08/28/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
The image seems indelible: Loretta Young, elegantly coiffed and dressed, sweeping down a spiral staircase to introduce each episode of her weekly 1953-61 TV show. "The funny thing is that most people don't even remember my show, just the entrance," Young said in a 1989 interview. "And the entrance they're thinking of is a fallacy. It just didn't happen that way."
Young actually entered through a set of double doors, but the mistake is understandable; the actress, who died of ovarian cancer Aug. 12 at age 87, always seemed the kind of star who would make the grandest of grand entrances. Between 1928 and 1953 she appeared in some 90 feature films, winning an Oscar for The Farmer's Daughter in 1948, and then switched to TV, earning three Emmys for NBC's The Loretta Young Show. "What I learned from Loretta was if you wanted to be in this business, it had to be class and dignity at all times," says Norman Brokaw, chairman of William Morris and her agent for 50 years. "She always dressed, even if she was just going to the market."
Born in Salt Lake City, Young made her movie debut at age 4 as a fairy in the silent The Primrose Ring. Her first leading role was in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, opposite Lon Chaney, when she was just 15.
Despite her famous rectitude—she attended Mass daily and fined actors who cursed on her set—the thrice-married Young had a high-profile romance with Spencer Tracy. And Judy Lewis, 64, her adopted daughter—she has two sons, Christopher, 56, and Peter, 55, from her second marriage, to producer Thomas Lewis—claimed to be the result of a romance between Young and Clark Gable.
After a second TV show ended in 1963, Young devoted her formidable energies to various Catholic charities in Phoenix and L.A., taking only occasional roles. In 1989 she appeared in a made-for-TV movie titled Lady in a Corner but scoffed when asked about doing another TV series. "I would end up doing bits," she said. "I never have played bits. I don't want to start now."