My Mother, Loretta Young

During the pandemic, I took some time to interview different descendants of classic Hollywood stars to hear all about their experiences as the children of beloved screen icons. In September 2020, I had the pleasure of speaking with Chris Lewis, elder son of Loretta Young and Thomas Lewis. I was placed into contact with him through his wife, Linda Lewis, who runs the Loretta Young Facebook page, celebrating the life, career, and legacy of Loretta Young.

Sadly, Chris has since passed away in January 2021. Chris was a delight to speak with and had many insights to share about his mother and father. I am so grateful to have been able to converse with him. Not only was he willing to share his own perspectives and stories from his life and the lives of his parents, but he was also very kind and genuinely interested in my own work.

Published below is my interview with him.

Annette: What was it like to be Loretta Young’s son?

Chris: Well, I would go everywhere with her. I had a little job at eight years old on her TV series—an honorary job there–and she just included us in everything. She and my dad knew that a lot of offspring of celebrity people become very needy in later life because their parents kind of use them as objects. A friend of mine who wrote a book about celebrities said that a lot of rich people use their children like nice furniture in the house or a beautiful car but my parents were never like that. I think they were proud of us and they trotted us out at dinner parties to say good night and all that stuff but they took us to locations with them. They shared the business with me because I really liked the business and wanted to be in it because I saw the excitement and all the different people that I met through her. It was a real treat being in that situation. She would take us and include us. Not to diverge a little bit but many years later–this was maybe 15 years ago–I was doing a TV show with Reba McEntire and she was, at the time, married to her manager and they had a 10-year-old son. She had just gotten a job in New York to do Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway. They were discussing it and it came up in conversation—“Oh, should we bring him up to New York or have him stay in Nashville with a nanny?” I said, “If you want my opinion, bring him. Include him in everything. It’ll uproot his school but it’ll give him a real invested interest in your career and you as a person. He’ll get an understanding of what it’s like to be a child of a celebrity that’s moving around all the time.”

Annette: It’s nice to hear that you were able to be so involved in your mother’s life and vice versa.

Chris: My brother worked on her TV show and my sister was a story editor on her TV show. She was very family-oriented.

Annette: That’s wonderful.

Chris: And to talk about her sisters—you know, she had two sisters and a brother. They were a very close-knit family with a strong mother. As a matter of fact, Mom is buried in the same grave as her mother. They share the same marker in L.A.

Annette: Yes, I’ve been able to pay my respects to her there. It’s a beautiful location.

Chris: She was an incredible person. She could be very insistent business-wise of wanting to do it right and so people kind of took that as being kind of a diva but, believe me, she was not in personal life. She was not. She was generous and she didn’t really crave attention for doing her charity stuff. She did that all quietly—never by photographers or anything. She felt very responsible for what God gave her. She believed God gave her the success and this money for a reason and she was going to leave the world better off than what she came into. So, I guess she did so because she influenced a lot of people like yourself and me.

Annette: In the same vein, what do you think your mother valued most or prioritized?

Chris: I guess in her life, her relationship with God. She was a staunch Catholic and a lot of her friends were priests and she—although she didn’t have a really deep understanding or education of religion—she listened to the priest and she really tried her best to be the best she could. That was very important to her—to try to follow the Ten Commandments. And, you know, situations in her life came up—Judy, being an example. Also, with her first husband; she got married at 16 and she realized later that it was a mistake. Catholics aren’t supposed to be divorced but she acknowledged, “OK, I made that mistake. I’m gonna go on and learn from it.” So, I think the most important thing in her life was her relationship with God and how she perceived God to be.

Annette: What do you think your mother was most proud of?

Chris: I think her accomplishments. She was very proud of her Academy Award because that was a recognition by her peers that she was the best at something. Her Emmy awards, her Golden Globe…I think that’s what she was most proud of, and I think she was proud of us in a way, you know—the kids. Although we didn’t deserve it, she understood us and was proud of us. She was very wise.

Annette: Your mother was obviously a meaningful influence in your life on such a personal level. What was it like for you to grow up while her entertainment career was in full swing?

