If you’re young, and you’re not a fan of classic movies, you may not know about Gene Tierney, but she was one of the great screen sirens of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meaning the 1940s. She was chosen to play the irresistible Laura in the 1944 movie of that name. But, Gene Tierney is also remembered as the star who suffered from severe mental illness- and recovered.
Though she lived to 71, she wrote her autobiography, entitled Self-Portrait, at age 58, which I just finished reading.
She was born into a well-to-do New England family, which meant private schools, country clubs, horses, boating, tennis lessons, and even a debutante ball when she was 16. She spent two years in Switzerland attending a posh boarding school where she became fluent in French. She was discovered in Hollywood when she was 17. Her family was on a vacation to California, and a friend had arranged for them to visit a movie set. The movie was being directed by the famed Russian director Anatole Litvak who was struck by Gene’s beauty. He invited her to submit to a screen test, which she did, and that resulted immediately in a contract offer.
Gene had never thought about acting before, but she eagerly wanted to do it. However, her parents would not allow her. But, her father offered her a compromise that he would help her pursue a career in theater in New York instead. That way, she would be close to home.
So, Gene pursued a career in live theater on Broadway for several years until her star rose high enough there that she was again offered a Hollywood contract which she accepted.
To understand Gene’s plight with mental illness, you have to understand that she suffered a lot of traumas in her life, and I don’t mean physical ones. Some very bad stresses happened to her, including the following:
-a complete falling out with her father after he abandoned her mother- and the whole family really – to marry another woman. He even wound up suing Gene for money relating to his having managed her career early-on, which resulted in Gene finding out that her father had been stealing from her all along.
-her marriage to fashion designer Oleg Cassini, whom she met in the movie business where he designed costumes, was turbulent throughout. Her family and loved ones had pressured her not to marry him, but she did anyway, and their worst fears materialized.
-worst of all was that her first child, a daughter Daria, was born deaf and nearly blind and also severely retarded mentally, all the result of Gene having contracted German measles at a war bond rally from an afflicted female soldier. After two years, Gene gave up trying to care for Daria herself and allowed her to be institutionalized, which she was for the remainder of her 66 years. Daria had the mind of a 1 and 1/2 year old. But, Gene visited Daria and supported her, and it was the utmost tragedy of her life.
-her relationship with John F. Kennedy, who never mistreated her, but when he decided not to marry her, it was devastating for her. She had such high hopes that they were going to have a life together.
-after that, she reconciled briefly with Oleg, and they conceived their second child, Christina, who was born healthy. It’s interesting that although they lived in America, they decided to speak only French at home so that Tina would learn that language first. At the time she started school, Tina spoke very little English. But again, Gene’s relationship with Oleg tumbled, and they split up again for good, and she became a single mother raising a daughter.
In addition to all that, she had all the usual stresses of being an actress, the competition, the pressure, etc. Plus, there were other turbulent relationships with men, such as with the Pakistani jet setting playboy, Ali Khan, which she never felt right about.
Her mental illness surfaced, as it often does, as depression. She’d wake up in the morning and not want to get out of bed. But, the second thing was an inability to concentrate, to focus. She couldn’t remember her lines. And it wasn’t just that she couldn’t remember them; she couldn’t learn them in the first place. She would read the lines out-loud several times, or even many times, but then when she put the paper down, she couldn't remember a thing. That occurred first during the making of A Private Affair in England. She got through it, but the problem only worsened. By the time she went to California to film The Left Hand of God with Humphrey Bogart, she was a mess; she fell apart completely. She couldn’t remember anything. She got through the movie, but only because Bogart fed her her lines, reciting them before she did so she could repeat them, which required a lot of editing at the end to conceal. Bogie had a sister who was severely ill mentally whom he supported, and he recognized the signs in Gene. He urged her to get help. So, after the completion of that movie, Gene returned to Connecticut and sought medical help. She wound up at a prominent residential psychiatric clinic called the Hartford Retreat.
That began years of institutionalized treatment for Gene, and I’ll say first that I am not sure that any of it was beneficial or played any role in her recovery. It included 32 shock treatments: electro-convulsive therapy, like Jack Nicholson’s character received in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In later years, Gene became an ardent and outspoken critic of shock treatments. She came to feel that they did nothing but destroy her memory and harm her otherwise.
She also received drugs, and she said that at one point, she was the most heavily drugged patient there. She never named any of the drugs she was given. I don’t know what they were, but I think it’s likely that they have all fallen out of use in Medicine.
And she received some psychoanalysis and talk therapy as well, although she sounded critical of that too, from what I could gather. She complained that they kept trying to plumb the depths of her unhappy childhood, but she kept telling them that her childhood was happy.
