Comment of the Day: “Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and the Betrayal of Judy Lewis”


Ethics Alarms has had an influx of new readers lately (Thanks, “O’Reilly Factor”!) and many have been visiting and commenting on older posts that I hadn’t thought about for a long time. “Evangeline” found one of the saddest and strangest, my post in December of 2011 about the death of Judy Lewis, who was the love child of Hollywood legends Loretta Young and Clark Gable. Gable, the “King of Hollywood,” never acknowledged her as his daughter, and Young, who like Gable was married and afraid of harming her reputation, pretended to adopt the girl, never revealing to her that she was her real mother, and the top leading man in movies was her father. (Judy was a dead ringer for him, too, as you can see in the photo above.) You should read the original post, here.

Evangeline apparently knows her Golden Age of Hollywood history, and makes a case that I was too hard on “Rhett Butler.” I’ll be back at the end for a rebuttal. Here is her Comment of the Day on the post, “Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and the Betrayal of Judy Lewis.”

“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.”

I’m back, and I still think Clark Cable was a villain. Little Loretta Young, half the star that Gable was, forced him to abandon her daughter knowing that she was living a lie?  How? Could anyone have forced my father, or my mother, to do that to me? Never. Who could force you to just leave your child thinking she had no parents, when you were one of them? Gable was rich, he was famous, and he constructed a reputation of being as gallant, courageous and noble in real life as he was on the screen. Would Rhett Butler ever have treated Bonnie Blue like that? Would any decent, responsible father? If Clark Cable gave a damn about his daughter, he could have and would have been a father to her, whatever the consequences.

He is responsible for his betrayal of her and accountable. The fact that he was following Young’s plan shouldn’t diminish his culpability in any way, nor does it relieve him from just condemnation.

15 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Clark Gable, Loretta Young, and the Betrayal of Judy Lewis”

  1. Once upon a time there was a Code of Chivalry where Men did not “tell” on Women. This was during a quaint period of human history, dating back from the beginning of Humanity to roughly 1968. At this time it was very important that a Woman’s virginal integrity not be called into question because her livliehood– Yea, verily!– her actual LIFE might depend upon it. Admittedly, in those days, Women were sometimes less than careful with their Virtue, just as they are today, but in the Olden Days they were still scared of what might happen to them if Society found out about their lapses. (Don’t smirk! Within the last 10 years, there have been teenage daughters murdered, in the United States, by their immigrant fathers for going counter-culture and just DATING men of their own choosing.) Anyhow, to those under 30 years of age, for a Man to break the Code back then and “expose a Woman’s shame,” would be roughly the equivalent of publicly “outting” a homosexual against his/her Will today.

    My perceived defense of Gable is offered here because I believe that this Code of Chivalry is the code of behavior under which Gable was operating with regard to Loretta Young. While he didn’t necessarily like it, he deferred to the Lady’s sense of Honor because that is what Men did then. It is easy to look back now and accuse him of being a cad, and Young of being a selfish coward. Undoubtedly it is always easier to comment on someone else’s life than to live it.

    But what if these two had done as you seem to want and called a Press Conference in 1935? Both would have been finished in Hollywood, and that is CERTAIN. You will recall that, even 20 years later, in the 1950s, Ingrid Bergman was banned from making Hollywood films because of her admitted “Love Child” with Roberto Rossellini. Young was single at the time of her dilemma, but Gable was married. His wife, Ria Langham, had 2 young children whom Gable had become close with during the marriage, which would definitely have ended after so public a scandal. Young also had 2 sisters who were actors, and who would most likely have been affected because of her loss of influence in casting matters. She also had a mother to support.

    I am not suggesting that the needs of these tangential individuals trumped those of the unborn Judy Lewis; only that there was a whole lot for the pregnant, unmarried, 22 yr old Young to think about back then. This Choose Honesty scenario, for instance, doesn’t even take into account the many unrelated film workers who may also have been adversely affected by the end of Gable and Young’s careers.

    Contrary to your allusion to her as “Little Loretta Young,” she was in fact a major star at this time, and had been for some time. A popular Baby Star, she was now making 6-9 movies per year, and was soon to become a Freelance Star (that is, contracting outside the Studio System). Gable was older and married, and indeed should have known better, but he was certainly not pulling Star Rank on Young; nor was he taking advantage of a naive girl, since she, too, had been married before.

