The Sad Tragic Life Of Gene Tierney

Published on: March 8, 2014
Photography by: Twentieth Century Fox Pictures/Sunset Blvd./Corbis
The Sad Tragic Life Of Gene Tierney
The Sad Tragic Life Of Gene Tierney

Behind the tragic veil of screen goddess GENE TIERNEY lay unmentionable horrors as her life disintegrated into unrelenting despair, madness and death.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, 1920 Gene wanted to be more than a debutante – mere flora and fauna to a successful man’s power and wealth.

Her father, Howard, a wealthy New York insurance broker, obsessed with upward mobility, denied his children nothing  -- including the screaming matches of unrelenting hostility between him and his wife. Trapped in a world of hate and anguish, Gene began to retreat to the fantasy stage of her mind. 

After making her debut in society at age 17, she rebelled against her strict father’s reign. Gene quickly made her mark on Broadway in a series of forgettable plays – notable for only one thing -- her serene beauty. Theater critic Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune gushed, “I see no reason why Miss Tierney should not have an interesting career – that is, if cinema doesn’t kidnap her away.”

In 1940, three years later, she was signed to a contract by Twentieth Century Fox. In a calculated move, her father, Howard, acted as conservator because she was underage-  setting up a corporation to manage her money after he had already lost his.

Gene made her screen debut in director Fritz Lang’s “The Return of Frank James” opposite Henry Fonda. Seeing the film rushes, she was horrified. “I sounded like a sped-up Minnie Mouse” she recalled, and began smoking in an attempt to lower her speaking voice.

With her career on the upswing appearing in a succession of popular films including “Belle Starr”, “The Shanghai Gesture” and “Son of Fury”, she finally received full star treatment in Ernst Lubitsch’s black comedy “Heaven Can Wait”.

Meanwhile, against her father’s wishes, Gene was wooed and wed by Paramount’s resident playboy fashion designer Oleg Cassini. After a whirlwind romance they tied the knot June 1, 1941.

Despite her new found happiness, Gene soon discovered her father had lost all her money in questionable investments. Enraged, she dissolved the corporation and never spoke to him until he lay dying.

Now, with World War 2 underway, a heavily pregnant Gene did her part for the war effort. Appearing at the famed Hollywood Canteen with other stars she shockingly contracted German measles from an over-zealous female Marine who left quarantine because she “just had to meet” her favorite star. In doing so, the fan doomed Gene’s first child to a living interminable hell.

On Oct. 15, 1943, Gene and Oleg’s baby, Daria, was born -- severely mentally retarded, deaf and partially blind.

"The emptiness inside me was like a cave," Gene wrote, recalling the horror.  "She was a sweet little girl, with golden curls and soft skin.  Physically she looked just like any other 4-year-old.  I cried for Daria and I cried for me until I didn't know where the tears came from."

Despite visits to many specialists, the distraught couple was told that nothing could be done for the child except constant supervised care in an institution. They placed their daughter in a facility and her care was bankrolled by Gene’s billionaire pal Howard Hughes.

On the screen, Gene soared in what many call her defining role – the glamorous star of Otto Preminger’s “Laura”. It’s is no mean feat to make the audience and the lead character to fall in love with a painting of Gene before she even appears onscreen but when she finally does - Gene’s ethereal performance delivers in spades.

But as the on and off-screen stress mounted, Gene and Cassini’s marriage was on the rocks and they separated October 20, 1946.  An uncontested divorce followed. They remained close with Oleg designing her film wardrobe. Despite their shared emotional grief they later reconciled but never re-married.

Seeking refuge from her anguish, while filming the “Jane Eyre”-like gothic “Dragonwyck”, Gene saw beyond the klieg lights into the piercing eyes of a new and exciting love – finding romance with a dashing Navy blue and gold war hero.  Although very much in love, the Naval officer refused to marry her. Since she was divorced she was officially off-limits to the Roman Catholic officer  -- especially one with political ambitions.

