Hollywood's hidden love child
Source: Good Housekeeping, April 1994 v218 n4 p106(6).
Title: Hollywood's hidden love child. (illegitimate daughter of Clark Gable and Loretta Young)
Author: Judy Lewis
By the time my mother found out that she was pregant with me, studio contracts included a "morality clause," which could be used to void agreements with actors and actresses who got involved in scandal. An unmarried movie star, pregnant by a married man, was very definitely a scandal. To complicate matters, my mother was already weeks late in reporting for her next picture, The Crusades.
My mother was full of shame, horrified at her condition, and beside herself with fear. There was only one person she could turn to: her mother. Together the two women made plans. They first set up a meeting with Clark Gable to tell him that he was going to be a father. My mother told me that he turned to my grandmother and said, "I thought she knew how to take care of herself. After all, she had been a married woman." But, according to my mother, my father was deeply concerned about her predicament.
Gable asked his wife, Ria, for his freedom and moved into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and my mother reported for work on The Crusades. Now Gable was free to see her, but she was so terrified by her condition and the ever-present press that she refused to see him in public. They were in constant communication by telephone, but even that was subject to an intricate code system in case someone might overhear.
When they did manage to see one another, it was only for brief periods, under cover of darkness, and after many complicated maneuvers in case they were being followed by Hollywood gossip columnists. By June of 1935 my mother's pregnancy was beginning to show. She and Grandma told the studio they were going to Europe. They thought that if she left town, the publicity would die down. However, the press was waiting when she docked in London, and reporters followed her wherever she went.
When my mother and grandmother arrived back in California, they drove to a small house on Rindge Street in Venice, one of Grandma's rental properties. My mother could stay there until the time for her to give birth. The studio was notified that she was ill and needed to rest. The nature of her illness was left to conjecture. And there was a great deal of that. The rumors about her had escalated, but now the word "pregnant" was attached. "With Clark Gable's baby."
My mother and grandmother decided to grant an interview in my mother's home on Sunset Boulevard to Dorothy Manners, a reporter who had been very friendly toward the family in the past. Miss Manners was told that she could only stay for 20 minutes, on doctor's orders. On the appointed day, my mother, now almost nine months pregnant, lay in bed covered by eiderdown comforters so thick that nothing underneath could possibly be discerned. Dorothy Manners was led into the bedroom where, with all the acting skill she possessed, my mother played the role of a gallant, sick woman facing a major operation. Dorothy Manners believed every convoluted word. Finally the time came for my mother to deliver her baby in the house in Venice.
As her doctor gently guided the newborn into the world he whispered, "It's a girl." It was 8:15 on the morning of November 6, 1935. Gable was in New York City at the time. On November 18, my father returned to Los Angeles. He wanted to see me but my mother told him I wasn't in Los Angeles. But I was--in hiding in the house on Rindge Street with a nurse taking care of me. On January 23, 1936, my mother attended a big Hollywood gala. Clark Gable was also there. My mother recalled, "I looked at him across the room and suddenly felt very guilty that I had lied to him. After all, you were his child too, and he had a right to see you." Very elaborate arrangements were worked out for my father to make the trip to the house in Venice. The rumors of their affair and of "a secret child" had not quieted down. Late one night, my mother led my father into my tiny room. "You were lying asleep in a bureau drawer," she told me. "He reached into his pocket and pulled out a large wad of bills. He took four 100-dollar bills and handed them to me saying. 'The least you can do is buy her a decent bed.' That's the only time he ever gave me anything for you."
She went on to tell me that she had instructed her lawyer to set up a bank account in my name and to notify my father of its existence should he wish to make a contribution. No funds were ever deposited into that account, she noted with some anger still evident. Finally, my mother did send me out of town, to St. Elizabeth's Infant Hospital in San Francisco. I stayed there for many months before my mother announced publicly that she had adopted a child--me.
Even though 19 months had passed since the gossip surrounding her love affair with Gable had peaked, my mother was taking a tremendous risk. I have often wondered why she didn't leave me in St. Elizabeth's to be adopted by some anonymous couple. As much as anything I think she kept me because I was hers, and she was still very much in love with my father. However, while she was pushing my father away, Carole Lombard was pulling him closer. When I was three years old, my nurse, Eunice Margaret Berger, came into my life.
