By Kendahl Cruver
Tierney was one of the great beauties of classic Hollywood and an actress of
somewhat underrated ability. She was born into a society family on November 19,
1920 in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Howard, was a successful insurance
broker. He and his wife Belle were extraordinarily attractive and Gene, her
brother and sister all inherited their good looks.
Though Gene's early childhood was uneventful, the Depression brought dramatic
changes. Howard struggled to maintain his business. Nevertheless, she was sent
to a Swiss boarding school to finish her education properly.
In the summer of 1938, Howard sent the family on a cross-country trip. Belle
asked her best friend to watch out for her husband. She did her job so well
that they were soon married.
When they reached Hollywood, Howard's business contacts arranged studio tours
for the family. On the Warner Brother's tour, a director admired Gene and
offered her a screen test. The test was successful; Gene was offered a
Howard wouldn't let Gene accept the contract. He agreed to support her ambitions
if she would learn acting on the stage first and make her society debut in the
Fall. She made her debut, but the parties that followed bored her. Howard
realized that he was going to have to keep his promise.
Wednesday, Howard took her to meet with agents and producers. Her inexperience
made them wary, but Gene's father had taught her how to sell. Within a few
weeks, she'd won a role.
When Gene's earned good personal reviews, Warner Brother's made an offer, but
Howard encouraged her to wait for a better salary. She soon accepted a more
lucrative deal from Columbia.
After six idle months in Hollywood, Gene declined an offer to renew her contract
and returned to New York. There she received good reviews when she replaced an
actress in The Male Animal. This time Twentieth Century Fox beckoned, and Gene
refused to sign until she was guaranteed work.
Gene's first film appearance was in The Return of Frank James, starring
Fonda. Gene admired Fonda's professionalism. She earned a good reputation for
herself by following his lead.
Eager to improve her skills, Gene would stay on the set after her scenes to
observe the actors. She would also screen 4-5 movies a night to study them. With
appearances in Tobacco Road, Hudson's Bay and her first starring role,
Star (All 1941), she began to learn her craft.
Somehow, Gene found time to take in Hollywood nightlife. One evening, she met
designer Oleg Cassini. As her friends and family disapproved of her dating a
foreigner, they secretly eloped in Las Vegas. The marriage was quickly
troubled. They argued because Gene worked long hours, while Cassini struggled to
find work. Nevertheless, Gene became pregnant.
World War II began, Cassini joined the Coast Guard. Gene went to work for the
war effort, giving speeches, selling bonds, and working at the Hollywood
Canteen. One night at the Canteen, Gene caught German Measles, an illness that
would ultimately change her life.
Gene gave birth prematurely to a daughter she named Daria; she suffered severe
health problems from the start. Doctors told Gene she would never speak or
progress mentally. She learned that her bought with German Measles early stages
of pregnancy had damaged her baby's brain. Eventually, she reluctantly took
doctor's advice to have Daria institutionalized. She was four years old. Around
this time, Gene and Cassini decided to separate.
About a year after Daria was born, a former marine approached Gene at a party.
She told her how she had broken quarantine, though she had had German Measles,
so she could go to the Hollywood Canteen. It was on a night when Gene was
working. Though stunned by the story, she didn't mention Daria.
In the midst of this tragedy, Gene's career thrived. She played her most famous
role in the mystery Laura in 1944. Soon after, she earned an Academy Award
nomination for her chilling portrayal of a dangerously jealous woman in Leave
Her to Heaven (1945). She was also strong in Heaven Can Wait (1943),
Edge (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).
Cassini and Gene reunited in 1948. On November 19, 1949, their second daughter,
Christina, was born. Still, the marriage remained strained. They divorced in
1952, but remained friends.
Now unexplained anxieties that had always plagued Gene began to intensify. She
was suffering symptoms of manic depression, a disease that was not widely
understood at the time. She often felt wildly irrational as she worked on The
Egyptian (1954) and the tension showed in (and, perversely, improved) her
performance. After a series of psychiatric sessions failed, she traveled to
Europe with her mother and Christina to relax.
The trip didn't improve her condition. She returned to appear in The Left Hand
God. At the end of production, she was admitted to the Institute for Living,
where she endured brutal shock treatments. Still unstable when released to her
mother in 1958, she was caught standing on the window ledge of her New York
apartment. She spent the next few years at the Menninger Clinic.
After her second release, Gene took a trip to Aspen. There she met Texas oilman
Howard Lee, who was recently divorced from Hedy Lamarr. He was hesitant to date
another actress, but he soon adored Gene. They were engaged.
Not long after the engagement, Gene regressed. She returned to the clinic for
another year. Upon her release, Lee was still eager to marry her. They settled
in Texas and were together until his death in 1981.
Aside from a few film roles and television appearances, Gene had essentially
retired by the fifties. She returned to Hollywood for a while in sixties, but
she didn't like how the studios had changed.
Gene died of Emphysema on November 6, 1991. Though she had struggled to the end
with her mental illness, she never returned to the clinic. In the end, Gene
Tierney had weathered a rough, but rich life.
Kendahl Cruver is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. She also writes about
classic actresses for
Suite101.com. Kendahl's previous submission to
The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter was Mae West.
Other Gene Tierney Pages:
Jackson's Gene Tierney Page -- One of Hollywood's most Popular
Actresses of All Time!
Gene Tierney Web Site -- Web Site dedicated to 1940s Hollywood actress Gene Tierney, star of Laura. Biography, Filmography, pictures.
The Unique Beauty of Gene Tierney -- Essay by Michael Atkinson from December 1994 movieline Magazine. On silverscreensirens.com.
Whirlpool -- Part of Cliff's Classic
DVD List right here on things-and-other-stuff.com