Tierney, Gene (1920–1991)

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Tierney, Gene (1920–1991)

American actress who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven. Name variations: Gene Lee. Born Gene Eliza Tierney on November 20 (one respected source cites the 19th), 1920, in Brooklyn, New York; died of emphysema in Houston, Texas, on November 6, 1991; one of three children (two girls and a boy) of Howard Tierney (an insurance broker) and Belle (Taylor) Tierney; attended St. Margaret's and Miss Porter's School in Connecticut, and Chateau Brilliantmont, in Lausanne, Switzerland; married Oleg Cassini (a fashion designer), on June 1, 1941 (divorced February 1952); married W. Howard Lee (an oil executive), in July 1960; children: (first marriage) two daughters, Daria and Christina Cassini .


Molly O'Day in Mrs. O'Brien Entertains (February 1939); Peggy Carr in Ring Two (November 1939); Patricia Stanley in The Male Animal (January 1940).

Selected filmography:

The Return of Jesse James (1940); Hudson's Bay (1941); Tobacco Road (1941);Belle Starr (1941); Sundown (1941); The Shanghai Gesture (1942); Son of Fury (1942); Rings on Her Fingers (1942); Thunder Birds (1942); China Girl (1943); Heaven Can Wait (1943); Laura (1944); A Bell for Adano (1945); Leave Her to Heaven (1945); Dragonwyck (1946); The Razor's Edge (1946); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947); The Iron Curtain (1948); That Wonderful Urge (1948); Whirlpool (1950); Night and the City (1950); Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950); The Mating Season (1951); On the Riviera (1951); The Secret of Convict Lake (1951); Close to My Heart (1951); Way of a Gaucho (1952); Plymouth Adventure (1952); Never Let Me Go (1953); Personal Affair (UK, 1954); Black Widow (1954); The Egyptian (1954); The Left Hand of God (1955); Advise and Consent (1962); Toys in the Attic (1963); The Pleasure Seekers (1964).

A tall brunette with chiseled cheekbones, slanted blue-green eyes, and famed overbite, Gene Tierney was wooed to Hollywood from a promising stage career, and was one of 20th Century-Fox's lineup of stars during the 1940s. Although she had roles in several box-office hits, she failed to win the acclaim of the critics, who consistently found her wooden. Sidetracked in the 1950s by her tumultuous personal life and a mental breakdown, she made a modest screen comeback in the 1960s.

Tierney was born in Brooklyn in 1920, the daughter of a wealthy Manhattan insurance broker, and attended private schools near the family estate in Connecticut, and in Switzerland. While she was still her teens, her emerging beauty brought offers from Hollywood, but her parents believed she should pursue the Broadway stage instead of movies. To that end, her father formed a family-owned corporation, Belle-Tier, to promote and manage her career. After small roles in two unsuccessful George Abbott productions—Mrs. O'Brien Entertains and Ring Two (both 1939)—she was enthusiastically received in the role of the kid sister of a college coed in The Male Animal (1940). Critics spoke of her beauty and animation and Life magazine included a four-page special feature on her. Although at the time Tierney told the press she was not ready for Hollywood, she was ultimately won over by Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck, who was looking to replace disgruntled star Loretta Young . With the help of her father, Tierney negotiated a contract unique for the times. Not only did it allow her time off to return to Broadway each year, but it also stipulated that the studio would not color or cut her hair, or straighten her teeth.

Tierney's film debut as the female lead in The Return of Jesse James (1940) was bland and lackluster. A review in The New York Times calling her "singularly mannered and colorless" was just a hint at what was to come. Following her second screen appearance in Hudson's Bay, the Harvard Lampoon voted her one of the two worst film discoveries of 1940. While Tierney's film career floundered, her social life soared. She dated a number of Hollywood's most eligible men, including Howard Hughes, and was rumored for a short time to be on the brink of marriage to Robert Sterling. It came as quite a surprise then when, on June 1, 1941, she eloped with fashion designer

Oleg Cassini. Her father was so incensed that he threatened to sue her on behalf of the corporation that had been formed to handle her business affairs. The feud was eventually resolved, although it is said to have contributed to the subsequent divorce of her parents.

