Tribute to Loretta Young
By Sewart Wiener
She didn't want to be interviewed. No, indeed. "I don't have anything to say," Loretta Young told me on the phone that fall afternoon in 1995. "I don't have anything to promote and I just want to be left alone." She paused. "But," she added, polishing off the kindest and gentlest turndown we've ever experienced, "you are so sweet to ask."
Say this for us: We're persistent. For one thing, we're not used to being turned down. To us, being on the cover of Palm Springs Life is a rite of passage when celebrities move to the desert. People who wouldn't think of posing for the cover of anybody's magazine - we're thinking Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson as examples - often ended up on ours. Undaunted, therefore, we sent Miss Young flowers, thanking her for her time and hoping she'd reconsider after she got settled in.
Bingo. Turns out that even though Loretta had nothing to promote, it just so happened that her son and his then-wife Linda did. Loretta had given the couple the rights to sell the videos of her famed TV series and were packaging it for sale. Happy confluence of interests, therefore, put Miss Young on our cover on December 1995 in a portrait done expressly for us by the famed Greg Gorman.
Granting us exclusive access to her shoeboxes filled with classic photos and hours of time with the tape recorder running, the following interview and story came to be. It would turn out to be her last press interview - Loretta Young refused every subsequent request, often sending them my way to break the bad news.
Our talks ranged all over the map from her career to her religious beliefs. That's what she found so astonishing when the article was printed, remarking several times about my willingness to let her ventilate about her religion. To me it was all part and parcel of her remarkable personality, soaring from moments of spirituality, then suddenly landing in more earth-bound matters. It revealed the ironies in the life of this durable star, a pampered creation of the Hollywood glamour machine who genuinely cared about people and their lot in life. "I'm ready to go at anytime," she used to brag. "I've made my peace with it all."
Miss Young passed away at age 87 on Saturday, August 12, 2000.
The Interview by Stewart Weiner
It was the Saturday edition of the New York Times crossword puzzle, the day that the editor really tortures us players with obscure clues. He probably thought he had us on 2-Down: Seven letters. "Young, of A Night to Remember."
Well, duh. The answer, of course, was Loretta Young, the chiseled-cheeked leading lady who appeared in nearly 100 movies made from 1927 to 1953. Loretta Young, the twirling-through-the-double-doors host of one of TV's most enduring dramatic anthology series. Loretta Young, the very embodiment of Hollywood elegance and flawless beauty.
Loretta Young, now of Palm Springs, California.
Sitting in her desert home, in her large circular living room decorated in comfy white leather, a visitor tells Miss Young of her newfound fame as a crossword puzzle clue. Does she even remember this film A Night to Remember? "Oh yes," she says in that deep, cultured voice. "That was a terrifically terrible movie. Really dumb."
That's the way Miss Loretta is, you see. Blunt. No-nonsense. So while one half expects that Miss Young will greet guests by swinging open the doors of her desert residence, draped head-to-toe in evening clothes, the actual reality is considerably more sensible and down-to-earth. The day Palm Springs Life visited, for example, Miss Young was dressed in a simple roomy caftan, her own creation.
Loretta Young has moved to the desert as Mrs. Jean Louis, for Loretta has married a fellow Hollywood legend, the remarkable Louis, known as dressmaker to the stars. ("Harry Cohn [the fabled tyrant of Columbia Pictures] thought more of Jean than he did of Rita Hayworth!," Loretta says, and no wonder - Louis did the clothes for Gilda along with most of Kim Novak's and Judy Holliday's movies, winning the Oscar for The Solid Gold Cadillac.)
Loretta and Jean, who originally met in Cohn's office, are longtime friends. They were married after Jean became a widower with the death of his beloved wife Maggie.
Though it's obvious they are quite devoted, Loretta kids that she and Jean were married as much to settle the confusion about her last name as any other reason. ("In the eyes of the Church," Loretta, a devout Roman Catholic, says, "I was still known as Mrs. Lewis because I was still married to Thomas Lewis [a Hollywood producer]. Now I'm Mrs. Loo-ee. It cuts down on the confusion with the servants."
Jean and Loretta have become big fans of the desert, relishing the privacy and nonchalance Palm Springs reserves for its famous residents. And famous indeed is Miss Young. Her listing in The Film Encyclopedia runs on for 73 lines and across two pages. Most bios recount her life thus: She was born Gretchen Michaela Young on January 6, 1913 in Salt Lake City and after her parents separated, moved with her family to Hollywood.
