When Everyone You Love Has Left You. . .
The words Loretta Young spoke for the newspapermen were brave words—brave and firm and light—and they held what seemed to be a good answer to a hard question:
“Miss Young, how did you feel when you heard your son had run away?”
“I must say,” Loretta Young replied, her voice clear and her smile brilliant, “that I was panicky for a moment when I heard that he was missing. But, heck, I’ve ditched school myself ten times—a hundred times! After all, he’s just a fourteen-year-old, full of adventure!”
And when she received the news that Peter, her boy, had been picked up near Las Vegas and would be brought back to her, she was still calm, still smiling.
But how much heartbreak did that brilliant smile, those brave words, hide? How much have they often hidden, throughout the strange life of Loretta Young?
The truth is that this was not the first time that someone had run away from Loretta Young. There had been others. Always men. Always men she loved.
And it was very seldom that they were picked up and brought back home again. Time after time, Loretta was left to gather up the broken pieces of her life in lonely silence, while her brilliant smile and her brave words built a protective wall against the curious world. What went on behind the wall, she seldom said. But it was not hard to guess.
Was she to blame?
The first man to desert Loretta Young was her father. Oh, he was not actually running away from his daughter, Gretchen, on that bleak day in 1916. Why should he? Gretchen, who would someday become Loretta, was only three, a wide-eyed baby with a penchant for climbing into Mommy’s high heels, clutching a flower, and reciting nursery rhymes for anyone obliging enough to listen. No, John Earl Young, when he quietly disappeared, was fleeing from something more than an adoring three-year-old; he was running away from his beautiful, strong-minded wife, his home, his job, his entire family—his entire life. Any thoughtful person would have known that.
But Gretchen was only a very little child. And children live in a strange and terrifying world. In the mind of a little girl of three, everything happens because of her. If, for example, a chair collapses beneath her, she knows and cares nothing for the fact that the chair was broken; to her understanding, it fell because it was mean and wanted to hurt her. If Mommy cries, the little girl does not reason that Mommy is sick, or in debt, or has problems of her own—she simply believes that she has done something to make Mommy cry. And if, one day, Daddy fails to come home for supper, and then does not show up at the breakfast table the next day—or the next—or the next—
Then, the house is filled with the sound of a childish voice asking over and over, “Where is Daddy? Why doesn’t he come play with me?”
But all the while, the childish heart, accustoming itself painfully to the loss, secretly believes it knows the answer:
“Daddy is gone because I did something wrong. Daddy will never come back because he doesn’t love me any more!”
Could it have made any difference to three-year-old Gretchen Young if she had been presented with a thousand rea- sons why her father deserted his family? Could there have been, for her, anything but the pain of believing that he had deserted her, and the half-conscious feeling that she was somehow to blame?
When it seemed certain that John Earl Young was gone forever, his wife packed her things and moved to Los Angeles. She was determined to keep her family together, and to deny her four talented, beautiful children none of the good things they deserved. They would all have to merely work a little harder, that was all. To supply them with the necessities, she borrowed money and opened a boarding house. To provide them with luxuries like dancing lessons, she registered them as “child extras” at a movie studio.
Her plan seemed to work. The boarding house brought in enough money to keep them all healthy and well-fed. The three Young girls, with their huge, wondering eyes and masses of black hair, were used over and over in motion pictures; their earnings were not large, but with careful managing, they were large enough to help. And then something very exciting happened.
Mrs. Young fell in love. The man she married was a businessman named George Belzer. With him at the head of her household, poverty was no longer to be feared. Now everything would surely be all right; the children would have a father again; the girls could give up their chores at the studio, their bit parts and walk-ons, and devote their time to the normal things, the fun and carelessness of simply being young. A very wonderful thing.
But it didn’t interest Gretchen.
Gretchen, it seemed, didn’t want to quit. Gretchen didn’t care much about the money or the pretty things money could buy. Gretchen wanted to act because she had discovered that she liked it.
A search for love
She found out that she loved to pretend to dress up, to be “somebody else,” to see herself on the screen and hear others say that she was talented—and to know in her heart that it was true. Surely she never puzzled out just what her work meant to her.
