' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Loretta Young's 'adopted' daughter wasn't adopted at all

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Loretta Young's 'adopted' daughter wasn't adopted at all

Loretta Young and Judy Lewis
So imagine if you were "adopted" by your "birth" mother and raised as an "adopted child." Your mother later marries, and has two "of her own." You take her husband's name, but you are still the "adopted child" in the family. When you ask your mother "as adopted children do. They say, 'Where are my.... Who's my mother? Who's my father" And she would answer very easily by saying, 'I couldn't love you anymore than if you were my own child.' Which of course didn't answer the question, but it said, 'Don't ask the question.'" *
After you are all grown up, just as you are about to marry, you tell your fiance that you do not understand your confusing relationship with your mother [actress Loretta Young] and that you do not know who your real father is. "I can't marry you," the grown-up 'adopted child" says to her fiance. "I don't know anything about myself.

And he says: "It's common knowledge, Judy. Your father is Clark Gable."

Talk about a bombshell in your life. Judy Lewis, the "adoptee" in question later wrote that she had no inkling who her father was, or that your adoptive mother was her real mother.**

"Judy Lewis, Secret Daughter of Hollywood, Dies at 76" read the headline in today's New York Times. She was 32 before she discovered the web of lies that cast her, the real life daughter of Hollywood royalty, into what she described as a "Cinderella-like childhood" as the outsider, the adopted daughter of Loretta Young. The facts are this:

Young was 22 and unmarried in 1935 when she had a brief affair with Clark Gable, 34 and married, on the set of The Call of the Wild (apt title). Young was Catholic and abortions were not only forbidden, they were against the law everywhere. A pregnancy would have been a huge scandal and ruined her career.  Young spent most of her pregnancy in Europe hiding from public scrutiny, but gave birth to her daughter in a rented house (still obviously hiding) in Venice, California. The infant was turned over to a series of caretakers, and Young returned to Hollywood. When her daughter was 19 months old, Young brought the baby home and announced through the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the child. Given the mores of the day, and the pressures to not be a woman like that, we can say that Young was clever to find a way to keep her baby and her career, given what happened to others who had babies when not married to the fathers.

But how about letting your child in on the big secret?

Even after Lewis confronted her mother with the truth, Young refused to fess up. Eight years later in 1966 Young finally made a tearful confession. I can hardly imagine the raw and powerful emotions of both Young--who had kept this secret so buried that she couldn't even tell the truth when you daughter came to her knowing it--and that of Lewis, who has to absorb and accept that her mother found a way to keep and raise her, but kept the truth from her until she was 31. Like, wow.

As someone who felt the stigma of the mid-Sixties--that free-love era that people imagine sure as hell did not exist in my world of 1966--and kept my pregnancy as hidden as possible, not even telling my parents, I can empathize with the pressure that Loretta Young felt. Decades later when the married Ingrid Bergman became pregnant by director Robert Rosellini in 1949, the public scandal in America killed her Hollywood career for several years. Talk about scandal: so great was the uproar from the public and pulpit, she was even denounced on the Senate floor, and Ed Sullivan refused to have her on his show. (She and Rossellini had a son; then twins, one of whom is actress Isabella Rossellini.) In 1966, I had to quit my job--it was unusual enough being a woman reporter not in the "women's department"--but single and pregnant? Forget about it. I went into deep hiding.

But good lord, why not come clean to her daughter at some age before it was forced out of her? This, I don't like about Loretta Young. As a child I watched The Loretta Young Show on television (1953-1961), on Sunday nights with my mother. Young introduced the dramatic series in a incredibly fashionable outfit, and she's swirl around as she shut the door behind her (supposedly her living room) as she walked into yours. Her public persona was that of a classy lady, above reproach and forever glamorous, which is probably one reason I liked the show--what was she wearing tonight? Loretta Young "get in trouble" like that? Unthinkable. The dramas themselves were about some problem that supposedly someone had written her about; I would imagine they stayed away from adoption-themed stuff. Young acted in half of the shows herself.

As I recall, when I got older I myself heard the rumor that the adopted daughter of Young was actually her daughter--it's possible that I even heard this from my mother when I was a teenager. But apparently this common knowledge had not reached Lewis. Everyone kept the big secret of her life from her, a story we all too often hear from adoptees.

Young did tell the truth to a biographer, with the stipulation that it not be published until she died; but
Judy Lewis around 1977
Lewis took matters in her own hands and published her own memoir in 1994, Uncommon Knowledge. In it she described a heated argument with Young on Mother's Day in 1986, in which Young threatened to sue Lewis if a book came out that revealed the truth about her parentage. Lewis said she asked Young if she would "ever acknowledge to the world that I am your child, and that Clark Gable is my father?'

