There are few television show openings as distinctive (or playfully parodied) as Loretta Young’s glamorous entrance on her weekly series, The Loretta Young Show, in which she emerged from a doorway, swirling forth in an elegant dress as she approached the camera to introduce that evening’s episode. Behind the gloss, however, was a very savvy woman who had always managed her career on her own terms, becoming a major award-winning motion picture star during Hollywood’s golden age. Unlike most other film stars of her stature, she was instantly excited by the arrival of television and saw the new medium not as a threat, but as the means to prolong her career and make money. While insisting that she was not business-minded, she took charge of her program by establishing her own production company with her husband. While the series was still appearing in prime time, Young received $4 million for the rights to air reruns of The Loretta Young Show on the daytime schedule—quite an achievement. At the height of her popularity in the new medium, she would happily inform TV Guide, “I’m a television girl and I love every hectic minute of it.”
Her need to work hard began early. Born Gretchen Michaela Young in Salt Lake City in 1913, she was uprooted at a young age, moving to Los Angeles with her mother and siblings after their father had abandoned them. To make ends meet, their uncle found his nieces jobs in the movies, with Loretta (still using her real name) first appearing in The Only Way when she was all of four years old. After a handful of other bit parts, she concentrated on her schooling before landing the leading role opposite Lon Chaney in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, now billed as “Loretta” Young, per the suggestion of actress Colleen Moore. Young never wanted for work, first landing a contract with Warner Bros. and then with Twentieth Century Fox. During this period her credits included The Second Floor Mystery, in which she costarred with her first husband, Grant Withers; two of 1934’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, The House of Rothschild and The White Parade; the Cecil B. DeMille epic The Crusades (1935); Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable; the Technicolor drama Kentucky (1938); and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939), which allowed her to act with her two sisters, Polly Ann Young and Sally Blane, and her half sister, Georgiana Young. Starting in the early forties, she became the rare headliner to freelance successfully, appearing in such pictures as the soap opera And Now Tomorrow (1944), in which she portrayed a deaf woman; the Gary Cooper western Along Came Jones (1945); Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946); and the Christmas-themed The Bishop’s Wife (1947), opposite Cary Grant. She won the Academy Award for playing a Swedish maid who ends up a congresswoman in The Farmer’s Daughter (1947) and earned her second Oscar nomination, playing an enterprising nun (her all-time favorite role), for Come to the Stable (1949).
Despite the fact that Young was still receiving offers to appear in motion pictures, she was already discussing the possibility of developing a television program as early as 1950. It would be another three years before she was able to get several movie commitments out of the way—the last of which was the comedy It Happens Every Thursday—and focus on her goal. Unlike other actors who would do an appearance on television and then return to films, Young completely turned her back on motion pictures to concentrate on television, never again acting in a theatrical feature. Rather than simply fall back on doing a situation comedy or a continuing drama, Young settled on a format that would allow her the best possible opportunity to show her range, an anthology series. In addition to serving as hostess for each episode, Young would play a different character every week in a series of original dramas said to be inspired by actual letters written to the actress over the years. At the end of each episode, Young would read an inspiring quote from the Bible or another source. Young and her husband, advertising executive/producer Tom Lewis, packaged a pilot episode with the actress playing a perfume saleswoman whose admirer fantasizes about her personalities, thereby allowing Young to be seen in three separate roles. After selling the concept to the advertising firm Benton & Bowles, Young and Lewis formed their own production company, Lewislor, to produce the series, of which they would also become the owners.
As her own executive producer, Young was in a position to decide just what roles she wanted to play on each episode. During A Letter to Loretta’s first season on NBC, Young acted in all thirty-six episodes (with a weekly salary of $5,000), so there was little objection to the program receiving a name change midseason, becoming The Loretta Young Show. She repeated her feat of taking roles in each of the second season’s dramas, and won her first Emmy Award (in 1955) for her efforts. Feeling that working side by side with Lewis was causing a rift in their relationship, Young decided to take over the producing end of the series, while Lewis concentrated on developing other properties for Lewislor. A period of poor health, plus the increased workload behind the scenes, meant that Young had to cut back the number of episodes in which she actually appeared for the remainder of the program’s run. Nevertheless, she could boast of having played nuns, alcoholics, housewives, a maharani, and the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. Young received acting Emmy nominations for each of the program’s eight seasons, with three wins. When Lewislor’s five-year contract with NBC expired, Young formed a new production company, Toreto Productions, and signed directly with the sponsor. The deal granted Young the same degree of authority as the sponsor to end the series at the close of each year if she so wished during the three-year agreement. “I’m not a businesswoman,” Young claimed, “but I do know something about these films. They’re a part of me. And if they can make money for somebody else—well, I figured they could do the same for me. I’d figure, why not retain ownership?” While the series was still appearing in prime time, Young received $4 million for the rights to air reruns of The Loretta Young Show on the daytime schedule. The success of her series would inspire other film actresses to follow in Young’s footsteps, with anthology programs like The Jane Wyman Show (1955–58), The DuPont Show with June Allyson (1959–61), and The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960–61), allowing their eponymous stars to both host the show and act in several episodes.
By the time the program ended its run, Young had become very wealthy and had earned her status as one of the most prominent stars in the medium. Hoping to try something new, she signed with CBS to appear in a weekly drama, The New Loretta Young Show, portraying a widowed mother of seven, but the show was not a success, lasting only a single season. Initially Young decided she would take a much-needed break from a career that had kept her busy for more than thirty-five years. That break turned into retirement, as she decided to concentrate on her private life and charitable causes. When she again became a news item, it was because of a lawsuit she brought against NBC regarding The Loretta Young Show. The network had allowed episodes to be seen in their entirety, when Young’s contract specifically stated that her opening introductions be cut with the passage of time, so as not to date her image by showing a woman out of touch with contemporary fashions. Although the suit seemed trivial to some, Young stood her ground. In January of 1972 she was awarded $559,000.
When at last Young agreed to be seen again on television it was in 1982 at the Academy Awards ceremony, where she presented the Best Director statuette to Warren Beatty. There was still great interest in enticing her back to work, and this came close to happening in 1985 when she accepted an offer to appear in a two-hour ABC movie for producer Aaron Spelling, Dark Mansions, only to drop out of the project due to “creative differences” and be replaced by Joan Fontaine. The following year, she finally made her long overdue return to acting with a starring role in the NBC movie Christmas Eve, as a dying widow playing host to her estranged grandchildren. She received a Golden Globe Award for her performance. Three years later, she portrayed a fashion editor in another television movie for NBC, Lady in a Corner, which marked the last time she would be seen on screen. (Her final credit found her narrating the 1994 special Life on the Mississippi.) Having finished her acting career in a starring role, and having retained the glamorous image she had created for herself for more than sixty years, she spent the remainder of her life living in comfortable retirement. She died of ovarian cancer on August 12, 2000, at the Los Angeles home of her half sister, Georgiana, and her brother-in-law, actor Ricardo Montalban. Her agent, Norman Brokaw, remarked, “I learned from her that if you can handle yourself with class and dignity, you can work as long as you want in this business.”