But certainly she did not give it up. worked harder than ever. She meticulously rehearsed for even tiny roles. Once, when she was alone in the house and a call came for one of her sisters to play a part for Mervyn LeRoy, she begged that the role be given to her instead.
When she was fifteen, she got her big break. She was offered a romantic lead in a movie opposite Lon Chaney. It meant that she would have to let the studio pad her legs, fill out her bust with cotton, and advance her age by three years for publicity purposes. It also meant that she would have to change her name: “Loretta” was a better name for a star than “Gretchen.” She loved her real name (her closest friends use it to this day) and the pads and flounces made her itch—but she said Yes to it all.
She was going to be a star.
And she was, too. A big star. So charming. No one would ever willingly go out of Loretta Young’s life again.
But this was not true.
The procession was just beginning.
The second man to leave was her husband.
She was seventeen when she met him, and at seventeen, love is the answer to all questions, the solution to all problems, the end of loneliness and emptiness forever. At seventeen, love is all that counts, and to Loretta, love was an older man—Grant Withers, the movie star.
She eloped with Grant Withers.
Eighteen months later, she divorcee.
Her husband told the world nothing of the problems everyone had so dourly predicted for the marriage; what he said was far more astonishing.
Loretta, he told a startled world, was, in truth, a “steel butterfly”!
Perhaps it was true. Perhaps the years of work and loneliness and self-protection had coated Loretta’s heart with steel, had created a core of ambition and independence that Grant had not been able to melt.
But was it fair to have tried for such a pitifully short time—and then to have walked away? Was it not possible that the warmth, the tenderness was there—if only he had looked longer, looked harder?
Idle speculation. The facts were all that mattered. They were divorced.
Years later, Loretta said that Grant was the most bewildered man she had ever known. Of the bewilderment she herself must have felt, divorced at eighteen, more alone than ever, she said nothing.
The brave words and the bright smiles spoke for her instead.
She began to date. For nine long years she was the most popular girl in Hollywood. Beautiful, poised, fun to be with—her phone never stopped ringing. People wondered, as the years went on, why she did not marry again. Loretta Young could have had any man in town.
Any man at all . . . except the one she wanted.
For the man Loretta Young fell in love —an during that time, could not marry her.
He already had a wife.
The third man in her life
Twice, in her short life, Loretta had cared for a man—and both those men were gone. Now, for a third time, she reached out for love—and this time it was returned. Secretly, unwillingly perhaps—but fully, the man she loved returned her love, giving her a heart she had no right to accept. They spoke of it to no one; they hardly dared talk of it to each other. But the man was a famous actor, and the movie in which they co-starred was full of love scenes. Inevitably, those who watched them play their parts, guessed their secret. And waited, wondering what would happen. And whispered that after all, the actor’s home had been an unhappy one for years; that after all, divorce was no disgrace these days; that after all, Loretta deserved some happiness, that everyone would forgive her if the man divorced his wife for her. . . .
And, of course, the whispers reached Loretta, too.
But in the long hours of the night when she lay awake and stared blindly into darkness, Loretta Young knew they were not quite accurate. There was one person in the world who would not be able to forgive her.
In crisis, they say, we learn what we truly are. Loretta Young must have learned in those agonized weeks that she was not merely a young woman with a great need for love—she was also the possessor, for better or for worse, of an element still harder than the steel of which Grant had spoken. Call it morality, call it a conscience, call it an aching memory of a childhood in a broken home. Whatever it was, it would not be softened, or put off. It would not let her accept the love that was offered.
It told her, instead, to send the man away and, at the cost of her youth, she did it.
Afterward, she tried to forget as rapidly as possible. When friends offered sympathy, she changed the subject. When producers came forward with starring roles, she accepted them one after another. Work, she told herself, would comfort her as it had done before. Work, and the love of her fans. And she could always meet new men. She could always dress up and go out, to laugh and dance and chatter, and look for someone—surely right around the corner—whose love would ease her pain.
