Gene Tierney was an Old Hollywood bombshell who attracted attention wherever she went. She could catch the eye of anyone from a major name like Howard Hughes to studio heads who clamored to offer her parts.
What many didn’t know about, however, were the tragedies she experienced off-camera. Despite a comfortable early life in high society, her mental and physical health began to crumble. After the traumatic birth of her first daughter. Intrusive treatments weren’t enough to bring her back to her former heights.
Her Early Life and Career
Gene Tierney was born on November 19, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York to Howard Sherwood Tierney and Bella Lavinia Taylor. She was named after her uncle and had a brother named Howard Sherwood Tierney Jr. and a sister named Patricia.
Gene became interested in the arts at an early age and had a poem published in her school’s magazine. Gene Tierney attended the Green Farms private school and played Jo in a production of Little Women at the Unquoa School in Fairfield.
She went to the Brillantmont International School in Switzerland for 2 years where she learned to be fluent in French. Gene later returned to America to attend the prestigious Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut.
Gene said that women of her day, especially those of her status, were expected to finish school, marry a Yale boy, and live in Connecticut. She had an official “coming-out” party to announce her entry into society and marriage eligibility on September 24, 1938, when she was 17.
She quickly became bored with the high-society life and wanted to become an actress instead. A visit to Warner Brothers Studio’s nearly earned her a contract with director Anatole Litvak.
Her father insisted she become a legitimate actress on stage first. She took his advice and began her early career with Broadway director Benno Schnieder in New York.
Her first role was as a water carrier in the 1938 production of What a Life. But even that small part began to earn her attention. She continued to land more roles, including Molly O’Day in the 1939 production of Mrs. O’Brien Entertains and Peggy Carr in a production of Ring Two the same year.
One of her first film roles was in Heaven Can Wait. The director Ernst Lubitsch shouted at and berated her at first, but they eventually learned to get along.
Her parents began to support her once her career took off. And her father even opened up a corporation called Belle-Tier. It helped her earn her first movie contract with Columbia Pictures. They offered $350 a week for a 6-month deal. That attempt flopped when her inability to remember her lines for the film Coast Guard with Randolph Scott led the studio head to replace her.
She went back to the New York stage and found success with the 1940 production of The Male Animal. That role attracted critical attention and made Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Twentieth Century Fox, take notice. He signed her the next day.
This contract lead to parts in films such as The Return of Frank James in 1940 and Hudson’s Bay and Tobacco Road in 1941. Her starring role in Belle Star was her breakout part, and it only lead to more success. That same year led to her scoring parts in Sundown and The Shanghai Gesture, and she also appeared in Sons of Fury, Rings on Her Fingers, Thunder Birds, and China Girl in 1941.
Her Love Life
Gene met designer Oleg Cassini at a party held by their mutual friend Constance Moore. They were smitten, and he went on to design many of the costumes for her films. They eloped on June 1, 1941, when she was 20.
Her parents didn’t approve of his Russian-Italian heritage or the fact that he was born in France. They were so upset that they attempted to sue her for 25% of her earnings, and the tension caused her parents to separate.
Gene and Oleg had 2 daughters, Daria and Christina. They separated in 1946, divorced in 1948, reunited for a bit, then divorced amicably but permanently in 1952. He made out well on the deal and became an even more famous designer.
Gene met John F. Kennedy in 1946 while separated from Oleg. They had a brief romance that ended when he admitted that his political aspirations meant he could never marry her. When he became president years later, she sent him a congratulatory note but admitted that she’d voted for Richard Nixon due to her strong Republican leanings.
Gene met Howard Hughes while working with Columbia. He was infatuated with her beauty and attempted to seduce her, but she wasn’t impressed.
Gene was used to rich, high-society men and wanted more than money and status. She once joked that he could “never love anything that didn’t have a motor in it” as a reference to his well-known love of planes. They never became lovers but did remain friends throughout their lives.
Gene even had a brief relationship with Prince Aly Khan of Pakistan and engaged in 1952 while he was finalizing a divorce from Rita Hayworth. His father opposed the marriage, and the pressure caused her to break off the engagement.
Gene eventually found true love when she met oil baron W. Howard Lee in 1958. They were married in July of 1960 and stayed together in a home in Texas until 1981. She credits his love with getting her through the most difficult periods of her life.
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The Tragedy of Her First Daughter
Gene contracted rubella while pregnant. She caught it from a fan who broke quarantine to meet her on the tennis court of the Hollywood Canteen. The illness drastically affected her first daughter.
Daria Cassini was born in October of 1943, She was deaf, partially blind, and mentally disabled. She was also severely premature at only 3 pounds 2 ounces and needed blood transfusions and constant care in her early years. Gene didn’t even learn about the cause of her daughter’s illness until the fan admitted what she had done when they met again years later.
The incident was so tragic that it inspired the plot of the 1962 Agatha Christi novel The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and the 1980 film based on it. It offers a more dramatic ending where the mother slips poison into the fan’s cocktail. But it’s as tragic as the real events it’s based on.
Daria continued to need regular care and had to spend the rest of her life in an institution. The stress led to the end of Gene’s marriage. Her friend Howard Hughes paid Daria’s medical bills, and she lived to the age of 66 and passed away in 2010. The incident devastated Gene and led to many of the other tragedies and mental health struggles she experienced in her life.
Gene’s mental state began to deteriorate thanks to her daughter’s struggles, her first divorce, and a rocky relationship with her parents. This became apparent in the early 50s.
She had to drop out of the 1953 film Mogambo and couldn’t remember her lines on the set of the 1955 film The Left Hand of God. Her co-star Humphrey Bogart recognized the signs of mental illness that he’d seen in his sister and recommended that Gene seek help.
She spent 3 years in 3 different hospitals and received over 27 shock treatments at the Institute of Living in Connecticut. They did more harm than good by severely impacting her memory and making her feel, in her own words, “like a lab rat.” She even attempted to leave the facility but was dragged back.
Gene’s physical health deteriorated along with her mental health. She took up smoking to lower her voice and went on a restrictive diet after a photographer commented on her weight. She was even self-conscious about her protruding front teeth and attempted to hide them with lipstick.
When her career was at its lowest point in the early 50s, she took up a simpler job as a sales clerk This attempt to stay out of the spotlight failed when a fan recognized her face and contacted the media. They turned her into a tabloid headline, reporting on her fall from grace.
All of this misfortune nearly cost Gene Tierney her life. She was poised to jump off the 14th floor of her mother’s apartment building in December of 1957, but the police managed to talk her down. The attempt was followed up by a long stay at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas.
She did her best to make a comeback with the 1960 film Return to Peyton Place, but another tragedy struck when she suffered a miscarriage. Her career never fully rebounded, and she officially retired from films in the 60s.
Her Death and Legacy
Gene Tierney died of emphysema at 70 years of age in Houston, Texas on November 6, 1991, just weeks before her 71st birthday. She’s buried next to her husband Howard Lee in the Glenwood Cemetery. She received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award.
Gene wrote an autobiography titled Self-Portrait in 1979. It details her life and struggles.
Almost no one has anything negative to say about the beautiful star. Martin Scorcese said that Leave Her to Heaven is one of his favorite films and calls her one of the most underrated actresses of her day. Darryl Zanuck, the head of Fox, called her the most beautiful woman in movie history.
Her legacy proved to be long-lasting, and her fans stuck with her through all the tragedy in her life. Those who know her continue to love her today.
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