Chris: Well, my father tried to protect us from all that stuff, especially when we were growing up in our early years and then our teenage years. When she was doing her television series, that took an awful lot of time away from the home because she had to go to work at, like, five in the morning and got back at eight o’clock and sometimes the schedule got so bad that she stayed at the studio all the time. So, my dad took over a lot of the parenting. He’d take us away on the weekends and we’d go on little trips to different places. They really did try to shelter us from a lot of the attention of that. For instance, we’d go to the same church every Sunday. So, people knew that Mom was going to that church and they would literally stand outside and take pictures or ask for autographs as we were going into the car. She had a standard line: “Oh, I would love to but I don’t give autographs when I’m with my children.” That was a line that I heard a lot. I remember when I was about 13 or so and I was living in New York at the time with my father and Mom came to visit. We went to see a Broadway play and the theater was mostly full when we got there, so the usher took us down to a row and down near the front—and I remember it was my father and brother, Mom, and I—and the four of us are getting in the aisle to go to our seats and people literally stood up and started applauding! You know, she’d never been on Broadway but it was just a respect that these people gave her and I remember we couldn’t get out to the lobby at all during intermission to get anything to drink or anything else. So, I remember that. They tried to protect us from that kind of adulation because that’s just who they were. They were smart people.

Annette: It sounds like it! And I know that some of that attention can be dangerous, too.

Chris: Yes, you can hear stories about children being affected by the paparazzi and getting roped into that publicity. It’s just frustrating. They were concerned because, of course, this was in the era after Charles Lindbergh’s son was kidnapped, so they were very careful about where we went. We didn’t go out in the neighborhood and play with kids. Where we lived at that time—when I was around about five to eight years old–we lived on the Doheny Ranch which, today, it’s Trousdale Estates but at the time it was—have you heard of Greystone in Beverly Hills?

Annette: Yes, I have. The Greystone Mansion.

Chris: Right, it’s where the American Film Institute is. Well, at that time, back in when we were growing up, Edward Doheny was a big oil man. The movie There Will Be Blood was based on his life. He had a big 400-acre ranch that went all the way up the hill and it was an orange ranch. On it, he had built a house called the White House next to us for his son, and his son never really moved into it. So, eventually, we rented the house and lived in it. It was an 18-bedroom house. It was huge—really amazing. Anyway, it was a quarter of a mile from Doheny Drive and, anytime we’d go out, we had a driver that would drive us up. We’d go to school and then come back. It was very controlled. That’s the one thing that they were concerned about—not so much the adulation of people but of the threat of kidnapping.

Annette: So, if you weren’t playing with the neighborhood kids, did you typically have friends come over?

Chris: Yeah, they were mostly friends of their peers—like Rosalind Russell was a very good friend of Mom’s, and her son, Lance Brisson, would come over. There was also the Shapiro family, friends of theirs, and then people that the family knew. They had this Doheny Ranch that was a huge one between the Greystone mansion and our house. There was a huge, huge huge grass field that was bigger than a soccer field, and so they’d give parties. We had a birthday party where they had a little circus to come in and I remember they had a sea lion that jumped in and out of a pool and all that stuff. We also had cousins and the cousins would all come over.

Annette: How exciting! As far as your mother’s appearances in films, do you happen to recall seeing your mother in a movie for the first time and what that was like?

