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The Gal Who Conquered Time—Loretta Young

For six years now Loretta Young has not faced a movie camera, though she starred in almost 100 films from 1927 to 1953; and with her current popularity on the TV screen in “The Loretta Young Show,” she may never again go near a sound stage. Yet she continues to attract some 20 million or more enchanted fans, and to each of them she is Miss Hollywood, Miss Honeysuckle and the Lady with the Camellias all combined. And she still walks in beauty like a star.

There are Loretta Young admirers who insist that their idol, now unabashedly pushing 46, could play a 16-year-old and get away with it, huge grey-blue eyes and all, but Loretta is the first to brush this away as sheer nonsense.

“People tell me I could do it,” says Miss Young, “and my cameraman, Norbert Brodine, could make me look 16. But I could never play such a part. I know too much. I’m too mature. I don’t feel 16, or even 18. It would just be ridiculous.”



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Ridiculous or not, this bit of “brown-haired fluff with the big blue eyes, the wide, generous smile and the nothing waist” has seemingly outlasted the generations. A week or so ago, a cynical Hollywood columnist watched Miss Honeysuckle as she made her confident, graceful entrance—Loretta likes to call it a “swirl”—through that door at the opening of her weekly NBC-TV show. “Nobody, but nobody,” grumbled the columnist, “has any right to be that beautiful at her age.”

No one knows exactly how the ever-verdant, ever-young Miss Young manages so successfully to make time stand still, but she does, and is also just about the greatest trouper among the great ladies of Hollywood. “Loretta,” said one of her first directors, “is the town’s chief example of how to get to the top fast and stay there for keeps.”






Almost more than any other star, Loretta Young is Hollywood’s-own. She has walked the streets of Hollywood in patched shoes, and she knows those streets—the highways and byways and the cruel corners of a sometimes cruel town—in a different way than many other people. But most of all, she has been before the cameras almost daily since she was little more than knee-high to the curbstone at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

“When I was just 11,” Loretta remembered, her eyes shining, “some producer turned me down for a vaudeville show. I walked home with my mother and she says she can still hear me saying, ‘Some day I’m going to be a big movie star, and then he’ll be sorry.’ As far as I was concerned, I was a big movie star all over the place ever since I can remember. Pure ham. I’m still a ham.”



Loretta is happiest when the cameras are rolling—and in television “the cameras roll all the time.” “On nights when our show reaches 20 million people at a single crack,” she says, “that’s probably more people than have seen all the pictures I’ve made put together. In our audiences today there’s a whole new generation. You get an actress who’s a ham, as I am, and that’s reason enough to go on doing TV forever. I’m never going to retire.”

When she first became a “name,” a month or so before her 15th birthday (she was co-starred with Lon Chaney and Nils Asther in “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”), Loretta weighed 112 pounds and her waist measured 22 inches. Thirty years, 89 movies, 122 half-hour telefilms and three children later—her adopted daughter, Judy, and two boys of her own—Loretta Young still weighs a restless, slender 116 and her waist is status quo at 22.






“That voice of hers is still warm and could charm a cobra back into its basket,” said an intimate. “She loves glamourous clothes and even her panties have frills. While it isn’t quite true that she’d don a hunting outfit to set out mouse traps, yet when she has to make a trip into Beverly Hills for even a spool of thread or a birthday card, she dresses up like a Dior model, because, as she says, ‘I never know who may see me.’ ”

Yet the ever-glamourous Loretta has her frailties: a trick of signing her letters “Me,” a curious habit of still keeping her teenage braces on her teeth when she’s not working, and an almost insurmountable yen for eating chocolates in bed. What’s more, she’s unbelievably feckless when faced with a kitchen stove, and she has a lust for remodeling and fussing around generally that amounts to an obsession. This probably stems from that period in her life when Loretta and her mother bought, re-decorated and sold, in rapid succession, a string of 13 old houses. On each transaction Loretta pocketed a glittering profit.



Loretta’s passion for moving chairs around—anybody’s chairs—is all but irresistible. Once, she dropped by to call on an old friend while on her way to an appointment. “Make yourself at home,” the friend said, dashing upstairs. “I’ll be back in a moment.” When the lady got back to her living room, Loretta had shifted every stick of furniture. “There now,” she cried happily, “isn’t that better?”

But more than anything else about Loretta (she has been called “The Iron Butterfly” with some reason) is her strength of will, her singleness: of purpose. “What Loretta says she will do, she does,” said a long-time associate. “What she says, she means. What she learns, she remembers. And let’s face it—what she wants, she gets.”






