Witchy Woman

Gene Tierney

“Femme fatale” is a term tossed about quite a bit these days, but few if any modern actresses or pop stars hold a candle to one of the greatest enchantresses of Hollywood’s golden era: Gene Tierney.

In Laura (1944) and Leave Her To Heaven (1945), Tierney memorably played femme fatales whose beauty swept men off their feet. It wasn’t a great leap for filmgoers to buy such a notion. Her presence was such that when the actress made her Broadway debut at the tender age of 17 in the bit part of a water carrier, a critic from Variety remarked that “Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen.”

Tierney, however, was more than a pretty face. Her role in James Thurber’s The Male Animal propelled the actress to Broadway stardom at the age of 20. Despite her later association with film noir ingenues and femme fatales, Tierney also ably displayed her talent in such diverse films as Dragonwyck, The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, Heaven Can Wait and Close To My Heart.

Sadly, Tierney also suffered her share of tragedies. While pregnant with her first daughter, Tierney contracted a case of rubella that threatened the child’s life and left the young girl deaf, partially blind and afflicted with severe mental retardation. A few years later Tierney discovered she picked up the disease from a fan who crawled out of a sick bed to meet the actress, an incident that may have inspired Agatha Christie’s plot for The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side.

Tierney also struggled with mental health issues and even underwent shock treatments that – in her words – left permanent damage to her memory.

To cap it off, her father even embezzled the actresses’ funds.

Accounting for Tierney’s tribulations, fashion designer Oleg Cassini – her first husband – once said: “Gene is the luckiest, unlucky girl in the world. All of her dreams came true, at a cost.”

Tierney passed away in 1991, and happily her accomplishments as an actress have outlived the more tragic elements of her life.

What survives are the images of a beautiful and complicated woman who, as frequent co-star Vincent Price once put it, could make men go over the bend with the “force of those Tierney green eyes.”


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