A Dark Tragedy in a Golden Era: The Life of Gene Tierney

Some actors and actresses stand out in the world of cinema, elevated to a higher level than their peers through their remarkable skills and striking appearances. Gene Tierney was one of those actresses, a true icon of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

Gene Tierney / Gene Tierney / Don Ameche, Gene Tierney / Gene Tierney.
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Throughout the 1940s, Tierney became one of the world’s most desirable and widely-praised leading ladies. But, away from the stage and the screen, she had to struggle through many difficult challenges, affecting her mental and physical health in some terrible ways.

Born in Brooklyn in 1920

Gene Tierney entered the world on November 19 of 1920. She was born in Brooklyn in New York City. Her parents were Howard Sherwood Tierney, an insurance broker of Irish descent, and Belle Lavinia Taylor, a former physical education teacher.

A portrait of Gene Tierney.
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Gene was named in honor of an uncle who passed away at a young age. She had one brother named Howard Sherwood Tierney Jr. and a sister, Patricia Tierney. Her father was successful in business, allowing the family to live comfortably, and Gene enjoyed a simple, safe childhood.

Her First Taste of Acting

Gene Tierney was raised in Westport, Connecticut. She attended private schools in the area and took an interest in the arts from an early age. She particularly enjoyed writing poetry, having her first poem published in the school magazine.

Gene in a scene from a film.
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She also got her first taste of acting when she was just a child, playing Jo in a school production of Little Women. Right away, it seemed that young Gene enjoyed the experience of being on stage and performing for the pleasure of an audience.

The Finest Education

Gene’s parents had big plans for their daughter to become an intelligent, well-read woman who would make a successful debut into society and marry into one of the other wealthy families the Tierneys often met and encountered at East Coast events. So, they made sure that her education was the best it could be.

A young Gene is leaning out of a window with her friends at a private school.
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Not only did Gene study at the best private schools in Connecticut during her youth, but she was also sent off to Europe to study at the Brillantmont International School in Switzerland. She learned to speak French fluently before returning to the United States to attend Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut.

A Visit to Warner Bros

One of the most important moments in Gene Tierney’s young life came when she was 17 years of age. She and her mother and siblings visited Hollywood and were invited to tour some of the local film studios through contacts of Gene’s father.

A portrait of Gene Tierney.
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While touring the Warner Bros studio, they encountered director Anatole Litvak, who was completely taken aback by young Gene’s beauty. He expressed his admiration for her cheekbones and suggested that she train to become an actress. Gene’s parents, however, had other ideas in mind.

Her Parents Were Against the Idea

Gene had been spotted by a famous director and recommended to enter the acting world, but her parents weren’t interested. They felt that acting wasn’t a suitable path for their daughter, saying that the salaries were too low.

Gene Tierney in a still from a film.
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Gene’s mother and father had also hoped and prepared for their daughter to make her society debut. They had her life all planned out and didn’t want to alter that plan. They expected her to make her debut, marry into a successful family, and lead a comfortable life.

Gene Made Her Debut

Howard Tierney made a deal with his daughter. He told her that he would agree to see some agents and producers in New York sometime in the future. But before all of that, she needed to return to Connecticut, finish her final year at Miss Porter’s School, and make her debut.

An outdoors picture of Gene Tierney.
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She agreed. She finished school and officially made her society debut on September 24 of 1938. Her beauty and elegance surely impressed many prospective suitors at the time, but Gene quickly grew bored with society life and wanted to experience something more.

Heading to New York

Gene wanted adventure in her life, she wanted to have her career, hone her talents, and most of all, she wanted to act. So, after a short period of social life, she asked her father to take her to New York, as he had agreed, to meet some agents and producers.

Gene attends an event.
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Howard said that “legitimate theater” was the only proper pursuit for his daughter in the acting world, so he made arrangements to study at a small acting studio in Greenwich Village under the tutelage of Broadway actor and director Benno Schneider. She also became a protégée of Broadway director George Abbott.