Chris: Oh, yeah. What kind of clued me into the whole thing about what she did for a living, what movies were all about, and what got my interest in movies was when I was young. We lived in a house up on Carolwood Drive, which was across the street from the Disneys and the Sinatras—right there in that in a very nice part of Holmby Hills. We had a screening room in the house—actually a projection room and that would open up and so forth. So, Mom was doing a movie where dad said one day just to me—not my brother—he said to me, “Come on, we’re gonna go. Mom’s doing a movie over at Universal.” I didn’t know what Universal was at the time but he said, “We’re gonna go over and have lunch with her.” We went over there and they said she was doing It Happens Every Thursday, which is the movie that she did with John Forsyth. At some point, he said, “They’re on stage,” so we went over to the stage where they were shooting the movie. When we got there, everything was dark. They were on the lunch break but I remember looking at the sound stage—the first sound stage I’d ever been on—and it looked like half a room but all lights up there. It’s kind of like a doll house. It was a story was about a couple that ran a newspaper in the Midwest, and this was the newspaper office where they printed them. It was kind of cool. Dad said, “Well, we’ve got to go to the commissary,” so we went. Later in the day, Mom always watched her dailies, which are the scenes that were shot the day before. They would screen them the next day and Mom would always watch her daily to watch her performance. When she did, she would always refer to the character that she was playing as “her,” never “me.” She could really delineate the character from herself. I thought that was interesting but, at any rate, we sit down for them to see the dailies. They brought me and Dad into the screening room and, all of a sudden, I see this newspaper office that I saw as a dollhouse an hour earlier. All of a sudden, people were in there and moving around and it was like real. All of a sudden, at eight years old or however old I was at the time, it clicked in my mind—“Oh, gosh, this is like playtime. This is what they’re creating in my little mind. They’re creating reality out of something that’s kind of phony.” So, that was the thing that kind of turned me on to it and that’s the first understanding I had of my mom. My mom is my mom but that’s what she does for a living—that’s what people are relating to. They’re relating to what they see up there on the screen and back in the day it was up on a big screen, so it was bigger life. It wasn’t like watching YouTube. I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time in my own mind.

Annette: Yes, I’m sure that was so exciting to see and understand the process at work.

Chris: Not only that but what a celebrity does. I always liked Alfred Hitchcock growing up because of the way he wrote movies and everything and I said to my mom, “One time, I’d love to meet Alfred Hitchcock.” She said, “OK, I can arrange that but you’ve already met him.” I said, “What do you mean?” So, she goes through her scrapbook, and there I am at my baptism as a baby and he’s looking over me and all these other people. Eventually, because of her celebrity and my father’s celebrity, I met presidents. It was just amazing, the number of people. In later years, like I said, my mom did a lot of entertaining, so you’d never know who would be at her house. It was very interesting.

Annette: Do you happen to know if there was a particular film role that she enjoyed more than others?

Chris: Well she liked The Bishop’s Wife (1947), of course, because it was a big success. I think she liked where she played a nun. She played a nun in the film Come to the Stable (1949), which was a script that was written by Clare Booth Loose, who was married to Henry Luce, who owned TIME magazine. They were really good friends. This was about a couple of nuns that established a hospital. After the war, French nuns came to America to establish a hospital in Pennsylvania. Anyway, it was a story that she really liked because of her love of religion, especially the Catholics—she loved playing them. She loved playing a nun—and there’s a funny story about that movie, too. She played a nun and her co-star is another nun, played by Celeste Holm, another well-known actress at the time. She was a stickler for detail, so when they first started shooting the film and went on the set for the time, she noticed that Celeste Holm had makeup on—lipstick. So, she very quietly went over to the director to “have her take that lipstick off—a nun would never wear lipstick.” So, she was very into that. Then, as a joke—later on in my career I made a movie, a period film about a detective. There’s a scene in the beginning at an amusement park where people are on a roller coaster and there’s a whole scene on this roller coaster. Anyway, behind the roller coaster, I put two nuns dressed up in the background. Mom saw the movie and she said, “You know, nuns never go out at night.” That was her only comment about the whole movie! She knew I did it as a nod and as a joke. But I think Come to the Stable was her favorite movie. Of course, she liked The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) because it won her the Academy Award and she did a lot of work on the dialogue. She had Ingrid Bergman’s diction coach, a woman called Ruth Roberts. When Ingrid Bergman got started making movies over here, they wanted her to sound more American, so they got her a voice coach. Then, Mom snagged Ruth, and who I think was with her for the rest of her life. Ruth Roberts coached her into getting the Swedish accent. She was proud of that movie, as well. There are a lot of movies she didn’t like. She was very critical of herself in a lot of them, definitely. There are a lot of movies that she did just because she was under contract. I won’t mention the ones that she didn’t like.

Annette: Do you know if there were any co-stars with whom she especially enjoyed working?

