Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and the Betrayal of Judy Lewis

Clark Cable is the one on the right.

Judy Lewis died this week, at the age of 76. She survived and flourished despite being brought up in a community that conspired to hide the truth from her, and famous parents who refused to acknowledge her as their own. The community was Hollywood, and its treatment of Judy Lewis demonstrates the depth of its ethical failings. Her parents were Clark Gable and Loretta Young, and it is difficult to look at them the same way once you have learned what they did to their daughter.

Lewis was a love child, conceived during a movie set fling in 1935 when Gable, married at the time, and the single Young co-starred in “The Call of the Wild”. When Young became pregnant, she hid herself away, had her child, and entrusted her to a nunnery until the little girl was two. Then Young faked an adoption. Throughout her childhood, Lewis (the last name she took from Loretta Young’s first husband, who refused to adopt her) did not know the true identity of her famous parents, or why Gable, then known as “The King” of Hollywood, mysteriously showed up at her boarding school one day for an unannounced visit—the only time she ever saw him in person.

Amazingly, everyone else in Hollywood, including Judy Lewis’s friends and their families, knew that the star of “Gone With the Wind” and “Mutiny on the Bounty” was her father (she was a dead ringer for him, ears and all—everything but the moustache), but such was the power of Loretta Young and Gable that nobody broke the wall of lies. Another way to put it would be that nobody in Hollywood had the decency to tell her that she had been deceived by a grand conspiracy to protect the reputations of Hollywood royalty. Or that her parents placed preserving their public image over fairness to their own daughter.

Eventually Lewis learned the truth (from her fiancé) and confronted her mother. Loretta Young tearfully confessed and swore her daughter to secrecy.  Lewis eventually became a psychotherapist and wrote a book about her upbringing; Loretta Young never forgave her for revealing the family secret to the public.

In a way, Judy Lewis was an Ethics Hero. Despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical, and to let her betrayal by everyone in her childhood and the callous treatment by her parents curdle her view of life, she entered a field dedicated to helping other people navigate their emotions and personal crises productively. Nevertheless, her life stands as an awful example of what people can do to each other, even their children, when the ethics alarms don’t sound. Everyone, but especially Loretta Young and Clark Gable, who kept the truth of her identity from Judy Lewis displayed a total absence of ethical thought. There is no system of ethical analysis—not the Golden Rule, not utilitarianism, certainly not absolutism—that would justify what Hollywood’s culture of illusion did to her.

Perhaps her heartbreaking story can serve as its own ethics alarm, to sound for a parent any time one is tempted to lie to a child. “It’s very sad to me,” she told the London Daily Telegraph in 2002, describing her feelings whenever she watched her father in “Gone With the Wind,” in his tender scenes with Bonnie Blue Butler, the doomed daughter of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, “because he’s so dear with her. I pretend it’s me.”

And, she said, every time she watched her father be so loving with his fictional daughter, she thought of what might have been, and wept.

24 thoughts on “Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and the Betrayal of Judy Lewis

  1. I’m having some difficulty reconciling your positions. Hollywood was bad for not telling Judy Lewis about her true parentage, but you previously have stated that neighbors should NOT tell kids about lies about their parentage. Is your dislike for Hollywood coloring your opinion here, or have you changed your mind on the appropriateness of 3rd party intervention?

    • [For those whose memory is not as good as tgt’s, the post he is referring to is here.]

      I’m glad you brought this one up; I was going to raise it myself, but thought I would see if it came up in the comments (I was betting on you). I distinguish the two cases, because they are legitimately distinguishable, and because of the obvious differences in the welfare of the child involved. The child in the Farkel Family story knows her mother’s identity, and a loving father has assumed the paternal role. The individual is happy, and the family is seemingly stable. Nobody except a couple of close family members know the truth. I see no reason, at such a late date especially, to shatter all this for the benefit of a father who didn’t even know his daughter existed until recently. Is the daughter harmed by the truth she doesn’t know more than she would be harmed by knowing it? I don’t know, but there is at least a plausible utilitarian calculation that says not. Similarly, from a Golden Rule perspective, I would just as soon believe that the mother and father who said they were my parents were my parents than to discover that I was the product of a one-night stand with the mailman. The fact that your real father is a hugely admired and famous celebrity IS a material difference. In Hollywood especially, there are tangible benefits that flow from that.