Crushed by the end of her torrid affair with future President John F. Kennedy, Gene reconciled with Oleg. Soon, they had a second daughter, Christina, who was born perfectly normal in every way.

Tapping into her inner mental and emotional turmoil Gene won kudos and an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her role of a narcissistic murderer in “Leave Her to Her Heaven”. The film was Fox’s most successful box office hit of the 1940s and propelled Gene into other hits “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”, “The Razor’s Edge” and “Whirlpool”.

 But, by 1951, her marriage with Cassini was finally over and she entered into a succession of doomed love affairs including Prince Aly Khan who had previously played footsies with Tinsel Town’s other reigning beauty Rita Hayworth.

Juggling film roles and a spiraling personal life, Gene later wrote she felt like she “falling down a manhole.”

Finally, overcome by terror, Gene collapsed – suffering a full mental breakdown. She locked herself away in her mother’s New York apartment trapped in a swirling miasma between dreamless sleep and hallucination. 

Realizing she needed more than simple treatment, Gene was taken to a mental health facility, the Harkness Pavilion in New York. There the screen beauty was strapped down and given multiple electro shock treatments. The powerful jolts of unrestrained electricity destroyed not only her memory but her fragile grip on reality.

Locked in, strapped down and screaming, Gene received an additional 19 shock therapy treatments at the prestigious Institute for Living in Connecticut.

Upon release, seemingly cured, in 1957, but unable to return to film acting because of her inability to remember lines, Gene was teetering again on the edge of the abyss.

On Christmas Day, clad only in a sheer night gown, paranoia raging with every swing of a bi-polar pendulum and hallucinating wildly, Hollywood’s most beautiful star clung by her fingernails to the wall of a skyscraper 14 stories up – far from the teeming throngs of normalcy of a bustling New York street on Christmas Day.

“Slowly, I swung myself out of bed, walked into the living room and raised the window” Gene recalled in her memoir.  “The next thing I knew I was on the ledge.  It was hardly more than two feet wide. I kept my arms and back pressed against the building, my fingers digging into the rough surface.  But I felt almost serene...

“I must have stood there for 20 minutes. I was totally without fear, and I thought, 'What's the point of living?' 

What ultimately saved Gene, she writes, was her own vanity.

“I thought of what I'd look like when I hit the ground – like a scrambled egg.  That didn't appeal to me.  If I was going to die, I wanted to be in one piece." 

Seeking additional help at the Menninger Clinic, Gene finally began to address her feelings of guilt over her retarded daughter, failed relationships, hatred of her father and her own self-loathing.

As part of her therapy in 1957 she worked as a salesgirl at a local department store in an attempt to normalize her far from the dream/nightmare polarities of Hollywood.

 After being recognized by a customer, Gene’s secret breakdown was secret no more. Doctors advised her, as part of her therapy, to speak openly with the press as her private anguish became headlines around the world.

Seemingly now OK, Gene was offered a comeback role starring in “Holiday for Lovers” but the stress proved too great. Days into production, she was forced to bow out and admit defeat returning to doctors’ care at Menninger.

As she rebounded professionally, so she did personally, marrying Texas oil billionaire W. Howard Lee in 1958.

Gene was promptly announced as the lead for the Cinemascope soaper “Peyton Place” but dropped out because she had gotten pregnant. She miscarried.

A few years later she made her official comeback in the political thriller “Advise and Consent” (1962) and after two more films she retired – only to “unretire” for the made-for-TV flick “Daughter of the Mind” with Ray Milland.

In her autobiography “Self Portrait” published in 1979, Gene brought the stigma of mental illness out of the shadows, helping others to meet the grim challenge.  “Trying to make order out of my life was like trying to pick up a jellyfish,” she wrote.

Sadly, Gene Tierney died in 1991 from emphysema in Houston, Texas – a victim of the very thing that helped make her a star – smoking.

And yet, when one sees Gene live again on the screen, in the captured shadow shows of an idealized dream, Lord Byron’s words come to mind:  “She walks in beauty, like the night…”