Gene Tierney

Although plagued by mental health issues – she suffered from bipolar disorder – actor Gene Tierney was one of classic Hollywood’s most talented stars. Her love affairs, including one with a future US president, made the headlines. Her beauty, style and talent fascinate until today.

Tierney’s 1979 memoirs reveal an anguished life. The “most beautiful woman in film history” struggled to live a happy life and to come to terms with the bipolar disorder that effectively put an end to her career.

Unlike many of her contemporaries, Tierney was born into a wealthy, privileged family in Brooklyn, NY, in 1920. The second of three children, her father was an insurance broker. When she was five, the family moved to a  country home in Green’s Farms, CT, where an army of servants and a German nanny looked after the children.

Tierney received an expensive education, including a stint at finishing school in Switzerland, the Brillantmont International School in Lausanne. After graduating from  Miss Porter’s School in Farmington in 1938, Tierney was sent on holiday to California with her mother and siblings where, through a family connection, they got to watch the shooting of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starring  Bette Davis.

According to the legend, director Anatole Litvak spotted Tierney on the sidelines and exclaimed “Young woman, you ought to be in pictures!” Her screen test was scheduled for the next day, at which time she was asked to read a Dorothy Parker monologue. That evening, she was offered a studio contract. Around this time, she met Howard Hughes, who tried unsuccessfully to seduce her. Being from a well-to-do family, she was not impressed by Hughes’ wealth. He did however become a life-long friend.

On demand of her father, Tierney returned back to Connecticut, where it was expected she live the life of a debutante. She had other plans however and tried her luck on Broadway, where she made her first appearance in “Miss O’Brien Entertains” at the Lyceum Theater in February 1939.

Her talent and looks –  20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck called her “unquestionably the most beautiful woman in movie history” – got her another film contract, and she made her film debut for Fox in The Return of Frank James (1940), directed by German émigré Fritz Lang.

Before she could embark on more film making her mental health took a turn for the worse. With her self-confidence shattered by her parent’s divorce, Tierney suffered from a host of anxiety-related illnesses she had to address. During her convalescence, she sought refuge in the arms of her boyfriend Oleg Cassini, a Paris-born son of an Italian countess, who worked as Edith Head’s assistant in the Paramount costume department.

In June 1941, Tierney and Cassini flew to Las Vegas to be married in a civil ceremony. The controversial marriage worsened Tierney’s relationship with her parents while alarming Hollywood executives to the degree that Cassini was fired by Paramount.

The couples first child, daughter Antoinette Daria Cassini, was born two months prematurely and suffered from severe physical and mental health issues, ultimately requiring lifelong institutionalization. Tierney would later learn that she had impacted the child’s health when a fan told her she had broken her quarantine for rubella to meet Tierney at the Hollywood Canteen, passing on the illness that cause Daria’s disability to her. The tragedy caused a strain on the Tierney-Cassini marriage, leading to a separation. Yet, the pair reconciled and their second child, Tina, was born without complications in 1948.

Tierney’s film career reached A-list status with Leave Her to Heaven (1945), for which she received an Academy Award nomination. While filming Dragonwyck (1946), during her separation from Cassini, Tierney enjoyed a dalliance with future president  John F. Kennedy. Cassini and her finally divorced in 1952, after which she had relationships with Spencer Tracyand with Clark Gable.

Triggered by her guilt about her daughter’s health issues, Tierney began to suffer from an undiagnosed bipolar disorder which took a toll on her work. Treatments for her illness included nearly 30 sessions of shock therapy and days wrapped in icy sheets to control her wild mood swings. Tierney attempted to flee the clinic she was treated in, but was caught and returned. She became an outspoken opponent of shock treatment therapy, claiming that it destroyed significant portions of her memory.

In 1958, Tierney met Texas oilman Howard Lee, then the estranged husband of actress Hedy Lamarr. Tierney and Lee married in 1960 and settled in Houston, where the former actor wrote a newspaper column and became an expert at contract bridge.

Despite her self-imposed exile in Texas, Tierney received work offers from Hollywood, prompting her to try out a comeback. Yet, she made her final feature film appearance in The Pleasure Seekers (1963), opposite Ann-Margret and Brian Keith.

In 1979, she published her memoirs, detailing her struggle with mental illness. Gene Tierney died on Nov. 6, 1991, two weeks shy of what would have been her 71st birthday.