NEW YORK - Her mother was an Oscar-winning actress, Loretta Young. Her father was actor Clark Gable of “Gone with the Wind’’ fame.
Yet Judy Lewis spent her first 19 months in hideaways and orphanages, and the rest of her early life untangling a web of lies spun by a young mother hungry for stardom but unwilling to end her unwed pregnancy.
Loretta Young’s deception was contrived to protect her budding movie career and the box-office power of matinee idol Clark Gable, who was married to someone else when they conceived their child in snowed-in northwest Washington state. They were on location at the time, shooting the 1935 film “The Call of the Wild,’’ fictional lovers in front of the camera and actual lovers outside its range.
Ms. Lewis, a former actress who died yesterday at 76, was 31 years old before she discerned the scope of the falsehoods that cast her, a daughter of Hollywood royalty, into what she later described as a Cinderella-like childhood. Confronted by Ms. Lewis, Young finally unpacked the story in 1966 in a tearful confession at her sprawling home in Palm Springs, Calif.
Young was 22 and unmarried when she and Gable, 34 and married to Maria Langham, had their brief affair. She spent most of her pregnancy in Europe to avoid Hollywood gossip. Ms. Lewis was born Nov. 6, 1935, in a rented house in Venice, Calif. Soon afterward she was left to a series of caretakers, including St. Elizabeth’s Infants Hospital in San Francisco, so that Young could return to her movie career.
When Ms. Lewis was 19 months old, her mother brought her back home and announced through the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that she had adopted the child.
Ms. Lewis grew up in Los Angeles, cushioned in the luxury of her mother’s movie-star lifestyle, as she endured what she later described as an outsider’s isolation within her family and the teasing of children at school.
They teased her about her ears: They stuck out like Dumbo’s. Or, as Hollywood rumors had it, they stuck out like Clark Gable’s. Ms. Lewis’s mother dressed her in bonnets to hide them. When she was 7, her ears were surgically altered to make them less prominent.
Until Ms. Lewis, as an adult, confronted her years later, Young did not acknowledge that Ms. Lewis was her biological child or that Gable was Ms. Lewis’s father. When Young married and had two children with Tom Lewis, a radio producer, Judy took his name but remained the family’s “adopted’’ daughter.
And though conceding the story privately to her daughter - and later to the rest of her family - Young remained silent publicly, agreeing to acknowledge the facts only in her biography, “Forever Young,’’ and only on the condition that it be published after her death. She died in 2000.
But Ms. Lewis revealed the story of her parentage in her own memoir, “Uncommon Knowledge,’’ in 1994. In the book, she describes feeling a powerful sense of alienation as a child.
“It was very difficult for me as a little girl not to be accepted or acknowledged by my mother, who, to this day, will not publicly acknowledge that I am her biological child,’’ she said that year.
After Ms. Lewis released the memoir, her mother refused to speak to her for three years.
The lightning bolt that gave Ms. Lewis the first hint about her parentage came during an identity crisis before her wedding day.
“I can’t marry you,’’ she said she told her fiance, Tom Tinney. “I don’t know anything about myself.’’
Tinney could offer little guidance about her mother, she wrote, but about her father’s identity he was clear.
“It’s common knowledge, Judy,’’ he said. “Your father is Clark Gable.’’
She had no inkling, she wrote.
In interviews after her book was published, Ms. Lewis was philosophical about the secrecy in which she grew up. If Young and Gable had acknowledged her in 1935, she said, “both of them would have lost their careers.’’
After she graduated from Marymount, a girls’ Catholic school, Ms. Lewis left Los Angeles to pursue acting in New York. She was a regular on a soap opera, “The Secret Storm,’’ from 1964 to 1971 and had featured parts on numerous others.
She appeared in Broadway plays, produced television shows, and in her mid-40s decided to return to school. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University in Los Angeles and became a licensed family and child counselor.