Gene Tierney (1920 – 1991)

Gene Tierney (1920 – 1991)

The Tragic, Resilient Tale of a Revered Actress’ Struggle For Inner Peace

By Lyn Singer


When she was a young actress starting out, a cameraman told her to lose some weight because a ‘skinny face is sexier.’ Later in life, she confided to a reporter that she loved to eat but went “hungry for most of the 25 years,” that she was a star.

Gene Tierney was a breath-taking beauty and mesmerising actress from the 1940s. I first saw Gene on television when I was twelve in the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. By candlelight, her impossibly high cheekbones and tranquil face were more unearthly than Rex Harrison’s ghostly sea captain. She was well known for her ‘enchanting’ overbite, something you don’t see in these days of perfect teeth.

Gene Tierney in a promotional still for Laura. (20th Century Fox)

During those ‘hungry’ years, she dated President John F. Kennedy and Howard Hughes, was engaged to Prince Aly Khan and married a Count. She was considered one of the most fashionable women in the world, had two children and was the inspiration for an Agatha Christie novel. She went mad then sane, then mad and sane, again, before marrying a Texas oil millionaire and eventually dying from ‘studio-induced’ causes. She was beautiful, stylish, talented and, by 1956, was an inmate in an asylum. After between 26 and 32 electric shock treatments, she lost three year’s worth of memories.

By the mid 1950’s, she had developed manic depression and was considered a danger to herself and others. In the asylum, she thought her fellow inmates were ‘all Stanislavski method actors.” Her shock treatment consisted of an electrode on each temple sending an alternating current of up to 90 volts. In the early days of shock treatment, patient’s bodies responded so violently that they often dislocated and fractured bones. After the unusually high number of treatments, Gene was not only left with three missing years and other random gaps in her memory, but she had also lost the ‘edge’ she needed to drive her acting.

So how did she go from the tranquil beauty of 1939 to this?

She was born in 1920 into a rich East Coast family who expected her to follow the debutante’s life. Gene wanted a career and independence. For a woman in pre-war USA, acting was one of the few semi-respectable choices. After a brief stint on Broadway she was signed on at Twentieth Century Fox, where she appeared in some of the decade’s best films: the cult film noir Laura (1944), Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). She was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as the femme fatale in the 1945 film Leave Her to Heaven.

Tierney in The Razor’s Edge. (20th Century Fox)

During this period, she was wined and dined by some of the most eligible men in America. The millionaire Howard Hughes tried to impress her with his money but, as she had come from wealth, she was not won over, though they did become lifelong friends. Her first husband was the Russian fashion designer Oleg Cassini. Gene remembers thinking him ‘the most dangerous-looking character she had ever seen.’ He represented all that was foreign, glamorous and continental.

Her parents and the studio hated the match. In 1941, in a scene straight out of Star is Born, they eloped to Las Vegas where a studio publicity executive burst into the registry office seconds too late to stop the ceremony. There were three reasons the studio and Gene’s family opposed the match: Oleg was a known womaniser, his salary was a tenth of Gene’s and, worst of all, he wasn’t even American.

When the war arrived in the U.S. Gene – like other big Hollywood stars – was expected to help boost morale by attending the Hollywood Canteen, a club where Servicemen and women could meet their favourite stars. Gene arrived one night in a particularly good mood, as she knew she was in the early stages of her first pregnancy. She was keeping it a secret, as these were the days when studios had the right to put an actress on suspension without pay if she became pregnant when under contract. What Gene didn’t know, and didn’t find out till years later, was that a young lady marine had broken quarantine to meet her. She had German measles, otherwise known as rubella, and she had given the virus to Gene.

When her daughter Daria was twelve months old, they saw signs that she might be deaf. Gene’s friend Howard Hughes flew in one of the leading paediatric doctors of the time to look at the little girl. Though outwardly she looked like a perfect ‘golden haired’ child, she was severely retarded and deaf as a result of Gene’s rubella. Gene tried to look after Daria herself but when the little girl was four she was talked into putting her in a home, where she stayed for the rest of her life. At the time she kept her emotions in check but, when the breakdown came a few years later, she often cried for days and weeks at a time. Daria never talked or saw clearly and when her mother visited she only ‘sniffed at her neck’ and hugged her.