    So, a Public Admission would have led to at least mass unemployment, a broken marriage and abandonment of 2 children who regarded Gable as their father. Perhaps Young thought about all of this and didn’t like the idea of causing a train wreck. We know from her subsequent life that Abortion was personally repugnant and therefore out of the question. Even a passing knowledge of Hollywood Lore tells us that Abortion was somewhat routine among female Stars in the pre-Pill days, but Young wasn’t ethically willing to go that way. If she had, we would be talking about something else right now. . . .

    But she did have another choice– which seems to be something else which you do not approve of, for you ask: “Who could force you to just leave your child thinking she had no parents–??” but, in fact, this happens all the time in Adoption procedures. This is ultimately what Young chose to do, albeit in a preposterous “Let’s play dress-up” sort of way. I believe that, in desperation– and with the gestational clock ticking–she tried to arrange a tolerable solution to a very complicated problem, and ended up with a terrible mess. Unfortunately, it is a fact of life that, once pregnant, a Woman must decide to DO something– and from time immemorial, the Man has followed her lead in this matter.

    Other unwed Mothers who lay awake agonizing over what to do, and finally decide upon Adoption, are often called “Courageous.” Where Young went wrong was in wanting to have her cake and eat it, too. So, instead of “Courageous” we call her “Callous.” She tried to give her daughter away and then take her back again– with the added (but not necessarily wanted) Bonus of public acclaim for having taken in an abandoned waif . Possibly an out-and-out Adoption would have worked better for everyone involved (except maybe the book publishers), but then we would still have had Little Judy DOE out there wondering who her birth parents were, and why they gave her away.

    Even if both Young and Gable had agreed to admit the birth, and even married to legitimize their daughter, there would still have been a social stigma attached to Judy all her life, just simply because of who her parents were. With both Gable and Young ostracized from their profession, she would likely have ended up growning up in Europe. (Talk about the sins of the Father!) For all these reasons, to me, this case is a perfect example of what can happen when there simply IS no good ethical choice. It is just a sad, regrettable situation which cost all the principles more than any of us will ever know.

    • There is a right choice, neither of the people involved had the courage to make it, that’s all. You can’t excuse them for that. Judy Lewis was the innocent in this, and she was the one who was harmed. The two rich stars just made her pay for their mistakes. Don’t keep telling us how tough it would have been for Gable and Young. Sure it would have been tough, and so what? They had a child to think about first. Parents give up their lives for their children, but it was too much for these two to give up their Limos? We’re supposed to sympathize with that? First duty: your child. Gable whiffed at it, for selfish reasons. Calling this chivalry is a joke, and grotesque. He let a little girl live a lie.
      Rationalization: people give up kids for adoption all the time. Yes, and rich, well connected adults who give up their children for adoption are unethical, selfish, cruel sociopaths.
      Rationalization: At least Young re-adopted her, “It’s not the worst thing.” Yes, it’s better than aborting her too. Still cruel, still a lie.
      Rationalization:Judy Lewis would have been stigmatized as love child. Is there any doubt which fate she would have chosen? I don’t think so.

  2. Evangeline is completely correct. For EthicsAlarm to write seriously about Gable freely choosing his course of action is legalistic and unrealistic. You would have Young and Gable throw out the baby with the bath water. Honesty without judgement is mere holier-than-thou brutality.

    • You make no sense. Gable’s first duty was to his child, not to Young, who was perpetrating a monstrous act of cruelty. You could not be more wrong. There’s nothing legalistic about it. It’s common decency to take care of, to love and acknowledge your own child. Who doesn’t know and accept that?

          • People live in Society. If we insist upon judging their actions outside of that context, it makes us, and our ethics, irrelevant.

            Suppose for a moment that JUST Gable had called that Press Conference in 1936, against Young’s wishes, because THAT IS exactly how it would have gone down if he had chosen to behave as you want it.

            He would have said something like:

            “Loretta Young just gave birth to my illegitimate daughter and I want the whole world to know it. At this moment, my wife is in Court filing for a divorce, and I will be released from my contract with MGM immediately.”

            What would the Press’ first question have been?

            (Obviously. . . ) “Where are Ms Young and the child?”

            To which Gable would have replied:

            “I don’t know. When I told her what I was going to do, she disappeared and took the baby with her.”

            And that would have been all!

            Young was thoroughly MORTIFIED by what she had done, and the idea that her image would have been permanently tainted by this situation was unbearable for her. She would no doubt have taken up a new name, dyed her hair, left the country, and Loretta Young would never have been heard from again. As it turns out, she was correct about one point: People feed on lascivious scandal. After all, here we are still talking about this mess almost 80 years later!