Chris: Cary Grant. She liked working with him a lot in several movies. Early on, she did a movie or two with John Wayne. Mom’s closest friend from school was John Wayne’s first wife, Josie, who was Patrick Wayne’s mother. They remained friends all their lives. David Niven. When he first came to America from uh Europe—from England—my mother lived with her mother and two sisters in a big house that they had built up on Sunset Boulevard near Westwood. It had a big house and it had an apartment over the garage. They would lease out that apartment to different actors. My grandmother did that all the time when they first moved to Hollywood. Grandma had a boarding house and all the daughters worked at the boarding house and it was mostly for actresses coming in. So, anyway, she liked David Niven because he was one of the first people to rent. He lived there [in the apartment] for a year or two before he got his feet on the ground in Hollywood. My grandmother invested a lot. At one time, they owned probably 30 homes in Beverly Hills. My grandmother was a very well-known interior decorator in Hollywood. At the time, they would buy the houses very cheaply, and then she’d decorate them, and then they’d lease them out to people from New York and Europe that were coming over to do movies. So they’d be living in one of their houses for six or eight months and then leave and so forth. My grandmother—even to the day she died—had so many houses and apartments around Westwood and Los Angeles. That’s how they supported themselves. They had like a hook into all the actors that were coming to the town and she liked them. She also liked—in her older days, more toward the end of her life—she loved Faye Dunaway and Dustin Hoffman. I remember one time we were all in a restaurant and Dustin Hoffman was over there with his mother. Mom never went over to other people’s tables—I mean, they all came to her. We were sitting there with Randal Kleiser, myself, and Linda [Chris’s wife]. Randy is a director and we went to school together. We remained friends and we were trying to get him to direct a TV movie that mom was doing back in the early 90s. So, anyway, we went out to dinner and at this particular restaurant, she got up, went over, and said how much she loved his work and he was blown away because his mother was there and his mother really liked Mom. But that’s how it is all the time with somebody who is that well known and that well established in a business.

Annette: Absolutely. Now, what do you think Loretta Young’s legacy is today?

Chris: Well, you have to ask Linda about that because, with Facebook, she’s promoting her legacy. An actress is an actress, what they leave behind is their image in movies and entertainment. On one level, her legacy is her filmography—the movies that are there. Now, as a person, she was very philanthropic. She was a humanitarian. But she didn’t make a big deal out of that, so people don’t know that as much. But her legacy lives on in a lot of people’s minds. Now, they’re passing away now, but there are a lot of vets that she would spend time with at the Veterans Administration—just, you know, talking to them. She’d go down to Skid Row and she helped at one of the women’s shelters in Skid Row in L.A., which was a dangerous thing for a celebrity to go unescorted. She’d just drive down there in her Rolls—and that, you know, is not a good idea. She wasn’t very careful about that in her older days but she would do it and not want attention, you know what I mean. She would just do it because she felt the need. She was quite a remarkable person. She didn’t have to do all that. She could have sat back, but she just didn’t like not doing anything. She didn’t really drink to excess. She ate healthily. She was just very unique.

Annette: She really was. How can we best honor her legacy and celebrate her life?

Chris: You definitely have to ask Linda, but that’s a good question. I celebrate her life just by trying to remember what an interesting person she was. That night at the restaurant together—just the two of us—saying her one regret in life was not being a mother to my brother and me, when she really was a great mother to us, just not a traditional mother. I said, “Hell, Mom and Dad, you’ve afforded us a wonderful life. Not just financially but I mean with all the people we meet and all the places we’ve been. Who else would be able to do that unless you’re dragged into that situation?” That was not important to her, though. It was that she hadn’t nurtured us in the traditional way and she was sorry for that.

Annette: Now, I don’t know if this is true but I’ve read somewhere that during the filming of certain movies, she had a swear jar. Would she ever talk about something like that?

Chris: Oh yeah, of course! Yes, that was well noted. I never had to put any money into it but what happened is that people on film sets swear all the time—you know, all the crew members, normally the gaffers and the cameramen and all that. She did not like that She didn’t mind if they said a word like “F—” or something. That didn’t bother her as much as if they said, “God damn it” or something that a religious kind of thing. So, she would make it a joke. You’d have to put a quarter in every time you said a bad word like that. It was just more a reminder and everything. I remember the TV show because I had a little job on that show when I was a kid. On the boom where the microphone is, a guy stood on a platform and it rolled around the sound stage. So, on that boom they put a little thing like a mailbox—you know those little mailboxes where people put in front of their houses, they have a flap on the top and attach to the wall. Well, she put one of those there, and if you said a certain word—and they would all do it just because it was kind of a joke. Sometimes they’d say bad words by accident or they would really try not to. But in the end, she would give that money to charity. It never really amounted to much. And then there were always stories that people told that said, “Well, how much will it cost me if I tell you to go screw yourself?” or something like that. That never happened. I mean, people really respected her and that was just the story. I remember one interview Mike Connors did. He was on the show quite a bit as a co-star and he told that story and so did Hugh O’Brien and several of the old timers that she’d work with. But, yeah. she did have the swear box—she called it the square box. It wasn’t bad words. It wasn’t toilet humor–she called bad words “toilet humor” and she didn’t care about that so much. But she cared about using the Lord’s name in vain. That’s what cost a dollar. But yeah, that’s true. That’s absolutely true.