So, what did she speak of positively about all the treatment? It was the general caring and compassion that she received from the doctors and nurses. That she appreciated, and that she felt really helped her. Perhaps it is the only thing that really helped her.
She got out after about a year, and she resumed living with her mother and her daughter Tina, who was now in school. But then, she started deteriorating again, to where she wanted to spend the whole day in bed and would have if her mother had let her. One day, she had a close brush with suicide when she walked out on the ledge of their high-rise apartment building.
And that resulted in her being re-institutionalized at the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. She was there for over a year and received the same kind of treatment as before. When she got out, the first thing she did was accompany her mother and daughter on a skiing trip to Aspen, Colorado. There she met the man who would become her second husband, Texas Oilman W. Howard Lee. He was 11 years older, and he fell head over heels in love for her. That was in 1958, and they may have gotten married sooner, but she was planning her movie comeback, and as she got involved in it, she started deteriorating again mentally and behaviorally. She became rambling and incoherent, and even Howard noticed. Willingly, she re-entered the Menninger Clinic and stayed there another full year. But, that was the last time she was to be institutionalized. She and Howard Lee got married in July 1960, and they lived together happily until his death in 1981, so over 20 years. She never needed to be hospitalized again, but she did continue to see a psychiatrist and take medication. And she did achieve a remarkable comeback as a movie actress- not as a leading lady but in supporting roles in several movies for which she received wide acclaim. Her last movie was The Pleasure Seekers in 1964, but she did several television projects after that, all the way until 1980.
She and Howard lived in Houston, where she got very involved in charitable work there. He died in 1981, and she lived 10 more years until 1991, but never remarried. The cause of her death was given as emphysema.
And that brings us to Gene Tierney’s habits. Since she died of emphysema at age 71, you might suspect that she smoked, and you would be right. But, she didn’t start smoking until she got into movies, and it’s a darn shame what happened. She was encouraged to start smoking because she had a high, girlish voice which they wanted to lower. So, she took up smoking, and she got hooked. She became a heavy smoker, and at times a chain smoker.
It seems strange that a woman whose whole career was launched by her fabulous looks would take up such a beauty-destroying habit as smoking. But, of course, she wasn’t the only one. Back then, they didn’t recognize the age-accelerating and uglifying effects that smoking has.
Regarding her food, she was a conventional eater. Things like steaks and barbecue were mentioned. Also eggs; she was very fond of eggs and enjoyed having laying hens at home to get fresh eggs. A fondness for desserts was also mentioned. But, she said that during filming she would watch her weight closely and stick to vegetables and lean meats.
But, she was not a big drinker. She drank socially, but it wasn’t a problem for her. And she said nothing about indulging in illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, etc.
She was quite active physically, playing tennis from a young age. And, her first husband Oleg was an outstanding tennis player who apparently could have gone pro if he wanted to. He played Davis Cup tennis for Italy as a young man. So, that was something they had in common.
Apparently, her psychiatric diagnosis was manic depression. And, undoubtedly, it was triggered by the traumas that she experienced, particularly the tragedy of her first daughter Daria. Today, they treat manic depression, now called bipolar disorder, with various drugs, none of which were around in her time. And, the use of lithium got established in 1970, which was also after her worst time with it. But, I have to wonder if she started to take lithium after it became available in the 1970s, and perhaps she did.
Lithium is a naturally occurring mineral, and it does have a stabilizing effect on mood and on nerves. And, it occurs in trace amounts in food. We actually sell a low-dose version of lithium called lithium orotate. It provides 4.5 milligrams of lithium per tablet. It is much weaker than the lithium compounds used in Medicine, but for some people, it seems to suffice. It’s also much safer to take than the prescription forms of lithium.
But, I am left with unanswered questions about Gene Tierney. Would she ever have gotten sick if not for all the stresses in her life, particularly her impaired daughter? I mentioned that she lauded the caring and compassion that she received from the medical staff, but I don’t think it’s right to consider that therapeutic. So, to what extent was she helped by the specific treatments she received? And to what extent was she harmed by them?
I suspect that her signature movie will always be considered Laura, which I have seen more than once. Recently, I watched her in The Mating Season from 1951, which was a comedy, and it’s very good. I recommend it. I liked it better than Heaven Can Wait which is more of a farce. But, I intend to watch her in The Left Hand of God which she made in the throes of mental illness, but only with the generous and compassionate support of Humphrey Bogart. I'd like to see how it came out.
Gene Tierney. What a life. It was an incredible mixture of vaunted highs and desperate lows, neither of which she could ever have imagined or anticipated as a girl. I’m sure she’ll always be remembered as one of the great film stars and great beauties of all time. However, she is no one to envy. They say that money can't buy happiness, but, apparently, neither can beauty.