During the golden age of Hollywood, which boomed in the late 1920s and waned in the late 1960s, film production and distribution was dominated by the studio system, and everyone—actors, directors, and writers alike—were under strict contract. It is true that movie stars enjoyed worldwide recognition and participated in exclusive and prestigious events, but this glamorous façade came with a high emotional price and was often a front for horrific personal tragedies.
Marilyn Monroe spent her childhood in orphanages and foster homes, was molested and abused throughout her career, and died in circumstances that are still debated today. Judy Garland was forcibly put on a pill regiment at a young age and her marathon schedule was ruthlessly controlled by her mother. Rita Hayworth was abused by her father, suffered mental cruelty from her fundamentalist husband, and succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease.
And then there it was Gene Tierney. With her chiseled cheekbones, flawless skin, intense bite, and piercing eyes, she was considered one of the most beautiful film actresses by the press, the public, and industry professionals. Between 1938 and 1980, she appeared in numerous plays, television programs and more than 35 films, namely LuraAnd Leave it to heavenAnd DragonwickAnd The Ghost and Mrs. MuirAnd Egyptian.
Despite her privileged upbringing, stunning beauty, and fame, it wasn’t all behind the scenes. She recalls her career, relationships, and mental breakdowns very candidly in her 1979 autobiography Selfiewhich readers found “gritty and humbling”, “haunting”, and “a brutally honest look at mental illness”.
Here’s a look back at the saddest chapter in her life.
“I didn’t find it difficult to play any kind of role. My problems started when I had to be myself.”
Tierney’s parents were well-to-do, and she grew up wanting nothing, but suffered from severely low judgment, paranoia, and bipolar disorder. Her first bout of bad luck began at birth, when she was named after her beloved uncle who died of diabetes at the age of 18.
Her first notable role was in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Lura, in which she played the titular victim. The production rocked badly, and the studio insisted she smoked heavily to make her voice deeper and hoshier. She didn’t need much convincing that she “looks like a mouse.” This would start a severe nicotine addiction which would later backfire, as the actress would die from emphysema, a lung disorder that results in shortness of breath.
As for her physique, she was often asked to lose weight, and follow a strict starch-free diet. She was also very self-conscious about some of her features, and admitted in a 1948 interview with her Hirst Columnist Sally Young said, “I was talking from the side of my mouth so as not to show [buck] teeth.”
Rocky’s first marriage and a selfish fan
“Romanticism, I suppose, is picking the rose and indifference to the thorn.”
Because her parents did not approve of her relationship with divorced fashion designer Oleg Cassini, she eloped with him in 1941. It was a tumultuous, on-and-off relationship that lasted until 1952, and they both had multiple affairs but remained friends. To top it all off, she discovers that her father, who has been managing her career and threatening to commit to it, has squandered most of her savings. As a result, she dissolves the family trust.
Her pregnancy with daughter Daria in 1943 was a welcome ray of hope, but because she had rubella at the time, the baby was born deaf, partially blind, and with severe developmental disabilities. Tierney’s biggest shock of her life came when an obsessive and selfish fan, a US Marine, later confessed to her that she was the one who infected her, when she broke her quarantine just to meet her. Feeling guilty, the actress will never forgive herself for causing Daria’s condition, and the latter will spend most of her life in institutions.
Suicide attempt and shock therapy
“He called my leaving Hollywood an exit. No one understood that I was failing.”
God’s left hand (1955) was Tierney’s last film before her seven-year hiatus; Fortunately, during production she relied on the support and patience of her co-star Humphrey Bogart whenever she became disoriented, forgot her lines, or had a nervous breakdown; The actor was aware of the symptoms because his sister displayed the same thing.
She recalls feeling “tired, numb and lost” when she tried to end her life by stepping out onto a windowsill in 1957. She was caught out by the police and institutionalized. As mental health was still widely misunderstood at the time, she was subjected to painful sessions of shock therapy, which severely affected her memory later on.
“I have been admitted to three different hospitals over a period of six years. Ten doctors treated me. I received a total of 32 ECT treatments. During my first birth, I took more medication than any other patient.”
Still tired of Hollywood, she briefly takes a more prestigious position as a sales clerk, but is ripped off by both fans and the press.
More painful romances
The actress was passionately involved with two men who dealt her terrible blows and sent her into a deep depression: Jack Kennedy and the relatively unknown Prince Aly Khan.
Tierney met Kennedy in 1946, and they dated for a year, but their relationship was doomed from the start because of his religious views and political ambition. Her family didn’t approve of them either, writing, “My brother didn’t feel there was any future in me dating a Catholic.” [the Tierneys were Episcopalian]. ‘Any girl who goes through a divorce, who has an underdeveloped child,’ he told me, ‘has no business looking to get her heart broken anymore. I don’t like you or him because you got mixed up with each other.”
The actress also dated Prince Aly Khan in 1952, just as he was coming out of his marriage to Hayworth, and Khan’s father forced them to break off their subsequent engagement.
In 1960, Tierney married oil tycoon W. Howard Lee and lived a quiet life in Houston, where she died on November 6, 1991, just two weeks before her 71st birthday. However, even this relatively happy union began with a painful miscarriage. Fortunately, other than Daria, her marriage to Cassini produced another daughter, Christina.
“I suppose life is a little like it, a message in a bottle that went down at sea, to be carried away by winds and tides, washed up on beaches we never imagined.”
Tierney is still an old Hollywood icon and will always be remembered for her stunning beauty, but one hopes she finally finds the peace she so craved.