• Wed, Mar 17 2010

Shelved Dolls: Gene Tierney

Gene Tierney
1920-1991
The Most Beautiful Woman in Movie History

GENE TIERNEY OMG I WANT TO BE YOU. At least, I want to be your character in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. You play a beautiful young widow living on a windswept estate with your young daughter. It’s shared by the ghost of a swarthy seaman played by Rex Harrison (you know him as Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady). When money gets tight, Rex Harrison just recites his entire swarthy seaman life for her in novel form, and she sells it, and makes plenty of money and finds love. This is exactly the way I would like to write a novel insofar as 1) I would like to not have to write it myself 2) I would like it to be critically acclaimed and “real” and 3) I would like not to be accused of plagiarism. Also, I would like to have Mrs. Muir’s hair.

Of course, you might say, “That wasn’t Gene Tierney, that was a character she was playing in a movie.” It’s confusing because they look so similar!

But it actually turns out that Gene Tierney’s life was not 100% like that. It was actually zero percent like that. She came from a prosperous family and began her career on the stage, where she was basically acclaimed for being really, really pretty. One of her first roles was as a water carrier which prompted a review in Variety which read “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen!” She moved on to larger roles and it probably didn’t surprise anyone that Darryl Zanuck wanted to sign her to a movie contract. He flew out to see her when she was starring in “The Male Animal” but, before seeing the play, he went out to The Stork Club and saw a beautiful girl dancing on the floor. He was said to have exclaimed to his assistant “forget the girl in the play – sign that girl!” That girl was Gene Tierney.

Tierney went on to have an incredibly brilliant film career – starring in classics like Heaven Can Wait, Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, Whirlpool and, of course, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. She was also quite happily married to Count Oleg Cassini – the dress designer who later counted Jackie Kennedy among his many patrons. The couple kept a room in their house called the mad room, which was covered with pictures of them in happy times and filled with their favorite records. They went there whenever one of them was angry at the other.

And then, things went bad. So bad, in fact, that Agatha Christie is rumored to have written a book called The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side based on an unfortunate episode in her life. Gene was pregnant during the war but continued to volunteer to serve as a hostess at the Hollywood Canteen. During that time, she contracted German measles. It’s normally not a terribly serious disease – it passes within a few days – but it can have terrible effects upon the child if a woman contracts it while pregnant. As a result, Gene’s daughter Daria was born severely mentally retarded (she was also deaf and partially blind). As a result, Gene entered into a period of deep depression. Years later, she met a former female marine at a party and the marine greeted her exclaiming “You’re my favorite actress! Years ago, I was in quarantine with German Measles but I snuck out anyway because you were working at the Hollywood Canteen that night and I wanted to see you.” Gene noted, “After that I didn’t care whether ever again I was anyone’s favorite actress.” Oleg remarked, “Gene is the luckiest unlucky girl in the world. All of her dreams came true, at a cost.”

Rumor has it, after that she just didn’t care too much about anything. Gene’s marriage fell apart and her depression grew worse. She eventually committed herself to a mental institution where she received 27 shock treatments. She later spoke out against shock treatments, claiming that the experience erased a significant portion of her memory. She attempted suicide in 1957, after which she was admitted to the Menninger clinic.

By the early sixties she returned to the screen and gained praise for her performance in works like Toys in the Attic and The Pleasure Seekers. She died in 1991 of emphysema. Sadly, she began smoking in large part to lower her voice for the screen (she claimed she sounded like “an angry Minnie Mouse” after hearing her first screen test).

So, actually, it doesn’t seem that desirable to be Gene Tierney after all. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is still a really good movie though, you should rent it. She looks amazing in it, and, unfortunately, you can absolutely see why someone with German measles would sneak out of quarantine to visit with her.

Steal Her Style: Keep the make-up light and fresh – use rosy shades on the lips and cheeks. Darken your eyebrows slightly, and pay extra attention to your lashes. Really, just follow this guide: Here’s Looking Like You, Kid.

Words to Live By: “Wealth, beauty, and fame are transient. When those are gone, little is left except the need to be useful.”

Recommended Reading:

Gene Tierney: A Biography
The Official website of Gene Tierney
Self Portrait (Gene Tierney’s autobiography)

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  • kitty

    I remember when she died — shortly after Ava Gardner. I was in my mid-teens then, smoking cloves, drinking lots of coffee, watching film noir. Fell in love with her the moment I laid eyes on her. Thank you for this feature.