“I’m a gal with a job to do,” Loretta has often said, “and I wear blinders for everything else.” When her two hoys, Christopher and Peter, were younger, she used to stuff earplugs in her ears so her exuberant offspring would not disturb her while she memorized her next day’s lines. Even as a child, Loretta’s steely determination made her unique among the girls in her convent school. She saw herself as merely marking time until she could resume her interrupted career in pictures. Her family still remembers the day when, on a visit to relatives, Loretta followed her Aunt Colleen around, as the older woman did her housework. Suddenly, the skinny, big-eyed moppet in patched stockings said, “Some day, Aunt Collie, when I’m a star, I’m going to buy you a new broom.”



She did—at the age of 12.

“The ‘I’ll buy you a broom when I’m a star’ story,” Loretta’s long-time friend and publicist, Helen Ferguson, declared, “is typical of the singleness of purpose that has marked Loretta’s career. She is an orderly thinker, determines her course, and follows it—calmly, deliberately, firmly.”

In a way, she has done even more than that. Said Tom Lewis, Loretta’s second—and presently estranged—husband, who now makes his home in New York. “Unlike most women, Loretta has always known what she’s wanted, and she hasn’t strayed from the goal in her life.”






Loretta had married Lewis, a top agency executive, in 1940. One evening in 1953 the two were watching television in their Holmby Hills living room. The set was one that Loretta had bought at an auction given for the benefit of her favorite charity, St. Anne’s Maternity Hospital for Unmarried Mothers. Dreamily, Loretta said to her husband, “I’m going to be on television. I’ve made up my mind.”

“All right,” said Lewis, “but it will take a little time to create the right series and produce a pilot film.”

When months went by and nothing happened, Loretta wearied of the delay. She is a lady who likes action, not dawdling or talking. She drove to her agents’ offices. “Let’s go!” she said. “Get a script and let’s get going.”



They did. The pilot was filmed and sold—or so it has been said—inside of four weeks. “The Loretta Young Show” went on the air in 1953, with Loretta’s husband as the first producer (“I just wanted to get the series started,” he has said), and it has been going ever since. Jt is NBC’s top-rated show, the sole surviving anthology program; and whether Loretta is playing hostess, or such diverse roles as an Egyptian queen or a Japanese fisherman’s wife, Loretta unquestionably gives the performance her all. “You know,” said one of her staff with-awe, “when Loretta did that Japanese girl, she rehearsed with a heavy rope bound round her knees, so she could really shuffle like an Oriental. Who else would do a thing like that?”






Some critics, true enough, have murmured that Miss Young is not, and never was, a great actress, and that her shows are little more than a kind of “John’s Other Wife” soap opera. “Well,” says Loretta, “if it’s soap opera, it’s good soap opera.” She is also willing to admit that many women tune in just to see what she is wearing in the opening prologue and introduction. But she is passionately sincere, loves sentiment, and believes, very rightly, that there are millions of other people who do too.

“Just the same,” said a man who works on her show, “she’s got a practical streak, this airy sprite. When, comes the commercial, she tells you to pay attention to the man with the cheery advice about your soiled laundry, you pay attention.”



People have been paying attention to Loretta Young now for more than three decades. Her goal was in sight almost from the day she was born—not Loretta, but Gretchen Michaela Young, in Salt Lake City, January 6, 1913. (Her friends, and even Loretta herself, think of her as “Gretch.”) It isn’t quite true that Gretchen first opened those huge blue eyes on Hollywood Avenue, and so went from Hollywood Avenue to Hollywood Boulevard. “It makes a nice yarn, but there’s nothing to it,” says Miss Young today. “Matter of fact, I was born at 227 J Street. We left there when I was around four years old—Mother, my two older sisters, Polly Ann and Betty Jane, and my brother John.”






Little Gretchen’s father, a “handsome but weak man,” had vanished into the unknown, and her mother, a dauntless and remarkable woman, gathered together what must have been the prettiest covey of small girls and journeyed off to a place called Hollywood. Mrs. Young had no desire to become a movie mother. Instead, she opened up a boarding house.

It was Gretchen’s uncle, Ernest Traxler, who got the child her first movie job at the ripe age of four. Traxler knew some people in the studios and took Gretch by street car down to Paramount. There he suggested to George Melford that his niece might do for a kid part in “The Only Way,” a new picture starring Fanny Ward and Theodore Roberts.



“Well, she might do,” said Melford, looking Gretchen over. “Bring her back tomorrow. And,” he added, as an afterthought, “have her face washed, too.”

The future Loretta Young’s first acting role called for her to lie on an operating table and weep. The little ham really put her heart into it; she shrieked and carried on so, recalled one crew man, “that people came running from all parts of the studio, certain that disaster had struck.” But she had made an impression, and other jobs came along for her. The rest of the Young family, delighted by the development, soon began working in pictures, too.



