“What a story, everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.”
Thelma Ritter as Birdie Coogan in All About Eve
Flashback to childhood: a Green-Giant-sized adult is leaning over you, perhaps with your chin in the palm of their hand, and sweetly saying, “You look just like your father!” or, “You resemble your mother so much!” The years pass, and now you’re a Green-Giant-sized adult, looking down on a grey-haired, wizened grandmother or great-uncle, and the proclamation hasn’t changed: “You look just like your mother!”
Judy Lewis was a teenager when she first heard those words. She knew she had been an orphan, and that her adoptive mother was a member of the Ancien Régime of Hollywood royalty, Loretta Young. Growing up in a 38-room house on a 500-acre estate in Beverly Hills, her playmates were the children of Bing Crosby, Jack Haley and Joan Crawford. Home movies were filmed by studio cameramen. Birthday parties at the home of Jack Warner’s daughter, Barbara, featured a custom-built playhouse with a soda fountain and ice cream machine built to size for a child.
It was the adopted daughter of another Hollywood legend, Irene Dunne, that said to Judy one day after class at Marymount High School in Beverly Hills, “For someone who’s been adopted, you look a lot like your mother.” That evening, when she mentioned this to her mother, Judy received the answer that by now was gospel: “I couldn’t have loved you more if you were my real daughter.”
Those memories, and other tales of loneliness and unfilled longing, kept the 150 guests at the ninth annual Handbags & Halos luncheon riveted, many with tears in their eyes. Judy spoke of her quest to know the truth about her parents, and to uncover what had been common knowledge for years in Hollywood. She was the daughter of Clark Gable and her “adoptive” mother, Loretta Young.
Held in the elegant Empire Room of the Palmer House Hilton, and benefiting the Howard Brown Health Center, the Handbags & Halos luncheon is a yearly event that resembles a reunion of Northwestern Alpha Phis, North Shore post-debutantes, and Eastern Airlines stewardesses.
The look of the women attending is one of strict, taskmaster discipline with a sublime sense of fashion. A beautiful David Webb pin worn on the shoulder of an exquisite made-to-order suit of fine cashmere shows to advantage a well-maintained figure. Ladies with sprayed helmets of hair and perfect pearls chat next to girls in their 30s in five-inch stilettos and Chanel tweed with grosgrain trim. Their school anthem is, “I Enjoy Being a Girl!”
But don’t let their appearance keep you from appreciating their quiet, passionate dedication to the cause of the Howard Brown Health Center (HBHC). Many of them have lost a beloved brother, nephew, uncle, or trusted stylist to the scourge that the HBHC endeavors to find a cure for. Their attendance at this event shows their belief in its mission, and at the same time, honors a life that the AIDS virus took from them.
Rochelle Trotter, of the 1,000-watt smile that could light up Wrigley Field, was somewhat stiff from running the San Francisco Marathon two days before. But one wouldn’t have guessed, as she jubilantly bought raffle tickets in the hope of winning one of the nine handbags donated to the luncheon raffle from generous designers and retailers the likes of Ralph Lauren, Bulgari, The 28 Shop at Macy’s, Michael Kors, Nordstrom, the Oprah Store and Escada.
One table of avid supporters was conspicuously absent, and their retreat was noticed. Did they feel that the event’s usefulness in their mountaineering quest had spent itself, or were they so snowed in with work that they couldn’t get away for two hours? The evening before the luncheon, many were seen as part of a raucous, all-girl birthday party that had patrons of the chic restaurant it was held in rolling their eyes at the behavior of these “ladies.”
Their pride and point of honor is admirable. One won’t go, so none of the group goes. They’re like a chic circle of Girl Scouts without a campfire: one sunlamp-tanned girl decides that trying to earn the homemade merit badge is lame, and the entire group agrees that it’s lame. A very sharp eye is kept on the bigger picture.
And yet, the day of the luncheon, hosannas filled the air for Judy’s presentation and the host’s efforts, as fragrant as the table centerpieces of Casablanca lilies and pink roses.
Judy spoke with absolute professionalism and an overwhelming acceptance for the woman who had purposely denied her the truth, and the result was wildly impressive. She appeared on Broadway in Jean Kerr’s “Mary, Mary” and became a successful performer on a number of daytime series, including “The Secret Storm” and “General Hospital.” In the 1980s, Judy went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in clinical psychology at Antioch University in Los Angeles. No Beverly Hills grass grew beneath her feet!
One day when she was a teenager, coming home from school, Judy walked in the back door and performed the rite of many a 15 year-old in the 1940s. She placed her homework on a kitchen table, gently opened the refrigerator door and reached in for an ice-cold bottle of Coca-Cola. Just then, her mother came in from the pantry and told her there was someone waiting in the living room that would like to meet her. Judy placed the Coke back in the refrigerator, washed her hands, and walked through the antique-filled dining room, with its expansive windows overlooking a sun-lit swimming pool, to the living room, where she found herself face to face with her Hollywood idol, Clark Gable. She caught her breath, and remembering her manners from her mother and the nuns at Marymount, she extended her hand politely for him to shake and said, “How do you do?”
As they sat down across from each other, Clark began asking her the questions that adults find a young person is not embarrassed by: Where do you go to school? Who is your favorite teacher? Do you have a boyfriend? What sports do you enjoy?
That evening, she had a date with Jack Haley, Jr., whose father was the Tin Man of The Wizard of Oz fame. As Judy stepped into his convertible, she excitedly told him of Clark Gable’s visit that afternoon. Many years later, she remembered his silence as they drove beneath the royal palms of Sunset Boulevard. A silence that honored a secret kept from her, but one that all Hollywood knew.
Judy Lewis is a woman with a loving, generous, forgiving heart.
How appropriate that she was the guest speaker at a benefit luncheon for an organization that provides one for people that need it the most.
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Photos by Teresa Potasiak