What We Talk About When We Talk About Gene Tierney

When it comes to celebrity memoirs, we are something of an expert. Rest assured—most of them are trash. But there are a few actresses (Gloria Swanson, Lana Turner) who transcend the genre. And beautiful, damaged Gene Tierney and her Self-Portrait is at the top of the list.

You probably know her as Laura. You should know her for her icy, Oscar-nominated turn as a sociopath in Leave Her to Heaven, where she raffishly sports the most glamorous pair of sunglasses you’ll ever see during a murder. What you probably don’t know is that she was in and out of mental institutions; that as part of her recovery she took a job at a department store, which the press found out about and had a field day; that she was married to Oleg Cassini; that she married Hedy LaMarr’s ex husband (Hedy’s memoir is nowhere near the same league as Self-Portrait); that she seriously dated John F. Kennedy; and that, most importantly, she gave birth to a “mentally retarded” daughter, in the language of the era.

Because Gene had rubella during her pregnancy, her daughter Daria was born with a host of defects. A year later later a woman approached Gene at a tennis party. She said she’d met Gene before at the Hollywood canteen. By any chance, had Gene caught German measles afterward? As it turned out, the woman, a member of the women’s branch of the marines, had broken camp quarantine to meet Gene that night–because Gene was her favorite. As the story is told in Self-Portrait (and in most people’s recounting), Gene says, “After that, I didn’t care if I was ever again anyone’s favorite actress.” But actually, that’s a false ending. The real ending, to the story and to the chapter, is two paragraphs down. “Daria,” Gene writes with a trace of bitterness and regret, “was my war effort.”
The memoir opens with Gene on the ledge of her mother’s apartment building on 57th Street in Manhattan. The first paragraphs are rightly celebrated:
“It is a terrible thing to feel no fear, no alarm, when you are standing on a window ledge fourteen stories above the street. I felt tired, lost, and numb—but unafraid.
I wasn’t at all certain I wanted to take my own life. I cat walked a few steps away from the open and window and steadied myself, to think about it. The fact that I could no longer make decisions was why I had gone to the ledge in the first place. What to wear, when to get out of bed, which can of soup to buy, how to go on living, the most automatic task confused and depressed me.
I felt everything but fear. The fear comes to me now, twenty years later, knowing that at any moment I might have lost my balance. Then the decision would not have been mine. On that day, if I jumped or fell, either way would have been all right. There is a point where the brain is so deadened, the spirit so weary, you don’t want any more of what life is dishing out. I thought I was there.”
She doesn’t jump or fall. Instead, she pictures herself smashed on the street below, and, as she wryly remembers, it was her vanity that saved her. Self-Portrait, however, is remarkably vanity free for a memoir written by a celebrated beauty—even if she did have an overbite. But, as Kirk Douglas pointed out in his memoir, he happened to like women with overbites.
The back cover copy includes this:
On John F. Kennedy: “We were having lunch one day in New York. He looked at me and said out of the blue, ‘You know, Gene, I can’t marry you.’ I sat still, and in a voice just above a whisper I said, ‘Bye, bye, Jack.’ “
*Agatha Christie used that whole German measles thing as a major plot point in her novel The Mirror Cracked, eventually filmed starring Elizabeth Taylor, Kim Novak, and Rock Hudson.
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