Clandestine Facts About Loretta Young, Hollywood’s Iron Butterfly

May 18, 2023 | Sarah Ng

Clandestine Facts About Loretta Young, Hollywood’s Iron Butterfly

On the surface, Loretta Young was the saintly good girl—an actress as moral and sweet as the roles she chose to play. But she was so much more than that. For her entire life, she worked tirelessly to bury a secret with the power to destroy her reputation. If there was one thing Young wanted, it was a happy ending—and she willfully paid the price.

1. She Was Still A Baby

When Loretta Young came into this world in 1913, she wasn’t born “Loretta.” Her given name was actually Gretchen. Later, her recently divorced mother moved her family to Hollywood to open a boarding house. That was when three-year-old Gretchen entered the world of acting. Still toddling out of her baby years, she landed her first role in a silent film called Sweet Kitty Bellairs.

It seemed like the entire family had the acting bug...But in reality, Gretchen’s mother just wanted the extra cash flowing in.

loretta young

2. She Had The Fear Of God

Gretchen’s mother raised her family with strong Catholic principles, sending her daughters to parochial schools, including the Ramona Convent boarding school. Priests visited their household for dinner regularly and this strict upbringing fully influenced Gretchen’s moral code. For the rest of her life, her faith and religion played a big part in the choices she made, guiding her hand and ruling over her perceived sins.

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3. She Was The Most Successful

There were three sisters, and lo and behold, all three of them became child actresses—Gretchen, Polly, and Elizabeth. Their roles, small though they were, helped with the family’s financial security. But only one of them grew up to enjoy the glow of a successful acting career, and that was Gretchen. She was an undeniable beauty with all the makings of greatness. All she needed was the perfect name to match.

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

4. Her Name Wasn’t Suitable

After starring in one more silent film as Gretchen Young, she finally changed her name—and it came from an unexpected place. When she signed a contract with producer John McCormick, she met his actress wife, Colleen Moore, who saw something special in Gretchen. However, executives believed the name “Gretchen” just didn’t suit the young actress’s gentle beauty.

And so, Moore called her Loretta…after the name of her most beloved doll. Yup, she was named after an adult woman’s doll. But, with Gretchen’s doll-like features and doe eyes, the name just stuck.

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5. She Had An Unwavering Confidence

Loretta Young was a very self-aware young woman. She knew her own ambition and followed it to fruition. Even when producers cast her in minor roles, she always tried her best to capture as much screen time as possible. As an extra in a roiling crowd, she’d push her way to the very front, cheeks flushed pink and shining for the camera.

She reportedly said: “I was always sure I was going to be a big star, not just an actress.”

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

6. She Wanted A Flawless Image

As a teenage Hollywood socialite, Young had a professional veneer to maintain. Always on the arm of one handsome fellow or another, she flitted in and out of lavish events and clubs. As a precaution against scandal, she hired a publicist to keep her name on the straight and narrow, especially in the gossip columns. Above all, she wanted to maintain the image of the girl next door—pretty, pure, and above all, Catholic.

But this image was harder to keep up than she expected.

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

7. She Was Too Young

At the impressionable age of 17, Loretta Young made an unconventional choice. It was one that flew in the face of her mother’s conservative wishes. After meeting Grant Withers on the set of The Second Floor Mystery, Young couldn’t keep her eyes off him. To her, he was the perfect leading man, but like most first loves, she soon learned his vices.

He had a penchant for freedom and an affinity for drink. Nevertheless, she thought the two of them were meant to be...

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

8. She Couldn’t See It Through

High on love, Young and Withers flew off to Arizona to tie the knot. Ironically, and perhaps even laughing at themselves, the couple starred in one more film together—it was titled Too Young To Marry. In the end, this name taught them a difficult lesson. To Young’s dismay, her marriage barely lasted a year, quickly crumbling and spoiling the picture-perfect reputation she had worked so hard to maintain.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

9. She Wasn’t Perfect

Loretta Young was at war with her own hypocrisies. She so desperately wanted the wholesome image of a dutiful Catholic girl, even going so far as refusing to utter the word “divorce” onscreen. But her true nature butted heads with these ideals at every turn. She enjoyed the company of gorgeous men and had recently experienced a widely publicized divorce from someone who was not a Catholic. What more could possibly go wrong?

