Tierney, Gene Eliza

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Tierney, Gene Eliza

(b. 19 November 1920 in Brooklyn, New York; d. 6 November 1991 in Houston, Texas), popular film actress of the 1940s noted for her roles in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven.

Tierney was one of three children of Howard Sherwood Tierney, a successful insurance broker, and Belle Lavina Taylor, a homemaker. The family moved during her childhood to suburban Fairfield County, Connecticut, where Tierney was raised comfortably, riding horses, going to country club parties, and attending private schools in Connecticut and Switzerland. She spoke French fluently and enjoyed writing poetry.

In 1938 while touring the Warner Brothers Studio during a family vacation in Los Angeles, California, the seventeen-year-old Tierney’s high cheekbones, blue-green eyes, and sensuous overbite caught the attention of the director Anatole Litvak. He talked her into a screen test, but her father objected to her taking the offer of a standard studio contract. Tierney returned to Connecticut to finish a final year of school and to make her social debut.

She was determined, however, to be an actress. Her father formed a family corporation to promote her work on the New York stage. One early part called on her to carry a bucket of water, spurring a Variety reviewer to note, “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water-carrier I’ve ever seen!”

While still a teenager in 1939 she signed a film contract with Columbia, then moved to Twentieth Century—Fox in 1940. Her first major film, The Return of Frank James, was released that year. When she saw her performance she was shocked at the high pitch of her voice and started smoking heavily to lower it. Elegant, cultured, and stunning, she cut a wide swath through Hollywood, clubbing with directors, actors, and producers. On 1 July 1941, acting against her parents’ wishes, she eloped with the designer Oleg Cassini. It caused a rift with her father that was worsened when her father’s infidelity led to a divorce from her mother.

Tierney’s 1941 films—Tobacco Road, Hudson’s Bay, Belle Starr, and Sundown—quickly established her as a rising young star. The studio worked her hard; in 1942 she appeared in The Shanghai Gesture (a critically panned effort by the director Josef von Sternberg that featured Oleg Cassini gowns), Son of Fury, Rings on Her Fingers, Thunder Birds, and China Girl.

Tierney’s exposure to German measles while pregnant in 1943 (she later said she contracted it from a fan who broke quarantine and approached her to compliment her on a role she played) severely affected a daughter, Daria, born later that year deaf and mentally retarded. Tierney’s only film of 1943 was Heaven Can Wait, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

In 1944 Tierney’s best-remembered film was released. Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, contrasted the allure of a supposed murder victim, a beautiful woman about whom every man in the film fantasizes, with the rather more common real girl who appears halfway through the movie. Laura’s portrait hanging over a fireplace in the film—it was actually an enlarged and varnished photograph—is enough to make men fall in love. It was a good role for Tierney, effectively contrasting her extraordinary physical beauty with her rather more commonplace acting abilities. Preminger added a dose of decadence and perversity, creating what has since become a classic. Tierney followed in 1945 with A Bell for Adano and Leave Her to Heaven, in the latter of which she showed greatly improved acting ability playing a frighteningly selfish girl. The role earned her an Academy Award nomination for best actress (she lost to Joan Crawford’s work in Mildred Pierce).

After Daria’s birth Tierney’s marriage to Cassini began to founder; it ended in divorce in 1952. Through the 1940s and 1950s she was linked romantically with a string of suitors and reputed lovers that included Howard Hughes, Tyrone Power, Kirk Douglas, Spencer Tracy, William Holden, Clark Gable, and the young John F. Kennedy.

In 1946 and 1947, at the peak of her popularity in Hollywood, she made The Razor’s Edge, Dragonwyck, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. But after the birth of a second daughter in 1948 Tierney’s roles declined. With the exception of Whirlpool, released in 1949, Tierney was relegated to a string of generally second-rate thrillers, comedies, and period pieces.

The combination of a stagnant film career and the breakup of a globally publicized love affair with Ali Khan in 1954 hit Tierney very hard. The occasional depression she had suffered since Daria’s birth worsened and in 1955, while filming The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart, she had a mental breakdown that required hospitalization. She spent the next several years in and out of mental institutions where, she said, she underwent repeated shock therapy. Reporters found her in 1958 working as a salesclerk in a department store in Topeka, Kansas—part of her treatment at the nearby Menninger clinic, she said. “I can no longer doubt,” she wrote, “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.”

In 1960 she married a Texas oilman, W. Howard Lee, and tried acting once again. In 1962 she made an effective return to the big screen in Preminger’s Advise and Consent, but subsequent parts were minor. After The Pleasure Seekers in 1964, she did little more than an occasional television appearance, preferring a quiet home life in Houston, where she was active in local politics and charitable causes, including helping retarded children. Following her husband’s death in 1981, Tierney spent the last ten years of her life in semiretirement. She died of emphysema and is buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Houston.

Although acclaimed as one of the screen’s great beauties, with thirty-five feature films to her credit, Tierney’s limited acting ability and personal tragedies prevented her from achieving the stardom accorded to contemporaries such as Ingrid Bergman and Marilyn Monroe. She was gorgeous on screen, always alert and intelligent, but sometimes seemed challenged by long speeches and the demands of expressing emotion. As much as film roles, it is still-photo images of Tierney that live in the memory—rather like the portrait of Laura that bewitches observers before the real girl shows up.

Tierney, with Mickey Herskowitz, wrote an autobiography, Self-Portrait (1979). A critical appreciation of Tierney’s work appears in David Thomson’s valuable Biographical Dictionary of Film, 3rd edition (1994). Obituaries are in the Washington Post, New Yor Times, and Los Angeles Times (all 8 Nov. 1991).

Thomas Hager