Her First Broadway Appearance

Gene was ready to make her first appearance on a Broadway stage not too long after arriving in New York City. She appeared in a production of What a Life! in 1938. Her small role consisted of carrying a bucket of water from one side of the stage to the other.

A portrait of Gene holding a feather fan.
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Gene’s role was not a very large or important one. However, her incredible beauty was enough to catch the eye of a local critic, who wrote in Variety magazine, “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen!”

Making a Name for Herself

After her first appearance, Gene began to obtain a few more roles. She was an understudy in The Primrose Path in 1938 and then appeared in the role of Molly O’Day in the 1939 Broadway production of Mrs. O’Brien Entertains. The same year, she appeared as Peggy Carr in Ring Two.

A portrait of Gene.
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Her appearances received positive reviews from the local critics. Many people commented on her beauty and elegance on stage, with New York Herald Tribune critic, Richard Watts Jr., stating that he saw an “interesting theatrical career” ahead for the young actress.

Gene’s Father Lends a Hand

Gene’s father, Howard Tierney, wanted his daughter to succeed in her new career. So, when he saw that she was doing well on stage, he set up a corporation named Belle-Tier, to try and help her promote her skills and get more roles.

A studio portrait of Gene Tierney.
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Up until that point, Gene’s parents had mostly expressed disdain for their daughter’s chosen career path and hadn’t provided too much support. But finally, having seen what his daughter wanted to do, Howard chose to help rather than hinder her.

A Failed Movie Deal

The Belle-Tier corporation helped Gene get her first movie contract. Columbia Pictures offered her a six-month deal, promising to pay her $350 per week. It was an offer that was too good to refuse, so Gene agreed and went to Hollywood from New York.

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Unfortunately, the deal didn’t quite work out the way everyone had hoped. Gene was tried out for the film Coast Guard with Randolph Scott, but she couldn’t remember her lines, and the studio head, Harry Cohn, eventually replaced her with someone else.

Meeting Howard Hughes

During her time in Hollywood with Columbia, Gene met Howard Hughes. Hughes was a wealthy business magnate, film director, pilot, and engineer. A man of many skills and talents, he was drawn to Gene from their first meeting. He made several attempts to seduce her during their early weeks and months together.

A triptych portrait of Howard Hughes.
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However, Gene wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ wealth and achievements, as she was used to the same sorts of men from her high society days. Still, despite not entering into a romantic relationship, the pair became lifelong friends from that point on.

Back to Broadway

After the Columbia Pictures deal didn’t work out, it seemed that a film career wasn’t to be for Gene Tierney. She went back to New York City and got back on the Broadway stage, enjoying great success in the role of Patricia Stanley in the 1940 production of The Male Animal.

Gene poses at home in her garden.
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A review in The New York Times called it “the best performance she has yet given,” and before Gene was even 20 years old, she was already one of the biggest stars of the stage, appearing in high-profile magazines like Life and Vogue.

A New Film Deal

The Male Animal drew in many big industry figures, and one night, Twentieth Century Fox studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, was in the audience. Impressed with Tierney’s performance, he asked his assistant to note her name and sign her the next day.

An outdoors picture of Gene.
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Funnily enough, that very same night, Zanuck was at the Stork Club, where he saw a beautiful young woman dancing. He allegedly told his assistant, “Forget the girl from the play. Sign this one!” Little did he know that the girl in front of him was Tierney, the “girl from the play.”

A Successful Return to Hollywood

Gene had been burned by a film deal once before, suffering through a pointless six-month contract with Columbia Pictures in which she got no real roles to speak of. So, she might have been hesitant about signing up with 20th Century Fox, but she decided to go for it.

Gene Tierney in a scene from The Return of Frank James.
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Fortunately, this deal turned out to be far better for the young actress, and in 1940, she got her first film role in the supporting part of Eleanor Stone in The Return of Frank James. She performed under the direction of Fritz Lang and alongside Henry Fonda himself.

Building Up Her Resume

Tierney’s role in The Return of Frank James was well-received by audiences and critics, and she followed that up with a couple more movies in 1941, appearing first as Barbara Hall in Hudson’s Bay, then as Ellie Mae Lester in Tobacco Road.

