She was the ideal woman of mystery, and she starred in one of the very few virtually perfect movies ever made - "Laura."
Unlike most actors, Gene Tierney entered movies from a privileged background. Her prosperous parents raised the aspiring actress in Brooklyn and Connecticut. She attended private schools there in Green Farms, near Westport, and in Switzerland. After a society debut in 1938, the modest Tierney quickly tired of the social scene and sought roles in the Broadway theatre. Her etched cheekbones, her exceptional crystal-like light green eyes, and her gentle features all easily trumped Tierney's lack of stage experience. Following one of her performances, critic Richard Watts observed, "I don't see why Miss Tierney shouldn't have an interesting theatrical career if the cinema doesn't kidnap her."
Less than two years passed before Twentieth Century-Fox studio chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck happened to catch the exotic looking teenaged beauty in a small but showy stage role for "The Male Animal." He offered a movie contract. Tierney's father created a family corporation, Belle-Tier, to contract with the movie studio for his daughter's services. She told reporters at the time, "I hadn't studied any law, but I know how to keep from getting skinned. I also know that I don't want to be ruined for life by having the studio pull out my teeth, or something like that, trying to make me photograph better."
Consequently no one could tamper with her hair length or color, nor fix her slightly crooked teeth (she featured a marginal overbite). Writer Gavin Lambert has stated that hers was a face "of delicate, almost perfect beauty, flawed only by slightly projecting teeth, which she realized were part of its attraction and never had fixed."
Tierney made her screen debut at Fox opposite Henry Fonda in "The Return of Frank James" (1940). The New York Times uncharitably dismissed her performance as "singularly mannered and colorless." But no one could deny that she looked amazing. Sometimes it seemed her incredible beauty worked against her interests.
After being linked not only with Howard Hughes, but also several socially prominent names as well as some Hollywood movie stars, on June 1, 1941 Tierney married fashion designer Oleg Cassini, 28, in Las Vegas. Cassini, the son of a countess and a Russian diplomat, was already divorced from one socialite. Tierney's parents sought to have the marriage annulled, without success. Then she and her father feuded over whether or not Tierney had breached provisions of the family corporation agreement by which the actress entered movies. A suit within the family followed, and then her parents divorced. Her mother joined Fox as a press agent in New York, and Oleg Cassini was recruited from Paramount to design clothes at Fox. Tierney's connections quickly helped establish this great talent atop the design world. Cassini became the first franchiser of a designer's name as a brand. He oversaw at least 50 licenses.
In 1942 Oleg Cassini became a United States citizen and served in the U.S. Army. Between routine film assignments for Fox, Tierney spent much time with Cassini at his Fort Riley, Kan. Army post, and later in Washington D.C. when he was stationed there. In 1943 Tierney gave birth to their child, Daria, who was born prematurely, severely retarded, and was eventually institutionalized. Much later, in a nightmarish twist of fate, Tierney learned that a female Marine had ignored quarantine orders to meet her idol during hostessing duties at the Hollywood Canteen. That was how the star contracted German measles late in her pregnancy - an innocent kiss from an admiring fan who wanted an autograph.
"Everyone told me I shouldn't go," the starstruck woman told Tierney years later at a tennis match, not realizing what she was responsible for, "but I just had to go.you were my favorite."
Sadly, little Daria paid the price, and so did her mother. Many believe this cruel irony brought about a troubled emotional life later on. It also served to inspire a story (never authorized or sanctioned by Tierney) dramatized in 1980 as an Agatha Christie whodunit called "The Mirror Crack'd" starring Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Chaplin and Pierce Brosnan.
Tierney made one distinguished film in 1943; the comedy-fantasy costumer "Heaven Can Wait," with Don Ameche and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
The stylish mystery "Laura" (1944) gave the radiantly beautiful Tierney her signature movie when she was directed by Otto Preminger in the title role of this film noir classic.