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10. She Wanted More

The heart wants what it wants, and in 1933, Loretta Young met Spencer Tracy on the set of A Man’s Castle and fell off the deep end. This time, she fell for a Catholic, but a red flag remained. He was a married Catholic. Although Tracy and his wife acknowledged their separation, his Catholic morality barred him from actually seeking a divorce.

How could Tracy ever make Young his bride? One thing was for sure, Young wasn’t about to slight her religion again. She vowed to remain chaste until marriage.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

11. She Was Chaste

In the end, their devotion to their beliefs proved the biggest obstacle in their relationship. Torn and heartbroken, Young penned a goodbye letter to Tracy that spoke of her adoration—not only for her lover, but for God. She wrote, “[it will be] impossible for us to see each other again unless we can truthfully and honestly be a good girl and a good boy.” Tracy kept this letter until the day he died.

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12. She Never Forgot Him

Later in her life, interviews with Young revealed her everlasting nostalgia for Tracy and the love that could never be. On working with him, she described him as “an absolute dream.” She admitted that lost loves are forever romantic because they are never fulfilled—"they are always in the romantic stage of promise and mystery.”

Their love, deep and unrequited, stayed with her always. But her next romance fared quite differently.

Clark Gable FactsWikimedia Commons, The New Movie Magazine

13. She Sparked Rumors

All bets were off once Clark Gable entered the picture. This was a Hollywood rogue with unbeatable charm and a reputation for being a man about town, and he was also married. Both Young and Gable landed lead roles in Call of the Wild. While filming, rumors began to swirl. Had the dashing Gable found another paramour for the taking?

Loretta Young FactsCall of the Wild (1935), Twentieth Century Pictures

14. She Was A Flirt

It mustn’t have been easy to resist the charms of the so-called “King of Hollywood.” Protected to some extent by their chaperones, the two actors endured a cold shoot plagued by blizzards and bad weather. All the while, the two of them enjoyed a seemingly harmless flirtation. Whenever Gable looked for Young he’d exclaim, “Where’s my girl?”

Young loved the attention, and as long as she kept her morals straight, she believed there couldn’t be any danger...But she was wrong.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

15. She Held A Flame For Him

Even though Young enjoyed the longing gaze of Gable, she still nursed a broken heart. Most days she fantasized about a letter boy trudging through the snow, bringing her a note from Tracy, still in Los Angeles. But the letter never came. As for her fun flirtation with Gable, she believed that their games would cease once filming wrapped. Until then, Young remained wrapped around his finger, and as long as they were together, she was fair game.

Loretta Young FactsCall of the Wild (1935), Twentieth Century Pictures

16. She Was Vulnerable

On the overnight train back to Hollywood, the stars enjoyed individual sleeping accommodations. For once, Loretta Young didn’t have a chaperone by her side. She was alone and vulnerable. Clark Gable, aware of her isolation, left his own compartment and entered hers. What conspired on the night train remained a secret until decades later.

One thing was clear—whatever happened on that car went against Young’s chastity vow. Sadly, she’d have to face a dark aftermath.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

17. She Had A Secret

Even after the end of filming, rumors about Gable and Young continued. Gable’s wife at the time, Maria, wanted to dispel the gossip by teaming up with Young to shut it down. She wanted to host a party where their good standing with one another could prove the innocence of the situation. But Young couldn’t attend. She had an even bigger problem on her hands—a secret to safekeep.

Clark Gable FactsWikimedia Commons

18. She Couldn’t Sin

To her dismay, Loretta Young discovered that she was pregnant with Clark Gable’s child. They'd only been together one time, but the damage was done. Afraid to tell her production company for fear that they'd want her to have an abortion, Young made a drastic decision. She decided to keep the pregnancy and the baby a secret.

Abortion, after all, was a mortal sin in her books, and she was determined to do the “right thing.” And so, Young set out to fool them all.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

19. She Hatched A Plan

During the early stages of her pregnancy, Young finished filming two more films, and made numerous public appearances. In fact, she made sure to stuff her schedule with as many events as possible. She wanted to seem consumed by her work and her social calendar, so much so that an eventual illness wouldn’t seem out of place. After all, she was simply overworked. *wink wink*

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

20. She Had A Mysterious Illness

At the end of August—the baby was due in November—Loretta Young came down with a mysterious illness brought on by severe exhaustion. Her doctor recommended at least two months off from filming and never disclosed her condition. The public had no idea that she was actually pregnant. Under the guise of illness, Young was free to hide away from the cameras and give birth in secret.