"I refused to be dismissed that easily," Lewis wrote. "It all came pouring out — all the years of hurt and abandonment, all the feelings of not belonging, of being an outsider in my own family, years of repressed emotions that couldn't be contained any longer. The floodgates were opened and the words flowed unchecked."

"'No. I will never acknowledge what I consider a mortal sin — my mortal sin,'" Young replied, according to Lewis.

In an interview later Lewis said, "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." After the book was published, Young did not speak to her daughter for three years. Young died in 2000.

Lewis did have a career as an actress, appearing in a television soap for many years (The Secret Storm), and on Broadway; she also produced television shows. I don't know what kind, if any, of a relationship she ever had with her father. He died in 1960, two years after Lewis's fiance told her the rumor that was the truth. Later Lewis became a clinical psychologist and a licensed family and child counselor. She certainly had the personal family drama to call upon in her therapy.

It's the terrible force of public censure that makes these stories. It's the understanding of the powerful emotions unleashed by the story that makes them compelling. Today they are still the terrible reality of too many people's lives. Maybe it is impossible for many if not most adoptees to have what we could call a good relationship with their first/birth mothers, but at least the censure in most quarters (save Utah) is at least eroded to the point where being a single mother is not cause for a public and ruinous scandal.--lorraine 

And for an ironic treat, watch the video below. Amazing. 
*The above quote is from an interview on Larry King.
 **("Positive adoption language purists, take note--how Un PC was that? Real father, real mother.)
The Times obit:  Judy Lewis, Secret Daughter of Hollywood, Dies at 76


  1. Truthfully, while I get the whole beginning stuff - I really have to wonder at a woman that hid this, years after it was even a big deal! Sadly, that left her daughter in pain... Sometimes I just don't get that stuff.

  2. Quick FYI. Robertino Rossellini was actually the child Ingrid Bergman conceived out-of-wedlock with Roberto Rossellini. The twins Ingrid and Isabella were born later, after they were married.

    Ingrid Bergman fan :)

  3. Robin: Thanks! Correction made.

    Plus an ad about how great was the scandal Bergman was denounced on the floor of the Sentate! and Ed Sullivan refused to have her on his show.

  4. There's a 1946 tear-jerker movie, "To Each His Own" starring Olivia de Havilland as a single woman who gets pregnant by a WWI pilot. He is killed and she gives birth at a far away hospital. She arranges for a nurse to leave the baby on a neighbor's door step. She will step forward and offer to adopt the baby. The plan goes awry when the nurse leaves the baby on the wrong door step and another woman adopts him.

    At one point De Havilland has her son come and live with her (without revealing he is her son) but he misses his adoptive mother so she returns him. She watches from afar as her son grows up and becomes a WWII pilot.

  5. Gag about the movie...

    Is there an adoption movie made where we birth FIRST mothers don't end up dead, scorned or otherwise trashed?

  6. Speaking of Hollywood scandals, I kind of remember that in 1960 a Congressman wanted to bar Elizabeth Taylor from the US as an undesirable alien for cavorting with Richard Burton on the set of "Cleopatra." Taylor and Burton were both married to other people.

    I ran into Taylor and Burton in a pub in London in 1963. They were sitting at the bar; I was at a table. I just stared.

  7. Wow, she really looks like Clark Gable, doesn't she?
    What a sad story all around, for all of them. But how interesting that her mother did bend over backwards to raise her.
    Sometimes I hear stories about married sisters raising unwed sisters' babies and passing them off as the aunt's birth child, but the real mother claiming to have adopted as a single parent? That's odd, even for a movie star, I would think, in this era. But completely out of the question for a non-movie star.

  8. Loretta Young my mom's favorite. I loved her show too. So if you were rich enoough, famous you could hide pregnancy, pretend you adopted your own baby and keep it a secret all your life.
    I don't like the fact that Loretta did NOT tell her daughter the truth I do believe it must have hurt the daughter tremendously.
    Clark Gable like most dad's that got women pregnant was able to have his cake and ice cream too. Mother's are always held accountable because they carry the baby and give birth an bonding occurs where dad doesn't.

  9. Grandparents raising a "son" via Wiki:

    Nicholson was brought up believing that his grandparents, John Joseph Nicholson (a department store window dresser in Manasquan, New Jersey) and Ethel May (née Rhoads, a hairdresser, beautician and amateur artist in Manasquan), were his parents. Nicholson only discovered that his "parents" were actually his grandparents and his sister was in fact his mother in 1974, after a journalist for TIME magazine who was doing a feature on Nicholson informed him of the fact. By this time, both his mother and grandmother had died (in 1963 and 1970, respectively). Nicholson has stated he does not know who his biological father is, saying "Only Ethel and June knew and they never told anybody",and has chosen not to have a DNA test or to pursue the matter.