The baby girl nobody wanted
But it was not enough. Behind the wall of smiles, something was strained too far, and began, at last, to break. When it was apparent that it might tear the wall down as well, exposing her to the sympathy, the pity she was too proud to accept, she fled. She was gone from Hollywood for a number of months. When she came home again, a change had taken place.
She had always been religious. Now she seemed to have grown infinitely closer to God, to turn to Him more and more.
She had always searched for someone to love her. Now she began a different search—this time for someone she could love.
Perhaps it was a more blessed goal. For she attained it quickly.
She heard, somewhere, of a baby girl whom nobody seemed to want. A tiny, new-born child with eyes that promised to be as wide and dark as Loretta’s own—and unless something was done soon, they would also surely grow to be as lonely and as full of longing.
The “steel butterfly” found the child and took her into her arms. With the gesture, she began a new life.
If this were a fairy tale, it would be the beginning of the end, of the “happily ever after.” The girl who wanted love, having become the woman who wanted to give love, would find her prince. The steel would melt. The wall would crumble. She would never have to weep again.
But the story of Loretta Young is a fairy tale only to those who see merely the wall—the eternally beautiful, eternally glamorous, talented, successful woman.
To those who know the truth, it is closer to tragedy.
There were two more men she was yet to love and lose.
One of them was William Buckner. The papers called him a playboy-financier. He was charming, eligible and obviously in love with Loretta. He delighted in giving her carefully chosen flowers, unexpected little gifts. He was the perfect escort for a glamorous evening—romantic, tender, thoughtful. People began to wonder when the engagement would be announced.
Another announcement was made instead. By the police. The flowers, gifts and gala evenings, they said, had been paid for by money that was not William Buckner’s. He was going to stand trial for fraud.
“For heaven’s sake,” her friends begged Loretta then, “stay out of it. Drop him. He’s going to be found guilty. You have a reputation that means something—a reputation you deserve. Don’t take a chance on spoiling it, honey. Think about your future.”
She thought about it. She knew her friends were not exaggerating. Her public, the one constant, steady source of love in her life, loved her for her beauty and her talent—but mostly for something far rarer—the aura of real purity that clung to her. To distort that image even slightly, to injure that reputation even by association, would be to risk everything she had worked for since she was four years old. It was a real risk, and for a woman who needed her stardom as Loretta did, it was a tremendous one.
She thought about that. She prayed. She looked within herself. And she knew the risk counted for nothing.
Years ago she had learned that she could not turn against her conscience to attain love. She would not turn against it now to protect her career.
With her head held high and her eyes steady, she testified publicly for William Buckner. Then, while the flashbulbs exploded in her face, she stood aside and watched in silence as he walked out of her life—this time, on his way to prison.
The man she loved and lost
In 1940, she married the last man she was to love and lose.
It was, everyone said, an ideal match. There were no complications, no tragedies, no goodbyes possible this time. The bride was no longer the bewildered, lonely girl with the unexpected hard core of steel, but a mature and deeply honorable woman, who had waited long for happiness and recognized it when it came. The groom was not a temperamental actor, nor an unattainable dream, nor a charming phony, but a man of proven character and ability, a successful radio executive, Tom Lewis. From the moment they met, it seemed, they knew that together they could build a fine and lasting marriage.
Perhaps they were too confident even then.
It was as if, having waited so long, Loretta was determined that this marriage would be more perfect than any other, would grow to include every aspect of their lives.
Their home, for example, was less a house than a mansion. The furnishings, antiques chosen by Loretta and her mother, were picked with such care and thought that the house became a showplace even in elegant Holmby Hills. Their little dinner parties were jewels of perfection. The relationship between Tom and Loretta’s adopted daughter Judy, was so fine that, when he legally adopted her himself, it was merely the frosting on the cake.
All those things were, of course, good. But they all took so much time, so much effort. For any other two people, they would have been enough.
