The death of Judy Lewis at 76 tolls a very distinctive bell in Hollywood history: She is probably the last surviving love child of the now faintly illuminated figures who made up the Hollywood star system.
That system simply doesn’t boast a duo of scandalous lovers any bigger in acclaim, popularity, Oscar recognition and sensual wattage than her wayward parents, Clark Gable and Loretta Young.
A Hollywood hierarchy that was suspicious of female star power dubbed Young “the steel butterfly,” and her treatment of her illegitimate daughter, judge it though we may, perfectly embodies that contradiction. So devout a Roman Catholic (she’d win her Oscar for playing a nun) that Joan Crawford once mocked her for it, she was too career-oriented to admit to motherhood, yet too tenderhearted to take the then drastic step of abortion, and would instead find complex dodges to see that the child was cared for.
She would not confess to mothering Joan until a confrontation in 1966.
When Young and Gable met on the set of “The Call of the Wild” in remote northern Washington state, he was fresh from an Oscar win for “It Happened One Night.” His bare-chested scene in the film was such a style-setter in the otherwise stodgy Thirties that years later, he apologized, “I didn’t know what I was doing to the undershirt people.”
Young had come out of silent pictures as what film historian Jeanine Basinger calls “a pretty young thing,” but would go on to be one actress "who outsmarted the star machine." Young was said to be “a perfectionist and a demanding artist -- two attributes that had she been a man, might have earned her respect, but for a woman are often the kiss of death.”
And yet Young worked opposite every significant leading man of her era, including John Barrymore, James Cagney, Tyrone Power, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, David Niven, Robert Mitchum, and Alan Ladd.
Just two years before meeting Gable she had fallen in love with Spencer Tracy while shooting “Man’s Castle.” She was a divorced woman of 20 (she'd eloped at 17 with an early co-star, setting a pattern of sorts), living with her mother Gladys, and he was a separated dad of two children. (Their shared Roman Catholicism prevented divorce, and Tracy and wife eventually reconciled.)
"The Call of the Wild” was a tough shoot, often fighting wintry conditions that fit the story but caused cast and crew ample misery. Feisty director “Wild Bill” Wellman, a former French Foreign Legionnaire, offered to fight the chronically tardy Gable one day.
The theory persists that Gable was too dumbstruck by his co-star’s appeal to focus on his work, and if you have a look at the YouTube clip