Jennifer Jones

The guardian obituary in 2009

On the day of her 25th birthday, 2 March 1944, a fresh-faced, hitherto unknown performer stepped on to the stage of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, in Los Angeles, to receive her best actress Oscar for her performance in the title role of The Song of Bernadette. It was officially the debut of Jennifer Jones, who has died aged 90. She had appeared four years earlier under her real name of Phyllis Isley, but only in a Dick Tracy serial and a B-western. (Actually, she had been born Phylis, but had added an “l”.)

Ingrid Bergman, nominated for her performance in For Whom the Bell Tolls, said of The Song of Bernadette: “I cried all the way through, because Jennifer was so moving and because I realised I had lost the award.” Jones, who had been discovered by the producer David O Selznick four years previously, had been given no publicity build-up, had been prevented from granting interviews and also, because of the nature of the role, kept out of the gossip columns. As a result, her presence on screen as the French girl who, in 1858, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and discovered a healing spring at Lourdes, came as a refreshing surprise. “While she received extensive training, I would not let her come to Hollywood until she was ready,” explained Selznick. “I refused to launch her until exactly the right role came along

After a six-month search, 20th Century Fox had narrowed the list of young women to play Bernadette down to six. They were each asked by the director Henry King to imagine that the stick he was holding was a vision. “Only Jennifer saw a vision,” King later remarked. Wearing a simple peasant’s dress and a minimum of makeup, she gave a pleasantly natural performance, credibly maturing from the age of 14 to the nun and eventual saint. It might have helped that the Oklahoma-born Jones had attended a Catholic school as a child. Her father owned a few theatres and ran a vaudeville tent show, with which the young Phylis toured and performed occasionally. While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, she met another aspiring actor, Robert Walker. They married in 1939 and headed for Hollywood.

In 1941, when she was auditioning at Fox for the title role in Claudia (given to Dorothy McGuire), Selznick saw her, put her under contract, changed her name and groomed her rigorously for stardom. From then on, much of Selznick’s activity as a producer was devoted to providing her with suitable roles.

After The Song of Bernadette, he cast her opposite her husband as the girl in love with a young soldier in Since You Went Away (1944), the weepiest, longest and biggest hit about the home front during the second world war. Her role grew with each rewrite of the script by Selznick, and he was still playing the same game almost 20 years later on their last film together, Tender Is the Night. According to King: “David lost all judgment. He always thought that the more there was of Jennifer, the better the film would be

By the time Since You Went Away, for which she was Oscar-nominated, was released, Jones had broken up with Walker and embarked on a relationship with the married Selznick. Walker, a gifted actor, died prematurely in 1951, a victim of depression, drink and sedatives. She had two sons by Walker, both of whom became actors. Meanwhile, Jones was suitably fey as an amnesiac in Love Letters (1945), which earned her another Oscar nomination, and otherworldly in Portrait of Jennie (1949), two poetic dramas directed by William Dieterle, both co-starring Joseph Cotten.

Jones, the embodiment of feminine innocence, seemed an unlikely candidate for eroticising. But if she had not played a number of dark, tempestuous femmes fatales – worlds apart from Bernadette – her career would have been much less interesting. The first was a wild and sexy mixed-race girl, Pearl Chavez, in King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1947), a demented, delirious western, the peak of Hollywood high romanticism. The operatic climax, when Jones and Gregory Peck die in a final embrace after shooting each other, earned the film the nickname of Lust in the Dust. Sex in the Swamps would be an apt description of Ruby Gentry (1952), in which Vidor was again able to bring out the passion in Jones. Thwarted by the man she loves (Charlton Heston), she finally watches him die face downwards in the mud.

Previously, she had portrayed Madame Bovary (1949) in Vincente Minnelli’s glossy version of the Flaubert novel. Considering that Selznick was breathing down Minnelli’s neck throughout the shoot, at one stage accusing the director of sabotaging the “unique loveliness” of the star, Jones emerged with beauty, poise and vivacity, bringing, as one critic remarked, “an almost manic voluptuousness to the part”

However, although Jones had a certain childlike charm as an untamed half-Gypsy Shropshire lass in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950), she lacked the passion she displayed in the Vidor movies. Now her husband, Selznick was as much of a nuisance as ever, cutting 29 minutes from the film, getting directors (including Vidor) to reshoot nearly a third of it in Hollywood, and changing its title to The Wild Heart for the US release. At this stage, Jones, whose career was entirely controlled by Selznick, had fits of depression and attempted suicide with sleeping pills several times. (Her last attempt was in 1967, after Selznick’s death.)

Nevertheless, she was able to radiate in William Wyler’s Carrie (1952), opposite Laurence Olivier, and especially in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) as the Eurasian doctor in love with an American correspondent, William Holden, in a splendid CinemaScope Hong Kong. She was a touching Elizabeth Barrett in the otherwise clunking The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957), but seemed to have more fun than ever as a blonde mythomaniac in John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953). Her only other comedy was Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown (1946), in which she was charming as a cockney maid, despite the wobbly accent

There were a few miscalculations: Vittorio De Sica’s gloomy Indiscretion of an American Wife (1954), and she was allowed to overact as the doomed nurse Catherine Barkley in the overblown and dull third version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957). It was Selznick’s last production, but it did not stop him trying to ruin another modern American classic, Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1962), in which the 43-year-old Jones attempted to play the young neurotic playgirl Nicole Diver.