During those earliest years, Margaret was the closest thing I had to a mother, and I have kept in touch with her. It wasn't until 1989 that Margaret finally told me about my early childhood. One of the first instructions she had received, she said, was to dress me in bonnets to keep my large ears covered whenever I would be seen by the public. [Clark Gable was known for his big, flyaway ears.] By age three, I had become vaguely aware that there must be something wrong with my ears. One day all the pieces suddenly came together for Margaret. "I looked at your face, the curls, those big eyes, the smile. And the dimples. I said, this little girl isn't adopted. She is Loretta's child. And all these remarks about the ears, and then some talk about Clark Gable. He's got to be her father."
One of my clearest early memories of my mother happened when I was four. I ran ahead of Margaret into my mother's room. After a quick kiss, she put me down and turned away. It was too scary just standing there, ignored and forgotten. I walked over to the coffee table and shoved it. The table tipped over and the bric-a-brac on top slid off onto the floor with a crash. Margaret remembered: "Loretta looked at me and said, 'Margaret! Why does this child act like this?' "All I said was, 'I think it's because she knows you aren't her real mother.' And Loretta said, 'I'll have you know, Margaret, I suffered labor pains with her.' So that confirmed it."
On January 22, 1939, Ria Gable started divorce proceedings. But on the last weekend in March, when there was an extravagant studio premiere in San Francisco of my mother's film, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, it was Carole Lombard who eloped with Clark Gable. When my mother arrived back in Los Angeles, she was greeted by front-page headlines that the father of her child had just gotten married. It must have been an extremely painful time for her. I remember asking her in the mid-1960's what had been her biggest regret. "That I didn't get your father to marry me," she replied.
After my mother met Tom Lewis, she was happier than I had seen her in a very long time. I somehow knew it had something to do with Mr. Lewis, which is what I was instructed to call him. They made plans to get married, though I was not told about them. In his unpublished autobiography, Tom described me as my mother's "beautiful blond young ward." He went on to write that before their marriage he made my mother an offer. "I'd like to adopt Judy, and she could take my name." My mother answered, "We'll talk about that later." Later never came. My mother never told Tom that I was her natural daughter or that Clark Gable was my father. [After their marriage, I referred to Tom as my father.] What I remember most about my mother's wedding day, July 31, 1940, is wanting to be near her and not being able to. I don't remember exactly when my name changed; my mother simply told me I had a new last name. Instead of being Judith Young I was Judith Young Lewis.
By giving me her husband's name, my mother probably thought that people might forget all the rumors surrounding my birth. Hollywood children's birthday parties were grand productions in equally grand mansions. I hated them all. But one birthday party stands out sharply; I was seven. A movie was shown, Walt Disney's Dumbo. When the children started laughing at the baby elephant trying to walk and tripping over his long, flappy ears, something began to stir inside me. Echoes of "cover her ears" rang distantly in my memory. As I was leaving the party, two little girls stood nearby whispering. "Dumbo! Look, it's Dumbo."
They were looking directly at me. "There's Dumbo. Look at Judy's ears. Just like Dumbo's." I ran over to my governess and, grabbing the bonnet out of her hands, I shoved it on my head. When I got home I ran right into my mother's room and burst into tears. "Some girls called me Dumbo. I hate my big ears." She put her arms around me. "It'll be all right, Judy. We'll fix them." Shortly thereafter, I noticed a pile of children's books in her den. "They're all for you, Judy," she said. "You can read them while you're in the hospital."
The first thing I remember when I woke up after the operation was that my entire head was wrapped tightly in bandages. I reached up and tried to tear them off, and I felt a searing, red-hot pain. I screamed. Hands held mine tightly, and I felt a sharp stick. Then nothing. I awoke with the pain again, and my arm was again stuck with a needle. No matter how I cried, "No more sticks," the shots still came, followed by unconsciousness. Even when I came home the pain was not gone. "It hurts," I would cry, and my mother would put her arms around me. "I know it does, but you wanted your ears fixed." Inside, I cried out to her: You didn't tell me it would hurt like this. You just told me you'd fix it. I later learned that my surgeon had told my mother that an operation of this nature was extremely painful. He suggested perhaps it should wait until I was older. But she insisted that now was the right time. The surgery erased my connection with my father.
My ears were his trademark. I also had prominent buck teeth, just as my mother had had, and, instead of waiting until my second teeth came in, she took me to an orthodontist who put braces on my baby teeth. The procedure had to be repeated again when my second teeth came in. I bore both my parents' genetic "marks of Cain" and both had been "fixed."