Tierney in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. (20th Century Fox)

Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d is based on an actress who goes through the same scenario although in the book, when the actress finds out the awful truth years later at a party from the young woman herself, she murders her.

Her marriage to Oleg didn’t survive and she was soon courted by John F. Kennedy, who loved her dearly but made it known he could never marry a divorced non-Catholic and Gene refused to stay on as his mistress. Next was the Prince Aly Khan, the heir to the Ismaili Muslims and the originator of the European jet-set scene. They did become engaged but Gene was no Grace Kelly, willing to give up her career and independence for a title. Besides, she already had one of those as Oleg Cassini was technically a Russian Count.

Back in the U.S., she tried to return to work but found it increasingly hard to even get out of bed. She later said of this time that ‘trying to make order out of my life was like trying to pick up jellyfish.’ Within a year, she was standing on a window sill contemplating jumping. She claimed vanity saved her: “I don’t want to end up on the pavement like so much scrambled eggs, my face and body broken… If I was going to die, I wanted it to be in one piece, a whole person, and look pretty in my coffin.”

After her hospitalisations, Gene made a few attempts at a career comeback but ultimately found happiness with a quietly spoken Texas oil millionaire, Howard Lee. They lived a quiet life on his Texas Ranch, where she reconnected with her second daughter Christina and enjoyed being a grandmother to her children.

Tierney with her second daughter, Christina.

Early in her career, around the same time she started dieting, a studio executive told Gene that her voice was ‘too high to be sexy’ and advised her to take up smoking.

She died of emphysema in 1991.




Laura (1944)

Director:               Otto Preminger

Co-starring:        Dana Andrews

Clifton Webb

Vincent Price

Gene’s character:

Laura Hunt, a beautiful and successful advertising executive who is thought to be the victim of murder.

Storyline (no spoilers):

A detective is bought in to investigate a suspected murder, only to end up falling in love with the dead victim after interviewing her friends, reading her letters and staring at the enormous painting of the beautiful Laura hanging at the supposed murder scene. The film is wittily narrated by Laura Hunt’s mentor, the newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, an arrogant and surprisingly effeminate poser who claims he is the only one who truly loved her.

The American Film Institute ranked it number four in the top ten mystery films of all time.

Favourite quote:

Waldo Lydecker – “I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.”


The Razor’s Edge (1946)

Director:              Edmund Goulding

Co-starring:        Tyrone Power

Anne Baxter

Clifton Webb

Gene’s character:

Isabel Bradley, a well-bred girl engaged to Larry Darrell at the beginning of the film.

Storyline (no spoilers):

The film opens at a party where the narrator, the author W. Somerset Maugham (Herbert Marshall), is introduced to a group of young friends including Isabel and Larry, who are newly engaged. The story follows their lives as told by Maugham, as World War I and the Great Depression changes them all. Larry becomes a searcher for a simpler life and Isabel doesn’t understand why he won’t work, just wanting to ‘loaf around’ instead. The story contrasts the lives of Larry in his quest to leave behind materialism with that of Isabel’s vain, pompous and very materialistic uncle Elliot Templeton.

Gene Tierney was who the author had in mind for Isabel when he wrote the book.

There is betrayal, death, sadness, opium, Paris, India and nirvana. This is a film that proves the new age wasn’t something invented in the 1970’s.

Favourite quote:

Elliot Templeton – “I do not like the propinquity of the hoi polloi.”

[Translation: I don’t like ordinary people to get to close to me.]


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Director:              Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Co-starring:        Rex Harrison

George Sanders

Gene’s character: 

Lucy Muir, a young widow with a small child.

Storyline (no spoilers):

Against the wishes of her parents and in-laws, Lucy, her daughter (Natalie Wood) and her housekeeper rent Gull Cottage near a small seaside community only to find it already occupied by the ghost of its ex-owner, Captain Daniel Gregg. He agrees to appear only to Lucy and she agrees to write his memoirs. The quietly spoken, well-bred Lucy is at first shocked by the Captain’s language and stories of life at sea, but in the end she is more than his match.

The story is a romantic fantasy that plays out over the lifetime of Lucy. I fell in love with Rex Harrison when I first saw this movie when I was twelve. More than that, he ‘stirred my loins’ for the first time, something you never forget.

Favourite quote:

Lucy Muir – [when she first encounters the ghost of Daniel Gregg] “You’ll forgive me if I take a moment to get accustomed to you.”

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