There, with some financial help from the local bishop, Mama Gladys Belzer, who eventually became the interior designer to such Hollywood notables as John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, opened a boardinghouse. That may leave the wrong impression, though, for apparently this was no ordinary rooming house. No, this one had two upstairs maids, a gardener and Lord only knows how much other help on hand. The stunning Gretchen and her two beautiful sisters, Polly Ann and Elizabeth, reared in the proper convent manner, were soon discovered by Hollywood; Gretchen had her name changed by First National Studio and the rest is film history.
She successfully moved from silents to the talkies, and, though often used merely for decoration, eventually blossomed into a first-rate actress, receiving Oscar® nominations for Come to the Stable and The Farmer's Daughter. She won in 1948 for the latter; then moved into TV, was a smash hit in the ratings, won three Emmys and then retired gracefully.
Longtime friends differentiate between Loretta Young, the glamorous movie star, and Gretchen Young, the gal from Salt Lake. So does Loretta. Recalls her dear friend Duny Cashion, "One night she said to me, 'Let's go out and I'll be Loretta.' She likes to put on that persona occasionally. Most of the time, though, she's just Gretchen."
As you can see by the following interview, it is this Gretchen who's moved to the desert.
The photographer told us that you wanted to do your own hair for the cover shoot.
I told Greg [Greg Gorman, the formidable photographer who shot the cover] ten times that I'd put on my own makeup and do my own hair. I always have. You see I had to. My first hairdresser in the movies when I was under contract, was an alcoholic. And I didn't want the studio to fire her; I felt sorry for her. So I learned to do my own hair.
I had this hairdresser for 11 years; she was a darling woman but she was an alcoholic and she'd come stoned to the studio every day. Fortunately I had a dressing room big enough that it had a couch and so she'd sleep it off, and then around 12 she'd start wandering around. I always made excuses for her but, of course, everybody knew what was going on. But I guess I looked all right and so they didn't care.
So I wanted to do my own hair for the cover of Palm Springs Life. And my own makeup. I mean, what are you going to do with my face? I mean, it's there. You can't change it any. Well, Greg went through such trouble to find this exact right makeup man and, really, it's not worth it. But, anyway...This poor young makeup man was in the most terrible spot. His name was Chris and finally, about two-thirds the way through, I said to him, "Chris, listen to me. You're gifted with patience; you're dealing so well with an impossible situation: An older woman who knows exactly, she thinks, what she wants. And, really, I don't know any more about it than you do. So just plough ahead, you're doing a wonderful job." And I think the boy did great.
George Hurrell did the last sitting of me [in 1977] and he worked very hard and so did I. But he needn't have bothered; when he sent it out to be retouched, they just ironed everything out. I mean, it's all right. But that's why I much prefer the photograph of me with the Rolls Royce.
What made you decide to move from Beverly Hills to Palm Springs?
We got here originally because my son and daughter-in-law, Christopher and Linda Lewis, have a house here.
For years, you know, I would spend a great deal of time with Jean when he and Maggie were married, and they had a place in Santa Barbara. Really, we were inseparable. I don't know how Maggie put up with my always hanging around her husband, but she did. Well, they had a beautiful home in Santa Barbara, and I would visit them all the time.
After Maggie died in 1989, Jean stayed on in Santa Barbara, and I would visit before we were married. But Santa Barbara is damp and it's cold, and his home, Bonnymeade, was only about a half block from the water and Jean wasn't happy there with all of the memories of Maggie everywhere.
So I said to him, "Let's go down to the desert and visit the kids." He's known them for years. We were supposed to stay a few days and ended up staying for five weeks. In that time Jean fell in love with the desert. Well, who wouldn't after Santa Barbara, where the sun doesn't shine very much? He kept saying, "Oh, it's so beautiful here," and one day I asked him if he'd like to move here and he said yes.
How did you decide where to buy a house?
We looked around The Old Movie Colony and found one. When I called my children, they came over. They fell in love with it, with the garden especially. But finally my daughter-in-law, the wise one of the family, mentioned that we ought to have it looked over before we buy it. Well, by the time this inspector got through with all of the changes that needed to be made, I had to tell him, "We don't want to build a house; we want to buy a house." It would have taken a good year to fix up. So we gave up and became discouraged for a few weeks.
