Jones, Jennifer (1919—)

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Jones, Jennifer (1919—)

American actress who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Bernadette of Lourdes in The Song of Bernadette. Name variations: Jennifer Jones Simon. Born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, Oklahoma; only child of Philip (a vaudeville performer) and Flora Mae (Suber) Isley; attended Edgemere Public School, Oklahoma City; graduated from Monte Cassino, Tulsa, Oklahoma; attended Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1936; attended American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York; married Robert Walker (d. 1951, an actor), on January 2, 1939 (divorced 1945); married David O. Selznick (a film producer), on July 18, 1949 (died 1965); married Norton Simon (a businessman), in 1971 (died 1993); children: (first marriage) Michael and Robert; (second marriage) Mary Jennifer Selznick (d. 1976).


(as Phylis Isley) New Frontier (1939); (as Phylis Isley) Dick Tracy's G-Men (serial, 1939); The Song of Bernadette (1943); Since You Went Away (1944); Love Letters (1945); Cluny Brown (1946); Duel in the Sun (1946); Portrait of Jennie (1949); We Were Strangers (1949); Madame Bovary (1949); Gone to Earth (The Wild Heart, UK, 1952); Carrie (1952); Ruby Gentry (1952); Stazione Termini (Indiscretion of an American Wife, It./US, 1954); Beat the Devil (UK/US, 1954); Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955); Good Morning Miss Dove (1955); The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956); The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957); A Farewell to Arms (1957); Tender Is the Night (1962); The Idol (1966); Angel Angel Down We Go (Cult of the Dammed, 1969); The Towering Inferno (1974).

A shy, dark-haired beauty, Jennifer Jones fairly burst upon the Hollywood scene in 1943, capturing an Academy Award for her first major movie The Song of Bernadette. Her career flourished through the 1940s and 1950s, controlled largely by powerful movie producer David O. Selznick (best remembered for the epic Gone With the Wind), whom she married in 1949. Selznick, an inspired filmmaker and one of Hollywood's most notorious womanizers, was obsessed with Jones and determined to make her a star. He selected her scripts, surrounded her with some of the finest directors and co-stars, and saw to it that her day-to-day life was free of distractions. For her part, Jones provided an intense drive and focus that allowed her to rise above her modest talent.

Born Phylis Isley in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1919, Jones was an only child who spent her early years on the road with her parents' touring stock company. By age ten, she had already set her sights on a Broadway career. After graduating from Monte Cassino, a convent school in Tulsa, she spent a summer in stock and a semester in the drama department at Northwestern University before entering the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. There, she met Robert Walker, a baby-faced, brooding young actor who had managed to survive a troubled past. The two fell in love and married on January 2, 1939, almost a year to the day that they had first met. Their honeymoon was a trip to Hollywood, where Jones signed a six-month contract with Republic pictures and was immediately cast as "the girl" in a Three Mesquiteers programmer starring John Wayne. Her next assignment was a 15-part serial, Dick Tracy's G-Men, but after two months, she grew impatient with her small role and quit her contract. She and Walker, who had landed only a few movie walk-ons himself, returned to New York, hoping they would have better luck on the stage. Jones' career, however, was put on hold by the arrival of two sons: Robert, Jr., born in 1940, and Michael, who came along a year later. While Walker worked as a radio actor, Jones modeled occasionally, but for the most part stayed at home with the children.

Jones' break came when she auditioned for Kay Brown , David Selznick's renowned New

York representative, for the title role in the film version of the hit Broadway play Claudia written by Rose Franken . On Brown's recommendation, Selznick okayed a screen test for Jones, which subsequently led to her signing a multiyear contract with the Selznick studio. Upon meeting Jones, Selznick, who was married at the time to Irene Mayer Selznick , was enchanted by the young actress (although the role of Claudia went to Dorothy McGuire , another of his contract players). Over the next three years, Selznick personally groomed Jones for stardom, providing her with acting lessons and classes in literature and fine arts at Columbia University. He also selected the name Jennifer Jones, which one critic later called "the worst screen name in the business." Selznick found the perfect vehicle for his new discovery in the 20th Century-Fox adaptation of The Song of Bernadette, the story of Bernadette Soubirous (Bernadette of Lourdes ), the teenage girl from Lourdes who, in 1858, saw a vision of Mary the Virgin in a village grotto. Although it was a difficult and pivotal role for a neophyte, Jones managed to pull it off, aided immeasurably by director Henry King and an impressive supporting cast, which including seasoned performers Gladys Cooper , Vincent Price, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere , and Lee J. Cobb. The pressure, however, thoroughly exhausted the young actress and took a toll on her marriage, which was already under strain from the weight of Selznick's relentless pursuit and her own growing ambition.