Gene Tierney and Ona Munson on the set of The Shanghai Gesture.
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She then got her biggest role to date as the leading lady in Belle Starr. 1941 proved to be a really big year for Tierney, as she also starred in Sundown and The Shanghai Gesture, building up quite a collection of film roles on her resume.

Her First Marriage

In 1941, as well as appearing in several films and building up her Hollywood career, young Gene Tierney also met and married her first husband: Oleg Cassini. Cassini was a costume and fashion designer, and the pair eloped on June 1 of 1941.

A portrait of Gene and Oleg Cassini by the fireplace.
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Gene was just 20 years old at the time, and her parents were in strict opposition to the marriage when they learned about it. They were unhappy about Cassini’s heritage, hailing from a Russian-Italian family and being born in France. But Gene was happy with her new husband at the time, and the pair stayed together for several years.

More and More Film Roles

In 1942, Gene continued to appear in more movies. She played Eve in Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake and appeared in the role of Susan Miller in ‘Rings on Her Fingers.’ She then appeared as Kay Saunders in Thunder Birds and Miss Young in China Girl.

John Wheeler and Gene Tierney in a scene from Rings on Her Fingers.
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Her career gradually developed over time, and she consistently received positive comments and responses for her roles. Still, she hadn’t quite exploded onto the Hollywood scene in the way that some other young actresses of the time had managed to do. But that was all about to change.

A Big but Difficult Role

In 1943, Gene Tierney got the big break she’d needed. She was given the top billing role in Heaven Can Wait, a comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It was a huge role for Tierney, and the movie was a big critical success. However, the filming process took a toll on Gene.

Don Ameche and Gene Tierney on the set of Heaven Can Wait.
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She called Lubitsch a “tyrant” on set, saying he was extremely demanding and even brought her to tears after shouting at her during a particularly long filming session. Eventually, she broke down and threatened to leave the film. In the end, she and Lubitsch made up and created a great film together, but Gene was feeling the pressure of the acting world.

Her Physical and Mental Health Suffered Behind the Scenes

On the big screen, everything was going well for Gene Tierney. Heaven Can Wait was a big success for her and looked great on her resume, and she was getting more and more offers for leading roles. However, behind the scenes, she was starting to struggle.

Gene is lying down on a boat.
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Her physical health was deteriorating, as she’d taken up smoking to try and soften her high-pitched voice, as well as following a strict diet in response to a photographer suggesting that she lose weight. Her mental health was also taking repeated hits from both personal and professional matters.

She Struggled with Depression and Rejection

One of the biggest contributors to Gene’s mental health decline was that her family had rejected her since her marriage to Oleg Cassini. Her father made a public statement, stating that “Gene has gone Hollywood” and refusing to accept Cassini as part of the family.

A picture of Oleg Cassini in costume with Gene.
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Rejected and isolated from her family, Gene struggled to be happy. To make matters worse, her family even started legal proceedings to try and claim 25% of all of Gene’s earnings. It was a tough time for her, and more drama was on the horizon as she awaited the birth of her first child.

A Dramatic Incident with Her First Daughter

Gene was already struggling in her personal life, and she was pregnant at the time, expecting a daughter with her husband. She hoped that the arrival of her little girl would bring some joy and comfort to her life, but the birth proved to be a dramatic experience for all involved.

A portrait of Gene playing with her baby daughter.
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Gene’s daughter, Daria, was born in 1943. She was born prematurely and weighed just three pounds and two ounces. She needed a total blood transfusion and constant care in the early days of her life, and it was soon discovered that Daria was deaf, partially blind, and severely mentally disabled, too.

The Truth Behind Daria’s Birth

The doctors revealed that Daria’s condition had been caused because Gene had contracted rubella while pregnant. The effects of the disease had taken their toll on the unborn child and affected Daria for the rest of her life. And a year later, Gene learned the terrible truth of how it had all happened.

A portrait of Oleg and Gene.
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A woman approached her on a tennis court, revealing that she had contracted rubella but had broken the quarantine rules to see Gene at the Hollywood Canteen because she was such a big fan. Gene revealed that she “turned and walked away very quickly” from the woman in her autobiography, without telling her what had happened.

The Rest of Daria’s Life

Due to the nature of her mental disability, Daria Cassini was unable to live a normal life. She required regular care and treatment, and she had to spend much of her life in institutions, with regular visits from her parents and other loved ones.

A portrait of an older Gene Tierney.
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Fortunately, Gene’s old friend, Howard Hughes, offered to pay Daria’s medical bills, promising to receive the best possible care. It was a kind gesture that Gene never forgot. Thanks to the quality of care she received, Daria lived to the age of 66, passing away in 2010.

Her Most Memorable Role

Daria’s birth had been a very difficult moment for Gene, but time wouldn’t simply stop and let her grieve. As a young and popular actress of the time, she knew she had to make the most of her status and continue to perform in the best roles offered to her.

Gene Tierney on the set of Laura.
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So, in 1944, a year after the birth, she appeared in the most memorable film role of her career: she played the title role in Otto Preminger’s Laura, alongside Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb. The film was based on a 1943 novel by Vera Caspary.

Success After Success

Laura was a major success, both critically and commercially. Reviews of the film were highly positive, with many people praising Tierney’s acting, among other factors, as one of the fundamental driving forces behind the picture’s success. However, she wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award.

Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven.
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However, she was nominated for her performance in Leave Her to Heaven as the femme fatale Ellen Berent Harland only a year later. It was one of the most successful films of the decade and featured in many Best Movie lists.

An Icon of the 1940s

With her work in Laura and Leave Her to Heaven, along with other roles in movies like Dragonwyck, The Razor’s Edge, The Ghost, and Mrs. Muir, and That Wonderful Urge, Gene Tierney made the 1940s her own, dominating the decade in a way that few other actors did.

A portrait of Gene on the set of Leave Her to Heaven.
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She excelled in every picture she appeared in, reaching the peak of her fame and becoming known all around the world as one of the most beautiful and talented leading ladies, right up there alongside the likes of Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner.

Her Problems Continued

Gene’s career was rising and rising, but still, behind the scenes, in her personal life, problems were mounting up. Tensions had developed between the actress and her husband, Oleg, who announced their separation in 1946.

A picture of Gene Tierney in court.
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Around that time, it was believed that Tierney was dating Charles K. Feldman, and the divorce was set for March of 1948. In the end, Oleg and Gene reconciled and spent a few more years together, welcoming a second daughter into the world, Christina “Tina” Cassini, in 1948. However, they did eventually call it quits in 1952 but remained friends.

Another High Profile Romance

During her separation from Oleg Cassini, Gene met John F. Kennedy. At the time, Kennedy was just a World War II veteran with an interest in a political career, as the pair initially became acquainted in 1946, just after the end of the war.

A studio portrait of Gene.
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They started a brief romance, but Gene had to end it when Kennedy informed her that he would never marry her due to his political aspirations. Years later, when JFK became president, Tierney sent him a congratulatory note.

She Nearly Married a Prince

Tierney had other romances throughout her life. In the early 1950s, she met Prince Aly Khan of Pakistan. The pair became engaged in 1952. At the time, Khan was getting a divorce from another big actress, Rita Hayworth.

Gene Tierney and Prince Aly Khan at a club.
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Aly Khan’s father, Aga Khan III, strongly opposed the idea of his son marrying another Hollywood star, and the pressure he put on the couple caused Gene to break off the engagement and head back to the United States to tend to her deteriorating mental health.

The 50s Brought More Problems

The 1950s saw a general decline in Gene’s career. She had been a hugely successful leading lady of the 40s and the 50s started well with roles in movies like Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Mating Season, and Close to My Heart. However, as the decade continued, her health got worse.

A portrait of Gene on the set of The Left Hand of God.
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Her Fox contract also expired, and in the mid-50s, she became seriously ill. While filming The Left Hand of God in 1955, her co-star, Humphrey Bogart, suggested seeking help as she was dealing with manic depression and struggled to concentrate or remember her lines.