How did you find this house then?
I found a real estate lady from the telephone book and she drove us all around and we looked at a lot of homes. We drove by this one and we liked it. Now, with most of the houses that we walked into, Jean had no expression. And he'd never talk about it. When we came in here, however, he smiled. So this is the house we bought.
What is your life like here?
We came here for the easy living that both of us look for now. Palm Springs moves at half the pace of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is just too fast for me anymore. The traffic alone...The signals are too short. Everything about it tires me. I get tired just living there. Of course Jean discovered all this ten years before I did. Before Maggie died, he kept saying, "If I never have to go to another big party again, I'll be happy."
Your drives change. If you've had a successful business life, you know that's not the answer. It helps and gives you comfort but it certainly is not where the well of happiness springs from. So then you move into another, more spiritual life, and if you're smart, you realize that Somebody Else is running the show and that Somebody is very, very smart and doesn't make mistakes.
Are you bored with the slower pace?
I was afraid that there might be a lack of interesting things to do down here. But I was wrong. You can find any kind of life you want in Palm Springs. We found the kind we like.
Many people move here from Hollywood and find pet charities. Are you planning any kind of activity like that?
I'm too tired for most of it. And I think it's because I've been there, done that, loved it.
We've seen photos of you doing charity work in Los Angeles. You were a tireless worker. We're betting you change your mind.
One of the wonderful things about being a woman is that it is my privilege to change my mind. I learned a long time ago from Bishop Fulton Sheen, never say never about anything. Except sin, of course, and even then you won't be able to keep your word because you're human and we're all sinners. But I've learned never to say never. And yes, there's nothing wrong with changing your attitude. That just means you're growing a little bit.
Let's talk about the mundane things. Where do you shop here in town?
I don't shop. I haven't shopped in years.
You don't buy groceries?
I don't. Dorian [the housekeeper] shops.
You don't even call up on the phone and order it for delivery?
I wouldn't even know what to ask for. I'm not a cook. My mother was a marvelous cook. Maggie was a marvelous cook. All my sisters are great cooks. But, I'm sorry, I don't even know where the kitchen is. When I was four years old, I was bragging that I was going to be a movie star. Cooking didn't have much to do with that.
Are you a gourmet?
I'm not at all touchy about what I eat. I'm not too crazy about heady meat, but if I do have a steak, I want it pink. I don't want it burned to a crisp. I love fish. I love Chinese food, Japanese food. I adore Moroccan food, Mexican food. In fact, there's isn't any food I don't like.
Do you and Jean eat out regularly?
Certainly. I've been to Le Vallauris; Paul [Bruggemans] is a dear friend of Jean's before he was even in the business. There's a place here, Riccio's, that people take us to. And there's a place Jean went to that he says is wonderful. English food. Now, normally I don't think of English food as being too good. But Lyons Jean liked. Kobe here is supposed to be good, too. If you sit at the bar.
I like all fish. Catholic people always say they don't like fish because we had to eat fish every Friday. That's ridiculous. You didn't have to eat fish.
How often do you eat out?
I prefer to eat at home and have people in.
Are you athletic? Play golf or tennis?
Oh...no. Listen, I wouldn't walk across this room if you'd carry me.
Well, I'll tell you, I've never learned how. I've had swimming pools in my backyard since I was 15 and I've never used any of them.
You say you're a night owl, staying up late and sleeping late. What do you do at night?
I love to sew. That's my hobby. I work on four or five things at once. I make these caftans for all of my friends.
Do you watch TV?
We start watching and then give up on TV a great deal.
Do you read? As Vanity Fair would say, what's on your night stand?
I do not read novels. I'm sorry to say I don't read too many newspapers, either.
I was in the hospital one time and was very ill and when I came out of it, I complained to my doctor that I was so depressed. That's not like me. That's not my disposition, never has been. I was born easy and grew up easy.
The doctor asked me what I did in the morning. I told him I was all right but then I'd have breakfast and read the paper. He said, "Don't read newspapers. All you get is bad news. All of it is bad news." And do you know, I was 42 at the time, I'm 82 now, that was 40 years ago and I haven't read one since. I'll buy your magazine because I'm on the cover.