  10. There's a book by Laura Hobson (who wrote Gentleman's Agreement) called The Tenth Month, which is about a single woman who gets pregnant, has the baby, hides him (she has a second apartment and hires someone to care for him) and then "adopts" him. This was based on her own life: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hobson-laura (Interestingly in real life she also is an actual adoptive mother, which is one reason she kept the secret even from her children until they were grown.)

  11. In my non-identifying info (all I have), it says that only my mother and grandmother knew of my mother's pregnancy (me). It's all so sad - the loss to me, yes, but also to my father (does he even know he has a child?), my grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces... I read that Clark Gable did know she was his child, is this right? But what of his parents and siblings - did they know? Just so sad, all around.

  12. Yes, Jack Nicholson. Sorry I didn't make that clear.

  13. Clark Gable must have known and agreed with Loretta Young to not let the daughter know...as she was "adopted."

  14. Check out Ginger Rogers in Kitty Folly. She gets pregnant and does keep the baby. It was such a different time. So much was put on the shoulder of women. The morality of the world especially in the US. Europeans are not as hung up as Americans about sex and out of wed lock children. Notice Ingrid Bergman did not jump through the hoops Lorette Young did. I read that Clarke Gable did not know for sure for a long time she was not honest with him for a long time. Good thing she was such a good catholic!

  15. re: Leonard Maltin comment on sidebar.

    While I totally disagree with Loretta Young keeping the truth from her daughter Judy, I think it was rather "clever" of her to come up with this way of keeping her daughter. Better than giving her up for adoption especially since Ms. Young and Clark Gable would certainly have had the means to raise their own child. Given the huge taboo against unwed motherhood that must have existed in the 1930s you do have to give Loretta some credit for figuring out a way to keep her kid. She just should have been honest with the kid about what she was doing.

  16. As I recall mass murderers Ted Bundy and Charles Manson were raised by grandparents whom they were told were their parents. They were told their mothers were their sisters. Which is not to say that deception leads to murder.

  17. To be fair, Loretta young's move makes sense to me. Had the truth gone out there, her career and even her life would have been destroyed. It was an age when women were meant to be in the kitchen, and chaste was golden. But that is more of a discussion for womens rights...heh we have come a loooooooong way since then. but think about it. Had the truth gone out, she probably would not have been able to get a husband, or even a career, being christian there is a good chance her family would disown her for having a child out of wedlock.

    As confused as her daughter grew up, she grew up being treated like a princess and being given a good life in the long haul, and in a around about way, Loretta was protecting herself and her baby.

    She got her cake and ate too.

  18. When I think about Loretta concocting this elaborate scheme to keep her baby even at 22 yes old I think studio was probably the Ones who did this they had to protect their $$ she was probably under contract much like Gable.

  19. Nadia,

    And thats is the whole problem with adoption. your whole post was about how it benfitted the "first mother" and the on;y benifit to the child was just a litlte confusion and got to be treated like a princess. Does it matter that the "princess" was miserable, made to feel second best, unable to be totally herself so mommy could be a star!

    she sacrificed her daughters well being, her daughters sense of belonging, her daughters sense of trust for herself.

    Wait...I think thats whats happens in most adoption cases...oh well...she had lots of money, but was not able to live an honest life. Does that matter, or is about about what the mommy needed?

    GG, your comment makes a lot of sense.

  20. dpen,

    though I do agree with GG that Young got some assistance, this was a case of family preservation,
    the lie is hard to forgive, but be honest is there any mother, who lost her child to adoption on this site, who would NOT have gone this way if the possibility and the resources would have been available?

  21. what we mean, is that she let her daughter have the burden of being adopted looong after it was a risk, she never admitted to being her daughter's mother, selfish only thinking about herself. Adoption is never about the adoptee always about the arents and brents, thats what dpen is saying, yes she kept her child, but then she continued the deception when it was no longer necessary. wHY? a real mother puts a childs needs above their reputation/career. I understand the times, but in the later years, she lied to her daughter, would not admit the truth... that shame isnt something her daughter had to bear that long. come on

  22. Theodore,

    I don't think its understood how much a child hurts and the longlasting damge being treated like she was causes a child. Not thinking about how happy ans fulfilled the mother was filling i tend to idenify with the marginized child, the one lives their life beliving that they are someone they are not...alll to keep the mother happy...sorry something ethically wrong with this.

    I understand how some may only see the mothers viewpoint and think its a great idea to keep your kid AND your career...woow...cool....and for 18 months this baby was in foster care being bounced like ball and being inherently damaged along the way...but hey its only a little confusion...look at all the money she had...such a little princess...

    There is no insight for the child...at all... and genrally no one cares.



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