      The Gable-Young situation is almost the opposite of the Farkle example. Lewis’s real mother was denying parentage. Her mother’s husband had rejected her. She had no idea who her parents were—she didn’t even have a comforting lie. Worst of all, all of her friends and most of the town where she lived knew the intimate facts of her life that she didn’t. There was nothing in Young’s lie that was made for her daughter’s benefit, unlike the lie in the Farkle Family story. Maybe the mother’s call was wrong, but it was made for the stability of the family. Young’s was devised to protect her own career and reputation. The Young-Gable-Hollywood deception is indefensible. The Farkle deception is defensible, to the extent that I don’t believe a third party has the right to over-ride the parent. Do I think the mother in that case should have told her child the truth early on? I would have. But I can see her logic, and how she felt it would benefit everyone concerned.

      IF we add the detail to the Farkle situation that the child is virtually the only person who doesn’t know the truth, yes, that would tip the scales and change the calculation for me—then it’s a spinach-on-the-tooth scenario.

      • The two situations are pretty inverse, but the underlying issue is still the same.

        In the Farkel situation, you grant the benefit of the doubt to the family because they may know what’s best. In the Lewis situation, you don’t grant benefit of the doubt to the family because you believe you know what’s best.

        While you can make a legitimate case that these situations are different, you rely on logic in the latter case that you specifically rejected as invalid in the former case. I don’t approve of this double standard.

        The following is very telling to me: “There was nothing in Young’s lie that was made for her daughter’s benefit, unlike the lie in the Farkle Family story. Maybe the mother’s call was wrong, but it was made for the stability of the family. ”

        In the Farkel situation, “stability of the family” is the term for hiding an affair that might damage the mother’s life. In Lewis’ case, this same behavior is seen as “preserving their public image over fairness to their own daughter.”

        • I don’t see how you get that. Under no circumstances can I imagine an objective observer concluding that it could be in a child’s best interests to have both natural parents refuse to acknowledge her. It’s not my judgment against the mother’s because the mother’s judgment is 100% biased toward a non-ethical consideration. There is literally no ethical argument on her side, theoretical or real. In the Farkle case, there is. (Remember, I personally disagree with both decisions to deceive the child.)

          We also have the advantage of hindsight—the child in the Young case has made it clear that this was devastating and destructive. So unless you can see a non-fanciful way to interpret Young’s actions as anything other than a willingness to harm her child for her own gain—something that is not certain in the Farkle case, I think the comparison fails.

          In the Farkle case, a stable family was at risk, and the child was the beneficiary of it as well as the mother. Not true in Young’s case. Only her reputation was at risk. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Lewis, her husband, did know the origins of Judy. The secret was kept only from the child….and Young’s fans.

          And you conveniently ignore what I think is a key difference: for Young, the deception was focused only on the child, and nobody else in the community. It adds humiliation and cruelty to the equation. I believe that the fact that the unidentified father was a powerful and popular celebrity also is a material distinction.

          I asserted no absolute rule regarding undisclosed parentage—special situations require acknowledging key differences. This is, I think, such a case.

          • I don’t see how you get that. Under no circumstances can I imagine an objective observer concluding that it could be in a child’s best interests to have both natural parents refuse to acknowledge her.

            If the biological parents are clearly black, and the child is light skinned. Granted this made more sense in the 50s then now, but the principal could apply to any perceived negative inheritable traits.

            It’s not my judgment against the mother’s because the mother’s judgment is 100% biased toward a non-ethical consideration.

            You just said this: “It’s not my judgment against the mother’s because the mother’s judgment [is wrong]”.

            We also have the advantage of hindsight—the child in the Young case has made it clear that this was devastating and destructive. So unless you can see a non-fanciful way to interpret Young’s actions as anything other than a willingness to harm her child for her own gain—something that is not certain in the Farkle case, I think the comparison fails.

            The hindsight is taking into account issues unrelated to the decision. If the Farkel case had a child finding out later and being screwed up, does that change the ethicality of the original decision? It shouldn’t, but by your logic, it does.

            In the Farkle case, a stable family was at risk, and the child was the beneficiary of it as well as the mother. Not true in Young’s case. Only her reputation was at risk. In fact, there is every reason to believe that Lewis, her husband, did know the origins of Judy. The secret was kept only from the child….and Young’s fans.

            You’re saying that in the 40s, an adoption was not a more stable family structure than an out of wedlock child with a married man? I call BS.

            And you conveniently ignore what I think is a key difference: for Young, the deception was focused only on the child, and nobody else in the community.

            If it was an open secret, what was the benefit to the mother again?

            Also, there’s seems to be an odd balancing act here. If many people have the information they are all culpable for not telling. If only a few do, they would be culpable FOR telling. Where is the inflection point?

            It adds humiliation and cruelty to the equation. I believe that the fact that the unidentified father was a powerful and popular celebrity also is a material distinction.

            I think SMP would argue strenuously the distinction supports keeping the celebrity parentage secret. I personally think it’s irrelevant.

            I asserted no absolute rule regarding undisclosed parentage—special situations require acknowledging key differences. This is, I think, such a case.