1945 saw the release of two more Tierney classics - "A Bell for Adano" from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and "Leave Her to Heaven" for which the Motion Picture Academy honored her performance as a femme fatale with an Oscar nomination as best actress. "That woman was really sick," Tierney said of the obsessively jealous character she portrayed so well. "The role was a plum, the kind of character Bette Davis might have played, that of a bitchy woman. I don't think I have such a nature, but few actresses can resist playing bitchy women. I quickly told Darryl Zanuck that he would never regret it if he gave me the part."
In 1946 Tierney played opposite Tyrone Power in the adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's philosophical novel, "The Razor's Edge." Joseph L. Mankiewicz made his directorial debut on a vehicle for Tierney's enigmatic personality, the Gothic period chiller entitled "Dragonwyck." The following year director Mankiewicz cast her opposite Rex Harrison in the beautifully made and memorable comedy-fantasy called "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," offering Tierney a great role.
In 1949 when Fox adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald's book about Long Island society in the 1920s, "The Great Gatsby," Gene Tierney was slated for the role of Daisy but was ultimately deemed "too pretty."
And in view of her own subsequent nervous breakdown, it is ironic that earlier, in 1947, she had been considered for the part Olivia de Havilland played instead, as the mentally ill woman in the acclaimed motion picture, "The Snake Pit." By all accounts Tierney was bitterly disappointed at losing this opportunity.
After divorcing Cassini in 1952, she was romantically linked to Fox co-star Tyrone Power, to future President John F. Kennedy (before he married Jacqueline Bouvier) and to international playboy Prince Aly Khan (after Rita Hayworth). On loan to MGM during this period, she made "Plymouth Adventure" (1952) opposite Spencer Tracy, and "Never Let Me Go" (1953) opposite Clark Gable.
In 1955 the actress played a nurse in love with Humphrey Bogart, posing as an unlikely clergyman in China, in the well-received "Left Hand of God." After which she went abroad for a while with Aly Khan, was suspended by Fox and suffered a nervous breakdown. The pressures of a failed marriage, subsequent unhappy relationships and especially the burden of a retarded daughter all weighed heavily on Tierney. She was hospitalized and received shock treatment for depression.
When she finally left a clinic in 1959 after much treatment and several setbacks, Tierney told reporters, "My illness was a curable one, not cancer or something worse. It was something I was responsible for, not anyone else's fault. It was up to me to do something about it, and I did..Perhaps the most important lesson I had to learn was to admit and accept defeat..More than anything, I learned that the mind is the most beautiful part of the body and I am grateful to have mine back."
Meanwhile actress Grace Kelly broke off her engagement to Oleg Cassini in order to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco, and Cassini's famous fashion patrons included Jacqueline Kennedy.
In 1960 Gene Tierney married William Howard Lee, a Houston oilman who had previously been wed to Hedy Lamarr. Tierney returned to film and television roles.
During the 1960s she began writing a society column for a newspaper in Houston, and her autobiography, "Self Portrait," was published in 1979. It offered an unusually candid account of her mental disorders. Tierney's final appearance on film or TV was the mini-series "Scruples" (1980).
In was yet another sad irony that early in her career Fox induced Gene Tierney to smoke cigarettes as a means of bringing down and deepening her voice a bit. It worked, but she didn't stop smoking and died of emphysema in 1991. She was 70 years old.
The A&E Channel aired a "Biography" episode entitled "Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait," as produced by Kevin Burns in 1999. The previous year, Oleg Cassini was interviewed for an E! Entertainment Television documentary called "The Kennedy's: Power, Seduction and Hollywood."
These days, the French remain Gene Tierney's most sincere and ardent fans. Her films are regularly celebrated in Paris revival theaters and on television, and three major picture books have been published there chronicling her film career. Tierney spoke fluent French, and so perhaps it is no coincidence that her second daughter, Christina, lives in Paris. Coincidentally, they shared the same Nov. 19th birthday.