The Song of Bernadette, which had a gala premier in Jones' hometown of Tulsa, as well as in Los Angeles and New York, was an unqualified hit, and Jones received absolutely glowing reviews. Variety thought her performance "inspirationally sensitive and arresting," and Kate Cameron of the New York Daily News gave the picture a four-star ranking and termed Jones a "phenomenon." The young actress went on to receive an Academy Award nomination as Best Actress for her performance, in competition with a prestigious line-up of actresses that included Greer Garson , Joan Fontaine , Ingrid Bergman , and Jean Arthur . When Jones won, she was dumbstruck. "I'd been trying for so long and with such poor luck to get started on a career," she said later, "and then all of a sudden—wham! I had success in my hands. I guess I felt like a starving person sitting down unexpectedly to a sumptuous banquet with no warning."

Selznick, in what some called a sadistic touch of casting, chose Bob Walker to co-star with Jones in her next movie, Since You Went Away (1944), the story of star-crossed lovers separated by war, which began shooting before The Song of Bernadette was released. The production was barely under way when Jones announced her separation from Walker, making things extremely awkward on the set, particularly since Selznick did not choose to replace Walker, and, though still married himself, was openly courting Jones. The movie somehow survived all the angst to become a box-office hit, and Jones received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She captured a Best Actress nomination the following year (1945) for her role in Love Letters, opposite Joseph Cotton, the same year she was divorced from Walker.

Jones' role in the western Duel in the Sun (referred to by Edward Epstein in Portrait of Jennifer as "the first multimillion-dollar, platinum-edged porn film") was about as far from Bernadette as she could get, and many wondered whether she could make such a transition. Jones' preparation for the gritty part of Pearl Chavez was characteristic of the seriousness with which she approached her work. "Jennifer spent weeks studying how to walk like the Indian girl, until she got it down to perfection," said her longtime friend Anita Colby . "She took lessons to acquire that low-pitched, sexy voice she used. She worked hours on end every day to perfect every motion, mannerism, and inflection she could possibly need." The picture endured a number of crises in production, including an industrywide union strike, the walkout of director King Vidor over a dispute with Selznick, and the announcement by Irene Selznick that she was divorcing her husband. Released in 1946, the film sent shock waves throughout the industry. It was panned by reviewers as lewd and exploitative and was banned by the Catholic Church. When the dust settled, however, Jones received yet another Oscar nomination as Best Actress. This time, however, she lost to Olivia de Havilland.

Jones performed her first comic role in Cluny Brown (1946), co-starring matinee idol Charles Boyer. Directed by another top-rated director, Ernst Lubitsch, the actress won accolades for her portrayal of a wide-eyed servant girl. The film was followed by Portrait of Jennie, We Were Strangers, and Madame Bovary, all of which were released in 1949, the year of Jones' marriage to Selznick. Of the three, only Madame Bovary, directed by Vincente Minnelli, served to advance Jones' career to any degree. After their marriage, the Selznicks relocated to Europe, although they commuted frequently to the States. Jones was pregnant during the filming of Carrie, a period film with Laurence Olivier, but suffered a miscarriage in her sixth month. William Wyler, who directed the picture, later commented on Jones' professionalism, describing her as "always a little tense on the set and extremely conscientious, yet never quite satisfied with her work." Beset by depression over the loss of her child, Jones was further devastated by the death of her former husband Robert Walker in August 1951. There was much speculation about the troubled actor's death, which occurred under mysterious circumstances. (One rumor put the blame on Walker's doctor who, unaware that Walker had been drinking, administered an injection

of sodium Amytal. Another rumor suggested a complicated murder plot actually involving David Selznick.)

Jones' next film was Ruby Gentry (1953), in which she played a Carolina mountain girl opposite Charlton Heston, who remembered her as possessing a kind of "random instinct" about acting, and was also struck by the fact that she didn't wear make-up in front of the camera. "You could see her coloring change," he said, "you could see her flush or pale during a shot." Selznick, who feared that his wife's career now rested on the success of this movie, took charge of postproduction, enhancing production values from stock footage, and even selecting the hit theme music. The movie received mixed reviews but was a box-office hit, due in part to Paramount's irresistible promotion of it as the story of "A Siren Who Wrecked a Whole Town—Man by Man—Sin by Sin."