My days as an only child came to an end two years later on August 1, 1944, when my brother, Christopher Paul, was born. Twelve months later my mother gave birth to Peter Charles. My mother made one picture after another, almost nonstop. Much of her leisure time was devoted to the care and feeding of her career. When she was gone for a long stretch of time, I would sit in her dressing room, among her clothes, and I wouldn't feel so lonely. I learned how to delay my need to talk to her until I had private access. Then I would wait to see what kind of mood she was in and I'd try to mirror her. It was almost like playing a role with her: She wrote the script and I played my part the way she cast it. I became very adept at this make-believe game. Looking back, all these many years later, I can see I was starved for attention, for affection, for recognition, and for love. I began to sense there was something not right about my adoption.
One evening, watching my mother getting ready to go out, I decided to take a chance. "Mom," I asked, "are you my real mother?" She stopped what she was doing. Her eyes locked on mine in the mirror. "What makes you ask a question like that, Judy?" "Murph (my friend Mary Frances Griffen, adopted daughter of Irene Dunne) says that we look like each other." "I couldn't love you any more than if you were my own child, Judy," my mother said. Does that mean I am her own child? I wondered. Her voice went on: "You know when two people live so closely, like you and I do, it's only natural for you to pick up my mannerisms. That's probably what Murph meant." I saw that the subject of my adoption was one I couldn't discuss freely. To this day, I still don't know when I actually realized that my mother was my mother. I don't ever remember a moment when I said to her, 'You're my birth mother. I'm not adopted. I'm your daughter, aren't I?' And her affirming that fact.
After my mother married Tom Lewis, she gave him full authority over me--including discipline. I no longer felt comfortable around him. He showed no affection toward me now; in fact, he frightened me. But I couldn't disclose my fears to my mother, or I would be a burden to her. I thought she wouldn't love me then.
In September 1951, just after the new school year had begun, the station wagon dropped me off at home by the front door. It was wide open. I walked into the entry hall and stopped in my tracks. There, standing a few feet away, was Clark Gable.
I couldn't believe my eyes. He was much more handsome than I remembered him from the movies.
I was speechless. "You must be Judy," he said. How did he know who I was? Finally I found my voice. "Yes, I am. And you're Mr. Gable, aren't you?" He laughed. We just stood there, for what seemed like a long time. My mother came around the corner from the living room. I was relieved. He came to see her, I thought, because they had recently made a movie together, Key to the City. I was beginning to feel foolish standing there staring at him like some star-struck teenage fan. Children of movie stars don't stare at other movie stars. "Stay and visit for a while, Judy," my mother said. It wasn't a request, it was a command.
Clark Gable sat down on the couch. "Come and sit next to me, Judy." I did. My mother watched us, saying nothing. "Tell me about your school, Judy," he said. His voice was gentle and he seemed genuinely interested. I liked him, and began to feel more at ease. "You're a very pretty young lady." I felt the blood rushing to my face and was embarrassed that his compliment had made me blush. I looked in my mother's direction, but she was no longer there. We were alone in the living room. I liked sitting there, talking to Clark Gable. The more we talked, the more comfortable I felt.
He never took his eyes off me. I forgot, after a while, that he was a famous movie star. He was warm and considerate and caring, unfamiliar qualities coming from an adult male, especially one whom I'd just met. It never occurred to me to ask him any questions. But it did occur to me that he had been waiting for me to walk in the front door and that he had known when I was due home. When it was time for him to leave, I walked with him to the front door. He looked down at me and smiled. "Thank you for a lovely afternoon. I enjoyed our talk." He bent down and, cupping my face in his two big hands, kissed me lightly on the forehead. "Good-bye, Judy." "Good-bye, Mr. Gable."
That evening I had a date with Jack Haley, Jr., who was my first love. The very first thing I said to him was, "I came home from school and Clark Gable was standing in the hall." Most of my conversation that evening was about his visit. I didn't notice that Jack was quieter than usual. Many years later he told me, "I wanted so badly to tell you that you'd spent the afternoon with your father. But that wasn't up to me. I thought that visit was a prelude to your mother telling you. But she didn't." I often wonder why Gable decided then that he wanted to meet me. Was he merely curious? Or did he want to tell me that he was my father? If so, why didn't he? Was there a remote possibility that he thought I knew he was my father, that he was waiting for me to say something to him? I replay the few hours that we had together, and all I am left with is, "What if?"