            You did assert a rule. The family gets to decide. Previous comments (Italics are mine, but caps are yours.):

            “A person has a right to peace and happiness, and if not disturbing the reality that a person has been raised in is the route to that happiness, nobody has a right to interfere.
            If someone, adult of not, wants to know everything about their past and heritage, they have a right to ask, and to be told the truth. Some people don’t want to know, and to tell them because YOU have decided there is some pointless right is arrogance and irresponsible.

            “Parents, spouses, siblings are in the immediate family and have co-equal duties to the adoptee. I would put in-laws, cousins, family friends, employers, doctors, lawyers, neighbors, grandparents, uncles and aunts outside that circle…with regard to their right to over-ride the parent’s wishes with regard to a minor child. Some of that group, such as grandparents and close fiends, enter the circle when the individual is an adult because the parent’s parental authority is done.

            The biological father with no other parental connection is always outside the circle.”

            According to you, even Clark shouldn’t be allowed to tell, much less general Hollywooders.

            “If the secret could be kept, then I would keep it. If there was any chance that it would be discovered, then better for the parents to do it, and as quickly as possible. But it’s still their call. THEIRS.

            That was about rape specifically, but it was clearly your taking on any secrets related to lineage.

            As I said before, these are different situations, but to make your point about the badness of this situation, you directly contradicted points you made on the previous situation.

  2. To me, the saddest part of this story is that it is not unique, putting aside the fame of the people involved. Dishonesty in family situations involving “illegitimate” births and/or adoption was the rule, not the exception, of the era.

  3. Poor Judy. I had not known of her until this minute. Love children were treated terribly back then,not just in Hollywood either. I would guess most were adopted out and never knew either of their biological parents. I hope Judy had a wonderful life in spite of it all.
    Jack,I hadn’t read about the Farkle’s but I assume that isn’t their real name?

  4. If she was a small child I think you have to confront the parents and make THEM tell her. But once she became a teenager or adult I have no problem with someone telling her. At that point she is capable of handling the truth and standing up to her parents. As a child she is stuck in a situation she has no control over.

  5. I read about this in the LA Times yesterday, and, as the father of a beloved daughter myself, I nearly wept for poor little Judy, at this late date.

    It is not ethical to blame the whole of “Hollywwod” — what is it, after all; I live there and I did not deceive Judy. “Hollywood” is a figment, not a real entity. And to blame all of “Hollywood” and those who lived there during Judy’s growing up? Rank bigotry.

    The real guilty parties were Gable and Young. To try to spread and share their guilt with people you’ve never met and who are mostly dead now? We expect better of our favorite ethicist.

    Gable and Young were cruel. I understand a little of their cowardice, knowing something of the ere. Especially Young — she was supposed to be playing all these Goody Two-Shoes, NCG (Nice Catholic Girl) roles, both on-screen and in her private life.

    Ah, well. When I see my own little girl (age 44) this Sunday, I’ll give her an extra hug in memory of Little Judy.

        • Karla Marie, thank you for those kind wodrs. My little girl is a conservation biologist, a Ph.D., a world-traveler, been to every continent except Antarctica, I brag about her every chance I get, but she will forever be my “little girl” (of course I don’t call her that …it’s a no-no).

          Once when she was all of 3-years-old, I was helping her button her coat. I finished, and said, “There you are , baby.”

          She replied indignantly, “I’m not a baby, I’m a BIG girl!”

          As I said, it’s a no-no.

          (Took her to the Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” yesterday — she’s still my little girl.)

    • It’s not bigotry to correctly diagnose a sick culture, Mudge, and everyone in a sick culture isn’t necessarily ill. You’re kidding yourself if you think there isn’t a Hollywood culture, just as there is a Wall Street, a Penn State and a Washington DC culture. The culture in Gable’s time was somewhat different, but the proof is in the pudding—in anything but a sick culture, no widely known secret would have been kept from a child like this one was. The support for Roman Polanski after his child-rape and escape is one recent example of Hollywood culture at its worst…Gable/Young was another one. Sure, it wasn’t everybody in either case, but in a healthy culture, anyone involved in either would be an instant pariah.

      • Hollywood is not even a town or city. It is just a neighborhood in the City of Los Angeles, and has no geographic bounddaries, or, rather, its limits are subjective matters. My own “Hollywood city limits” are the Santa Monica Mountains on the north, Vermont Ave. on the east, Wilshire Blvd. on the south, and the City of Beverly Hills on the west. (Beverly Hills is an actual incorporated city, an island surrounded by the City of Los Angeles.) Others might say “Hollywood” extends to Culver City southerly, and parts of the San Fernando Valley northerly.

