Growing up in Hollywood, nearly everyone knew who Judy Lewis’ famous father was—except for her. Raised to believe she was the adopted daughter of movie star Loretta Young, the late actor didn’t learn until she was an adult that she was actually her mother’s love child with Clark Gable, a man Lewis met just once. Read on for more on the stunning story she revealed in her 1994 memoir Uncommon Knowledge and the disturbing details that came out about it years later.
Although Young would later become known for the TV anthology series The Loretta Young Show, at 22, she was a starlet who would appear in more than 40 Hollywood films opposite names including Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart. Among her iconic co-stars was Gable, with whom she filmed Call of the Wild in 1935.
Although Gable was married to heiress Ria Langham and Young was a devout Catholic, the two soon fell for each other, as Lewis recounted in Uncommon Knowledge. As rumors of their affair circulated, Young’s doctor told Twentieth Century Pictures (which then bound stars with morality clauses) that she needed to take a break from her busy filming schedule due to a “serious illness,” per the memoir.
In reality, Young was pregnant. After secretly giving birth (Gable was informed by a telegram he reportedly tore into pieces and flushed down the toilet, according to Lewis’ book), the star placed her child with a caretaker and then an orphanage until she was “adopted” by Young at 19 months. To confuse the story, headlines initially read that she had chosen to adopt two little girls; soon it was announced that she had to give one back when the girl’s mother couldn’t bear the separation.
Despite what the public read, few in Hollywood bought the story. And yet Lewis, who bore a strong resemblance to Gable and endured painful plastic surgery to pin back her telltale ears as a child, remained clueless about her parentage. When her mother married producer Tom Lewis in 1940, she got the last name she would use for the rest of her life. But she wrote that nearly all of her Hollywood high school friends later told her they had heard somewhere that she was Gable’s daughter and assumed that Young would tell her in her own time.
September of her sophomore year, Lewis arrived home one afternoon to find a surprising visitor waiting for her. “I walked into the entry hall and stopped in my tracks,” she wrote in Uncommon Knowledge. “There, standing a few feet away in my front hallway, was Clark Gable.”
The high schooler was taken aback when her mother asked her to sit down and chat with the visitor, then left them alone. She recalled feeling shockingly comfortable in the presence of such a big movie star, as Gable asked her about school and her life, but never once suspected the real reason for his visit.
“I answered his questions freely because something told me that he needed to know everything I could tell him about myself,” she wrote. At the end of their meeting, he gave her a kiss on the forehead and went on his way. They never saw each other again.
“That day—those few hours together—is all I have of my father,” she wrote. “It isn’t much to hold on to.”
Lewis learned the truth at 23.
Lewis, who grew up to be an actor, producer, writer, and psychotherapist, would not learn the reason for Gable’s visit until she was 23. After she and her fiancé Joe Tinney applied for a marriage license, she found herself troubled by suspicions that Young was her real mother and questions about who her father was. When she told Tinney that she couldn’t marry him because she didn’t know her parentage, he replied, “It’s common knowledge.” He went on to say that, shortly before they had met for the first time, a coworker had told him he was about to dine with “Clark Gable’s kid.”
Lewis finally got her mother to reveal the truth to her years later, after Gable had died of a heart attack at age 59 in 1960. Young told her that she had become pregnant while filming Call of the Wild and explained how she had hidden the pregnancy and Lewis’ birth. She also revealed that Gable had seen Lewis only two times as a baby and left a bank account Young had opened should he wish to contribute financial support penniless.
“It hurt, but I understood why she did it,” she told the New York Post in 2001 of her mother’s choice. “We actually became much closer after that because there were no more secrets.
Lewis’s book recounting the saga came out in 1994. In it, she wrote that Young told her she would never publicly confirm what had happened, often referring to Lewis as her “mortal sin.” It was only with the publication of a posthumous authorized biography, Forever Young: The Life, Loves, and Enduring Faith of a Hollywood Legend, following her 2000 death, that Young finally admitted to the world that Lewis was Gable’s child, according to ABC News.
Still another side to the story was presented years later, however. A 2015 Buzzfeed News story reported that, after learning the meaning of the term “date rape” in 1998, Young was able to articulate to her daughter-in-law Linda Lewis and friend Ed Funk what she claimed happened between her and Gable. Then in her mid-80s, the star alleged that Gable had entered her sleeping car on the train ride home from filming and that Lewis’ conception had not been consensual. However, Young worried this knowledge would hurt her daughter, and the family did not speak out about it until after both Young and Lewis died—Young of ovarian cancer at 87, and Lewis of lymphoma in 2011 at 76.