By 1952 my mother wasn't happy--not in her career and not in her marriage. Few film offers were coming in. She wanted to get into television. I was finishing my senior year at Marymount when she and Tom began developing her series, Letter to Loretta, later retitled The Loretta Young Show. After I spent a year at a finishing school in New York, my mother offered me a secretarial job at the studio with her, and I accepted. Shortly thereafter, her friend, Ruth Roberts, now story editor for the show, asked me to be her assistant. I was also attending acting classes. This was the work I wanted to do but my mother did everything she could to discourage me.
During the fourth season of The Loretta Young Show, I was on the set one day with my mother. The door had been left open. John Newland, my mother's favorite leading man, was standing with his back to it. I stood beside my mother, notebook in hand, taking down dialogue changes. As John remembers it: "All of a sudden the stage got absolutely quiet.
I turned around and there stood Clark Gable. He looked at Loretta and said, 'Hi, Slim,' and then moved on. My remembrance was how you looked like him, and looked like her too. "Loretta simply looked at him and went to her dressing room. We all pretended to be doing something because it was so obvious." I went to New York to start an acting career and within a month's time I landed a small part on Kraft Theatre. Other jobs followed, including a running part on a new soap opera, Kitty Foyle. I was also engaged to marry--Joe Tinney, a television director, and the man my mother approved of. However, the night after we got our marriage license, I told Joe, "I can't marry you. I don't know anything about myself." I had told him my suspicions about my mother being my real mother and that I didn't know who my father was. Joe listened quietly, and then said, "I know everything about you. It's common knowledge, Judy. Your father is Clark Gable."
Twenty-three years of my life had passed and everyone in the world knew about me--but me. I began to cry. Almost from the beginning, there were problems in my marriage, although Joe and I both rejoiced in the birth of our daughter, Maria, on November 16, 1959. During this time, my mother's marriage had also disintegrated--into a bitter ongoing legal war over money. On November 6, 1960, my 25th birthday, Joe called me. "I just heard that Clark Gable had a heart attack," he said. My father may die, I thought, and I never knew him and he never knew me. Later, I prayed in church for my father's recovery, and for my mother to tell me before it was too late. We'd been invited to my mother's for dinner that night. I told her Gable was in the hospital, in intensive care. It was the first she had heard about it. "That's really too bad. I'm sorry to hear it," she said. Her voice was calm. "Shall we open your presents now?"
Maybe he isn't my father after all, I thought. On November 16, Maria's first birthday, my father died. As I write these words I am surprised at the depth of the sorrow I still feel. Joe was unable to find work as a television director, and our marriage was becoming more and more strained. I know I didn't make it any easier on him by urging him to go out and get a regular paying job so that we could have what I hadn't had in my own family--the ideal fairy-tale marriage with the wife and child at home and the husband at work. Joe finally got a job in New York as head of commerical production for Colgate Palmolive Company. We moved East in 1962, but our marriage was not improving. In 1966, I was recovering from a miscarriage, and working on The Secret Storm. I was also in therapy.
I wanted to confront my mother about my father but hadn't yet summoned up the courage to do so. I had a few days off over Labor Day and decided to go to California to visit her. The decision was spontaneous, but it seemed as if she guessed the purpose of my trip. After dinner she turned on the television set; it was midnight before the show ended. "There are some things I want to talk to you about," I said. She cut me off. "Not tonight. I'm too tired." We said good night but as I stood looking at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, I told myself, you've been tricked again into avoiding the issue. I went to her bedroom. She was frightened to see me--so frightened she became violently ill. "I want to talk about us," I said gently when she finally lay down on her couch. "I want to know who my father is. I've been told that he was Clark Gable." Her expression did not change. "How would you feel if he was Clark Cable?" "It would make me very happy. From what everybody tells me, he was a wonderful man."
She looked at me for a long moment. "Well, he was your father." Finally.
A feeling of utter relief went through me. "I want to hear everything," I said. "What was he like, Mom?" "He was darling. Sweet and very gentle. He had a good sense of humor, he made me laugh. He was a real man. Everybody loved him." My mother and I talked for a long time that night about what had happened. When I finally got into bed, I cried myself to sleep. By the fall of 1969, my mother and Tom were divorced, and the tenuously delicate threads of my marriage to Joe unraveled completely until there was no hope of reconciliation. In November, I told Joe I wanted a divorce; he said he would never agree, but finally in September 1972, we were divorced. By the end of 1979, I found myself in my mid-forties, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Maria was away at school. My latest job as a producer's assistant had ended. I fell back on the one role I was most familiar with--that of daughter. I drew closer to my mother, and she appeared pleased at this. I even discussed with her my ideas of writing a book about our family. I can now see that my mother viewed the book as a charming story glorifying her as the beautiful Hollywood star who adopted a little girl and lavished attention on her. That wasn't my view.
