Reaching for the Light: A Look at The Life And Career of Gene Tierney.

In 1943 Gene Tierney volunteered at the famed Hollywood Canteen. The night club had opened a year earlier, and was the brainchild of Bette Davis and John Garfield. The Canteen offered food and entertainment for servicemen and women on their way over seas. All branches of the military were admitted free if they were in uniform, and were waited on by a staff made up of volunteers from the entertainment industry. Tierney was one of the newest stars, and was fast becoming one of the leading ladies of the silver screen. Hollywood was famous for laying out the red carpet for servicemen during the war time efforts, and all took pride in boosting morale whenever possible. Tierney’s appearance thrilled many, but would ultimately lead to one of the saddest stories from Hollywood’s golden age.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the elite stars of Hollywood, one particular fan broke quarantine protocol and spent an evening at the Hollywood Canteen the night Tierney volunteered. Unbeknownst to the staff and patroons, the fan had rubella (German Measles). As a result, Tierney, who was pregnant with her first child at the time, became infected. The crossing path of those two individuals would have a devastating impact. Antoinette Daria Cassini was born prematurely October 15th, 1943. She weighed only three pounds, two ounces, and needed a complete blood transfusion. As a result of Tierney’s infection during pregnancy, Daria was deaf, partially blind, and was born with severe mental disabilities, which required constant care. When Tierney’s close friend Howard Hughes learned of Daria’s state, he paid for all of Diana’s medical expenses, ensuring she got the best treatment possible.

Leave Her To Heaven - 1945

Tierney continued to impress with her memorable screen presence, and in 1945 she earned an Academy Award nomination for her sultry performance in Leave Her To Heaven. Her good fortune would continue with the birth of a second daughter Christina in 1948. Christina was a healthy child, and showed no ill effects. By the decade's end, Tierney would appear in twenty films, making her one of the most active and recognizable stars of the ‘40s. Her demand in Hollywood continued into the 1950s, and Tierney was paired with some of the biggest leading men in the industry. 

Beneath it all there was a dark shadow Tierney was struggling hide. It was little talked about at the time, or even understood, but Tierney was suffering from manic depression. In 1953 she began struggling with concentration. It got so bad that she had to drop out of the film Mogambo, which would have re-paired her with screen legend Clark Gabel. The role was given to Grace Kelly as a result. Tierney especially struggled on the set of The Left Hand Of God in 1955. Starring opposite Humphrey Bogart, she fell ill and had difficulty remembering lines. Bogart, who had a sister who suffered from mental illness was especially kind to Tierney while on set. Ever patient, Bogart fed Tierney her lines whenever she struggled. After production he encouraged Tierney to seek help.

After consulting a psychiatrist, Tierney was admitted to The Institute of Living, a psychiatric facility located in Hartford, Connecticut. At the time depression and mental illness were still in the early stages of study and treatment. Tierney began to receive electroshock therapy, a treatment that provoked electrically induced seizures to occur in the brain. Originally intended to alleviate symptoms of depression, Tierney disliked the treatment so much she managed to escape and fled the facility. She was eventually caught and returned to continue treatment. During her stay at The Institute of Living, Tierney received 27 shock treatments. The next few year Tierney spent her time in and out of treatment facilities. 

In December 1957, Tierney was discovered on the ledge of her mother’s 14th floor apartment building. She remained on the ledge for twenty minutes until police were able to get her to safety. The situation was an eye opener for her family, and they made arrangements for her to receive treatment at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas. After a lengthy stay Tierney attempted to blend back into society, one that was far from the lights of Hollywood. She took a job as a sales woman in a dress shop, but it wasn’t long before a customer recognized her. Several newspapers were quick to print sensational articles, especially considering Tierney’s status in Hollywood, and how she suddenly seemed to disappear from the industry. 20th Century-Fox was quick to offer up a role. Tierney agreed but dropped out after only a few days into production due to the stress. She returned to the Menninger Clinic afterwords. Despite all the love and support one could ask for, depression has proven to be a relentless disease that knows no sympathy.

Gene Tierney - Toys in the Attic 1963

Luckily for Tierney, she was able to put the pieces of stability together for a comeback. After a seven year absence Tierney appeared in the 1962 film Advise & Consent, starring Henry Fonda. It wasn’t a top billing role, but despite all she had overcome, her appearance was a great personal achievement. She would appear in three more films before announcing her retirement from the industry in 1964. After a handful of television appearances Tierney released an autobiography titled Self-Portrait in 1979. In the memoir she discussed her battles with depression and mental illness, and took a stance against electroshock therapy, claiming it had significantly destroyed portions of her memory. With everything out in the open, Tierney seemed to be at peace. Self-Portrait helped break the mystique about mental illness. It wasn’t a secret to be whispered about, or a speculated piece of gossip in a tabloid magazine, it was something that should be discussed openly. 

At the end of the day, serious discussion is the foundation of education. Tierney died on November 6, 1991 of emphysema after a lifetime of smoking, a habit she started after seeing herself on the big screen for the first time. “I sounded like an angry Minnie Mouse,” Tierney recalled, and took up smoking as a result to help lower her voice. She sacrificed a lot on behalf of Hollywood, and departed just as gracefully as she had entered. Her story is a tragic one, but in the end she put herself and her family first, and walked away on her own terms with much to be proud of. 

--Lee L. Lind