By Susan M. Kelly
First gracing the silver screen during the silent era, Loretta Young made an instant impact and was immediately noted for her grace, beauty and dignity. Her off-screen life didn’t always jibe with the woman dubbed “Saint Loretta”, but she managed to hold her own over 80 years in the chaotic world of Hollywood.
Born Gretchen Young on January 6th, 1913 in Salt Lake City, Utah, she was the third of three daughters of Gladys and John Young. When little Gretchen was just three, her parents separated and Gladys took the girls to southern California. They lived in a boarding house which Gladys ran and soon all three girls were introduced to the world of Hollywood by their uncle, who was an assistant director.
Gretchen made her first screen appearance as an infant in the 1914 film “The Only Way”. She and sisters Polly and Sally all began to get bit parts but Gretchen left Hollywood to go to convent school. She returned at age fourteen in 1927 and got a small part in “Naughty But Nice” when a casting director called for one of her sisters and Gretchen answered the phone.
Recognizing her potential and serious about making a living as an actress, she reverted from blonde hair back to her natural brown and changed her name to Loretta Young. The combination of her looks and talent quickly put her star on the rise.
Despite her reputation for being a good girl, Loretta was no stranger to the lure of Hollywood and often fell prey to its many charms. In 1930, at just 17, she eloped with actor Grant Withers, with whom she had appeared in “The Second Floor Mystery” (1930). Nine years her senior, Withers was hardly considered the ideal match and, in fact, the marriage was annulled the following year.
Loretta continued to work steadily throughout the decade, honing her considerable acting skills in a series of films. In 1935 she starred opposite
Clark Gable in “The Call of the Wild” and once again found herself in a bind personally. She and the married Gable had struck up a romance during filming
and Loretta found herself pregnant. Fearful of the strict morality clauses in most contracts those days, her mother whisked her away to Europe where she gave birth to a baby girl.
She returned to Hollywood and resumed her film career which by now had seen her blossom into a full fledged leading lady. She starred opposite Walter Brennan in “Kentucky” (1938) and the following year she appeared with her sisters, Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane and half sister Georgiana Young, in “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell”. In 1947 she reached her pinnacle when she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in “The Farmer’s Daughter”. Playing a farm girl who transforms herself into a congresswoman, it was a tour de force performance and remains her best known piece of work.
By now her personal life had settled down after she wed second husband Tom Lewis in 1940. Together, they raised her daughter Judy as their own and had two sons, Christopher and Peter. She and Tom eventually divorced in 1969 and she would marry one more time to Academy Award winning costume designer Jean Louis, best known for creating the skin tight gown
Marilyn Monroe wore to serenade President John F. Kennedy.
Loretta continued to impress with her turns in films like “The Bishop’s Wife” (1947), opposite David Niven and
Cary Grant, “Mother is a Freshman” (1949) and “Come to the Stable” (1949), which garnered her another Oscar nomination. In 1953, she appeared in “It Happens Every Thursday” and
soon after announced her retirement from films. Not one to rest on her laurels, however, she quickly made the jump to the new medium of television and was successful there as well.
In September of 1953, she launched “Letter to Loretta”, also known as “The Loretta Young Show”, and would eventually win three Emmys for Best Actress. The show ran until 1961 and after a brief respite she returned with “The New Loretta Young Show”. The second show was not as successful and was cancelled after one season.
Loretta spent the next 24 years enjoying a quiet retirement and spending time with her children and grandchildren. She returned to the small screen one last time in the 1989 made for TV film “Lady in the Corner”.
She lived her life with quiet dignity, side stepping scandal and focusing on the acting talent which had brought her to the attention of the studios as a child, and died peacefully of ovarian cancer in 2000. It had been a long and rich life, both on and off screen, and while she hadn’t always lived up to her “saintly” nickname, Loretta Young certainly left legions of fans with a film legacy worthy of one of the industries’ great ladies.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Loretta Young Pages:
A Tribute to Loretta Young -- Loretta Young page on Brad Lang's Classic Movies Site.
Loretta Young -- Official and Authorized Loretta Young Web Site.
The Loretta Young Show -- From the Museum of Broadcast Communications.