Gloria Grahame FactsFlickr, Marco Verch

21. She Went Stir-Crazy

While she stayed sequestered in a cottage far from prying eyes, Young felt the downsides of her isolation. For once, she wasn’t the center of attention, and any freedoms she could afford, like attending drive-in movies, still sang of loneliness. Even so, the rumors kept coming. In one last-ditch effort to get them off her back, an eight-month pregnant Young took a risk and invited a reporter into her home.

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

22. She Fooled The Public

Loretta Young disguised her belly beneath piles of comforters and pillows before allowing Dorothy Manners, a gossip columnist, to speak with her. The article that followed, titled “Fame, Fortune—And Fatigue” helped quash the rumors and built Young up to be as beautiful and resplendent as ever. With the public finally at bay, she was ready for the arrival of her love child.

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23. She Had To Make A Choice

Young gave birth to her daughter and named her Judy after St. Jude—the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. According to rumors, an anonymous sender sent Clark Gable a telegram notifying him of his daughter’s birth. His reaction was chilling. He allegedly tore the notice up, letting the pieces fall to the ground. He wanted nothing to do with her.

Young, on the other hand, now had a living, breathing child to consider and a difficult choice to make.

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24. She Gave Her Up

Young and her nurse Frenchie cared for Judy for the first couple of months, but her fears in regard to her studio and career bubbled to the surface. She had broken her contract’s morality clause and risked disgrace. In order to save face, Young gave Judy up for adoption and sent her to an orphanage. But then, Young concocted a plan.

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25. She Adopted Her Own Blood

After 19 months spent mostly away from Hollywood, Young made a surprising announcement. She said that she planned to adopt two young girls, a four-year-old name Jane and a 23-month-old named Judy. But right before the adoption could go through, Jane’s mother changed her mind and wanted her back. And so, Young only adopted Judy—her own biological daughter.

She craftily manipulated the system and reunited with her daughter without causing a public scandal. This was the lie that Young worked hard to conceal for the rest of her life.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

26. She Loved Her Leading Men

Loretta Young believed that she fell in love, at least a tiny bit, with every co-star. And while the press didn’t catch wind of her hidden pregnancy, they certainly reported on her rumored attachments to many of her leading men, including David Niven, Tyrone Power, and director Joe Mankiewicz. For the tabloids it became expected, with one gossip columnist writing: “But it is not to be taken seriously. After all, Loretta is always reported romantically inclined towards her leading man. It is just a gag with her.” Or was it?

Loretta Young FactsFlickr

27. She Never Swayed Him

Loretta Young invited Clark Gable over to see his daughter, but she could only recall him visiting Judy once. She even opened up a bank account to allow Gable to discreetly provide for his daughter, but he never deposited a single dollar. Despite her efforts to allow some father-daughter connection, her main goal remained the same—nobody could ever discover that Gable was Judy’s real father.

And as Judy grew older, this feat became harder and harder.

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28. She Couldn’t Hide Her Forever

With mounting unease, Young watched as Judy grew into a spitting image of her father, with his high cheekbones, large ears, and a mischievous grin. To hide Judy’s tell-tale ears, she made sure to always dress her in frilly bonnets. But soon, certain features became too obvious to conceal, and within Hollywood circles, dangerous rumors began to circulate.

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29. She Approved Of Plastic Surgery

When Judy turned seven, Young took her to a plastic surgeon to pin back her ears. After all, they were Gable’s ears, and this procedure was a fix-all. Then, the lies became deeper and more elaborate. It was something she even kept from the next man she welcomed into her life, her second husband Tom Lewis. He loved Young dearly and never questioned Judy’s true parentage. Any doubts he had, he kept to himself.

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30. She Found Her Stride

For Loretta Young, life went on. She and Tom Lewis welcomed two bouncing baby boys into their home, and named them Christopher and Peter. For the first time, she didn’t have to lie about her children. Everyone knew that the boys were legitimately hers. Although she had her hands full with the rigors of motherhood, it never slowed her down.