In late March 1983, my mother told me that an unauthorized biography was being written about her. "Maybe now it's time for you to write yours," she said. This was the first time she had ever given me her unqualified permission and support. I was well on my way to consummating a book deal when my mother wrote cautioning me against revealing "the area of my bloodline." She indicated that she would be "mortally offended" if I even discussed the truth with an editor. I knew it would be the death of our relationship if I wrote the true story. I dropped the project. My daughter, Maria, was getting married back East on April 4, 1986, to her longtime boyfriend. Inexplicably, my mother refused to attend the wedding, offering one excuse after another. Of course, Maria was terribly hurt and embarrassed. "What's the real reason you're not going, Mom?" I finally asked.
She exploded. "If you must know, by the time I buy a new dress and pay for the plane fare I'll be spending a thousand dollars. It's too much money." The conversation ended on a cool note; we were both upset. She called me a few weeks later; her voice was cold and businesslike. "I've just received a letter from Liz Smith. She says rumors are flying all over New York that you are writing a tell-all book. Is this true?" I didn't have the slightest idea what she was talking about. "At the present moment I am not writing a book," I said. I purposely qualified it because I wanted her to know that I still reserved the right to write one in the future.
In an attempt to reconnect with my mother, I promised I'd fix dinner for her on that Mother's Day, 1986. My brother Peter went with me. She seemed very angry at something and she was taking it out on me. Her silence could still shut me out, as if I no longer existed. Maria called but declined to speak to her grandmother because she was still angry with her. My mother's eyes flashed when she realized this. "I wrote to Maria telling her I wouldn't attend the wedding." As if that put an end to it. "You didn't even remember the day, did you?" I asked. "You didn't call her, you never even sent a telegram. You just plain forgot, didn't you?" She pushed her chair back from the table and spat out the words, "Yes! I did." Rising, she yelled at me, "I want you out of my house," and she left the dining room. I cleared the table and then headed up the stairs. I heard voices from my mother's bedroom. Peter was with her. "She's just being used," my mother said. I went in. "If you have something to say about me, say it to my face," I said. "We're going to have this out here and now, once and for all." "You're blackmailing me," she said. "If you write a book, I'll sue you. You're sick." Finally her mood today began to make sense. She had never believed me when I told her that I wasn't writing a book. She had held on to her anger for almost two months. "You've never loved me, have you?" I asked. "You showed me a picture recently when you were six months pregnant with me and you told me that you were never so unhappy in your life. That's not something you tell a child you love." Her voice was cold. "And why shouldn't I have been unhappy? Wouldn't you be if you were a movie star and the father of your child was a movie star and you couldn't have an abortion because it was a mortal sin?" Suddenly the lifetime of things I wanted to say to her all came pouring out. All the years of hurt and abandonment, of being an outsider in my own family. "You kept me from knowing my father," I said. "Maybe we could have had a relationship. You didn't give me that chance." "How could you have known your father?" she came back. "We were both movie stars with careers to protect.
It was a mortal sin." I felt as if something burst inside and I screamed at her. "I am not a mortal sin, I will not have you call me a mortal sin ever again." "I want you out of my house," my mother said. I stood my ground. "Before I leave I want you to answer one question. Will you ever acknowledge to the world that I am your child, and that Clark Gable is my father?" "No. I will never acknowledge what I consider a mortal sin. My mortal sin."
All hope vanished. My dream that one day my mother would stand beside me and publicly say, "This is my child, she belongs to me. Her father was Clark Gable," would never become a reality. I turned and started down the stairs. That was the last time I was ever in my mother's home. I had gone back to school to become a psychologist and I was working full-time as a secretary to support myself. By 1987 I was well into my master's program and was interning at a clinic. In May 1988, Tom Lewis died of cancer.
In September of that year I received my master's degree in clinical psychology, and the following June I signed the contract for this book. My greatest happiness came on March 22, 1991, when Maria gave birth to her son, Michael Joseph Dagit. [My mother has never seen him.] The explosion between my mother and me marked our final separation. I had come to terms with my true self, and I spoke my truths to my mother for the first and final time in my life: Her mortal sin is neither my shame nor my life. I have no way of knowing if my mother and I will ever reconcile. It seems unlikely. When people ask me why I wrote this book, and why now, I will answer: because I had to.
I have no regrets. *