JUDY LEWIS WILL NEVER FORGET THE day she met Clark Gable. The vivacious 15-year-old had just come home from school and walked into the Beverly Hills home she shared with her mother, actress Loretta Young—and there stood the man Hollywood called the King. “I remember looking up at him and how tall he was—truly larger than life,” she says. Remarkably, Gable seemed to be waiting to see her. After Young retired to another room, Gable sat beside Lewis on the sofa and asked about her ballet lessons, school work and boyfriends. Before leaving, he leaned over and kissed her forehead. “I remember the kiss,” says Lewis, “and his very warm smile.”
What Lewis would not discover for another eight years was something Hollywood insiders had long suspected: that she was the love child of Gable and Young. The glamorous pair had met on the set of their 1935 movie Call of the Wild and had a passionate affair that left the 22-year-old Loretta pregnant. But Gable was married (to Ria Langham, his second wife), and Young could not risk ruining her career by bearing a child out of wedlock. A devout Catholic, she never considered abortion, but instead dropped out of sight, heading for London under the guise of what she called a vacation. Returning home in secret to give birth to a daughter whose baptismal name was Mary Judith Clark, she left the child with a nurse for six months, then delivered her to an orphanage. In 1937, amid a flurry of gossip items announcing the “adoption,” Young brought Lewis home. She was 19 months old. Gable, for his part, fell hard for comedian Carole Lombard, whom he wed in 1939 after his divorce from Langham.
In her new memoir, Uncommon Knowledge (Pocket Books), Lewis, 58, a former actress who is now a psychotherapist, has written a heartbreaking account of what it was like growing up “adopted” in her biological mother’s home. Not merely a gossipy tell-all, the book is also an account of a painful search for identity in a family whose relationships, Lewis claims, were rooted in denial and deception. To this day, Loretta Young, 81, dismisses Lewis’s account of her parentage—without categorically denying it—as “a very romantic thought that many wish to believe. As I have in the past, I have chosen not to give it further credence.” Gable’s legitimate child, John Clark Gable, 34, refuses to comment as well. Says Lewis: “When you’re not accepted by your parent, it’s very difficult. Lies and secrets are not only destructive, they’re cruel.”
Over coffee at a hotel not far from her Los Angeles condominium, Lewis fights back tears as she remembers the father she never really knew. Born in a secluded house in Venice, Calif., Lewis says she was told by her mother many years later—in a moment of revelation that Young will not now discuss—that Gable came by to visit the baby, who was still sleeping in a bureau drawer. “The least you can do is buy her a decent bed,” he reportedly-told Young, handing her four $100 bills. Young told Lewis she set up a bank account for Judy in San Francisco in the hope that Gable might help support her, but after that first visit he never responded. “I ask myself why he didn’t leave me something. Forget money—even just a letter,” Lewis says sadly. “It leaves me in the dark.”
After bringing Judy home in 1937, Young, says Lewis, proved to be an emotionally distant mother who was preoccupied with her career and left her daughter to be raised by nannies. An elegant beauty, Young married advertising executive Tom Lewis in 1940, and for a brief time Judy’s life was happy. Her stepfather showered her with books, ballet slippers—and the attention she craved. But after Young gave birth to sons Chris, now 49, and Peter, 48, Lewis lost interest in her, and Judy felt like an outsider.
She found scant solace elsewhere. Having inherited her father’s prominent ears, Judy was leased by school-males, who called her Dumbo. Young—who ordered nannies to cover her baby’s ears with bonnets—had Judy undergo cosmetic surgery at 7. “My mother was there the whole time and I had her all to myself,” she says. “That made the pain worth it.”
By the time Judy reached her teens, her relationship with her parents had deteriorated. Her stepfather, a heavy drinker, had, she says, taken to eavesdropping on her phone conversations and rummaging through her room. Young was often away—turning out movies like The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. But even at a distance she managed to impose a strict curfew on her daughter.
Meantime, though most of Judy’s friends had heard from their famous parents that Gable was her father, nobody told her. Says producer Jack Haley Jr., Judy’s first high school sweetheart: “I remember how eerie it was watching Clark Gable movies with Judy. You wanted to give her a nudge and say, ‘Hey, that’s your dad.”
After high school, Young shipped Judy off to a Catholic finishing school, ignoring her plea to be allowed to study philosophy at the University of Southern California. Judy left after a year, worked briefly as a secretary for her mother, then tried her hand as an actress in New York City. She also met and fell in love with TV director Joe Tinney, but a month before their wedding, in 1958, got cold feet, troubled that she knew nothing about her biological parents. “Well,” Tinney blurted, “I know that your father is Clark Gable.” Lewis was stunned. “Joe was trying to say, I know who you are, and it’s fine.’ Well, it wasn’t. It was a Pandora’s box that flew open and never shut again.”
Instinct told her that Tinney was speaking the truth, but Lewis didn’t have the courage to confront Loretta. After Lewis and Tinney married and settled in Connecticut, she remained fearful of questioning her mother. When Gable died of a heart attack in 1960—without acknowledging Judy as his daughter—Lewis felt a profound sense of loss.
Finally, on Labor Day weekend in 1966, Lewis flew to Los Angeles to wrest a confession from her mother. Loretta appeared pale and shaky that night in anticipation of the confrontation, says Lewis, and later became sick to her stomach. After helping her wash up, Lewis asked point-blank who her father was. Much to her surprise, Loretta not only confirmed that it was Gable but talked expansively about their affair and the lengths she had gone to to hide her pregnancy Judy fought to keep her emotions in check. “I couldn’t allow them to get in the way,” she says. “I’d learned from childhood I had access to my mother only for brief moments. I knew I had one shot.”
Judy was right; after that night’s revelation, her mother—who was divorced from Tom Lewis in 1969—never publicly admitted that Gable was Judy’s true father. She became increasingly distant. Judy’s own marriage, which produced a daughter, Maria, foundered in 1972. Having acted on Broadway and in the daytime TV serial The Secret Storm during the ’60s, Lewis later produced the soap Texas and wrote for Search for Tomorrow. In 1985, encouraged by her therapist, Lewis enrolled at Antioch University and earned a B.A. and then an M.A. in clinical psychology.
On Mother’s Day 1986, Judy tried one more time to close the rift with her mother. When Young lost her temper and falsely accused Judy of writing a tell-all book, however, Lewis finally became furiously angry. “All the years of repressed emotions, of hurt and abandonment, came pouring out,” she says. “I told my mom that all I wanted was to be accepted and loved—and if she couldn’t do that, why didn’t she give me to a family that could have?” Loretta, furious, ordered her daughter to leave the house and never return.
Three years later, Lewis began writing Uncommon Knowledge, seeking out former nannies and childhood friends, whose recollections helped her piece together her history Judy also wanted to spare Maria, now 34, and her two grandchildren from the uncertainty she had known. Half-brother Chris, a TV producer—his father died in 1988—is ambivalent. “Personally,” he says, “I would not have hurt my mother, no matter how important it was to me.”
Currently working as a family counselor in Los Angeles, Lewis is engaged to Belgian businessman Andre Willieme, whom she describes as “very supportive.” But nothing can erase the pain of never knowing her father. “If I could talk to him now.” she says sadly, “I’d say, ‘Where were you when I needed you? Why did you stay away?’ Then, of course, I’d tell him how much I missed him.”
KRISTINA JOHNSON in Los Angeles