I remember the pictures of Dinah Shore on the covers of Palm Springs Life. I loved Dinah, I thought she was a darling woman. Big loss. She was warm and kind to everybody. I'll never understand why she felt she had to keep that serious a matter [Ms. Shore succumbed to cancer in 1994] to herself because there were so many people who could have given her comfort. I have a feeling that it was another part of her innate kindness; she didn't want to burden people with her problems.
Who are your buddies out here in the desert?
My husband is my best buddy. Who do we hang out with? We don't hang out. We hang out at home. We have company three or four nights a week.
One of the reasons why we like it here in Palm Springs is because we don't have to hang out with anybody. That entails a responsibility and an obligation. I have never been a group person, anyway. In school, what little school I went to, I was never with a clique. Same thing at the studios; I was never in a clique. If I found somebody who did their job well, I kept them, but it wasn't a clique. In the nine years of TV, we made only two personnel changes. I was fortunate enough to get all top people to begin with because TV was just coming in. Everybody including the cameramen had won Oscars; they were people who wanted to try a new medium.
You brought to TV a sense of movie-making.
Well, you see, I never knew anything different. They said at the beginning, "We'll shoot you with three cameras." I said that might be fun for Lucy and comedy, but I prefer to shoot with one. We'd rehearse for two days and shoot three days. One time they told me we'd have to have an audience. I said I wasn't a comedian. It didn't make sense for there to be an audience there.
One time NBC put in a laugh track without my knowledge. But mostly the network was very kind to us because I was the first Academy Award-winning actress to go into TV and they said OK to everything.
Didn't you run into some controversy toward the end of the show's run?
I always said I would discuss both taste and policy on any script. I mean I knew my taste was better than theirs because, as I told them, I saw Mary Martin on the air last Sunday and she was wearing a little bikini and I wouldn't do that. And what are your policies, I asked? No blood and gore, I understood that. The six years I was with NBC, they gave me a certain amount of money, I gave them a finished script and they were wonderful to work with.
Then, however, we had a terrible disagreement because they asked me not to make certain pictures about certain subjects dear to my heart.
They said they were getting all these letters: Get that religious nut off the air! There were organized cells, Communist letter-writing cells who could put 125 letters on anybody's desk in 24 hours.
I was used to it from pictures. The more you do, the more mail you get. I told NBC that I was just voted the most important female star on TV and so I got a lot more mail now. But I wasn't about to change my policy, I told them, "I'm going to do the stories I want to do." And they'd say, "Well the public wants this or that." And I always said, "If you knew what the public really wanted, you'd be billionaires, all of you."
So they did cancel me and within 24 hours I was picked up by another network and went on joyously for another two years.
Give us your impression of other great movie people of your era. Like Orson Welles.
Oh, I had such a crush on him. And one time I did a picture with him and every time he'd come over to talk to me, I'd just beam and smile from ear to ear. The only problem was that it would ruin my makeup. And finally I had to ask him to only talk to me from behind because I was not about to go through that four-hour makeup session twice in a day.
You worked with Henry Fonda in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.
He was a good actor. Charming man.
You played a deaf person in that. Any special preparation?
Yes, I had about a week's association with a deaf woman and she stayed at the house, but that was all. I just watched her. That's all you can do, really. Maybe we missed too much. The woman I studied lip-read all the time. She also signed but we didn't use it in the picture.
I'll tell you in pictures like that they were much more concerned with the emotion rather than the technicalities.
Were there any roles you wanted that you didn't get?
Yes, two. Only two that I ever tested for. One was called Berkeley Square with Leslie Howard and the reason I wanted to be in that was that I had this terrible crush on Leslie Howard and wanted to work with him. Heather Angel got it instead and the picture was not very successful, not because of the performances but because it was a little ahead of its time. People were not that much into the spiritual world then. So when it came out I wasn't too upset.
But the other part I missed was Rebecca. I knew I was perfect for it and Alfred Hitchcock was the director and David Selznick and they were both dear friends and I agreed to test for the part. I remember reading one memo that David had sent where he wrote, "We can't deglamorize Loretta enough," and I didn't get the part, Joan Fontaine did. I was just sick, I couldn't believe it. I was also embarrassed. I didn't even call David.
