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Through her looks and life story, Gene Tierney has provided the inspiration for two of my characters – Ann Morgan in my 1944-5 Ann Morgan Mystery Series and Dana Devlin in my forthcoming Sam Smith Mystery Series novel, The Devil and Ms Devlin. Therefore, in appreciation of Gene Tierney’s life and career, I decided to write this article.
Born on the 19th November 1920 in Brooklyn, New York, to a wealthy insurance broker and a socialite mother, Gene Tierney enjoyed a privileged upbringing, an upbringing that included exclusive schools, extensive travel and glamorous parties. Aged seventeen, she met Anatole Litvak, an influential Hollywood director, and he invited the debutante to make a screen test for Warner Brothers. Impressed by her looks and potential, the studio offered her a contract. However, her parents were not pleased.
Obeying her parents, Gene Tierney returned to Connecticut where she endured a mind-numbing season of debutante parties. At the close of the season, she informed her parents of her desire to carve out a career as an actress. On this occasion, her parents offered their support. Her father, Howard, secured mentoring and schooling, and he formed a company, to assist Gene in her ambitions.
Gene Tierney’s early theatre performances attracted the attention of Warner Brothers who, once again, offered her a contract. However, she turned them down; instead, she signed a six month deal with Columbia.
With Gene Tierney’s star on the rise, eccentric movie mogul Howard Hughes entered the picture. He was besotted with her beauty. However, as she later pointed out, “Cars, furs and gems were not my weakness.” And she rebuffed Hughes.
Despite the rebuff, Howard Hughes remained friends with Gene Tierney, one of many influential and powerful people she encountered during her life. At this stage, she was a contract actress with a major studio, reduced to roles dependant on her looks, rather than her acting ability. Then she caught the eye of Darryl Zanuck, of Twentieth Century Fox. Later, Zanuck stated that Gene Tierney was, “the most beautiful woman in movie history.”
In 1940, Gene Tierney played Eleanor Stone in The Return of Frank James. The reviews for the movie, and Gene’s performance, were unkind. Indeed, Gene endured a number of unfavourable reviews throughout her career, and while some of those reviews were merited, you have to wonder if jealousy, over her looks and privileged upbringing, was also at play.
Also in 1940, Gene Tierney’s private life changed direction. She met fashion designer Oleg Cassini and within months the couple were married. Once again, her parents were not pleased and a rift developed within the family. Over time, that rift widened until Gene was cut off financially, and from Connecticut high society.
Stressed, and enduring a string of dubious movies and poor reviews, Gene fell ill. Nevertheless, she remained in Hollywood and continued to work, landing the lead role in the 1943 movie, Heaven Can Wait.
In June 1943, a pregnant Gene Tierney contracted rubella. On the 14th October 1943, she went into premature labour and soon after her daughter, Daria, was born. Tragically, the rubella affected Daria’s development and she suffered from a number of impediments.
With professional help, Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini raised Daria at their Hollywood home. While adjusting to her maternal responsibilities, Gene landed the title role in Laura, in 1944, arguably the highpoint of her acting career. Although the film received mixed reviews – a consistent thread throughout Gene’s career – it did well at the box office, netting over a million dollars, and now is regarded as a cinema classic. As Vincent Price, one of her co-stars in Laura, said, “No one but Gene Tierney could have played Laura. There was no other actress around with her particular combination of beauty, breeding and mystery.”
The success of Laura should have brought Gene Tierney great happiness. However, Oleg Cassini could not cope with his daughter’s disability and, in 1946, he walked out of the family home.
Before that, in 1945, Gene Tierney starred in Leave Her to Heaven, and received an Oscar nomination for her performance. In 1946, she co-starred with Vincent Price in Dragonwyck and during the filming she met J.F. Kennedy. A relationship developed, but was not pursued because of J.F.K.’s political ambitions.