Collections for the swear box!

Annette: How funny that you remember the rates!

Chris: Well, it depended. In the beginning, it was something like 25 cents and it eventually became dollars. It became kind of a legendary thing so people could say they put a dollar in the swear box.

Annette: Might as well.  

Chris: It was all going to the Church, anyway. She was a character, I’ll tell you.

Annette: I bet! And she’s in that early group of actresses that started to break away from the studio system to try and be more independent. Do you remember her talking about that at all? Did she ever feel she had a greater variety of roles because of that or did she feel hindered?

Chris: She was hindered because of that. In the early days, she was under contract to First National, which turned into Universal Studios and all that stuff. She was just getting her chops up at that time, so she’d take any role they gave her and they were all because she was young and really attractive. They’d all be romantic roles but, as she became more popular, she went under contract with 20th Century Fox and she and Darryl Zanuck were always butting heads about everything because she didn’t like the roles. Let’s put it this way—she was very vocal about the roles that she wanted to play. She never wanted to play a bad person, you know. like an evil person, and she always wanted to be–if she could–in the title of the movie. In other words, like her character in The Farmer’s Daughter. She was the title character—the daughter. And then in The Bishop’s Wife, she was also the title character. She always kind of worked for that. At the time, if you were under a contract to a studio and you didn’t want to do a movie, then you would go on what they called suspension and they wouldn’t pay you. But you still couldn’t work anywhere else because you were under contract with them. So, Mom had consistent problems with that because the studio had a system where they would use the actors. So, when she married my father, who was in the advertising business, she was at her prime in the movies. It was before she won the Academy Award but she was a well-established star at that time and she was limited by the parts she played because of the studio. So, she became one of the first people to go off when their contract was over. My dad got her a new agent and they went independent. That’s when a lot of movies like China (1943) at Columbia and Paula (1952) at Universal and all those kinds of movies started coming out. This was now, as you come to the early 1950s. You weren’t going to get the leading roles, necessarily, and since my dad was in the advertising business, he could run an advertising business. He ran a huge advertising business. They worked along with the William Morris Agency, which was the talent agency that kind of ran the business. Anyway, my mom wanted to do a lot of different roles, so that’s when they came up with the idea of getting into television. On her TV show, she could play a different role every week and she wouldn’t have to put up in the studio because she and my father owned the series, so they could do whatever characters she wanted to do. So, that’s how she got into TV and that’s how she kept from getting typecast and it probably extended her career another 20 years because she had a new venue. And everybody—all the agents and everyone—told her, “Oh, God, you’ll never do another movie if you go into television!” because television was kind of the enemy of Hollywood at the time. It was taking people away from the theater. But because Dad was in the advertising agency, he knew that TV was the future. They were lucky to get into it early on and they were lucky to own their own show, like Lucy & Desi and Ozzie & Harriet, who owned their own show.

Annette: That’s a great business move.

Chris: Yes, it was. They were smart people. Mom was very in control of her career. My father was successful in advertising. If you’ve seen the series Mad Men, that was patterned after his agency. He would literally have three-martini lunches. I grew up with him in New York, just he and I living in New York at the time going through all that. But that’s how they were; they were very well connected and that’s how they created their legacy.

Annette: Chris—thank you so much for spending time chatting with me this afternoon. I appreciate it so much and really enjoyed our conversation.

Chris: Thank you for taking your time to worry about Mom and to help get her legacy out there.

Young’s Oscar remains in the family, with plans to eventually donate it to the Academy Museum.