In early 1935, Clark was not looking forward to heading to the barren and freezing mountains of northern Washington state to film his latest project, Call of the Wild, based on Jack London’s classic novel. He found the conditions more tolerable when he met his costar, the lovely Loretta Young.
Loretta had been a child actress and worked steadily through the 1920’s in silents. She was a pre-code darling in the early 1930’s, starring in as many as eight pictures a year. After a short-lived marriage in 1930, she had a long love affair with Spencer Tracy and was still nursing a broken heart over him when she met Clark.
Production on the film was long and tedious. The outdoor shoot was supposed to last ten days but stretched on for weeks. A blizzard kept the cast and crew trapped in their cabins and the sub-zero temperatures froze film in the cameras. Clark and Loretta found another way to occupy their time. Director William Wellman complained that Clark “is more interested in monkey business than business.” and said he came close to punching Clark out for causing delays but “I needed that handsome mug for the picture.”
Loretta later insisted that she had only “given into temptation” with Clark once. It was much to her shock and disbelief that she discovered she was pregnant a few weeks after the film wrapped. A devout Catholic, abortion was not an option for her, and she knew if she let anyone in the movie industry know about her condition she would be ostracized and her career would be over. She told only her mother, who was understanding and called a meeting with Clark. Clark was reportedly nervous and fidgety in the meeting, saying, “She was a married woman. I thought she knew how to handle herself.”
Just as the gossip columnists began reporting about Loretta’s sudden “illness”, Clark left the home he shared with second wife Ria and moved into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. He tried to call her and see her but Loretta wouldn’t take his calls and urged him to just leave her alone. She knew that Clark didn’t really want to marry her and she also knew that even if he did, he was still a married man and a divorce in California took a year to become effective—time they didn’t have. Loretta realized she would be facing this alone.
Just as Clark headed to South America for a publicity tour, Loretta and her mother left for a “vacation” in Europe for several months. When they returned. Loretta was snuck into town and spent the remainder of her pregnancy hiding out in a small house in Venice.
Judith Young was born on November 6, 1935, blonde and blue-eyed, with her father’s ears. Clark was in New York at the time doing publicity for Mutiny on the Bounty. He received a telegram informing him that his child had arrived safely.
Immediately upon his return from New York, Clark phoned Loretta and said he wanted to see the baby. She told him the baby’s name and said she was delivered healthy in Venice. She also told him not to contact her any further.
Feeling guilty, she did let Clark visit baby Judy once. It was night time, and he parked his car far away and walked to the back door of Loretta’s mother’s home. Little Judy was asleep in a dresser drawer. Clark held her and talked to her, even laughed a little at her ears. He gave Loretta a wad of cash that equaled about four hundred dollars and said, “At least buy her a decent bed.” Loretta told him she set up a private bank account that he could make deposits into for Judy if he wished and gave him the information on it. He just nodded. He never made any deposits into the account.
Judy was soon placed in a foundling home, where she remained until Loretta thought it the right time to “adopt” her. When Judy was about two years old, it was announced that Loretta had adopted two blonde girls named Judy and Jane. Details were scarce as to the who, what, when and why and the press, probably knowing the truth, didn’t press Loretta for the details. Oddly, these reports never included a photo of Loretta with her new daughters. It’s not clear why it was announced she adopted two girls—“Jane” never existed. A month later, Loretta declared that “Jane’s” mother had reconsidered the adoption and wanted her daughter back. But Judy would stay.
Loretta was still extremely paranoid that everyone would learn the truth. She lied about Judy’s age, making her a bit younger than she actually was, so nobody would do the math and figure out that Judy would have been born near the end of Loretta’s mystery “illness.” The number one threat to expose the truth was Judy’s large ears–her nurses were instructed to keep a bonnet on her at all times.
During this time, Clark had met and fallen in love with a certain Miss Lombard. Loretta said later that she was heartbroken upon learning this, that she had held out the hope that perhaps they could still be a family. It seemed, though, that with all of her efforts to disguise the truth, she had made it easier and easier for Clark to disconnect completely from her and their daughter.
In 1949, Clark and Loretta were proposed to costar in a new romantic comedy for MGM. Neither of them seemed to hesitate to star together in the new project, Key to the City, probably figuring that refusing to star together would just ignite old rumors as to why. By this time Loretta had been married for several years to Tom Lewis, had two small children and was pregnant with her third child ( though she suffered a miscarriage on set). Clark and Loretta seemed to get along fine, although she objected to the clause in Clark’s contract that allowed him to end his work day at 5:00pm, leaving her to do her close-ups with a script girl reading his lines. To make peace, the whole production was put on a nine to five schedule.
