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Loretta+Young (October 16, 2001).
Liz Smith Columns, http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/set/1478/lizsmith.html (November 15, 2001).
"Loretta Young, Epitome of Hollywood Glamour, Dies of Ovarian Cancer at 87," http://www.cnn.com/2000/SHOWBIZ/News/08/12/loretta.young.obit/ (October 16, 2001).
"Loretta Young Show," http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/set/1478/introduction.html (October 16, 2001).