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Gene Tierney: A Life of Pain and Sorrow

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., has 42 years experience as a journalist and editor. She has also studied film, acting, and theater.

Promotional photograph of actress Gene Tierney, early 1940's.

Promotional photograph of actress Gene Tierney, early 1940's.

Gene Eliza Tierney (November 19, 1920 – November 6, 1991), an A-list actress from the 1940s, often seemed to be walking on a tightrope that divided the expectations of her parents and the public from her own dreams and desires. By her own admission, she lived a sheltered life and it is possible that this wall of seclusion was her downfall leading to years of mental anguish and personal suffering.

A Quiet Childhood

According to her 1979 autobiography, Self-Portrait, Tierney felt overly-protected in her childhood. She was educated at St. Margaret’s, a private school in Waterbury, and the Unquowa School in Fairfield, Connecticut. She spent two years in Europe finishing her education at the Brillantmont International School in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In Switzerland, according to Tierney, she lived a quiet life writing poetry and studying French, which she spoke fluently. She was often alone and preferred spending time with books over friends. In 1938, she attended Miss Porter’s School, a distinguished college preparatory school in Connecticut and it was during this time that her life of seclusion took a drastically different turn.

Publicity still of Gene Tierney and Jeni Le Gon from Sundown, 1941.

Publicity still of Gene Tierney and Jeni Le Gon from Sundown, 1941.

The Screen Test

In a 1979 interview with Mike Douglas on The Mike Douglas Show, Tierney explained her early introduction to Hollywood. According to Tierney, she was vacationing with her mother, Belle, her sister Pat and her brother Butch in California in 1938. The family toured Warner Brothers Studio so they could visit the cousin of Tierney's mother, Gordon Hollingshead, a film producer who received six Academy Awards during his career. Tierney's stunning beauty attracted attention everywhere they went and she was offered a screen test.

The studio also offered to test Tierney's mother. "She was so pretty, so poised," Tierney said. It was Gene who was offered a contract, but she was 17 at the time and her parents thought she was too young for Hollywood. Tierney's family was also prominent in social circles and it's possible that her parents believed an acting career was beneath her social status. She made her social "debut" in 1938, about the same time she informed her parents that she wanted to be an actress.

She may have been sheltered, but Gene was also determined. She left for New York to study acting. She worked with Director Benno Schneider and Broadway producer George Abbott. Her first Broadway role was in 1938 in What a Life!

Bruce Cabot and Gene Tierney in Sundown, 1941.

Bruce Cabot and Gene Tierney in Sundown, 1941.

A Slow Start

Tierney appeared on Broadway and received favorable reviews from Variety and The New York Times. Her father started a corporation, Belle-Tier, to support—or perhaps control—her acting career. Then in 1939, Columbia Pictures offered Tierney a six-month contract, but they failed to assign her a project so she returned to Broadway.

In 1940, Tierney was cast as Patricia Stanley in The Male Animal and was an instant hit. She was featured in Life Magazine and had photographs in Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, and Collier's Weekly. The publicity attracted film producer Darryl F. Zanuck who offered Gene a contract with 20th Century Fox, which she accepted.

Promotional photograph of Gene Tierney, circa 1940.

Promotional photograph of Gene Tierney, circa 1940.

Strong, Bold Characters

Shortly after signing with Fox, Tierney was cast with Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James (1940). The following year she appeared as Barbara Hall in Hudson's Bay, as Ellie Mae Lester in John Ford's Tobacco Road, as Belle Starr in Belle Starr, as Zia in Sundown, and as Victoria Charteris in The Shanghai Gesture! It was a nightmare filming schedule, but contract actors were expected to work hard for studio executives, who controlled every aspect of the lives of the actors, including dating and marriage. The stress must have been tremendous.

It's also interesting to note that the characters she portrayed in these films are strong, bold women, almost complete opposites of the person Tierney described when discussing her life in her autobiography. The effort required to play these characters could have been difficult for her, but it's also possible that she was acting out on dreams of the type of person she wished to become.

Gene Tierney, publicity trailer for the film "Laura."

Gene Tierney, publicity trailer for the film "Laura."

Playing the Sociopath

In 1943, Tierney was cast as Martha Strable, the lead in the comedy, Heaven Can Wait. The film was nominated for three Oscars, which increased Tierney's popularity. The following year she appeared in one of her most famous films, Otto Preminger’s mystery, Laura. Tierney played the titular character, Laura Hunt. The movie was nominated for five Oscars and while Tierney’s intense performance deserved one of those nominations, it didn't happen.