Following the lukewarm reception of her next two films, Indiscretion of an American Wife and Beat the Devil (both made in Europe, and released in 1954), Jones gave birth to a baby girl, Mary Jennifer, after which she threw herself into preparations for a Broadway play, Portrait of a Lady, an adaptation of the Henry James novel that seemed troubled from the start. Although Selznick tried to discourage her, Jones, who was frustrated by her seemingly stalled career (she had recently been passed over for roles in The Barefoot Contessa and The Country Girl), ignored his pleas. The play, which also starred Robert Fleming and Cathleen Nesbitt , and was directed by José Quintero, lasted only eight performances. Critics did, however, credit the actress' valiant attempt to save the lackluster adaptation. "Miss Jones does her level best to pump something besides gilly water and lavender flowers into this work," wrote Whitney Bolton in the New York Morning Telegraph. "She has life, she has color and warmth and desperation. But the vehicle burdens her." Jones was crushed by the failure, noting that she "bled from every pore." Later, in an interview with Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams, Jones admitted that criticism upset her to the point of tears. "When someone writes unkind things about me I want to go off somewhere and be alone," she told him.

Jones made a strong comeback in her next film, Han Suyin 's Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), portraying an Eurasian doctor who falls in love with a British journalist played by William Holden, who was a top box-office attraction at the time and was also known to fall in love with all of his co-stars. (Jones supposedly chewed garlic before their love scenes to keep Holden at bay.) The movie was a box-office smash, and critics, some of whom were lukewarm about the movie, were united about Jones' performance. "Miss Jones is lovely and intense," noted The New York Times, "she could be a piece of delicately carved stone." Variety praised the film as "one of the best woman's pictures made in some years," and called Jones "pure delight as the beautiful Han. … Her love scenes with Holden sizzle without ever being cheap or awkward." Winning another Oscar nomination for Best Actress, Jones was once again on track with her movie career. This success was followed by an acclaimed performance as a no-nonsense schoolteacher in Good Morning Miss Dove (1955). Again on top, Jones won Photoplay magazine's "Most Popular Actress of the Year" award in 1955 and received the California Federation of Women's Clubs Motion Picture Award for her performance as Miss Dove. A rematch with Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) proved to be another hit with movie-goers, although Jones was discouraged by her reviews, which were mixed at best. She had her fourth consecutive success as Elizabeth Barrett Browning in The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957). "Jennifer has the ability to look more like a woman completely in love than almost any other actress I can think of," noted the reviewer for the Los Angeles Mirror-News.

Jennifer Jones next embarked on a remake of Ernest Hemingway's famous love story A Farewell to Arms (1957), a property that Selznick had dreamed of making for a long time. The picture was doomed from the start. Director John Huston left mid-shoot over differences with Selznick and was replaced by Charles Vidor. Cinematographer Ossie Morris quit after being harassed by Selznick, who accused him of sacrificing Jones' looks in favor of co-star Rock Hudson. (Selznick, who was notorious for his memos, had stated how he wanted his wife photographed in a 20-page, single-spaced directive at the start of filming.) After 30 weeks, filming concluded at $750,000 over budget. The situation only worsened when the critics came down on Jones. "Miss Jones plays the famous Catherine Barkley with bewildering nervous moves and grimaces," wrote The New York Times' critic. "Miss Jones as the nurse in love never quite seems to make it," noted Cue magazine. William K. Zinsser condemned the entire project in the New York Herald-Tribune. "If there were a supreme Bad Taste Award for movies, A Farewell to Arms would win it hands down. This smutty version of Ernest Hemingway's novel will set thousands of stomachs to turning."

