SPLIT: The Janus-coined Life of Gene Tierney
by Nick Zegarac
“I existed in a world that never is – a prison of the mind.”
In retrospect, the first half of Gene Tierney’s life was a fairytale too good to last; a whirlwind of great success framed by Gene’s own unattainable physical perfection. It has been said by many who knew her best that the camera only preserved part of the actress’s resilient beauty for posterity. If that is the case, then Tierney was indeed the epitome of the female form divine.
Tierney was born Gene Eliza Tierney; the middle child to parents Belle Taylor and Howard Tierney in Brooklyn New York on Nov. 19, 1920. A product of that wide-eyed jazz age optimism, Gene and her siblings, older brother Howard Jr. and younger sister Patricia enjoyed a pampered existence, thanks to their father’s lucrative insurance broker’s business.
In 1926, Howard moved his family to the pastoral countryside of Green Farms Connecticut where his children continued to want for nothing. Gene’s formative years were exercised under Howard’s iron will and authoritarian rule. However, not even Gene’s idolized devotion to her father could block out Howard’s increasingly unhappy marriage to Belle.
During her early teenage years, Gene developed a genuine gift for mimicry and writing – exercises her father frowned upon. Howard saw his favorite child following a more strict and religious path eventually ending in marriage. Though often tyrannical in his actions, Howard was not heartless. When Gene was only 15, he afforded her the opportunity to study abroad for two years in Lozan Switzerland where Gene relished her mastering of new languages and making many friends.
In retrospect, Howard’s motives in sending Gene away seem mildly unclear. Was he really hoping to round out her education, or merely to shield her from his own pending financial disaster? Upon returning to America, Gene learned that Howard’s business had failed – thanks to a high profile lawsuit. The family home had been lost in a subsequent foreclosure. These were stressful, unhappy times in the Tierney household, greatly worsened by the Great Depression. To ease the stress, Howard sent his family west in 1938. Their stop off in Hollywood would prove fortuitous for Gene.
After touring the Warner Bros. backlot, Gene became star struck. She also caught the eye of ambitious director Anatole Litvak who, smitten with the 17 year old’s fresh-faced beauty, arranged for a screen test. Despite having no acting background, the test impressed Jack Warner enough to offer Gene an immediate contract at $150.00 per week. Howard was outraged. He forbade Gene to even consider the movies, recalling the family from their vacation. As compensation, Howard did allow Gene the opportunity to try out for a show on Broadway.
To Howard’s middle class morality, the business of making movies had acquired that reputation as being a rather crude second cousin to the ‘legitimate stage.’ Screen actors were failed stage actors. The stage represented great literary masterworks while the movies merely did their best with loose reincarnations made crass for mass public consumption. Perhaps Howard had his girl’s best interests at heart. However, not even he could conceive that in agreeing to allow Gene to audition on the stage she would almost immediately win a small part in the play Mrs. O’Brien Entertains on February 8, 1939.
The play was a flop but Gene proved an immediate hit with critics, garnering praise in reviews. As a result, Gene won a more substantial role in James Thruber and Elliot Nugent’s The Male Animal on January 9, 1940; a Broadway smash. As luck would have it, 20th Century-Fox President, Darryl F. Zanuck was in the audience, eager to stock his fledgling studio with as many new discoveries as he could find.
Wooing Gene, however, became something of a challenge for Zanuck. He first tried, and failed to win her signature on a contract after one of her performances. Later that same night Zanuck failed to recognize that the starlet he was ogling from across the dance floor at the Stork Club during an after party was in fact the same girl he had tried to hire only a few hours before.
The Unluckiest Lucky Girl
To say that Gene’s debut in The Return of Frank James (1940) was a milestone would be a gross exaggeration. Despite the fact that the film was a huge success, in her all too brief appearance as Denver Star reporter, Eleanor Stone, Gene was laughingly equated to an overly angry Minnie Mouse and voted 1940’s worst female discovery by the prestigious Harvard Lampoon. Seeing herself on the screen, Gene cringed at her mannerisms and delivery of a line. To immerse herself in the culture of film acting, Gene began running old movies until the wee hours of the morning, her natural gift for mimicry serving her well.
Also during this early tenure, Gene decided to take up smoking to lower her voice. Steadily she developed confidence as a performer and embraced her new found art with all the diligence, passion and patience of a pro – desperate to make good. Whatever was asked of her, Gene did. No matter how many takes were required to get a scene just right, she never once complained.
To say that Howard Tierney embraced his daughter’s new found success is perhaps a bit of an overstatement. Moreover he tolerated it with the lucrative incentives attached. Though Howard seldom praised Gene for her acting accomplishments, he also could not deny that Gene had become the family’s breadwinner with her earnings placed into a family trust that was administered by him.
In December 1940, Gene met Paramount fashion designer Oleg Cassini at a Christmas party. He was European, divorced, experienced and with an electric ‘dangerous’ presence that quite simply captivated Gene. By their third date, plans of marriage were already being discussed. It was hardly a match made in heaven. Discovering the romance, Howard accused Oleg of being a gold digger and fortune hunter.
To bolster his support against their romance, Howard leaked their love affair to Fox’s PR department who concurred with his assessment. It was a bad match that would have to be broken. Fox plunged their new discovery into a heavy work schedule, hoping that through physical exhaustion the affair between Oleg and Gene would cool. Gene appeared as a sinfully seductive hillbilly in John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) and then as the western outlaw, Belle Starr (1941). Eventually, the stresses of making movies and Oleg’s impatience with their romantic stalemate temporarily ended the love affair.
However, when an exhausted Gene retired to Connecticut for a vacation, only to learn that her father – the only man she had ever truly worshipped – was having a very public extramarital affair with a friend of the family, the resulting shockwaves sent Gene immediately back into Oleg’s arms. Fox studio publicist, Harry Brandt warned against the union, but Gene’s mind was made up. Despite threats from her father – that he would have her committed to an asylum on grounds of mental instability if she proceeded with the marriage – Gene eloped with Oleg to Las Vegas on June 1, 1941.
“Those who become mentally ill often have a history of chronic pain.” – Gene Tierney
To say that Howard Tierney’s threat of institutionalization was a precursor or prediction for the last act of his daughter’s life is a tad prophetic. Certainly in hindsight, it rings hauntingly true enough. Though Gene’s emotional instabilities and fallout would not become immediately apparent, the financial fallout derived from Gene’s marriage to Oleg Cassini was instantly palpable. Cassini lost his job at Paramount.
When Gene learned that her father had vowed to have her marriage annulled she demanded that the family trust set up years earlier be dissolved and that all monies accrued under the arrangement immediately revert back to her. “I was going to live on my own salary or go down swinging,” Gene later reflected.
What she discovered was that Howard had squandered virtually all of her savings on his failed business. It was the final blow. Following her parents divorce, Gene vowed to never again speak to Howard. She never did.
If all this backstage turmoil seemed unlikely fodder for a screen goddess, in front of the camera Gene was the epitome of peerless perfection. Retreating into the glamour of her film success, Gene seemed to effortlessly bounce from one popular film to the next – her fame, stature and salary growing. At Gene’s request, United Artists hired Oleg to design all of her costumes for their film, The Shanghai Gesture (1941) made on loan out from Fox. Back at her studio, Gene and Fox’s biggest male star, Tyrone Power smoldered against a Polynesian backdrop in Son of Fury (1942).
“In the months leading up to WWII,” Gene would later reflect, “…there was a tendency among many Americans to talk absently about the trouble in Europe. Nothing that happened an ocean away seemed very threatening.” However, while shooting her first comedy, Rings on Her Fingers (1942), the world was plunged into the European conflict when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
While Oleg joined the Armed Cavalry in Fort Riley Kansas, Gene campaigned endlessly in war bond rallies and made one of her most memorable films; the romantic period piece - Heaven Can Wait (1943) opposite Don Ameche. In that film, Gene played a mother for the first time – a role she had longed for in real life and one that seemed to be within reach when Gene discovered she was pregnant.
However, one week before her maternity leave, Gene was to meet a total stranger that would result in far reaching complications for the future of her child. A female fan at the Hollywood Canteen inadvertently contaminated Gene with German measles. Though doctors assured Gene that the illness would not impact the health of her pregnancy, the birth of Daria Cassini on Oct. 15, 1943 proved what Gene had suspected during her recovery. Daria was born partially blind, entirely deaf and severely retarded as a result of her infection.
Fox assigned director Otto Preminger to direct Gene in Laura (1944), the film that would ultimately cement Gene’s reputation as a consummate actress. Gene believed that Laura would be a terrible misfire in her career. Instead, it became the biggest grossing film of the year – an instant and immediate classic. At age 24, and with 12 movies to her credit, Gene Tierney was at the top of her career.
That summer, Oleg was honorably discharged from active service. However, his return home, Daria’s increasing chronic health problems and Gene’s long work hours eventually drove a wedge in the marriage, exacerbated by Oleg’s wandering eye with various starlets. Though he denied Gene’s accusations at the time as pure jealousy, Oleg has since acknowledged that his wife had cause for concern on several occasions.