Then I saw the final movie at Bette Davis' house. And Joan Fontaine was so perfect in the part and I got over it. Because she was it, they didn't have to do one thing. She had a quality about her. Same quality as in Jane Eyre, born in her, she just was it. I would not have been as good as she was.
What do you think of the films you were in?
I did more than 98 pictures and you're lucky to get 8 or 10 that are good. I loved doing Come to the Stable. I loved Rachel and The Stranger. I also loved doing a picture White Parade, about nurses. I loved doing Man's Castle with Spencer Tracy. I was madly in love with him, but before I knew he was married. It took two years to break it up.
What is it about making a movie together that makes everybody fall in love with each other?
Well, first of all, everybody puts his and her best foot forward. You only want them to see your best looks. You only want to let him see your best humor and your best condition and your best everything. And everybody treats you as if you're a king or a queen and it seems so normal, perfectly normal. The parts are written that way; you look longingly and she's in love. I don't know how these young people do these things today.
Do you go to movies today?
Not if I can help it.
What's the last movie?
In a movie theater? Dances With Wolves.
Did you like that?
Loved it. I thought it was wonderful. Another movie we saw the other night at home on video Jean and I really loved, stayed up until quarter of one to finish it: Legends of the Fall. The young man in that movie, Brad Pitt, is just marvelous and so is the girl [Julia Ormond]. The scene when he's in jail and she's already married, and they didn't have to say a word. They were wonderful.
Are there any actresses you see coming up today who remind you of yourself?
No. They're all better than I was. We had our favorites in our period, too. Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman were the two best actresses. They were both so honest, full of integrity, both of them. Both of them so vulnerable.
I don't I think you'll ever see a better performance on film than Bette Davis in The Little Foxes or Now, Voyager. Bette really really really was talented. Had the energy of a bull. And there wasn't a mean bone in her body.
Same with Ingrid.
Were you close with Miss Bergman?
We had met at parties but Ingrid and I never got a chance to see each other. We were so busy being Ingrid Bergman and Loretta Young that we didn't get a chance to visit with each other. But one day while Jean and Maggie and I were at her house outside of Paris, she said to me, "I want to ask you something, and it's personal." I said. "So?"
We were in the garden, just the two of us. And she said, "Do you really believe that there is anything after this life?" And I said, "Oh, I'll say. That's why to me every single solitary moment is so important. What I do here is going to decide whether I go to heaven or hell. And when I was 16 I decided I was not going to go to hell. And you can decide that. You may boo-boo 10 times a day. That's why we have confession. As long as you're sincere and trying to break the habits." Well we had a heartfelt discussion and I said I was preparing for the afterlife every day.
What did she say to that?
She said, "That's interesting because I don't believe in the hereafter and that's why every moment of the day is so important to me. I want to make them count." Now we both came up with the same procedure but with a different end.
I felt that she probably knew then that she had cancer but just wasn't admitting it. Because all of the time I knew her before she had never discussed the hereafter. She did say to me that she thought it was more immoral to continue to live with a man she was no longer in love with than it was to have a child with a man out of wedlock. That's what she believed. Therefore for her it was right.
She seemed to downplay her Hollywood glamour.
One day she said, "I saw you at Bergdorf Goodman and you had the whole place in an uproar. When I walk in there nobody pays one bit of attention to me."
I said, "Well first of all, Ingrid, you don't dress up like a movie star. You haven't got the full-length sable fur coat on and the sable hat to match and you don't walk in and you don't Hello everybody. You slip in the back door with a little old trench coat on and you don't raise your voice.
"If you want the movie star attention, you have to act like a movie star." About two weeks later she called me on the phone and said, "Well today I made it. They knew who I was today," and she always chose Bergdorf Goodman because they were snooty in there, the salespeople were kind of snooty.
Who are your favorite actresses today?
My favorite actresses now are Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand. I think Barbra is the biggest all-around talent because her voice, her attitude, her acting and she's been tested.
A lot of the other young ones I can't tell apart. All the blondes I can't tell apart.
Any interest in being in a movie or TV show today?
If a great script came along. I did a great TV show in 1986, Christmas Eve.
Speaking of that, do you have a Christmas message for our readers?
Yes I do have a real message and it is simply that Christmas is Christ's birthday. That's what it means to me. And I can't think of it any other way.
I love it because of that. I love Christ's birthday.