The Behind-the-Scenes Tragedy of Golden Age Actress Gene Tierney – TheFantasyTimes

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By Jitin Gambhir

The Behind-the-Scenes Tragedy of Golden Age Actress Gene Tierney

In the late 1920s to the late 1960s, Hollywood experienced its Golden Age, where studios had complete control over film production and distribution, and everyone involved, including actors, filmmakers, and writers, were under strict contracts. While movie stars enjoyed worldwide recognition and attended exclusive events, the facade of glamour often hid personal tragedies and emotional turmoil.

Marilyn Monroe, for example, spent her childhood in foster homes and orphanages and suffered abuse throughout her career, ultimately dying in mysterious circumstances. Judy Garland was forced to take pills from a young age, and her schedule was ruthlessly controlled by her mother. Rita Hayworth experienced mental cruelty from her fundamentalist husband and eventually succumbed to Alzheimer’s.

One of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses during this era was Gene Tierney. With her chiseled cheekbones, flawless complexion, pouty overbite, and gimlet eyes, she was admired by the press, public, and industry professionals alike. She appeared in numerous plays, TV shows, and over 35 movies between 1938 and 1980, including Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Egyptian.

Despite her privileged upbringing, beauty, and fame, Tierney struggled with extreme low self-esteem, paranoia, and bipolar disorder. Her first prominent role in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir Laura was a rocky experience, with the studio insisting she smoke heavily to deepen her voice. The actress developed a heavy nicotine addiction, which ultimately led to her death from emphysema.

Tierney’s personal life was also tumultuous, starting with her marriage to fashion designer Oleg Cassini, which her parents disapproved of, leading to an elopement. The relationship was on-and-off and marked by multiple affairs, but they remained friends. She found out that her father, who managed her career, had squandered most of her savings, resulting in the dissolution of the family trust. Her pregnancy with her daughter Daria in 1943 was a ray of hope, but she contracted German measles, leading to her daughter’s deafness, partial blindness, and severe developmental disabilities. A selfish fan later confessed to infecting her, causing Tierney enduring guilt.

Tierney’s mental health issues and personal tragedies led to a seven-year hiatus from Hollywood after The Left Hand of God (1955). She felt “tired, numb, and lost” and attempted suicide in 1957 by stepping onto a window ledge. She was institutionalized and subjected to shock therapy, which severely affected her memory. Tierney also endured painful romances with two men, Jack Kennedy and Prince Aly Khan, leading to deep depression.

Despite all of this, Tierney remained an icon of Old Hollywood, and her autobiography Self-Portrait, published in 1979, provided readers with a hauntingly honest look at mental illness and her struggles. She passed away in 1991 in Houston, Texas, at the age of 71, leaving behind a legacy of striking beauty and a life marked by personal tragedy.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, which bloomed in the late 1920s and dwindled in the late 1960s, film production and distribution were under the control of the studio system, and everyone, actors, filmmakers, and writers alike, was under strict contract. It is true that movie stars enjoyed worldwide recognition and partook in exclusive, prestigious events, but this glamorous façade came with a high emotional price and was often a front for terrible personal tragedies.

Marilyn Monroe spent her childhood in orphanages and foster homes, was groped and abused throughout her career, and died in circumstances still debated today. Judy Garland was forcibly put on a pill regiment at an early age and her marathonic 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.


And then there was Gene Tierney. With her chiseled cheekbones, flawless complexion, pouty overbite, and gimlet eyes, she was considered one of the most beautiful movie actresses by the press, the public, and the industry’s professionals. Between 1938 and 1980, she appeared in several plays and TV shows and over 35 movies, namely Laura, Leave Her to Heaven, Dragonwyck, The Ghost and Mrs. Muirand The Egyptian.

Despite her privileged upbringing, striking beauty, and fame, all was not well behind the scenes. She recalls her career, relationships, and mental breakdowns very candidly in her 1979 autobiography Self-Portraitwhich readers have found “brave and humble,” “haunting,” and “a raw, painfully honest look at mental illness.”

Here is a look back at the saddest chapters of her life.

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

“I had no trouble playing any kind of role. My problems began when I had to be myself.”

Tierney’s parents were well-off, and she was raised wanting for nothing, but she suffered from extreme low-esteem, paranoia, and bipolar disorder. Her first bout of bad luck started at birth, when she was named after a beloved uncle who had died of diabetes at 18.

Her first prominent role was in Otto Preminger’s 1944 film noir Laurain which she played the titular victim. Production was notoriously rocky, and the studio insisted she smoked heavily to make her voice deeper and huskier. She didn’t need much convincing that she “sounded like a mouse.” This would start a heavy nicotine addiction that would later backfire, as the actress would die of emphysema, a lung disorder that leads to a shortness of breath.

As for her physique, she was often told to lose weight, and she followed a strict no-starch diet. She was also very self-conscious about some of her features, confessing in a 1948 interview with Hearst columnist Sally Young, “I’d talk out of the side of my mouth in order not to show my [buck] teeth.”

A Rocky First Marriage and a Selfish Fan

Gene Tierney
Wikimedia Commons

“A romantic, I think, picks the rose and is careless with the thorn.”

Because her parents didn’t approve of her relationship with the 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, she found out that her father, who had been managing her career and threatening to have her committed, had squandered most of her savings. As a result, she dissolved the family trust.

Her pregnancy with her daughter Daria in 1943 was a welcome ray of hope, but because she contracted the German measles at the time, the baby was born deaf, partially blind, and with severe developmental disabilities. Tierney’s biggest shock of her life was when an obsessed and selfish fan, a US marine, would later confess to her that she was the one who infected her, when she had broken her measles quarantine just to meet her. Plagued by guilt, the actress would never forgive herself for causing Daria’s condition, and the latter would spend most of her life institutionalized.

Suicide Attempt and Shock Therapy

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven
20th Century Fox

“My departure from Hollywood was described as a walk-out. No one understood that I was cracking up.”

The Left Hand of God (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 felt confused, forgot her lines, or had a nervous breakdown; the actor was all too familiar with the symptoms because his sister had exhibited the same.

She recalls feeling “tired, numb, and lost,” when she attempted to end her life by stepping out on a window ledge in 1957. The police talked her down, and she was institutionalized. Because mental health was still widely misunderstood at the time, she was subjected to painful sessions of shock therapy, which would later severely affect her memory.

“I was admitted to three different hospitals-sanitariums over a period of six years. A dozen doctors treated me. I had a total of thirty-two electric shock treatments. During my first confinement, I was taking more medicine than any other patient.”

Still weary of Hollywood, she briefly took a more discrete position as a sales clerk, but both the fans and the press tore her apart.

More Painful Romances

Gene Tierney
Wikimedia Commons

The actress was passionately involved with two men who would deal her terrible blows and send her into deep depression: a relatively unknown Jack Kennedy and 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 own family didn’t approve of them either, and she writes, “My brother did not feel that there was any future in my dating a Catholic [the Tierneys were Episcopalian]. ‘Any girl who is going through a divorce,’ he lectured me, ‘and has a retarded child, has no business looking to have her heart broken anymore. I don’t admire you or him for getting mixed up with each other.’”

The actress also dated Prince Aly Khan in 1952, just as he was getting out of his marriage with Hayworth, and Khan’s father forced them to break off their later engagement.

In 1960, Tierney married the oil tycoon W. Howard Lee and led a quiet life in Houston, where she died on November 6, 1991, just two weeks before her 71st birthday. However, even that relatively happy union started off with a painful miscarriage. Fortunately, other than Daria, her marriage with Cassini had produced another daughter, Christina.

“I suppose life is a little like that, a message in a bottle pitched out to sea, to be carried by the winds and the tides, washing up on the beaches we could never imagine.”

Tierney remains an Old Hollywood icon and will always be remembered for her striking beauty, but one would hope she finally found the peace she had so desperately craved.

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