Once again, Fox provided the ideal venue for Gene to vent her frustrations – casting her as the cold and calculating Ellen Berent in John M. Stahl’s Leave Her To Heaven (1945) – a superior thriller that seemed to mirror some of Gene’s own personal frustrations. Gene’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination as Best Actress, though the statuette eventually went to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce. The following year brought further acclaim when Gene cast her hands and feet in cement in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
The incredible emptiness and embarrassment left behind from this latest personal failure was slightly quelled when Gene was introduced to Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy at a social mixer. “He was a serious young man with a dream then,” Gene would later write, “Not a womanizer, not as I understood the term.”
Once again, Gene displayed the same sense of misguided romance that had led her into Cassini’s arms, though Oleg – who had not entirely departed Gene’s confidence – warned her that she would never be allowed to marry Kennedy; a devote Catholic. Sure enough, while on a Cape Cod retreat with her lover, J.F.K. confirmed what Oleg had already suspected. Asked to quantify their relationship years later, Gene seemed perplexed by her reflections, “I’m not sure I can explain the nature of Jack Kennedy’s charm,” she said, “but he took life just as it came.”
Ironically, the latest film to star Tierney was The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); the story of a woman who finds no earthly satisfaction in affairs of the heart but develops a platonic understanding with the ghost of a dead sea captain. Following the end of Gene’s brief encounter with Kennedy, Oleg reentered her life. The couple reconciled and on Nov. 19, 1947 Gene gave birth to their second child, Christina. Although the child was healthy and seemed, at least on the surface, to fulfill Gene’s maternal instincts, Gene would continue to harbor haunted memories of Daria whom she had been encouraged to place in an institution several years before.
“Trying to make order in my life was like trying to pick up a jellyfish.”
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that at the moment Gene Tierney began to slowly find moderate contentment in her personal life her professional stature as a bankable star began to unravel. The war and its resulting fallout had changed audience’s tastes and spending habits, and, the specter of television would soon be invading the movies supremacy. Faced with a dip in their profits the studios mis-fired their top talents in less than stellar entertainments – with mixed, often fatal, results.
Fox thrust Gene into 5 films in just under 2 years, but artistically speaking these were not of the caliber or quality that Gene had been used to – the one exception being Jules Dassin’s noir thriller, Night and the City (1950). “There were days when I worked all the time without layoffs,” Gene would muse, “Finishing one picture and reporting for another – sometime in the same day.”
Night and the City was immediately followed by Otto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) an inferior attempt to reunited director and star with costar Dana Andrews – all of Laura fame. In the film, Oleg appears briefly as a fashion designer. But behind the scenes Gene and Oleg’s reconciled marriage was already on the rocks and going down for the count.
When Oleg refused to acquiesce to Gene’s request that he join her in Argentina while she was shooting Way of the Gaucho (1951), Gene threatened divorce and finally followed through. The strain had become too much. Throughout filming, Gene began to experience sudden signs of exhaustion that gradually developed into disorientation, periods of dementia and a delusional mental instability. Following the film’s completion, Gene and her mother retreated for a holiday to France where Gene became entranced with Muslim Prince Aly Khan, the wily playboy and ex-husband of screen siren Rita Hayworth.
Aly’s father, Aga was one of the wealthiest monarchs in the world, but he did not approve of either his son’s philandering or his sudden attachment to yet another Hollywood film star. Nevertheless, - and despite Oleg’s interference in offering his ex-wife a bit of guidance on the matter - Aly and Gene carried on with their whirlwind romance. It ended badly when the Prince’s proposal of marriage came with the codicils that Gene renounce her family, religion, career and country of origin to live with him obscurely and abroad.
Returning to Fox for The Egyptian (1954) and The Left Hand Of God (1955), Gene once again slipped in and out of mental clarity. She frequently missed cues and call backs, forgot her lines while on set and could not seem to concentrate on anything but her increasing spiral into personal despair. On the latter film, costar Humphrey Bogart treated the fragile actress with kid gloves, feeding Gene her lines and patiently coaxing her through a performance – a kindness Gene never forgot.
Following completion of the film, Gene stayed at her mother’s apartment in New York. But her condition only seemed to worsen. One afternoon, in a near catatonic state, Gene stepped out onto the terrace ledge, and although she did not commit suicide, the next few months of her life were spent in that apartment almost entirely in seclusion, sleeping, hallucinating and openly weeping.