But not for Loretta. There was also work to be considered. Tom’s, of course, was essential—he was the breadwinner. In her role as the perfect wife, the role she had longed to play for so many years, Loretta gave him hours of her time, listening to his problems, helping him find solutions. When he made strides in his field, he was infinitely proud. But there was her work, too. You do not devote yourself for so many years to a job, turning to it for comfort and security whenever the rest of the world fails you, only to drop it because suddenly other things are going well. Instead, you tell yourself that now, happy and content, you will do your best work, your finest acting; you talk over your scripts and interpretations with your husband—and when your marriage is eight wonderful years old, you win your first Oscar, as proof that you were right.
Then, as the greatest joy of all, in quick succession, two sons were born to Tom and Loretta—Christopher Paul and Peter Charles.
Two wonderful boys, whom Loretta wanted to take care of herself. And still it wasn’t enough. There was television to be considered. A whole new world for her and Tom to explore together. They would form a corporation and call it Lewislor—a combination of their names, as it would draw upon their combined talents in the making of TV shows.
Was it possible they did not realize how few hours there are in a day? Was it possible that they never worried about adding to the inevitable problems of even the best marriage, those of even the best business venture? Was it possible they did not count on being too exhausted at the end of impossibly long days to spend any significant time with each other and their children?
It would seem that it was very possible. It would seem that they believed, even when Tom’s work began to call him more and more to New York, and Loretta’s to prevent her, more and more frequently, from accompanying him, that their marriage could survive separation, cross- country commuting, business squabbles—and anything else that they might choose to inflict upon it. After all, was it not visibly a success? Lewislor made money, Loretta won awards, Judy grew up and made a happy marriage, and if Tom began to feel almost like a guest in his Hollywood house, if he found himself referring to the New York apartment as “home”; if Loretta began to live on vitamin pills because she had no time for meals, if she increased her charity work to impossible extremes (designed to fill up the occasional empty hours) and still heard herself referred to by others as a “chocolate-covered black-widow spider”; if Christopher seemed to prefer going to school in New York where he could see more of his father, and Peter to prefer staying in Los Angeles with her—then what were all these but temporary problems which would someday be swept aside, be proven meaningless compared to the wonderful love and marriage she and Tom shared?
But it was the marriage that, in the end, lost all meaning.
All the other things came to dominate their lives—the duality of their careers, the physical and emotional distances it put between them, the constant strain and drain on her strength and even her ability to sleep. All these things came to dominate their lives. But particularly the business partnership that was ultimately allowed to take precedence over the marriage partnership. That was a barrier nothing seemed to be able to surmount.
In 1958, Tom Lewis sued Loretta for mismanagement of their corporation, Lewislor. Attorneys hastily claimed that both sides had known about the suit, that it meant nothing “personally,” that it was merely an unpleasant legal necessity for complicated business reasons.
But, when two people have radically altered their marriage to conform to their careers, when two people in love are also two people with separate attorneys and separate homes on opposite sides of a continent—then how can you tell where business ends and marriage begins?
How do you know if love has been stretched too far, and is forever gone?
How do you determine when a boy runs away from school if he is simply playing hookey—or if, like his mother before him, he has suddenly found life too difficult to understand and is starting out in his own search for someone or something to love?
She’ll live a legend
Perhaps you never know. Perhaps you try not to think about it; perhaps you keep yourself from looking back over the years and wondering about the strange pattern of your life; perhaps you fill up your days with work and your nights with heavy, nightmare-laden sleep. Perhaps you tell yourself that as long as millions of people love you, you are not really alone after all.
Or, possibly, you remember the lesson learned so many years ago—that it is not necessary to be loved, but to love. Perhaps you hold firmly to that, pouring out your heart to your children, to your first grandchild, to your friends and your charities—perhaps you continue to love a man who is no longer there to know or care. Perhaps it is a source of great comfort to you.
But one thing is sure. Whatever you do, you do it behind the wall of brilliant smiles and proud words. You protect yourself from the curious and the sympathetic with all your incredible strength. You go on living a legend, one of the most glamorous, the most beautiful, the most indestructible woman in the world. And only in the privacy of your heart, does the little, lost girl who looks for love, continue to live.
SEE AND ENJOY “THE LORETTA YOUNG SHOW” ON EVERY SUNDAY FROM 10:00-10:30 P.M., EDT.
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE SEPTEMBER 1960