Saturday, December 31, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Passing of -- Judy Lewis?

Judy Lewis died a few weeks ago at the age of 76.  Her death prompts a question I’ll get to in a moment.
You probably never heard of Judy Lewis.
She was a lovely young woman, and lovely as she aged.   

She had an off-and-on television acting career, her longest-lasting role being on the soap opera The Secret Storm in the late 60’s and early 70’s.  She had small roles in other series and occasionally guest-starred on others.  After leaving acting, she got a master’s degree in clinical psychology.  She became a licensed family and child counselor and eventually practiced as a psychotherapist specializing in foster care and marriage therapy. 
I don’t know whether she was a good actress, counselor, or psychotherapist.   I don’t recall ever having seen her perform. 
But I do know this:
Her mother was Loretta Young.

And her father was Clark Gable.

Which is more than Judy knew until she was 23.

Gable, 33, was married to someone.  Young was very young (22), and unmarried, and Catholic.  They were co-starring in “The Call of the Wild.”  Gable was the biggest star in Hollywood, and Young was already a star in her own right.  Both among the most beautiful people in the world.   

Clark Gable and Loretta Young in "Call of the Wild" (1935)
Abortion was out of the question for the (sometimes) devout and very public Catholic Loretta. 

But also out of the question for each of them and for Twentieth Century (this was the last film made at that studio before the merger with Fox) – in those days – was the ruination of both of their careers.   So here’s what happened:

Loretta traveled to Europe to hide the pregnancy.  She returned to California to give birth to Judy, who was immediately placed in a series of homes.  Then Loretta announced that she had fallen in love with an orphaned child and was going to “adopt” her – nineteenth months later.   Loretta later married producer Tom Lewis and Judy took that name. 

The little girl had very large ears.  To dampen speculation that Gable was Judy’s pop, Loretta had the child undergo an operation when she was seven to bring them closer to her head. 
Loretta frequently dressed little Judy in bonnets
to hide her Gable-like ears
She needn’t have bothered.  The cirumstances of Judy’s birth were an open secret in Hollywood.  But Loretta never told Judy, nor did anyone else.  Gable never acknowledged her (although he met her once when she was 15, spoke to her briefly, and kissed her on the forehead without admitting a thing) and never had another child until a son born after he died.  Judy didn’t discover the truth until her fiance told her when she was 23.   But Loretta refused to admit her father's identity until eight years later.  When Judy confronted her with a demand for the truth – when she was 31 -- Loretta threw up, asking tearfully how she could admit to a mortal sin.
As you might imagine, this was very traumatic to the young adult Judy.  She grew up  not knowing who her parents were, and worse, falsely believing they were some unknown couple.  She wrote a book about it called Uncommon Knowledge.  She became estranged from Loretta.  Loretta died in 2000 and in a posthumously published autobiography finally admitted that Gable was Judy’s father.
Now, as it turned out, Judy did all right for herself; no telling what it would have been like – in those days – had the truth been publicly acknowledged. 
But Judy Lewis’s story prompts a question.
One doesn’t have to approve of our times’ casual acceptance of out-of-wedlock births  to wonder which is better:   To have grown up like Judy Lewis in a time when the circumstances of her birth were regarded as scandalous, or to grow up knowing one’s parents, whether married or not, together or not?   To grow up the victim of a series of lies to protect public morality, or to redefine morality in a way that lets a child grow up without those lies?
I guess that’s two questions.
I’m not going to thrash you with my views on the sexual revolution.  OK, I’ll thrash you with them enough to say I don’t think it was a good thing.  Surely, though, a morality or a religious belief (however extreme or misguided) that results in what happened to Judy Lewis is in need of some adjustment.
Happy New Year to you all, and Judy Lewis, RIP.
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