During WWII and until the end of the decade, Young was at the top of her game.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

31. She Won Gold

For Loretta Young, the 40s helped define her career. Her work in Hollywood saw no standstill and for a golden moment, she made up to eight movies a year. In 1947, she received one of the highest accolades. She received an Oscar for her pious performance in The Farmer’s Daughter. Her movies were always light and her characters almost always enjoyed happy endings. The real question was whether her real life afforded her the same courtesy.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

32. She Played The Game Well

In 1949, MGM sought Young out to play another role alongside former co-star (and lover) Clark Gable. Young, savvy as ever, may have seen this as another opportunity to bury Hollywood’s whispering once and for all. So many had speculated that Gable was Judy’s father—and if he really was, why would Young ever agree to the role?

The situation seemed too painful for her to even consider. And so, she went against their expectations and got on board.

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33. She Collapsed While Filming

Filming on Loretta Young and Clark Gable’s movie Key to the City went swimmingly—at least it did at first. Then, one day, Young passed out on set. Grant swept in, scooping her up and swiftly moving her to the safety of her dressing room. The press announced that she had was suffering from complications from an unannounced pregnancy.

But then, two weeks later, tragedy struck. Young experienced a very real and devastating miscarriage.

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34. She Was Resilient

With the stress of working with the father of her first child, the eternal weight of her secret, and now the loss of her unborn baby, Young still made it through the rest of the shoot. She even went the extra mile and threw the premiere party at her home. For a brief moment, Grant and Judy (father and daughter) breathed the same air and saw an informal introduction. Now, Young’s final challenge was keeping Judy in the dark.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

35. Her Lies Haunted Them

In her 1994 memoir, Judy detailed her mother’s secrecy, as well her personal struggle with her own identity. Young’s clandestine ways left her daughter with a plethora of unanswered questions. This put an incredible strain on their mother and daughter relationship, whilst simultaneously making it difficult for Judy to create meaningful connections with others. Only the truth could set her free.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

36. Her Daughter Found Out

By 1958, Loretta Young couldn’t protect her daughter from figuring out the truth on her own. Judy, now 23, felt a disconnect with her then-fiancé, Joe Tinney. When she tried to break off the engagement by explaining that she felt he didn’t know her well enough, his response was revelatory. He told her: ”You’re wrong. I know everything about you...Your father is Clark Gable.”

Tinney had spent years hearing rumors about Judy’s parentage. And now, it was time for Judy to confront her mother and learn the truth, once and for all.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

37. She Was A Hypocrite

At one memorable Mother’s Day celebration, Judy pinned Young to the spot by demanding the truth. After a lifetime devoted to hiding it all away, Young couldn’t bear to face her daughter and see the hurt her lies manifested. Instead of replying to Judy, she fled to her room and vomited. After that, their relationship was never the same.

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38. She Was A Sinner

Behind closed doors, Loretta Young called her daughter “a walking mortal sin”—a reminder of her shame and moral failings. By the time Judy found out about her father, Clark Gable had already passed on. Judy never had the opportunity to find closure, get answers, and learn the entire story. On the very first page of her memoir, Judy wrote: “My life has been filled with hypocrisy and deception from the moment I was born.”

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39. She Left Film Behind

In 1953, Loretta Young stepped away from the big screen, turning to a fresh medium—the growing popularity of television. The reason for this sudden change of heart? In a 1986 interview, she claimed that television had a greater power over film, in that it could reach an exponentially higher number of people—her art had a wider orbit to inhabit.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

40. She Had Lasting Power

Young’s self-titled television series The Loretta Show broadcast from 1953 to 1961. For a show hosted by a woman, it broke records for its time. For eight years she dazzled audiences on prime time, using her entrance as a trademark. It was all about the drama. She’d arrive at the living room door decked out in a stunning evening gown.

Viewers knew that they were in for a good time. But success wasn’t everything, and she paid the price for giving too much of herself.

Loretta Young FactsThe Loretta Young Show (1953-1961), NBC

41. She Tried Too Hard

Nearing the end of The Loretta Show’s second season, Young suffered a terrifying setback. She ended up in the hospital as a result of overwork. She had been acting and hosting in every episode, but her illness forced her to cut back. Instead of going all in, she went fifty-fifty—for half of the episodes she acted and for the rest, she hosted. Her ceaseless drive to do as much as possible eventually paid off.