Both Jones and Selznick were depressed over the notices; he took refuge in an affair with his secretary, she immersed herself in yoga and spiritualism and took "method" acting lessons from Lee Strasberg in New York. Although seriously in debt and beginning to show signs of heart disease, Selznick secured the rights to the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel Tender Is the Night, in which Jones would play Nicole, the character based on Fitzgerald's neurotic young wifeZelda Fitzgerald . Directed by Henry King, ironically her very first director, and co-starring Jason Robards, Jr., the film began shooting at Fox. To insure that his wife, now 39, looked young and beautiful in the movie, Selznick secured the services of George Masters, then the most sought after and innovative hairstylist and makeup artist on the New York-Hollywood scene. Masters, who was on call 24 hours a day, called the actress "the most beautiful woman I ever worked on," but was quite astonished at Jones' opulent lifestyle and beauty rituals, which included having all her face creams privately tested by top dermatologists and discarding each jar after it had been used once. He was also impressed by Jones' devotion to her husband and his to her. "[David] was completely enslaved by her beauty," he said, "and she was enslaved by sustaining the illusion for him both as an actress and as a wife." (For the Sunday parties hosted by the couple, Jones would often shower and have her hair and make-up redone three times during the day, changing each time into duplicate outfits so that she appeared unchanged to her guests.) Throughout the shooting of Tender Is the Night, Jones appeared nervous and insecure and frequently disappeared before she was to go on for a scene. The film opened in February 1962, receiving abominable reviews from which Jones was not spared.

Jones would make no more pictures with her husband. His health began to deteriorate rapidly, and her popularity with movie fans was fading. Selznick's last collaboration with his wife was the short-lived play The Man with the Perfect Wife, which had a brief run in Florida. Shortly after the play closed, Selznick suffered a fatal heart attack and died, after which Jones went into seclusion for nearly six months. It was a long adjustment for the actress who, at age 46, was alone for the first time in her life.

Jones returned to films as a replacement for an ailing Kim Hunter in The Idol (1966), which was unmercifully panned and disappeared quickly. In the summer of 1966, Lee Strasberg, remembering that the actress had been the original choice for the film of The Country Girl, offered her the lead in a City Center production of the play. Her performance was not well received, and when the run was over, she was once more reclusive. Still wanting desperately to resume her acting career, in 1969 she made another ill-fated attempt at a film comeback, signing on to play a former pornography movie queen in Angel Angel Down We Go (retitled Cult of the Damned). The film was screened in only a few theaters, mercifully reaching a limited audience. The New York Daily News queried, "Jennifer Jones—how did she ever get mixed up in such a weird production?"

Jones found a renewed sense of purpose in volunteering her time and money to the Los Angeles-based Manhattan Project, a program for emotionally disturbed and drug-addicted youngsters. She solicited funds and invited youngsters into her home for weekends of swimming, tennis, and conversation. Quite unexpectedly, she also found companionship with billionaire industrialist and art collector Norton Simon, whom she met at a party in May 1971 and married a few weeks later. Simon, a large holder of Twentieth Century-Fox stock, may have had a hand in Jones making one last memorable film comeback. Cast in Irwin Allen's disaster film, The Towering Inferno (1974), she portrayed a lonely widow who is conned by Fred Astaire. The film was well received and reviewers remarked on the actress' fit appearance and charming scenes with Astaire. As Jones was basking in her success, however, she was jolted by the death of her troubled daughter Mary Jennifer, who at 21 committed suicide by leaping from a building. Devastated and consumed by guilt, the actress went into a deep depression, emerging with a renewed commitment to the cause of mental health. Hoping to provide benefits to the mentally ill that would endure beyond her lifetime, she donated $1 million to establish the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation for Mental Health and Education.

Jennifer Jones continued to flourish in her role as a society matron and philanthropist, although there were several aborted attempts at another comeback. She took an option on Larry McMurtry's novel Terms of Endearment, but eventually abandoned the idea and sold the rights to Paramount. (The picture won the Oscar as Best Picture of 1983, and Shirley MacLaine , who played the mother Aurora Greenway, won the award for Best Actress.) Norton Simon subsequently optioned The Jean Harris Story, about the schoolmistress who killed her lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower of Scarsdale Diet fame, but that project was also short-lived.

In 1984, Simon was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a progressive nerve disease which results in debilitating muscle weakness. Jones nursed him until his death in 1993, making only occasional public appearances. In the 1990s, Jones served as president of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California and was also active as a paraprofessional therapist at the Southern California Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. The same ambition that once drove her acting career was now centered on the cause of mental illness.


Epstein, Edward Z. Portrait of Jennifer: A Biography of Jennifer Jones. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Linet, Beverly. Star-Crossed: The Story of Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones. NY: Putnam, 1986.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography 1944. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts