Liz Smith: Celebrating Loretta Young

“THERE IS no personal achievement in being born beautiful.”

SO SAID Loretta Young. She was correct, but it was pretty easy for her to say. Loretta was born a beauty in 1913, and remained a beauty till her dying day in August of 2000.

This year marks what would have been Loretta’s 100th birthday, and the star is being celebrated with a variety of galas, screenings and tributes.

Tomorrow, the Hollywood Museum and the Hollywood Reporter are hosting “Loretta Young: Hollywood Legend: 100 Years of Glamour and Grace.” There will be cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, memorabilia and plenty of fabulous photos of this dazzling creature, who began her career in silent films, and went straight on through to the advent of television (those fabled sweeping entrances on her long-running series) and beyond.

Her “The Loretta Young Show” will be released on DVD, via Timeless Media, and the American Film Institute honors Miss Young with a Centennial Retrospective at the Silver Theater later this year. And on January 15th there will be a “Memories of Loretta” dinner at Melvyn’s Restaurant in Hollywood, hosted by Loretta’s son and her daughter-in-law, with a Q&A to follow. Linda Lewis, Loretta’s daughter-in-law, seems to be one of the driving forces behind all this.

Turner Classic Movies devotes every Wednesday this month to Loretta, and the scope of her career is truly staggering. (Marlo Thomas provides the commentary to TCM’s tribute, and it one of the most touching salutes the network has ever presented. Marlo is actually Loretta’s goddaughter!)

I always felt Loretta got a bad rap, career-wise. Yes, she was a star, and yes she won an Oscar for “The Farmer’s Daughter” in 1949. But her extraordinary beauty was a distraction, and so was her much-publicized religiosity — she was a staunch Catholic.

Supposedly, Loretta installed a “swear box” on her movie sets. If anybody cursed they had to donate a dollar, which later would be put to some good use. However, this story may be apocryphal, as it has been linked to other stars as well. Loretta just laughed about it and said it was only for “taking the Lord’s name in vain.”

In any case, as the years rolled on, the public seemed to think Loretta lived like a nun, a sanctimonious, albeit gorgeous, glamorous nun. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, she famously bore Clark Gable’s child early in her career. She was unmarried, and later “adopted” her own child, Judy.

The idea of abortion was totally out of the question. (This tale was widely known, to everybody but Judy, who only found out well into adulthood.) And Loretta herself was not at all a dull creature, pressing her religion on others. She was charming, amusing and surprisingly down-to-earth. And she was a movie queen. Religious or not, that aspect of her life was always there. She liked beautiful clothes, dazzling jewels and her position as a star.

LORETTA PLAYED a wide variety of roles in her long career, including some fairly risqué ladies back in the late 1920s and ‘30s. But as she grew more popular, and took more control of her career, there were certain situations in which she simply wouldn’t place herself. She played strong women who didn’t compromise — independent, interested in men, but nobody’s fool. (She actually only appeared as a nun once, onscreen, in “Come to the Stable” with Celeste Holm.) She was an intelligent presence, even when cast as a victim.

Two of her very best performances were in “Cause for Alarm!” — as a woman who thinks she will be accused of murdering her husband — and in “The Stranger” with Orson Welles. In that one, she was unwittingly wed to a Nazi war criminal.

This latter film contains one of my favorite movie moments. After an hour of mounting tension, in which Loretta is slowly made aware of her husband’s past, he finally, furiously admits all. Loretta, confronts him: “Kill me. Go ahead. I want you to kill me. I couldn’t bear living knowing what I’ve been to you. But when you do it, don’t use your hands. Use this!” as she thrusts a fireplace poker at him. Melodramatic? For sure. But mighty powerful.

I’M GLAD Loretta Young is receiving all these tributes and attention. Hers was an impressive career and a fascinating life. She was only human, flawed and contradictory, but she was almost always true to herself and her principles. And it showed. She was a witty, frank, and fun companion.

Not long before her death in 1999, Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue ran a full-page photo of Loretta, as she was at 80-something. Well lit and minimally retouched Loretta was exquisite. I recall that photo being a subject of admiring remarks for weeks. And nobody said, typically, “Well, of course, she’s had everything done!” It was simply accepted that Loretta Young’s outside matched the inside. She had taken good care of herself, body and soul.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 1/7/13

One comment so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    The tribute from her Goddaughter Marlo Thomas to Loretta Young was truly touching. She was indeed a beautiful shining star and was a class act. TCM does a remarked job with their tribute. We salute this shining star now in her heavenly surroundings wrapped in the arms of the angels. Once again our “Dame of Dish” Liz Smith brava for a remarkable tribute today.