Electric Shock Treatment

Deciding that the time was right to do something about her health, Gene Tierney sought out the services of a psychiatrist, who sent her to the Harkness Pavilion in New York. She was later sent to the Institute of Living in Connecticut, where electric shock treatments were pioneered to deal with depression.

A portrait of Gene Tierney.
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Tierney underwent 27 of these treatments. In her autobiography, she described being locked in small rooms, wrapped in wet sheets, and made to endure all kinds of painful, terrifying treatments. She even fled the facility at one point but was caught and returned for more shocks.

Gene Regretted Her Treatment

Gene later said she felt “eternal regret” about entering the sanitarium and receiving electric shock therapy. At the time, doctors believed that the technique had a lot of promise and was one of the best ways to deal with mental disorders, but Gene strongly disagreed.

A portrait of an older Gene.
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She said she felt “like a lab rat” and called the experience “the most degrading time of my life.” She did experience some relief from her depression and other symptoms after each shock treatment but quickly relapsed all over again.

She Even Attempted Suicide

The situation got so bad for Gene. She couldn’t see any escape. The treatments were scary and painful, and nothing seemed to work to rid her of her problems. So, in December of 1957, she came close to putting an end to all of it.

A portrait of Gene.
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While visiting her mother’s apartment in Manhattan, she stepped out onto a ledge, 14 stories high. She stood there for about 20 minutes until the police arrived and managed to talk her down. After that, she was sent to yet another institution – the Menninger Clinic in Kansas – and treated further for depression.

A New Love Helped Her Through It

A year after entering the Menninger Clinic, Gene was discharged. And, that same year, she met the new love of her life: W. Howard Lee, an oil baron from Texas. Lee had been married to actress and producer Hedy Lamarr since the early 50s but got a divorce.

A picture of W. Howard Lee and Gene outside the church.
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He and Tierney fell deeply in love and got married in July of 1960, living together in homes in Texas and Florida and remaining married until Lee passed away in 1981. Gene credits Lee with helping her get through the most difficult period of her life.

The Quiet Life

After getting out of treatment and beginning a new relationship, Gene decided that she’d prefer to try the quiet life for a while. She wanted to stay out of the spotlight and enjoy a normal, peaceful existence, so she decided to get a job as a sales assistant in a dress shop.

A photo of W. Howard Lee and Gene.
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Unfortunately, a customer recognized her and contacted the newspapers. It wasn’t long before Gene was back in the headlines and dealing with all of the media attention and pressure all over again. She then started to get some new offers for film roles.

A Brief Comeback

It seemed that the quiet life wasn’t to be for Gene, so she decided to dive back into the world of acting in the early 1960s. In the 1962 movie, Advice and Consent, she made her big-screen comeback, directed by Otto Preminger, who helped make Gene a star in Laura.

Otto Preminger, Gene Tierney, and Walter Pidgeon at a film festival.
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In the years that followed, she made a few more roles in movies like Toys in the Attic, Four Nights of the Full Moon, and The Pleasure Seekers. She received rave reviews for her performances, and it looked like she was building her career back up where she’d left off. But, in 1964, she decided that enough was enough and announced her retirement.

Sharing Her Story

Gene made a couple more on-screen appearances in the TV movie, Daughter of the Mind, and the TV miniseries, Scruples but mostly went on to live a much quieter and calmer life, enjoying her time with her family as much as she could.

A picture of Gene on a movie set.
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She also wrote and published her autobiography, Self-Portrait, in 1979. The book went into great detail on Gene’s career, life, and mental health troubles, and she was praised for her honesty and openness. She also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was given the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award in the 1980s.

A Wonderful Woman with a Tragic Tale

Gene Tierney passed away from emphysema in November of 1991. She was 70 years old, just a couple of weeks away from her 71st birthday. She lived an incredible life, with a rollercoaster of ups and downs, successes and tragedies.

A portrait of Gene Tierney.
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Her talent, beauty, and determination were unmatched, and she left her mark on the world of cinema in a way that will always be remembered. But behind the spotlight, she suffered greatly, coping with depression, suicidal thoughts, and several personal tragedies.