Upon her return to moviemaking, Tierney arranged for her mother to be hired as a Fox press agent in Manhattan, and for her husband to design her movie wardrobes. Sadly, neither Cassini's clothes nor the full-screen Technicolor images of her remarkable face did much to advance her development as an actress in the eyes of the critics. For the press, only two roles stand out as high points in her career: the title role in Otto Preminger's sophisticated melodrama Laura (1944), and the role as the murderous Ellen Berent in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), for which she received her only Oscar nomination. Although both films were popular with audiences, as was the later The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), they failed to bring the actress any critical acclaim.

Tierney's portrayal of the mysterious Laura in the Preminger film presented her with one of the most challenging entrances in movie history. "Laura is talked about for half an hour before she appears and that results in a very considerable build-up of anticipation in the audience," she recalled years later. "I was a bit leery in my first scene." Although the film was named one of the year's ten best pictures by Film Daily and garnered an Oscar nomination for Tierney's costar Clifton Webb, most critics felt that Tierney failed to live up to the image that preceded her. "Pretty, indeed, but hardly the type of girl we had expected to meet," groused a reviewer for The New York Times. "For Miss Tierney plays at being a brilliant and sophisticated advertising executive with the wide-eyed innocence of a college junior." Although Tierney received an Oscar nomination for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), the critics were once again unmerciful. "No amount of strenuous plot trouble—or even a long fall down a flight of steps—seems to jar Gene Tierney's smooth deadpan," James Agee observed in Time.

Personal tragedy seemed to stalk Tierney. On October 15, 1943, Tierney gave birth to her first child, Daria, who was born blind, deaf, and developmentally challenged and was institutionalized. The child's birth defects were later traced to German measles, which Tierney had contracted late in her pregnancy. (A woman marine had broken quarantine to meet the film actress, who was entertaining soldiers at the Hollywood Canteen during her pregnancy.) The actress had a second child, Christina, in 1948, during one of many reconciliations she had with Cassini between their initial separation in 1947 and their divorce in 1952. She then began a romance with Aly Khan, but her hopes to marry him were dashed by the Aga Khan, who was wary of another movie star in the family. (Aly had formerly been married to Rita Hayworth .) When the affair ended in 1954, Tierney finished work on The Left Hand of God (1955), but subsequently walked out on a television production of Ibsen's A Doll's House in which she was contracted to play Nora. Suffering a nervous breakdown, Tierney was hospitalized at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, for 18 months, then released in her mother's custody. After a relapse, she received further treatment at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and was released eight months later.

Returning to Hollywood in September 1958, Tierney was candid with the press. "My illness was a curable one, not cancer or something worse. It was something I was responsible for, not anyone else's fault. It was up to me to do something about it, and I did. Now I'm looking for a movie part. I want to go to work, and the doctors think that I should never give up acting." Unfortunately, work proved hard to find.

In 1960, Tierney married Houston oil millionaire W. Howard Lee, who had been married to Hedy Lamarr . The couple settled in Houston where Tierney wrote a column about her Hollywood days for the local newspaper and was active in fund-raising for cancer research, mental health, and the care of developmentally challenged children. In an interview at the time, she likened her new life to suddenly coming out of a dark tunnel into the light.

Tierney came out of retirement only occasionally, to play a character role in a film or to make a television appearance. In her autobiography, Self-Portrait, written with Mickey Herskowitz and published in 1979, the actress frankly discussed her past misfortunes and also revealed that she regularly dated John F. Kennedy during his Navy days. Tierney died of emphysema in 1991.


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

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 5th series. NY: Crown, 1974.

Paris, James Robert. The Fox Girls. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971.

Shields, Jonathan. "Gene Tierney," in Films in Review. November 1971.

Tierney, Gene, with Mickey Herskowitz. Self-Portrait. NY: Wyden, 1979.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts