From the Archives: Gene Tierney, Acclaimed as Star of ‘Laura,’ Dies at 70
Actress Gene Tierney, whose mystical features were transposed into the portrait of “Laura,” haunting millions of moviegoers as it did the tough detective who sought to unravel her alleged slaying in that film, has died in Houston.
The Associated Press, quoting a spokesman for the George H. Lewis & Sons funeral home, said Thursday that she had died Wednesday night of the complications of emphysema.
She was 70 and had lived in semi-retirement in Houston for 30 years.
Before her career crumbled in a tangle of emotional problems that led to years in mental hospitals, Miss Tierney appeared in more than 35 motion pictures. Although she was known the world over for her sensual Laura, she was nominated for an Academy Award only once—for her portrayal of a murderess in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945).
She was romanced by international playboy Prince Aly Khan, a young naval officer named John F. Kennedy, actor Tyrone Power and Howard Hughes.
But her professional and personal triumphs were carried out under a dark shadow, the retardation of a daughter by her first marriage to fashion designer Oleg Cassini. By 1954—after a breakup with Aly Khan—she had lost much of her grip on reality.
She had no recollection of many events in her life during the late 1950s, she said in her 1979 autobiography, “Self Portrait,” and had to recover details from relatives, friends, scrapbooks and letters. She wrote:
“I had been invited in 1956 to the inauguration of President Eisenhower. That memory was just about the last I had until I woke up one day and wondered how it happened to be 1959. . . . I didn’t know who was running the government. I didn’t know that Russia and the United States had fired rockets into space. I didn’t know who Elvis Presley was, or the names of any new books or songs or movies.”
In the early 1960s, she managed to pick up a few pieces of her career, appearing in a television drama and in three films. The last was “The Pleasure Seekers” (1964), in which she had a cameo role. Her last acting role was in 1980 in the TV-movie “Scruples,” in which she portrayed a magazine editor.
In 1961, she married millionaire Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, the former husband of actress Hedy Lamarr. She lived with him in Houston until his death in 1981. She stayed there, remaining active in local politics and in such causes as helping retarded children.
Miss Tierney was the daughter of Howard Tierney, a prosperous New York insurance broker. She attended private schools in Connecticut and Switzerland.
She was 17 when she visited Hollywood with her mother, brother and sister. They toured several studios by presuming upon some of Howard Tierney’s business contacts. At Warner Bros., director Anatole Litvak was fascinated by the beautiful girl with the high cheekbones and sensuous overbite and told her she should be in movies.
But Howard Tierney refused to allow his daughter to accept, so she went back to Connecticut. In return for her willingness to forgo Hollywood for the time being, finish her senior year at Miss Porter’s School and make her social debut, her father agreed to then take her to New York agents’ and producers’ offices.
She impressed an agent by reading for him in an Irish brogue, and he got her a tryout with producer George Abbott, who hired her for a part in the play “Mrs. O’Brien Entertains.”
From that she got an offer from Columbia Pictures: six months at $350 a week. She signed, went to Hollywood and sat around. Columbia tried her in the film “Coast Guard” with Randolph Scott. She kept forgetting her lines and studio head Harry Cohn replaced her.
It was during those six months that she dated Hughes, but nothing much came of it. She was to describe him as rather shy and clumsy in his attempts to turn their relationship into something more than she wanted it to be.
When her six months were up she went back to Broadway, becoming a hit in “The Male Animal.” Twentieth Century Fox studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck saw the play and told an assistant to sign her the next day. After the show, however, Zanuck went to the Stork Club, where he saw a young woman on the dance floor and told the aide: “Forget the girl from the play. Sign this one.”
Zanuck did not realize it, but the girl on the dance floor was Gene Tierney.
It was 1940 when she returned to Hollywood to appear with Henry Fonda in “The Return of Frank James” and did well enough that Twentieth Century signed her to a long-term contract. Other films followed quickly. In 1941, she made “Hudson’s Bay” and “Tobacco Road” (in which she played Ellie Mae) and starred in “Belle Starr.”
After making “Heaven Can Wait” in 1943, Miss Tierney was picked by producer-director Otto Preminger to appear in 1944 as “Laura,” the beautiful young woman who is thought to have been murdered, but who turns up alive. In the meantime, the detective on the case has fallen in love with her portrait. (The portrait, incidentally, was not a painting at all but an enlarged photograph brush-stroked with clear varnish.)
Other starring roles followed: “A Bell for Adano” and “Leave Her to Heaven.” It was the latter film that got her the Academy Award nomination and prompted her to say in an interview that playing a murderess made her feel “mentally unbalanced,” although she was a “naturally happy person.”
But unhappiness already had begun to tear at her life.
When she eloped to Las Vegas in 1941 with Cassini, a motion picture fashion designer who gave up his title as a Russian count to become an American citizen, her parents refused to accept him as their son-in-law, apparently viewing him as a fortune hunter. Her father said publicly: “Gene has gone Hollywood, I’m afraid.” It was the beginning of a family estrangement that left deep scars on the actress’s mind.
Subsequently, she wrote in her autobiography, her parents began to fight her in court to enforce a contract calling for 25% of her income to go to a family corporation. But the real tragedy of her life was that her daughter, Daria, born to her and Cassini in 1943, was retarded. The actress had German measles during her pregnancy and the result was a brain-damaged child.
A year after that birth, Miss Tierney learned how she had contracted the disease. A woman had approached her on a tennis court and said she had violated her measles quarantine to go see the actress at the Hollywood Canteen because “you were my favorite star.”
“I stood there for a very long minute,” Miss Tierney wrote in her autobiography. “There was no point in telling her of the tragedy that had occurred. I turned and walked away very quickly. After that I didn’t care if I was ever again anyone’s favorite actress.”
Miss Tierney divorced Cassini in 1947, but they reconciled and had a second daughter, Christina. She divorced him a second time in 1952.
It was before that reconciliation that Kennedy began to date her. She gave every indication in her book that she was very serious about him, but Cassini warned her that no Catholic with political ambitions was going to marry a divorced woman. Sure enough, Kennedy told her he could never marry her, and the romance ended.
After roles in “The Razor’s Edge” (a 1946 movie in which she co-starred with Power, who apparently pursued her until she told him how much she liked Kennedy), “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947) and several lesser-known films, she met Aly while making “Way of a Gaucho” in Argentina in 1951. The prince was the former husband of actress Rita Hayworth.
That glittering romance was played out on three continents, to the delight of the fan magazines. The two planned to marry but the Aga Khan, Aly’s father and the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslim sect, told the prince that if he married another actress, he would be disinherited.
She took the breakup extremely hard and in 1955, while making “The Left Hand of God” with Humphrey Bogart, suffered a breakdown.
She went into a private sanitarium in Hartford, Conn., then was in and out of various mental hospitals where, she said, she was locked in tiny rooms, given shock therapy and wrapped in wet sheets (“cold-packed”). She finally went into the Menninger Foundation clinic in Topeka, Kan.
In 1961, oilman Lee married her and her life seemed to settle down.
“I can no longer doubt,” she had written, “that the main cause of my difficulties stemmed from the tragedy of my daughter’s unsound birth and my inability to face my feelings, trying instead to bury them. I regretted too many things: finding out that a father who taught me that honor was everything was not an honorable man. Marrying against my parents’ wishes and proving them right. Twice falling in love with men with whom I had no future.”
She had also learned: “Life is not a movie.”
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