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42. She Was Old News

Young won three Emmy awards for her efforts. In fact, she was the first actor to ever win an Academy Award and an Emmy. After the show ended in 1963, she attempted to revive it only a couple of years later with The New Loretta Young show. Unfortunately, audiences simply weren’t responding to the middle-aged actress anymore and the ratings were horrendous.

After one plodding season, the network canceled it. It was time to step away from the limelight.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

43. She Took The Blame

Judy’s memoir cast a critical eye on her mother’s life while affording her father greater sympathy. Young, trapped by her lies, always took responsibility for the moment on the overnight train when Gable came to her. She believed that a man never gave into temptation unless a woman provided an opening in the first place.

For her entire life, she believed the pregnancy was her fault. But then came a day when her understanding of that pivotal night changed forever.

Loretta Young FactsWikimedia Commons

44. She Had A Revelation

In 1998, an episode of Larry King Live, of all things, changed Young’s life. It alerted Young to a then-new concept—that someone could be assaulted by their date, and her inability to prevent the brutal act wasn't her fault.  The next night, when her daughter-in-law Linda came over for dinner, she asked her to explain the act. When she told Young that it didn’t necessarily have to be an act of violence—"It’s when your no isn’t no”—a look of realization passed over Young’s face.

The pieces of the puzzle clicked into place. She replied to Linda, saying ”That—that’s what happened to me.”

Bess of Hardwick FactsShutterstock

45. She Kept Her Lips Sealed

Once again, Young opted to protect Judy from this new knowledge. She recognized Judy’s idealistic portrait of Gable and knew that this disturbing information could prove destructive. After all, they were just starting to mend their own mother-daughter relationship, and she desperately wanted to see this happy ending through.

For herself, there was peace—the burden of guilt was somewhat alleviated, and that was all that mattered.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

46. She Wanted A Happy Ending

Young decided to publish her biography posthumously. Working with author Joan Wester Anderson, she planned to give the world what they wanted—what they’d been speculating about for decades—an admission that Clark Gable was Judy’s true father. But the book never revealed an alleged assault, and instead attributed her romance with Gable as a moment of weakness—a mere slip in her chaste ideals.

The world’s perception of her—her daughter’s perception of herremained tantamount. One truth was finally out. But the other remained hidden.

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

47. She Worked For Her Legacy

From the time she retired in the 60s, Loretta Young devoted her time to the Church, charity, and volunteer work. She was always a steadfast Catholic and hoped for a moralistic legacy of magnanimity—helping others and giving back. This was the side of Young that earned her a reputation for being a “miss goody two shoes.” But her other reputation served to contradict this.

Galla Placidia factsPixabay

48. She Had Backbone

Young was also called the “iron butterfly,” for her drive to live her life on her own terms. She called the shots, she molded people’s interpretation of her, and she did what she had to do in order to live the life she wanted to live. Young admitted that, in some respects, this reputation was correct. If she wasn’t the “iron butterfly” she’d never have survived Hollywood. She said: “I am in an industry that demands everything from you, plus your gratitude.”

Loretta Young FactsShutterstock

49. She Took Her Secrets With Her

On August 12, 2000, Loretta Young died from ovarian cancer at the age of 87. Her daughter Judy followed her in 2011, succumbing to lymphoma. It was only after the two of them were gone that Young’s son Christopher and his wife Linda revealed the shocking truth. They opened up about the secret they had kept on Young’s behalf—Clark Gable’s alleged assault.

For years, they wondered if it was the right choice to make.

Loretta Young FactsShutterstock

50. They Told Her Story

Neither Loretta Young nor Clark Gable are here today to defend themselves or deny any accusations. This means that the entire truth will never be told in full. But to Christopher and Linda, they wanted the story out there, even in the face of criticism. In one interview, Linda admits “When you’re the keeper of this information, it’s a terrifying story to tell for the first time. It’s so dramatic. The onus is on us to prove it, but you can’t prove it. It’s ‘he said, she said.’ But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell the story.”

Loretta Young FactsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

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