Baubles and bric-a-brac
The sad story of a young hometown girl who longed to be an actress
I am particularly interested in actress Jennifer Jones. That’s because she is from Tulsa.
That’s why I read the new book “West of Eden” by Jean Stein. I was in the mood for some lowbrow entertainment and hoped for some dishy gossip. I got more than I bargained for.
My favorite part of any biography is how someone got from here to there. The rest of the story is, “And then …” The rest of the story is usually exultant peaks and jaw-dropping valleys. If everyone is lucky, the story ends on a happy peak.
Jones, whose story is not so happy, is one of five larger-than-life individuals profiled in Stein’s book.
Growing up in Tulsa, Jones was Phylis Isley, a graduate of Monte Cassino and the only child of Philip and Mae Isley, who raised her to be a princess. Her father was in the entertainment business: tent and burlesque shows, the traveling circus and movie theaters. He rode in a Packard driven by a uniformed chauffeur.
And then, Phylis went to New York to study acting, where she met actor Robert Walker (best known for his later screen performance in “Strangers on a Train”). They married and had two sons.
And then, she met producer David O. Selznick, who put both actors under contract, although she was his main interest. The Walker family moved from a rat-infested Greenwich Village apartment to Bel Air in Los Angeles.
Selznick became Phylis Walker’s Pygmalion and transformed a shy, insecure young woman into a movie star and a great beauty. He had her name changed to Jennifer (exotic at the time) Jones (an All-American name).
In 1943, he loaned her to 20th Century Fox to star in “The Song of Bernadette,” the story of a simple young French girl who sees visions of the Virgin Mary. She won the Academy Award for best actress.
The following year, a statue of her as Bernadette (who was canonized in 1933) was erected on the Monte Cassino campus. When she made her next picture, “Duel in the Sun,” crawling lustfully in the dust toward Gregory Peck, the statue was removed. That’s the story I heard, but while prowling around the school’s campus, I found the statue.
Phylis and Selznick divorced their spouses and married one another in 1949. And then, her personal life went to hell, but it took decades to do so. She made popular films such as “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” with William Holden, “Tender is the Night” with Jason Robards and “Portrait of Jenny” with Joseph Cotten. Off screen, she made suicide threats and perhaps attempted suicide. Friends said she was not a successful wife or mother to her three children. Her acting skills turned out to be neither all she nor Selznick hoped for. Her career waned.
After he died, she remarried and her focus shifted to herself — her beauty and her insecurity. She saw the same therapist for 35 years, for a two-hour session at least three times a week. Every day — sometimes twice a day — a stylist came to her house to do her hair and makeup. It took four hours. Even hiking up a canyon to visit her son living in a tent, she wore a Halston dress, Hermès scarf and Gucci shoes.
She held elaborate dinner parties at which she appeared three times in different gowns. She went to bed in full makeup, concerned she might be taken to the hospital in the night and be photographed.
One friend said she had a “divine madness” and “being her friend was like being friends with a unicorn.” Her last years were spent in a wheelchair and lost in dementia. She died in 2009.
And that’s how I learned more than I bargained for. Jones’ story is far more than juicy gossip. It is the sad story of a young hometown girl who longed to be an actress. Instead, she became famous for her beauty. It is the story of a fragile soul’s fierce battle with the baubles and bric-a-brac of life. It is a reminder for me to look at all people with more kindness.