The Beauty of Gene Tierney

An American Babe

1940s beauty, Gene Tierney
1940s leading lady, Gene Tierney, was a Brooklyn-born beauty who wowed screen audiences with her striking features - luminous green eyes, a bone structure to die for, tall slender body, light olive, glowing skin and an elegant sense of style. Unlike some female stars of her generation,whose sex-appeal lay in a girl-next-door approachability, Tierney was the untouchable goddess, beyond the reach of ordinary men.

Tierney's onscreen presence exuded a kind of upmarket refinement and indeed, she was born into comfort and privilege, attending some of the best educational institutions in the US before being whisked off to a Swiss finishing school for a final polishing. Her father was a successful insurance broker who set up a corporation, Belle-Tier,  to finance and promote her acting career, a backing enjoyed by very few fledgling starlets.

At the insistence of her father, who thought she should first garner some dramatic kudos by appearing on the stage, the actress made her entree into film via Broadway, where she fell under the wing of influential producer/director, George Abbot. While her acting talents may not have been sufficiently outstanding to separate her from the herd, her beauty and presence was and thus the young actress did not go unnoticed under the stage lights, either by critics, the public or her theatre colleagues, with whom she formed some influential friendships. Tierney's upward career trajectory seemed inevitable - exceptional beauty and family backing ensured she had elegantly stepped on a first-class ride to Hollywood and adoration.

Still from "Sundown", (1941), starring Gene Tierney and Bruce Cabot
Professionally Beautiful
"About my career. I was serious and earnest, sometimes impatient."~ Gene Tierney

An angel face belied the danger within
Valuable connections and getting noticed on Broadway led to a film contract with Darryl F Zanuck at 20th Century Fox, who once described her as "unquestionably, the most beautiful woman in movie history". High praise indeed, especially from one who frequently mingled with some of the most beautiful women in the world.

Professionally, the 1940s was her decade and she made a variety of films [her screen debut with German director, Frtiz Lang] before hitting her box-office stride in the stylish film-noir murder mystery, Laura (1944) with Dana Andrews and  Clifton Webb . Laura was a commercial and critical success and this was followed up by memorable starring role in Leave her to Heaven (1945) with Cornel Wilde, in which she played a scheming, seductive and neurotically jealous  femme-fatale; a juicy role which led to an Academy Award nomination and secured her a place among the Hollywood A-listers..

The dangerous woman who looked a million dollars but just maybe, was more trouble than a keg of dynamite in the back of a bumpy truck, proved her acting forte and she was, for my money,  always at her best poised between elegant seduction and the bubbling frisson of neurosis. Beautiful as she was, there was an aura of rarified other-worldliness about Tierney, as though she didn't quite have a firm foothold on the same grounded path of reality most people traversed.

Other notable 1940s films include The Razors Edge (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). The actress also made several films in the 1950s, her beauty undiminished by the change of decade. Reputedly she also enjoyed short term relationships with some of her leading men, including Hollywood stalwarts, Spencer Tracy, Plymouth Adventure (1952) and Clark Gable, Never Let me go (1953).

Reeking of glamour - Cornell Wilde and Gene Tierney, from the 1945 film, "Leave her to Heaven"
Privately Pained
Early in her film career,  Gene Tierney took up romantically with French/American fashion designer, Oleg Cassini, son of a Countess and who radiated a suave, International charm and sophistication. Yet. although still only 20 and on the cusp of career success, all wasn't perfect in Tierney's seemingly shiny glass-full world. At this time her parents were in the process of a divorce and she herself suffered from a stomach complaint and eye problems. The following year, she and Cassini ran off to Las Vegas to be married in a civil ceremony and to add fuel to her anxieties, shortly after the wedding, she discovered her authoritarian father had been skimming her Hollywood earnings to his own coffers via the Bell-Tier corporation, which must have been a disillusioning revelation, to say the least.

This early blow was to be the forerunner of further misfortunes that shook Tierney's internal equilibrium, which even in good times, seemed a delicate balancing act. During WW2, she had made an appearance at the The Hollywood Canteen, a patriotic club on Cahuenga Boulevarde which offered  servicemen on their way overseas a few hours of entertainment, supper and dancing and unfortunately, left Tierney with a bout of rubella and her first child with Cassini, a legacy of severe mental retardation and lifelong institutionalisation. Tierney's marriage suffered under the guilty strain, leading to a separation and brief flings with Howard Hughes and John F Kennedy, although her politics leant to the right. She was later reunited with Cassini and the couple produced a healthy second child in 1948. Their relationship ended formally with a divorce in 1952, although they remained on friendly terms. Later Tierney developed a serious relationship with Ali khan, son of the uber-wealthy Aga Khan but marriage would have entailed moving countries and changing her religion, so the union never materialised.

Gene Tierney
By this time Tierney was suffering the effects of what was reputedly an undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder and her work suffered for it, as she forced to bow out of at least one film project and eventually, undergo gruelling psychiatric treatment, including shock treatments and a range of drugs. Severe mood swings and suicidal obsessions were to plague her for the next few decades and she was rarely out of the range of some sort of psychiatric care, describing her illness to a friend as "like falling down a manhole and having nothing to grab on to".

At 39, Tierney married  Texan oil millionaire and beauty worshipper, Howard Lee, [a former husband of Hedy Lemarr}, who knew about and accepted her mental frailties. Lee proved to be a dependable, loving figure in her life who stood by her through dark periods of overwhelming depression and emotional pain. They remained married until Lee's death in 1981.

Despite a brief stint as a shop assistant in a dress store on the advice of doctors (as a normalising therapy), the actress never gave up entirely on her career, appearing in various productions during the 1960s and a final small screen appearance in the 80s television soap opera, Scruples. In 1979 she wrote an autobiography, Self-Portrait, reflecting on the various phases of her life and career and not recoiling from acknowledging the painful undercurrent of mental illness that had blighted what had seemed to so many of her fans a life bestowed with advantages.

Like many of her era, an enduring addiction to tobacco led to additional health problems - in Tierney's case, emphysema, which eventually killed her at the age of 70 in 1991.