Hollywood Starlet Bravely Faced Her Mental Health Issues

How Gene Tierney dealt with depression through humor and spirit

The other night, on a break from Hurricane Irene coverage, I caught half of The Razor’s Edge on PBS. I don’t have cable so I rely heavily on WHYY’s TV programming, which usually means I’m watching a documentary narrated by F. Murray Abraham. (Right now, in fact, he’s intoning about a skunk sanctuary.)

On this night, Abraham was off (mabye pointlessly sandbagging his Manhattan apartment) so I got to see the original film adaptation starring Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter, John Payne and Gene Tierney. It was an odd coincidence because I had recently read about Tierney in the news. Her former husband’s widow is suing Vanity Fair for libel, and in the court papers, the widow questions the paternity of Tierney’s daughter Christina because Gene was sleeping around so much. It’s one of those high-profile wealthy-people stories that Vanity Fair loves. They’re usually about boring, vapid people and their boring, vapid children. This case is an exception.

Tierney was once one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She starred in some 50 movies, including Laura, Tobacco Road, Heaven Can Wait, Leave Her to Heaven (for which she was nominated for an Oscar), The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and so on. She was known for her spicy social life, including liaisons with Howard Hughes, John F. Kennedy, Tyrone Power and designer Oleg Cassini, who she married—and whose widow is now very pissed off.

What interests me about Tierney, though, isn’t her promiscuity or this libel suit. It’s the fact that she lived bravely and honestly despite a lifelong struggle with mental illness.

Tierney’s experience with chronic depression seems to have been triggered by the birth of her daughter Daria. The infant was born with severe mental retardation, and within a few years Tierney was convinced by medical professionals that the child should be institutionalized indefinitely. This was common practice at the time (though misguided), but Tierney, overwhelmed by guilt, never recovered from the loss, and it marked the beginning of her battle with depression, hallucinations and delusional thinking.

Despite the constant struggle—the perpetual battle of “fighting myself,” as she characterized it—Tierney refused to give up. She kept making movies. On the set of The Left Hand of God, with Humphrey Bogart, she was virtually incapacitated when not performing. Her condition was so alarming that Bogart informed the studio that she needed help. But even though she was constantly wracked by sobs and had fears that people were trying to poison her, she insisted upon finishing the movie. And she did it well.

In a 1979 article in People magazine, Kent Demaret wrote:

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.

At the time she received them, shock treatments were brutal. Patients were terrified and awake (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for reference). They were deeply traumatic. She had them 27 times, on both sides of her head. Shortly afterward, Tierney attempted to kill herself by climbing out of the window of her New York apartment, 14 stories above the ground. She was talked down by police before she could jump. But she came close.

She spent the next couple years in and out of institutions, though mostly in. One stint was as long as a year. She felt she existed, as she wrote later, “in a world that never is—the prison of the mind.” Her fiancé waited, and turned out to be a remarkable helpmate. When she had relapses, he had to take care of her. But their attitude together was far from gloomy. From the People article:

Invariably, her hallucinations disappear as suddenly as they begin. … “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.”

They were happily married for 21 years, until his death.

The article in People was prompted by the publication of her memoir, Self-Portrait. In that book she dishes about Hollywood, sure, but she spares little detail on the subject of her mental difficulties. She’s remarkably unconcerned with her Hollywood legacy. Unlike contemporary stars who go into hospitals for “exhaustion” or talk bout mental health issues only if they’re outed, Tierney faced the issue unsparingly and with humor. She always tried to manage her illness rather than be a victim of it, and she had tremendous spirit. (She died in 1991.)

In that 1979 article, she said: “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. I’m as happy as I can be. Even the voices that I hear are sweet.”

What a lady. I’m happy to see her on my TV every now and then.