        Most of the thousands of us who live in “Hollywood” are very ordinary, average folks who don’t even work in “The Industry”. During Gable/Young/Judy’s era, most of “The Industry” people didn’t even live in “Hollywood” either.

        The “Hollywood culture” is so amorphous, impossible to really put a finger on.

  6. Shame on anyone who thinks Loretta didn’t do what she thought was best for JUDY!
    1935 is NOT 2011! Judy, even as a teen would have been labeled a bastard and born the stigma of that. I bet her mother was thinking it would be easier on her not to know who her famous father was…not in that era, and unwed babies still were labeled up through the early 70’s. She’s so fortunate that her own birth mother was able to adopt her…at least she knew her real mother, unlike Joan Crawfords daughter…and Judy wasn’t beaten by an alcoholic, fame obsessed, ill tempered psychopath. Plus Judy got to meet her real father at least once. So many children never get to know either of their birth parents…

    • 1. She did what she thought was best for Loretta Young. If you were right, why would she continue to deny the truth after her daughter knew it? You are rationalizing desperately.
      2. Wow, she got to see her father once, and that’s OK because other kids never see their father. A more vivid example of the “it’s not the worst thing” rationalization for bad conduct would be hard to find. The fact that Gable’s despicable abandonment of his child could have been worse doesn’t make it better. Obviously.

      • Young had 3 reasons for her decision: 1) The era in which she was raised. 2) Her religion. 3) Fame. Young was raised in a different era. Even doing genealogy older people will take secrets to their graves rather than divulge the truth!! I’ve seen this posted on many genealogy sites too. Someone could know who someone’s biological father is but will never tell them, even in 2015. They’d rather take it to their grave because it involved a scandal and that’s what they were taught to do. Being a devout Catholic and having fame also entered into her decision. Remember the Catholic church spoke out on Elizabeth Taylor’s affairs & marriages! Who would do that today? Different times. Plus, the studios controlled the actors’ lives back then. When they resorted to putting Rock Hudson into a fake marriage you know the rein was tight! It was cruel for Judy but it happened to thousand of other kids too whose parents weren’t famous.

  7. Gable’s contention all along was that he had been willing to acknowledge his daughter, Judy, but that Young insisted he stay away from both of them in order to stop the gossip which had started with their affair on the “Call of the Wild” location shoot. For the record, he went to see the baby at Young’s Beach home shortly after she was born, and even wanted to give Young Support payments, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Eventually, Gable did force her to take money to buy furniture for Judy, who was at that time sleeping in a dresser drawer because Young was afraid to arouse suspicion by purchasing a crib! Eventually, she sent the child away for a couple of years to be reared by Nuns until Young could “adopt” her.

    Clearly, Young was petrified at the possibility of a Public Scandal erupting over the birth of their daughter. Of course, in retrospect, honesty would have been better for Judy, but– if Gable erred– I believe it was in his willingness to comply with Young’s wishes. Later on, he really believed that God was punishing him with childlessness because of his failure to force his paternal rights on Young and put a stop to the lying. It was he who initiated the personal meeting with Judy when she was in High School.

    Of course, it has also been observed that Gable was really never too crazy about acting, and he may have been relieved just to be out of it all had his Contract been cancelled by MGM for moral reasons. Young, on the other hand, was very happy with Movie Life, and her own role as a glamorous Star. So maybe she just had more to lose. Anyhow, I agree this is all very sad, but I cannot ascribe the same villainy to Gable as to Young who, after all, concocted the whole “plan,” and more-or-less forced him to go along with it.

    • 1. Great post, and great insight. I was just talking about this yesterday!
      2. But, you know, you can’t blame Young for Gable’s conduct. She had no hold over him; he was a free agent. What father would let anyone “force” him to abandon his daughter? He could have said no, he should have said no. Whoever hatched the plan, he was responsible for going along with it. This is a man’s man, a guy who was supposedly a stand-up role model. And he left his daughter without a father because Loretta Young insisted? Despicable.
      3. I’m going to make this the Comment of the Day. Thanks.

  8. I always wondered did loretta young sisters know the true partenage of judy lewis.-also ricardo montalban who I think was a wonderful man of great character, I would like to know what he thought of the situation with his judy lewis. Also what did ricardo montalban wife die from and how did he cope after her death, they were so close.

  9. I read Judy’s book and felt so sad for her. However, those were the times. So many unwed mothers ended ostracized, in homes for unwed mothers, adopting their kid out, etc. Many in school were not allowed to return unless they were married! Being in Hollywood there’s no way Young could’ve admitted this. Since then it has been reported by Young’s daughter-in-law that Young said Gable raped her on a date while filming a movie with him. Lies eventually come out.

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