Selznick’s death in 1965 left Jones utterly bereft, in debt, and with a young daughter, Mary Jennifer, to bring up. (Mary Jennifer killed herself in 1976.) Jones made only a few films afterwards; these included Cult of the Damned (1969), in which she played a former blue-movie star, and she was among the many stars trapped in The Towering Inferno (1974). In 1971, she married the millionaire industrialist art collector Norton Simon, helping him with his business until his death. She then took over the presidency of her late husband’s Pasadena Art Museum. Jones had finally become her own person.

She is survived by her son, Robert Walker Jr.

• Jennifer Jones (Phylis Isley), actor, born 2 March 1919; died 17 December 2009



Mrs Simon, Mrs Selznick, Mrs Walker, Phylis Isley, Jennifer Jones – all of those names were offered her, like landlines in the storm, and she gazed on all of them with insufficient belief or conviction. There was a time, in the 80s and the 90s, when I did everything I could to get Jennifer Jones to speak to me, or just to see me so that she might decide she could speak to me. And all the time I was asking her, or her lawyers, I had another Mrs Selznick crowing in my ear in her best Pierre Hotel witch act, “She doesn’t have anything to say. She won’t remember. She doesn’t care to remember.”

Well, she’s dead now, at 90. Gore Vidal told me maybe 10 years ago how he’d recently had dinner with Jennifer Jones and complimented her on … her looks? Her cooking? Her jokes? Never mind now. But she did tell him that she was actually three years older than her official age. So was she 93 or 90? What’s the difference if you hardly recognise anyone any longer and if you prefer not to talk to the biographer of the husband who named you Jennifer Jones, who got you your Oscar and turned your life into such a melodrama?

There was always argument as to whether Jennifer Jones knew what was happening to her, or if she just followed along in a daze, like an actor playing a part? No one thought she was strong enough to last. She worried, she agonised, she fluctuated all the time, frantically changing her dresses before she appeared at her own party, and attempting suicide several times in her Selznick years. There were those who said that David O had only taken up with her as a brief romance, but then he’d seen her fall for him and he heard her say she might kill herself if he dropped her. So in her DOS years she seemed helplessly driven on in his slipstream, trying to prove his point that she was a great actress and greater than Vivien Leigh, Joan Fontaine or Ingrid Bergman, the ones he’d given up on so that he could concentrate on making Jennifer Jones a legend.

Selznick had noticed her one day – the alert face in an open doorway – early in 1941. She was Phyllis Isley Walker then, married to the young actor Robert Walker and the mother of two boys by him. She had been brought into the Selznick office by Kay Brown, the aide who also found Gone With the Wind, Rebecca and Ingrid Bergman for him. And Selznick could not forget the pretty, anxious face. He hired her. He invented her new name. And he built her career, beginning with the lead in The Song of Bernadette for which she got the Oscar. There was an affair, not necessarily worse than his other affairs, or better. But his wife, Irene, the first Mrs Selznick and the witch at the Pierre, told him to give up Jennifer or his gambling. One or the other.

And he couldn’t make up his mind. So Irene walked out and went to New York to produce A Streetcar Named Desire on the stage and Selznick had four years deciding whether to marry Jennifer. But her marriage to Robert Walker was over as she made Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jennie. That’s when her suicide attempts began. That’s when she posed for endless stills sessions to establish her great beauty – and in David’s eyes it was never quite there.

They were not good for each other. David controlled Jennifer’s career – he kept her out of Laura and put her in A Farewell to Arms and Tender Is the Night. She was a movie star and she had her moments. Away from David’s direct control, she was very touching in Wyler’s Carrie (with Laurence Olivier) and she had a big hit in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (with William Holden).

Jennifer and David had a daughter, Mary Jennifer. As his career dwindled away, he played dress-up games with her while Jennifer travelled and had affairs, with doctors and Indian gurus. She was not close to her daughter. Then David died in 1965 (he was only 63), and 11 years later Mary Jennifer killed herself – it was a Mother’s Day gift. By then Jennifer had married Norton Simon, the millionaire and art collector, a very powerful man. Until he was stricken with illness, and so in time she buried him, too, and took over some of the authority at his museum in Pasadena. She was very rich but she never talked publicly and never gave any hint of disproving Irene’s admittedly prejudiced barking about not caring to remember. Robert Walker had died badly, too, in 1951, drunk and disturbed, despite his late success as Bruno Anthony in Strangers On a Train. It was widely believed that he had never recovered from being dropped by Jennifer.

I wanted to ask her unaskable questions – such as when David first seduced her, and what he promised her. But she declined to sit through the pain of having to say, “I really don’t remember”, though her lawyer warned me that she would be waiting for my book when it came, ready to sue. She never did sue, and never said a word about the book. I doubt she read it, or had it read to her. I think she had come to the conclusion that history was like one of her poorer movies: nobody assumed it was meant to be believed.

Last week was the 70th anniversary of the opening of Gone With the Wind on 15 December 1939, in Atlanta. David Selznick’s great film played last week on TCM and it looked pretty good still. Its bounty does not diminish, and that music and that colour now remind us all of our past. Irene died in 1990, in her own exact and decisive way: she made a few advisory calls to friends (“Don’t let’s discuss it”) and then she was gone. Suicide? There needs to be another word for the firmness of her act and the way in which she believed she remembered everything still as it had happened.

Anyway, for those years I used to dream sometimes of being shown in to see Jennifer Jones in some immense Pasadena salon, asking her timid, polite questions, working my way up to the big ones. And getting tired of the sweet, blank look on her face. As Irene had warned me, it was a time when – like it or not – I had had to be a member of the complicated Selznick family. I liked it and I remember the feeling that lingered of Los Angeles being still run by a few dysfunctional families

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