Paralyzed with some inarticulate fear, the inner darkness that had completely taken hold of her reason forced Gene to check herself into the Institute for Living in Hartford Connecticut. Screaming in a locked room, Gene endured 19 electroshock therapy sessions that, in the final analysis, only seemed to exaggerate her memory loss. A series of institutionalizations followed. Most were unsuccessful. The latter, at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka Kansas however, attempted to take hold of the root of Gene’s inner torment with a series of constructive analyses. Gene explored her life and was given a sense of belonging and respect to augment her increasing self worth.
In 1958, Gene was released from the clinic and embarked upon a vacation in Aspen Colorado where she met oil tycoon, Howard Lee. Soft spoken, affectionate and tender, Howard was exactly the sort of individual Gene needed at that particular moment in her life. After suffering another temporary setback in Los Angeles, Gene retreated once again to Menninger, later taking a part time job as a department store sales girl as part of her rehabilitation.
– Gene Tierney
1960 proved a watershed year for Gene in many respects. On her 39th birthday, Gene left Menninger for the last time – determined to return to Hollywood and continue working in films. The question for the aged actress was now – would anyone want to see her in them?
There were constant reminders from her past. In May of 1960, Prince Aly Khan was killed in a fiery automobile accident in France and in November John Kennedy became the President of the United States with Oleg Cassini becoming the official designer of Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House wardrobe. But there were also new and positive events in Gene’s life to look forward to. On July 11th, Gene and Howard Lee were married. Soon afterward, Gene discovered she was pregnant. Unfortunately, the baby was not carried to term.
Two years later, Gene made her final screen appearance in the musical, The Pleasure Seekers (1964), content thereafter to apply her time at the home she shared with Howard in Houston Texas. In 1979, Gene was even inspired to pen her poignant and frank autobiography, ‘Self Portrait’ – an instant best seller that shed inspirational light on mental illness. It would be the last of her waning golden years.
In 1981, Howard died and Gene, already frail from a lifetime of smoking, became ill and distant from former friends and associates. Bouts of mental confusion increasingly plagued her and on November 6, 1997 Gene Tierney finally succumbed to emphysema.
During her reign as Fox’s most unusual and compelling creation of smoldering sensuality and deceptive innocence, Gene Tierney rose through the ranks of stardom to establish herself as an icon of beauty and acting skill. Indeed, she represented the promise of unattainable perfection – a commodity doomed to fail her in the final analysis.
“Eccentric behavior is not routinely noticed on a movie set,” Gene once said, “About my career I was serious and earnest – sometimes impatient. Day after day I spent long afternoons in the talent pool being told how to walk, how to talk, how to sit.”
It was, of course, training of a kind, not perhaps in life skills – the one essential Gene lacked and that became more troublesome as time wore on. Even so, Gene was frankly honest about her place in Hollywood and the importance and function of the studio in a star’s life.
“It never occurred to me to question the judgment of those in charge of the studio,” Gene wrote in her memoirs, “Hollywood can be hard on women but it did not cause my problems. The main cause of my difficulties stemmed from the tragedy of my daughter’s unsound birth and my inability to face my feelings.”
As age crept in to whittle away her physical attributes, Gene also showed remarkable foresight and acceptance into the fragile nature of youth. “I do not recall spending long hours in front of a mirror, loving my own reflection,” Gene wrote, “I simply did not want my face to be my talent. I have a role now that I think becomes me. I am a grandmother.”
At some point in her career, the dream turned dark, then ugly, then redemptive, and finally, sadly tragic. “She was a girl who had everything,” former husband Oleg Cassini mused years later, “…and at some point it was all taken away…she was the unluckiest lucky girl in the world.”
Gene herself was a little more optimistic in her own defense and analysis. “Wealth, beauty and fame are transient. When those are gone, little is left except the need to be useful.”
Indeed, it was that lack of ‘feeling useful’ – especially for Daria that seems to have started Gene’s slow mental decline. “She was never the same afterwards,” Oleg Cassini has said. Perhaps the more pertinent question of the time ought to have been, ‘How could she be?’ Gene was a sensitive girl – someone who aspired to please others, to do right by people – even those she only came casually in contact with, and mostly, with selfless motives attached.
That, by her own set of standards she failed to ‘do right’ by her first child must have been an unbearable burden. And yet, by 1979 Gene Tierney had overcome her worst fears and greatest personal failures. She had transcended personal demons, self loathing and unfathomable sorrow to impart these experiences with great honor, dignity and clarity of purpose. Yet, perhaps her greatest assessment for the ages came last of all.
“Life is a little like a message in a bottle”, Gene wrote shortly before she died, “…to be carried by the winds and the tides.”
@Nick Zegarac 2008 (all rights reserved).