Judy (who had now taken her stepfather’s surname) recalls that around this time Clark came to see her at their home—the one and only time she had a conversation with her father. She arrived home from school to find him standing in the foyer. She didn’t think much of it, figuring he was there to see Loretta, but soon they were seated in the living room and he asked her about school, her interests, and if she had a boyfriend.
“I was surprised. Usually my mother’s friends paid very little attention to me. Their questions were always polite, but they weren’t interested in my answers, they just asked out of courtesy. But he was different. I could tell he really cared what I was saying. I liked him.”
He gave her a kiss on the forehead before he left and then was gone from her life forever. Loretta denied that this meeting ever took place.
In 1955, Clark and Kay Gable received an invitation to attend the wedding of twenty two-year-old Judy to Joseph Tinney. They declined and also didn’t send a gift. Bride-to-be Judy had cold feet about the wedding and was starting to really wonder about her origins. All her life, she had heard the whispers. One of her childhood friends was the adopted daughter of actress Irene Dunne, Mary Frances. Mary Frances said to Judy once, “I’m adopted too, and I look nothing like my mother. Why do you look so much like yours?” Loretta had always deflected when Judy had asked about her real parents. Even Loretta’s husband, Tom Lewis, never got the truth out of her. When he had mentioned the resemblance of Judy and Loretta, Loretta had even gone so far as to hint to him that Judy was the illegitimate daughter of her sister Sally!
Judy told her fiancé that she didn’t think she could go through with the wedding because she wasn’t sure who she really was. Her fiancé told her pretty much point blank, “You’re Clark Gable’s daughter.” Judy was shocked to her very core. Knowing that confronting her mother wouldn’t do any good, she kept the news to herself, but she asked the priest who performed her wedding ceremony not to state her or Joseph’s last names, as she felt uncomfortable now being called “Judy Lewis.”
About ten years later, Judy finally confronted Loretta about her parentage.
As she tells it, “I was in a soap opera in New York and I had a few days leeway in there and my mother had told me she was going to go out of the country for a year. She was going to take a year off and travel around the world. And I was at a point in my life that I needed to know the truth. So I found about five days in my schedule and I flew to Los Angeles and she picked me up at the airport, and we had dinner together.
“And somebody was there at dinner so I couldn’t ask her at dinner. And then after dinner we went into her bedroom and she turned on the television and she knew why I was there. And I said, mom, I really have something that I want to talk to you about. She said never mind, never mind. We will watch this movie and the movie ended and finally it was about 3:00 in the morning, and I said to her, mom, this is important, I need to talk to you.
“And she excused herself and went into the bathroom got sick to her stomach, poor little thing. And then she came out and I sat her down and I said now, mom, I have to ask you this: Is Clark Gable my father? And she said yes. And then we spent the rest of that morning — I heard about how she met him on the film and how they fell in love how she was pregnant and how she had to hide her pregnancy, and the whole story came out. And we talked until dawn. She said that her biggest regret in life was “not getting your father to marry me.”
At this point, Clark was dead and so many years had passed that Judy felt the need to further explore her parentage and considered writing a book. Loretta was strongly opposed to the idea and swore Judy to secrecy. Even after all those years, she was still afraid of being condemned. Judy felt the need to tell the truth. As she put it, “I have a daughter. And my daughter was married, and I have grandsons, two grandsons, and, it went — the secret went through generation to generation to generation. And I just couldn’t live with that. I also didn’t have any legal documents that stated that Judy Lewis existed in the world. So I had to state who I was once and for all. And that was the reason for the book.”
The more Judy explored her history, the more mother and daughter fought until their relationship reached what seemed to be an insurmountable impasse. They were estranged for most of the following twelve years.
Judy’s autobiography, Uncommon Knowledge , was published in 1994 and was a bestseller. Judy did several television appearances to promote the book, but Loretta ignored all requests for interviews, simply stating, “No comment.” She admitted she only read her daughter’s book to page 60 and then closed it. She said, “I suspected that whatever I read might cause me to become bitter.”
Mother and daughter remained estranged until Loretta’s sister Sally’s funeral in 1997. For the first time in years they were able to speak to each other without fighting. Both had come to peace with their relationship by the time Loretta succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2000, at age 87.
Loretta only publicly admitted the truth of Judy’s parentage to the author of her authorized biography, Forever Young , published after her death.
Judy died of cancer in 2011, at age 76.