            I am not defending either one of these people as parents. I am only trying to understand the environment which produced them. I happen to agree whole-heartedly with the consensus that Judy Lewis was sadly wronged. But I also know, in my heart, that my own parents were not perfect, and I have forgiven them long since. In turn, I hope that those whom I have wronged in this life, will likewise pardon me.

            Bottom line: I still contend that– given the times, and the circumstances–Gable was in a pretty tight spot. Young was driving the Bus all the way, and unless he wanted to be tagged a reprehensible “cad” by the Society he was living in, Gable had to keep quiet. By the way, today would be Clark Gable’s 112th Birthday!


            • I don’t deny he was in a tight spot–of his own making. The obligation of parents to care for their own children is not a modern concept—it predates The King by centuries. This isn’t ethical chauvinism, like condemning the Founding fathers for holing slaves. This is an absolute, and an ancient one.

              • Okay, so we disagree. From your perspective, Gable seems to be damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. But just accusing him really does nothing to advance the arguement, does it?

                Meanwhile, I can see his position in this tragedy as perhaps the saddest of all, because he is the one who arguably missed the most. The Mother and Daughter are, in the end– and after a tremendous struggle– reconciled. Young and Lewis each wrote a book and told her side of the story. Gable had no such comfort, catharsis or closure. He lived, and died first, with the silence, and the loss, and the sense of his own dishonor.

                Gable’s behavior, in my opinion, does reflect a chivalrous (if mistaken) determination to go along with Young’s plan, despite his own feelings. Burying one’s own feelings, out of consideration for the feelings of another, is sometimes considered a form of selflessness. Here it is attributed to Cruelty and Monsterism.

                How can we so vehemently assert that Gable did not “care” for his daughter? Or for the Mother? Perhaps his behavior does not meet our definition, but that does not mean that he did not care. It simply means that he did not show enough rage or indignation or money or lawyers– or something– to satisfy our judgement against him. In fact, I know from other sources that Gable was quite traumatized by this entire matter, so he hardly “whiffed at it.”

                Forgive the repitition, but as I said before, I do not personally believe that there was a clear ethical choice for Gable in this situation. I think he did exactly what any Man in similar circumstances would have done. He kept quiet. However, I am genuinely curious as to how you think he should have behaved, and please explain what you think the improved resulting outcome would have been.

                • He would have given the child he fathered his name, his love, and his support for as long as he lived. Maybe she would have been hit by a bus—that’s not to speculate on. That was his duty, and his daughter would have been happier and healthier as result, at least in her family stability.

                  Honestly—to paint Gable as a victim defies belief. He, unlike Judy, was in complete control of his life, chose the path that suited his needs. She never had such a choice.

                  • All of that would have been very nice if this had happened in 1996, rather than in 1936. It also may even have worked– if both parents had been of one mind. They obviously were not.

                    Young, under the Law, had charge of the Birth Certificate, so Gable had no say over what name Judy was given. Young told them the Father was to be: “Unknown.” So much for giving the child his name.

                    Whether or not he loved Judy, none of us can absolutely know. We know that she said she did not feel Gable’s love; but she also said that she could see her parents love for each other when she watched their movie “Call of the Wild.” This reassured Judy that at least she was conceived in love, and she stated that seeing this movie relieved a lot of her personal distress over her birth. Further, of Gable’s visit with his Daughter when she was 15 yrs old, Judy stated that he was quite tender with her, asked her questions about her friends and her life, and that he kissed her when they parted. Obviously, this is not an ideal relationship, but neither does it sound to me like a man who does not care anything about his child. In any event, Young had Judy in her home, in her custody, and Gable did not have access to her in order to demonstrate his ongoing affection.

                    Support is another matter entirely. Gable was a known cheapskate (“why,” is another story. . . .) but in the beginning, he did try to give Young cash which she refused to take. Both Stars were, of course, making good money, but also had monumental expenses, and there certainly would have been some way for Gable to have pitched in financially. Young later told Judy that she set up a veiled bank account for Gable to make cash deposits, but that he never followed through. I have been unable to verify the truth of this statement. Gable never spoke of the matter, nor did he mention the bank account to any reliable source.

                    So, the question remains: What should Gable have done? Publicized the affair against Young’s wishes? Sued his Daughter’s Mother in Court to have the Birth Certificate amended? Dragged his Daughter into a Media Driven custody battle? Pursued her across the Globe if Young went underground to avoid the sensational publicity? What? If one hasn’t the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to imagine that any Man would prefer this course of action over the one that Gable agreed to.

                    I believe that you are misrepresenting my position by implying that I see Gable as the “victim ” here. The fact that he seems pathetic to me does not mean that I think he is blameless. I just think that he was far from footloose and fancy-free through all of this. All parties to this disaster suffered, but Young was the one who concocted the scheme that created Judy’s identity confusion. Even Judy Lewis seemed to understand this.