In 1947, Gene Tierney made The Ghost and Mrs Muir. However, unhappy with her personal life, she decided to leave Hollywood and returned to Connecticut. In 1948, while constantly crying tears for Daria, Gene went through a whirlwind of emotions with Oleg Cassini – they divorced, Gene became pregnant, she gave birth to a second daughter, Christina, on the 19th November 1948 her 28th birthday, and later remarried Cassini.
Unable to cope with Daria’s health problems, Gene bowed to Oleg’s insistence and placed her daughter in an institution. At this point, Gene’s health faltered and she slipped into deep depression. Mood swings ensued. A lack of understanding from the medical profession and the stigma from an uncaring society added to Gene’s problems. She threw herself into her work and later wrote, “As long as I was playing someone else, everything was fine. It was when I had to be myself that the problems began.” She added, with great insight, “Depression is only a temporary thing. I’ve often thought that if people who committed suicide could wake up the next morning they’d ask themselves, ‘Now why in the world did I do that?’”
In the early 1950s, Gene divorced Oleg Cassini for a second time. Her career, personal life and health were in crisis.
In 1955, while working with Humphrey Bogart on The Left Hand of God, Bogart noted that Gene had problems. He alerted the executives at Fox studios, but they dismissed his concerns in flippant fashion. As Gene Tierney later wrote, “It was the fashion at the time, still is, to feel that all actors are neurotic, or they would not be actors.”
On set, Gene continued to work to a high standard, while at home she struggled to cope with the basic tasks of life. In despair, Gene entered a sanatorium. Within the sanatorium, she received electroconvulsive-therapy, a degrading and barbaric practice, now considered inappropriate by many mental health professionals.
In the spring of 1957, Gene Tierney contemplated suicide. In New York, she walked on to the ledge of her mother’s 14th floor high-rise apartment. She later wrote, “I felt serene…totally without fear.” However, she didn’t jump because vanity took hold. She confessed, “I thought of what I’d look like when I hit the ground – like a scrambled egg. That didn’t appeal to me.”
More treatment followed, but thankfully treatment of a saner, helpful variety. Gene entered the Menninger Clinic in Kansas. There, in an atmosphere of peace and quiet, she was encouraged to talk. With support, she developed skills and coping strategies, until she reached the stage where she felt more in control of her illness. Today, even though drugs and other treatments are available, talking often remains the best cure.
While on holiday in 1958, Gene met W. Howard Lee, a Texas oilman. A year later, she resumed her acting career in Holiday for Lovers, but the strain proved too much, and she dropped the part. However, on the 11th July 1960, she did marry W. Howard Lee and stated, “The only time I was really happy was in my childhood – and now.”
After continued treatment at the Menninger Clinic, small acting roles followed, along with greater insight into Gene’s problems. She later wrote, “If you break an arm or a leg it takes months for it to really heal, and years for it to be the same again. So you can imagine the problems with a broken mind.” And, “More than anything, I learned that the mind is the most beautiful part of the body and I am grateful to have mine back.”
In 1962, Gene suffered a miscarriage. Bouts of depression and periods of mania followed, but when they faded she was able to reflect on them with humour, often joking with her new husband.
Although not reaching the heights of Laura, Gene appeared in movies and television series, until 1969 when she quit Hollywood and television for good.
W. Howard Lee died in February 1981, and from that point on, after years in the spotlight, Gene Tierney decided to live a life of seclusion.
Gene died on the 6th November 1991, of emphysema, a condition brought on through chain-smoking; at the start of her acting career, and showing no regard for the individual, the studio suggested that Gene should take up smoking, to make her voice huskier.
Gene Tierney wrote, “Wealth, beauty and fame are transient. When those are gone, little is left except the need to be useful.” And she served that statement well by writing her autobiography, Self-Portrait, in 1979. Through her frank and honest account of her life, Gene Tierney helped to break down the stigma of mental illness, and along with her numerous movies, that stands as her greatest legacy.
Further reading: Self-Portrait – Gene Tierney with Mickey Herskowitz.