Gene Tierney Began Her Trip Back from Madness on a Ledge 14 Floors Above the Street
updated 05/07/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/07/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
That horrifying flirtation with death occurred 21 years ago, and today Gene Tierney can speak of it with almost analytic detachment. One of Hollywood's reigning beauties when the star system was supreme, Tierney should have had the world on a string. Instead she was hounded by failure and tragedy: an on-again-off-again marriage that finally failed, a first child born retarded, betrayal by a once-beloved father. Despair drove her first into shock therapy and later to that ledge of her mother's New York apartment, 14 floors above the sidewalk. It was a mild spring day. "I must have stood there for 20 minutes," Tierney recalls. "I was totally without fear, and I thought, 'What's the point of living?' " What saved her, she says, "was vanity. I thought of what I'd look like when I hit the ground—like a scrambled egg. That didn't appeal to me. If I was going to die, I wanted to be in one piece."
Such candor and brutal self-revelation are the hallmarks of Tierney's Self-Portrait, her recently released autobiography, written in collaboration with professional ghost Mickey Herskowitz. In person as well as in print, she speaks frankly about her struggle to repair a broken mind. At 58, those seemingly endless bouts with depression are past, but her mental balance is agonizingly tenuous. Occasionally, she says, she lapses into delusions, shutting out the world around her, imagining she is the victim of Communist plots. She still has nightmares about her confinement in a sanitarium cell and sometimes sleepwalks through her home in Houston, Texas, opening doors and windows. Since that day on the window ledge, she has developed an understandable fear of heights.
Tierney doubts she will ever conquer her illness but refuses to be defeated by it. "Depression is only a temporary thing," she says now. "I've often thought that if people who committed suicide could wake up the next morning they'd ask themselves, 'Now why in the world did I do that?' "
By the Hollywood standards of her time, Gene Eliza Tierney represented high society—a touch of class. Born in Brooklyn, she was brought up expensively in Fairfield County, Conn. Her appearance-conscious father, Howard Tierney, was an insurance broker who saw to it that Gene attended the right private schools in the U.S. and Switzerland and that she trod the carefully chosen path of the debutante.
Gene, however, was "discovered," as Hollywood used to say, while on a guided tour of the Warner Bros, lot in 1938. (She swears that director Anatole Litvak took one look at her and actually uttered the words, "Young woman, you ought to be in pictures.") Despite her striking beauty (her contract stipulated that her distinctive, slightly protruding front teeth were not to be tampered with), studio moguls seemed befuddled by the problem of casting their 18-year-old ingenue. Her early Hollywood years required her to do little more than lean fetchingly against pieces of scenery. Even that was enough to catch the eye of starlet-fancier Howard Hughes, who became a mysterious presence in her life for several years. "The problem was," she writes, "I don't think Howard could have loved anything that did not have a motor in it."
In 1941 Gene eloped to Las Vegas with dress designer Oleg Cassini. It was hardly a politic choice. Though descended from Russian nobility, Cassini was disdained in parochial Hollywood as a "foreigner." Gene's parents, too, bitterly opposed the marriage. Crushed by their reaction, she was shocked to discover soon afterward that her father, whom she idolized, was divorcing her mother to marry a family friend. Until then Gene's salary had been paid to a corporation controlled by Howard Tierney. A harrowing legal battle between father and daughter followed, during which Gene discovered that he had spent her $50,000 in savings in desperation after business reverses. Hurt and angry, Gene saw her father only once before his death in 1963.
Soon disaster followed disappointment. She caught the German measles during a World War II USO tour, and because she was pregnant at the time the consequences were devastating. Gene carries permanently the scars of the day, more than four years later, when she placed her daughter Daria in a school for the mentally retarded. "The emptiness inside me was like a cave," she says. "She was a sweet little girl, with golden curls and soft skin. Physically she looked just like any other 4-year-old. I cried for Daria and I cried for me until I didn't know where the tears came from." Now 35, Daria still has the mind of an infant and is confined to an institution in New Jersey. (More than a year after the little girl was born, Gene was approached at a party by a former woman Marine who said they had met at a USO canteen two years earlier. The woman added that she had been quarantined at the time with the measles but had sneaked out to see Tierney anyway. "I just had to go," the woman gushed innocently. "You were always my favorite." Stunned, the actress said nothing.)
While filming Dragonwyck Gene met Jack Kennedy, back from the war and gaunt from months in naval hospitals. He understood her anguish; he had a retarded sister himself. Gene's marriage to Cassini had been reduced by then to a mere "entanglement," she says, and soon she and Kennedy became lovers. But he was a Catholic, politically ambitious and bluntly pragmatic. "You know, Gene, I can never marry you," he told her one day. "Bye, bye, Jack," she whispered, and walked out.
Reconciliation with Cassini brought Gene a second daughter, Tina (now 30 and living in Paris with her husband and three children). But the marriage ended in divorce in 1952. She responded by plunging deeper into her work, her mood swinging erratically between euphoria one day, high anxiety the next. She dated the leading men who played opposite her: Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power. She danced, laughed and sailed across Europe with Prince Aly Khan. She found him cultured and charming, "a playboy with twinges of conscience." With him, she enjoyed distraction, if not happiness. But time passed, the adventure palled, and her money began running out. Unhappy, she returned to America.
When Humphrey Bogart played opposite Gene in The Left Hand of God in 1955, he realized his co-star was desperately ill. He warned Fox studio executives, but they shrugged it off and told him, "Gene is a trouper." She was, and she finished the movie, but by then she was nearly helpless off-screen. "As long as I was playing someone else, everything was fine," she recalls. "It was when I had to be myself that the problems began." She was unable to make the simplest decisions and would begin sobbing with no provocation. She didn't recognize old friends and forgot conversations as soon as they ended. She was convinced people were staring at her cross-eyed.
At the urging of her brother, Gene entered a sanitarium in New York City. "And there, to my eternal regret," she says, "I received my first electric shock therapy." At the time doctors saw great promise in the technique; it seemed almost a cure-all for some mental problems. But relief was only temporary. At a second mental institution in Connecticut, she received additional treatments. "It was the most degrading time of my life," she recalls. "I felt like a lab rat." Once, pinioned by restraints, she remembers hoping that a young doctor would happen by and, smitten by her looks, release her. Each confinement brought fleeting relief, periods when she was completely lucid—but they were followed by agonizing relapses. Inexorably, she was bound for the window ledge. There, poised to end her life, Gene now believes she took the first real step toward saving herself.
"I was cleaning the windows," she blithely explained to police, who arrived in a wail of sirens. But Gene's horrified family was not so easily fooled. This time they tried the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kans. There would be no more electric shock treatments, only rest, talk therapy and, finally, a $40-a-week job in a local dress shop. On the mend, Gene met Houston oilman W. Howard Lee while vacationing in Aspen, Colo. He was in the process of divorcing Hedy Lamarr and acquiescing to a settlement that left him merely a millionaire. "Oh no," he cried when friends suggested he take out Gene, "not another actress!"
Their courtship flourished, however, even after she readmitted herself to Menninger's a few months later. Warned that Gene's illness would doubtless recur and that he should think carefully about any romantic involvement, Lee, now 70, responded with unswerving affection and understanding. The couple was married in 1960. Gene fulfilled her obligations in Hollywood, played a few roles on TV and went into quiet retirement. The Lees spend most of the year in Houston and the rest at their new condominium in Delray Beach, Fla. "Howard likes to take care of people he cares for," says Gene appreciatively. "The only time I was really happy was in my childhood—and now."
Though doctors have found no explanation for her periodic relapses, Gene believes the cause is genetic. "They do know," she says, "that there are changes in the blood of a person who has what I do. They say maybe if I hadn't had the stresses I had, it might never have surfaced. But I'm not blaming anyone for my problems." Sometimes, when ill, she stuffs herself with candy and fattening foods, convinced that she is pregnant and "eating for two." Once Howard had to bring her home in the middle of the night after she began pounding on a neighbor's door and calling for Daria. Invariably, her hallucinations disappear as suddenly as they begin. "It's like lifting a curtain," Gene says. "I'll turn to Howard and say, 'Howard, have I been sick?' and he'll say, 'Oh, boy, have you ever,' and we'll laugh about it."
No one, at this point, knows Gene's problems as well as she does herself. "The doctors told me, 'If you break an arm or a leg it takes months for it to really heal, and years for it to be the same again. So you can imagine the problems with a broken mind,' " she says. "Of course, knowing the trouble is going to come back isn't easy, but I just have to face that fact and know I'll muddle through. Everybody's pulling for me," she adds quietly. "I'm as happy as I can be. Even the voices that I hear are sweet."