  3. It is very difficult in 2013 to fully understand the mind of Loretta Young and Clark Gable in the context of the moral codes and taboos of 1935; add to that the controls and pressures of the old Hollywood studio bosses who litterally owned the film stars under contract to them. Add to that the deep seeded and strict Catholic beliefs to which Loretta Young clung—and add to that Loretta’s relationship with her own mother, who was jaded by disapointment with the men in her life and hence the need to control the situation without giving consideration to the the biological father—who in this case happened to be none other than Clark Gable.
    in the case of the journey of Judy Lewis, who bravely lived through this web of lies and deceptions and to arise from it, declaring her own legitimacy, I place the greater owness on Loretta Young and her contriving, controlling mother. Clark Gable was clearly caught in a” damed if you do and damned if you don’t” debacle.
    Every account of the affair, the pregnancy and birth concurs that Gable was concerned, wanted to do the right thing and assist in any way he could. He wanted to know and love his own child. Every account of Loretta reveals a young woman contolled by shame and attempting to cover it with high-browed piety. She pushed Gable away repeatedly. She lied to him when Judy was born and initially told him she had sent the infant away. Later, at a party she felt ashamed of herself for lying to him and told him the baby was in fact with her and he could see her. He made haste to do so!
    The account from Ms. Lewis’ book as was told by her mother is that Clark Gable “could not stop holding her and touching her.”
    Gable has been vilified for not offering financial assistance beyond the $400 he gave to Loretta when he first saw the infant Judy lying in a dresser drawer. I truly cannot say I blame Gable. He was pushed away, written out of, was not consulted in the short term or the long term plan, and Loretta chose to listen to her mother, Having given Gable no right or consideration, how dare she expect money. At some point he had to walk away—sad but true. Like it or not, the child was with her mother and there was nothing he could do about it.
    Did it hurt? Yes, i think he felt it all his life.
    The story is sad and cannot be reconciled, but Judy took responsibilty for her own healing. The result of telling her own story brings compassion and understanding those who read it.

  4. I think that Jack Marshall is in LaLa Land! And he looks old enough to know better! The absolute BEST thing that Clark Gable could have done for his daughter was NOT acknowledge her at that period in time. Not only would it have ruined both of their careers, but the stigma attached to Judy as an “illegitimate child” would have been horrific. Jack Marshall surely is old enough to remember what it was like in those days. I graduated in the mid 70’s and things were just beginning to change at that time. It would have been scandalous in earlier years. Judy would not have been invited to certain parties; certain men would not have dated her and she probably would have been expelled from the catholic school – through absolutely no fault of her own. You have to examine the situation in the context of the period.

    • Oh, that’s right, Kath, the best thing for rich and famous parents to do when they have illegitimate children is to lie and hide from the consequences. And of course, their children will be grateful that they never knew who their parents were, because the shame of the truth would have been so much worse.

      Wow. You are so far from comprehending basic principles of right, wrong, responsibility and honesty that you must have been born at the wrong end of a telescope.

      Stick to “E!”. This ethics stuff is way, way over your head, just as it was for Loretta and The King.

  5. Hmm, hey it is a flesh peddling business & holds more hypocrites than any other city! I was there when I was 19 years old, an innocent kid, just got out of the service & was hit up by so many freaks & perverts I was dismayed with life! But, it taught me a powerful lesson too, i.e., beware the fast talkers, things that are too good to be true, phony hypocrites & the Holy Roller types! It has been proven the devil lives in Hollyweird (my own nick name for Hollywood!)! I met so many old time stars, most of them living from hand to mouth & kindness from strangers & charities it was heartbreaking! I eventually ended up a rich man & owned many, many restaurants over 30 years plus, but I never forgot my PHONY HOLLYWEIRD experiences & my being called the “most beautiful boy in the world” & a cross between Tyrone Power (for the face) & Victor Mature (for the good muscular baby) & having a 11″ inch slong!

    Which, I found out, was what they “all” really were interested in! But, it’s the same any place, BIG c— rules & it’s been a great life & I don’t regret a thing, except perhaps I should have “relaxed” a little bit & accepted some of the “nice things” offered to me, over my 19 to my 27th year (when I left Hollyweird for San Francisco to get away from the freaks! Mistake #1, from the frying pan, into the fire!), if, I just relaxed! Haaa. It’s been a blast and a half though! You only go through life once & if you do it right, once is quite enough! Haaa.

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