Today we begin a yet another new feature.
For the summer we are going to feature one star each week. We start off by spotlighting one of the biggest and brightest stars of the 1940s, the woman pictured above, Academy Award winner Jennifer Jones.
We’ve asked Joe’s long time writing partner, Ed Epstein, who has written the definitive book on Jones, Portrait of Jennifer, to give us his thoughts.
“You look at her, and your soul cools off…”
by Edward Z. Epstein
Screen image to the contrary, time proved Jennifer Jones to be no fragile morning glory (the beautiful blossom that blooms brilliantly but wilts by the end of the day). Henry Miller once described her by quoting Kazantzakis describing the geisha: “You look at her and your soul cools off.”
“I have seen it all,” she once revealed to a reporter in a candid flashback on her life. Life certainly taught her to understand people’s suffering and pain, and of all the great Hollywood star sagas, Jennifer’s was one of the most dramatic and compelling.
It was one girl’s journey from the plains of Oklahoma to the lofty heights of international success and achievement. A life played out on a broad canvas, encompassing the star-studded worlds of New York and Hollywood, the playgrounds of Europe and drawing rooms of high society. A fascinating, charismatic woman around whom controversy swirled. By virtue of these very qualities, she represented the kind of epic tale that would have appealed to her Svengali, “Gone With the Wind” producer David O. Selznick.
She won the Academy Award for her first major movie, “The Song of Bernadette” (and received four subsequent Oscar nominations, for “Since You Went Away,” “Duel in the Sun,” “Love Letters” and “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing”). Selznick fell madly in love with her, although she was happily married to actor Robert Walker (they had two young sons). Selznick, too, was married, to Irene Mayer, daughter of MGM founder Louis B. Mayer. The Selznicks also had two young sons.
David and Jennifer’s love story was one darkened by tragedy, a romance corrupted by power, and there was heavy collateral damage. Jennifer has always been “blamed” for Walker’s troubles, but Gwen Verdon — married at the time to Walker’s best friend, Jim Hennaghan — offered a startling new slant on the Jennifer-Bob relationship: “There was nothing to hold her back in her career except possibly having to deal with Robert Walker and his self-destructive behavior, and I adored him…
“When he was sober he was so sweet and funny and gentle and very bright…but I think long before his breakup with Jennifer, I’m sure he had a drinking problem.” Verdon noted that the drinking became heavier “when Jennifer became successful, which would have been a threat to him. I know something had to touch it off. Very possibly, it was not Selznick, but her success.”
Walker, a star on his own, died at a young age (32) under mysterious circumstances.
Selznick, who married Jennifer in 1949 after the couple had lived together for five years, spent the rest of his life reshaping Jennifer’s persona and career in an effort to make her the greatest star of them all. Her directors included John Huston, WIlliam Wyler, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, Vincente Minnelli and Michael Powell. In Huston’s opinion (which was not shared by all of his peers): “I’m afraid that none of the pictures David and Jennifer made together after their marriage amounted to much. One must certainly be sympathetic. There’s even a kind of grandeur to the way David laid everything on the line for her.”
When Selznick died, the outlook for Jennifer was grim. Her mentor and protector was gone, and so was her youth. Incredibly, when she was approaching fifty, another powerful mogul fell in love with her. She became the wife of billionaire businessman/art collector Norton Simon, and Jennifer became a player in Southern California’s world of culture and high society. She gave up her screen career, although Simon later optioned “Terms of Endearment” as a comeback vehicle for her, and she had a supporting role in 1974’s all-star “The Towering Inferno.” But her tumultuous personal life was to suffer a near-fatal blow when the daughter she’d had with Selznick, Mary Jennifer, committed suicide.
Jennifer survived even that blow. According to her close friend, Anita Colby, what mattered most to Jennifer, from that point on, was that she construct a life for herself that benefited others. Jones became a faithful volunteer at the Southern California Counseling Center in Beverly Hills, and became a paraprofessional therapist. It was no longer the world of show business, but that of science and psychiatry (she’d been in deep analysis since her Selznick years) that intrigued her for the last years of her life.
When Norton Simon died after a long illness — during which Jennifer assumed yet another role, that of caretaker — her long-time acquaintance (and fellow Selznick contract player) Joan Fontaine noted that, after so many years, Jennifer was blossoming and “seemed to have some confidence at last.”
She established a foundation for mental health, and pursued other charitable interests. She was light years beyond a goal of merely creating a shrine to her past, of spending her days traveling to film retrospectives, talking about herself, her films, and her “fabulous” life.
She effectively isolated herself from public scrutiny, which was no great sacrifice. At the very peak of her career she was never comfortable doing publicity — she hated it, in fact — and, in true Garbo fashion, avoided it whenever possible. The pattern had been set years ago, when Selznick’s edict, regarding how Jennifer was to be presented to the public, left no room for doubt: here was a unique and special screen personality. “With Jennifer, we’re selling talent. Never forget that,” Selznick decreed.
The talented Jennifer, born Phylis Isley on March 2, 1919, in Tulsa, died at her home in Malibu, California, on December 17, 2009, at the age of ninety. Her surviving son, Robert Walker Jr., was at her side (his younger brother, Michael, had died in 2007).
On screen, Jennifer occupied her own special niche — she had the ability to make a sympathetic leap into a character and win our sympathy; and to make one cry at unexpected moments. In her personal life, she was both a victor in her pursuit of the American Dream — and a victim of it.
To date, there hasn’t been another like her.
Thanks Ed. We couldn’t agree more. If our readers would like to learn more about Jones, Ed’s book, Portrait of Jennifer, is available in trade paperback. It is the only full-scale biography on the star to date.