Yet there were weeks when the family was so beset by poverty that little Gretch had to go to school without socks. If this hurt her, she showed no signs of it. Eventually, Mrs. Young’s boarding house prospered, and the girls were removed from camera range and enrolled in the Sacred Heart Convent School in Alhambra. A few years later, Polly Ann and Betty Jane (Betty had changed her name to Sally Blane) got back into the movies, but Gretchen had to be content with studying history and geography and arithmetic a little while longer.

It was Director Mervyn LeRoy who put Gretchen in front of the cameras again when she was around 13. LeRoy, then making a picture for First National. phoned the Young boarding house to ask sister Polly Ann to report for work the following day. Polly Ann, at that moment, happened to be off somewhere on location, but this did not daunt Miss Gretchen when she answered the phone.






Said Gretch, in her most dulcet tones, “My sister isn’t in, but how Won’t I do?”

Her brashness must have hypnotized LeRoy, because Gretchen was hired for a role in “Naughty, But Nice,” with the great silent star, Colleen Moore. (What Polly Ann thought about this is not on record.) Miss Moore, at any rate, was delighted with the big-eyed 13-year-old, gave her a new film name, Loretta (“Gretchen” was too “Dutchy”), and walked hand in hand with her into First National’s front office. There she announced, in the throbbing Colleen Moore way, “You must place this beautiful child under contract at once!” First National did, at $50 a week.



And yet it was not until Loretta was 15 that she got her first big and truly showy role in “Laugh, Clown, Laugh.” For Loretta, it was te be a milestone in more ways than one. Her director was Herbert Brenon, one of the great and feared megaphonists of his day. Loretta was” to portray a tightrope walker, in a ballet skirt. Brenon made it clear that the girl he had in mind had to have beautiful legs. When he told Miss Young this alarming piece of news, Loretta started for the door. “Goodbye,” she said, “my legs are like sticks.” Brenon stopped her. “Your legs can be padded,” he growled. “Likewise your body, It’s those eyes of yours I need; they’re irreplaceable.”



Even so, Loretta was cowed by the irascible Brenon all-through the picture. Once Brenon, carried away by a scene, let Loretta run out on the tightrope instead of using a double. Hoping to intensify her fright, the director yelled, “Come on, hurry across that rope. Don’t stop, don’t stop!” Panic-stricken, the 15-year-old obeyed, and then at the end of the take, she jumped, to keep from falling. In jumping, she bruised herself badly. Brenon, so the story goes, gathered her in his arms, crying, “My poor baby! What have I done to you?”

That night Loretta’s sisters got some gilt paper and cut out a huge star, then pinned it to her bedroom door. Underneath they lettered the words: “The Star’s Room—Silence.”



But most important, Loretta really grew up working with Brenon. As implacable a perfectionist as Loretta herself, all too often he would scream in front of everybody. “You are a terrible actress!” and reduce her to tears. She was woefully sitting on the floor in a corner of the set one day when Lon Chaney came over to comfort her. “Nothing like this is worth breaking your heart,” Chaney said. “If they kick your heart around like a football, pick it up and brush it off. You’re going places—if you keep your head. You’ve got something and Brenon knows it. So you must forgive him if he expects too much.”



She stopped crying, and, she says, “I’ve never cried over my work since.”

Yet hers was an impetuous youth, as she confesses. “I always hated the word ‘prudence,’ ” she once said. “I wanted to rush into things and do them right away, without thinking.” She was only 17 when she eloped to Yuma, Arizona, with actor Grant Withers, then left him in less than a year. When Miss Young took the stand to testify in her. separation complaint against her husband, the judge asked, “Did he buy you any food?”

“I should say not,” Loretta answered. “I paid all the grocery bills.”



The marriage, according to the records, was officially annulled. Yet she didn’t lack for men. Loretta became known as “the beauty who cannot stay in love,” and people began asking, once the Withers mistake was out of the way, why she didn’t marry again. But apparently Loretta was having too much fun to want to settle down.

One day, after she had been under contract at Fox for a long time, she stalked into Producer Darryl Zanuck’s office and told him she would never make another picture for him—ever. “And you know why?” she cried. “Because you’ve never given me a raise or sent me flowers, like you’ve done with other stars.” “Why, Loretta,” said Zanuck, with a puzzled expression, “you just never asked.”

“Right then and there,” said Loretta, “I learned that you really have to fight for yourself every moment in the motion picture business.”



And fight she did. She began to freelance, and when Dore Schary, who was about to produce “The Farmer’s Daughter,” suggested the role of the Swedish Katie to Loretta, she listened. “You mean you want me to play with a Swedish accent and a blonde wig and all?” she asked. “Don’t you think that is dangerous for me?”

