• Oscar Award Winner
  • Three Time Emmy Award Winner
  • Two Time Golden Globe Winner
  • Walk of Fame Recipient
  • Golden Apple and Women in Film Winner
Oscar Award Winner1 Three Time Emmy Award Winner2 Two Time Golden Globe Winner3 Walk of Fame Recipient4 Golden Apple and Women in Film Winner5

The Early Years

The Early Years

The Early YearsGladys checked the table, set for the evening meal. So many chairs.... But she should be glad that there would be a crowd in the dining room tonight. It meant her boarding house was full.

She and the children had come a long way in the past four years. She had left Earl during one of their arguments, and taken the children and moved to Los Angeles.

For a while, Gladys, the three little girls and new baby, Jack, had lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Carlene and Ernest Traxler, and their daughters. During that time, four-year-old Gretchen had her first taste of "show business."

Ernest Traxler was an assistant production manager at a nearby Hollywood studio. One day the director of The Primrose Ring needed four 'fairies' to fly around in a garden scene. "Where can we find some short people right away?" he asked Ernest.

Ernest thought. There were always a lot of "short people" in his back yard. He went home, and pulled the smallest children out of the sandbox: Gretch, her brother Jackie and Ernest's younger daughters.

"At the studio, they put some tulle around our waists, little wings on our backs and hoisted us up in the air on harnesses," Loretta explained. The other children screamed in terror, but she thought it was phenomenal. "I was flying, and I never wanted to come down!"

When the day was over, each of the children received five dollars. Jackie and Loretta ran home, and gave the money to Mama. Ten dollars could go a long way in 1917, and Gladys was delighted.

But ten dollars could in no way support her family. With their father now permanently out of the picture, Gladys had to find a way she could care for her four children. But how?

She summoned up her courage, and went to the local Catholic bishop for advice. "What can you do to earn a living?" he asked. "I was raised in a convent," she pointed out, "so I know how to cook and clean and sew. I'm thinking of opening a boarding house."

The Bishop was intrigued with this young woman's resolve, and decided to make a personal investment in her. He lent her one thousand dollars of his family's money. Gladys found a suitable house on Ninth and Green Street, right across from Cathedral Chapel school, where her children could attend.

She decided to rent primarily to families, and since the boarding house was near Lasky Studios, mostly actors and movie technicians requested rooms. Gladys' timing would prove to be fortunate. Hollywood would soon turn from a small town into a capital of glamour and fantasy and, as God would have it, her "little Gretch" was destined to become one of the most glamorous stars of them all.

The SheikAs Gladys' boarding house gained in popularity, the Young girls and their cousins would occasionally get movie parts. In the classic Rudolph Valentino movie, The Sheik, they all played Arab street urchins, doused each day with dark liquid makeup. Every evening, Valentino would stop at the children's tent, and give them rides on his big white horse.

Mae Murray, the star of The Primrose Ring, had been charmed by Gretch's enthusiasm while "flying" for the film. Since Mae had no children, she later asked Gladys if Gretchen could come and stay with her. "For how long?" Gladys asked, thinking Mae meant an overnight or two. "Well, for as long as she wants. Forever, if you agree. I could give her a lot, you know."

In that era, children in working-class families were often passed among relatives due to financial straits, and Gladys knew that the offer would provide far more material benefits for Gretch than she could afford her. "You may take her home with you." she told Mae. "But when she wants to come back, you must bring her." Mae agreed.

To the five-year-old, moving into Mae Murray's lavish house seemed like a glorious adventure. Mae hired a German governess to care for her, and arranged for dancing lessons — a dream come true. There was also a closet filled with beautiful new clothes. To a youngster used to hand-me-downs, this was heaven.

"Maetsie spoiled me rotten," Loretta said. "It was like a game. I had my family plus this marvelous escapade." During those days, Gretch realized how grand a movie star's life could be, and she chose it as her goal. She recalled wanting to be a movie star from the very beginning. Not just an actress - but a "movie star"!

She spent over a year with Mae Murray, and then, inexplicably, one morning Gretch awakened and said, "I want to go home." The timing was probably perfect, for shortly afterwards Mae and her husband moved to the East Coast. Everyone kept in touch for a while, but years would pass before Loretta and Mae encountered each other again.

In 1923, Gladys did something very uncharacteristic — she married George Belzer, one of her boarders, who was a non-Catholic divorcee. Since Gladys was also divorced, the marriage was a civil one, unsanctioned by the church. Ten-year-old Gretch and her older sisters liked Mr. Belzer, who they affectionately called "Mutt", a moniker he handled good-naturedly.

Belzer was gentle and quiet, a bank examiner who was good with money. The whole family was thrilled when he announced a year or so after their wedding that there was to be another baby in the clan.

By now they had moved from the boarding house into what was known as a bungalow court — eight bungalows housing eight families. Gladys used one for her family, and rented out the other seven. While hardly missing a beat, she gave birth to Georgiana in 1925. Georgiana became everyone's daughter. Her sisters were thrilled with her, and so was her father.

After graduation from elementary school, Gretch enrolled in Catholic Girls' High School and, along with her sister Betty Jane, tried out for numerous stage productions in their own handmade costumes, but never won a role.

But before long, both of her older sisters landed contracts with movie studios. Betty Jane changed her name to Sally Blane when Paramount signed her. Polly Ann kept her name, and it was just a matter of time, Gretchen believed, before she would be "discovered" as well.

"In those days all you had to do was be pretty and obey your director, because everyone in the movie industry was simply experimenting," Loretta explained.

Although she was proud of her beautiful sisters, she knew they didn't have the driving desire to be a movie star that she did. But now she was at that awkward age — too old for child roles, too young and thin to play adults.

Next: Leaving Gretch Behind

Excerpts © copyright 2000 Joan Wester Anderson. All rights reserved.