Darryl F. Zanuck, the founder of 20th Century Fox, had some of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses under contract — among them, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe.
But the woman that the mogul would describe as “the most beautiful in movie history” was Gene Tierney.
This wasn’t the usual Hollywood hyperbole: the green-eyed beauty, with the impossibly chiseled cheekbones, was breathtaking.
Tierney had the talent to go with that gorgeous face, and was a top box office draw during the 1940s, starring in such films as Leave Her to Heaven, The Razor’s Edge, Laura, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
Tierney’s off-screen life rivaled any of her film roles when it came to sheer drama. Indeed, a chance meeting with a total stranger would set off a catastrophic chain of events with far-reaching consequences.
Tierney, married to legendary designer Oleg Cassini, contracted rubella during a World War II USO appearance at the Hollywood Canteen, allegedly because a female marine with the illness snuck out of quarantine to meet her favorite star.
As a result, in October 1943, Tierney would give birth prematurely to a daughter, Daria. The rubella caused congenital damage, leaving the baby, who weighed just over three pounds at birth, partially blind, deaf, and mentally disabled.
Reportedly, Tierney would learn what led to her child’s devastating illness years later when she and the fan crossed paths again, with the young woman reminding her idol about their previous meeting — confessing that she had been sick when they met.
Sound familiar? If you’re an Agatha Christie fan, it just might. The tragic tale was the inspiration for the mystery writer’s 1962 book The Mirror Crack’d, adapted for the big screen in 1980, with Elizabeth Taylor playing the role based on Tierney’s life.
The ending of the Christie novel would offer a different ending. (Upon learning the ugly truth, Taylor’s horrified character — like Tierney, an actress — slips poison into the fan’s cocktail.) But the real-life story is no less dramatic…or devastating.
The tragedy would haunt Gene Tierney for the remainder of her life. She and Cassini separated in 1946; however they reconciled before the divorce was due to finalize in 1948 and had a second daughter, Tina. In time, Tierney started having trouble concentrating, which impacted her acting career.
Tierney was slated to star in the romantic adventure Mogambo, opposite Clark Gable, but left the production and was replaced by Grace Kelly.
Two years later, starring opposite Humphrey Bogart in The Left Hand of God, Tierney would fall ill once again.
Her leading man showed his soft side, feeding her lines to help her get through the production. One possible reason for Bogie’s empathy: One of his younger sisters also grappled with mental illness.
Tierney began seeing a psychiatrist and entered the Harkness Pavilion in New York, and later, the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. She would undergo twenty-seven electroshock treatments, in an effort to treat her severe depression. (Years later, Tierney would speak out against shock treatment therapy, saying it had erased portions of her memory.)
Tierney later returned to acting, with smaller roles in movies and television. Her last feature film was 1964’s The Pleasure Seekers, a bit of comedic froth, and her final appearance was in the 1980 miniseries Scruples, based on the Judith Krantz potboiler. Tierney died of emphysema in Houston, in 1991, shortly before her 71st birthday.
Both of her daughters, Daria and Christina, passed away at age 66. Tierney’s friend Howard Hughes, it’s said, paid for Daria’s medical expenses till the day she died — a kind gesture that would never be forgotten by the actress.