“Yes, it is,” said Schary. “You could be awful. But if you’re right, you’ll win an Academy Award.”

Loretta did win, of course, graciously accepting the golden Oscar with a charming little speech that began, “At long last.” She made other pictures, but they were not spectacular successes, and soon she found herself worrying about the slump in her career. But, characteristically, Miss Young did more than worry. She got herself a winning TV show, and she’s been winning laurels with it ever since.



In many ways, Loretta’s judgment has been unfailing. Among the leading men she picked for “The Loretta Young Show” were three buckos who have since become TV topliners. But when they first came on the screen opposite Miss Young, home screen viewers were completely unacquainted with the names of Hugh O’Brian (Wyatt Earp); Jock Mahoney (Yancy Derringer), and George Nader.

But most of all, Loretta makes a business of being a movie star, and this dedication has brought her both friends and enemies. A young woman who has been close to Loretta’s show for a long time said, “Certainly she’s no ‘Hi, Toots’ kind of girl, nor can you give her a friendly pat or kid her as you can many stars. Everything’s very formal with Loretta. Maybe it’s not altogether her fault, but she’s just not easy to know.”



Others, more perceptive perhaps, see Loretta as a star who in her long career has done as much work as two men, and is still as fresh as a breath of air. Said one writer, “You look at her and feel you are seeing something you don’t often see—a human being completely and joyfully in command of herself.”

Despite a back-breaking work schedule that would buckle the knees of a Hercules, Loretta is still as exuberant and joyful as ever. Even a serious illness in 1955, when she had to miss 18 full shows (friends like Ann Sothern, Rosalind Russell and Barbara Stanwyck took over for her), didn’t dim her enthusiasm. When she’s working, her theoretical “free” time is listed in her schedule as “alternating Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays,” but her actual “free” time is nil. In order to make her 7 a.m. call, she sleeps in her dressing room apartment at the Goldwyn Studios, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. “It’s no life for a playgirl or a social butterfly,” said the director. She is driven to the studio by her maid, and she rides to the set because she never walks. “I wouldn’t even walk across my living room,” she once laughed, “if I could get a ride.”



The only real trouble people have with Loretta is a curious notion that her left profile is her better, or “chocolate,” side. Everyone else, of course, thinks she is mistaken, but Loretta can always manage to bring up excellent reasons why she should be photographed from the right.

Miss Young truly has a mind of her own and always has had, and it may be this quality, coupled with her 24-hour-a-day devotion to her career, that caused the rift in her marriage. Both Loretta and her husband have repeatedly denied all the breakup rumors, but the two are definitely apart. In March, 1958, Lewis filed suit against his wife’s production company, claiming “dishonesty, mismanagement and unfairness.” He also stated in the complaint that “he had resigned as an officer and director at Miss Young’s request, and that he had signed an agreement dividing the community assets two years earlier.”



Loretta insists that “there is no formal separation as far as she is concerned,” while Lewis himself has compounded the confusion by declaring: “My home has always been in New York and my business interests are there. It’s ridiculous to say that Loretta and I are separated in any way other than by career. Besides, the suit was filed as much for Loretta’s protection as for mine.” A curious statement indeed after some 17 years of presumably happy marriage, when Lewis’ home and work were definitely in Hollywood. But more poignant. too, so far as Loretta is concerned, is that her two boys, Christopher and Peter, are staying with their father. while her adopted daughter. Judy. is now the wife of Joseph L. Tinney, Jr., a young TV executive, and she, too, is living away from home.



There are, in the living room of Loretta’s magnificent West Hollywood apartment (she built the building), an Oscar, two Emmys and a big assortment of other awards lettered with her name. She has wealth and incredible loveliness, and she always looks as though “she has just turned her head in the moonlight.” She has managed, most of all, to make time stand still, even at 46. Perhaps, for Loretta, all this is enough, and for it she is willing to pay the hardest price of all to pay—the price of success.

“Loretta was raised before the camera,” a sister star remarked. “She’s talked of getting away from it all to Hawaii, say, but she knows she’s just clicking her teeth. Hollywood’s deep in her blood and vice versa, and she truly loves everything about it.”

Everything, perhaps, except the loneliness. Even Loretta may wonder, at times, if loneliness isn’t too much to pay for the sweet smell of success—or the ever-present need to make time stand still. But as long as she can walk in beauty like a star, shell stay forever Young, fresh as a breath of air, and a human being completely and joyfully in command of herself.

THE END

BY FAVIUS FRIEDMAN

 

It is a quote. SCREENLAND MAGAZINE MAY 1959

 



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