In 1945 Tierney starred as the scheming psychopath, Ellen Harland, in the mystery drama, Leave Her to Heaven. It is a chilling film and Tierney's portrayal of Ellen Harland is flawless. She was finally nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance.

In 1946, Tierney once again thrilled the critics and her growing number of fans with her performance as Isabel Bradley in The Razor's Edge. Tyrone Power was the leading man and their attraction was obvious. It is widely believed that Tierney and Power had a brief love affair. As for her role, Tierney was expected to once again play a conniving woman with sociopathic behavior patterns. In order to play these roles, Tierney was expected to enter the minds of these characters, to become them, which would be difficult for anyone.

Gene Tierney screenshot from "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

Gene Tierney screenshot from "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir

In 1947, Tierney played Lucy Muir opposite Rex Harrison in the comedy/drama, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Gene gave another outstanding performance as a woman who falls in love with a ghost, and the ghost falls in love with her! The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was—and remains to this day—a treasured fan favorite. It's yet another example of the strange, quirky characters Tierney played throughout her acting career.

After The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Tierney's film roles came fast and furious and she turned into one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars. However, with fame came constant attention from fans. Her sheltered childhood made the attention difficult, the pressure almost unbearable. In fact, the actions of one of these obsessed fans sent Gene Tierney into a downward spiral of depression and mental illness during a dark time in mental health treatment.

Gene Tierney and Oleg Cassini

Tierney was engaged to actor Robert Sterling, but her parents interfered. In fact, they objected to the union so adamantly that Sterling and Tierney ended the relationship.

Later, Gene became engaged to fashion designer Oleg Cassini and once again her parents objected. This time, however, Tierney and Cassini stood up to her parents. The two eloped on June 1, 1941, and from their union a pair of daughters were born: Antoinette Daria Cassini on October 15, 1943, and Christina Cassini on November 19, 1948.

Oleg Cassini and Gene Tierney at the Stork Club, c. 1950.

Oleg Cassini and Gene Tierney at the Stork Club, c. 1950.

A Fan's Confession Leads to Years of Depression

In 1943, while she was pregnant with her daughter, Daria, Tierney contracted rubella during an appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. Daria was born premature and required a complete blood transfusion due to Tierney's illness. Daria was also deaf, partially blind, and had severe mental difficulties. Tierney’s close friend, Howard Hughes, paid Daria's medical expenses.

Years later, Tierney was approached by a fan who told her she had rubella while in the military and broke her quarantine restrictions in order to meet Tierney at the Hollywood Canteen. Tierney suddenly realized this woman most likely caused her illness and her daughter's disabilities resulting from needless rubella exposure. Stunned, Tierney stared at the woman then walked away. Agatha Christie later used the incident in her Jane Marple mystery The Mirror Crack’d.

Tierney suffered years of depression due to misplaced guilt and grief for her daughter's suffering. She was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which led to a 1955 hospitalization and 27 shock treatments! In her autobiography, Tierney stated that she believed the shock treatments destroyed her memory. In late 1957, she was hospitalized again after standing on a ledge 14 stories above the ground.

Screenshot of Gene Tierney from the film Leave Her to Heaven.

Screenshot of Gene Tierney from the film Leave Her to Heaven.

Finding a Place of Peace

Eventually, Tierney's strength and determination prevailed and she survived the pain of her past. She walked away from the mental health clinic's treatments with a public announcement that she was cured, but later stated that she believed the shock treatments had destroyed her memory.

Tierney met Howard Lee, a Texas oil baron, while he was married to actress Hedy Lamarr. Lee divorced Lamarr and married Tierney in 1960. After so many years of suffering, Tierney finally believed she had found peace. The couple lived happily together until his death in 1981.

In her autobiography, Tierney claimed that when she first heard her voice on film she thought it was too high-pitched and started smoking to make it sound deeper. Ironically, she died of emphysema in Houston, Texas in 1991.

Gene Tierney appeared in 41 films in 40 years. For her lifetime achievements in film, Tierney was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. She also received the first Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival Spain.

Sources:

"Gene Tierney Biography." The Biography Channel. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2009.
"Gene Tierney, Rare 1979 TV Interview." Interview with Mike Douglas. You Tube. Web. 24 Jan. 2016.
Severo, Richard. " Gene Tierney, 70, Star of ‘Laura’ and ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ Dies.” The New York Times. Pub. Nov. 8, 1991. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2016.
Tierney, Gene with Mickey Herskowitz. Self-Portrait. Wyden Books, 1979

© 2022 Darla Sue Dollman