They say that to make it in Hollywood, you really have to want it. Well, Jennifer Jones didn’t seem to want fame or even need it—but somehow she got it anyway. It didn’t hurt that she was under the rigid control of her husband and producer David O. Selznick. It also didn’t hurt that her looks sent audiences into orbit. But what can a shy, timid individual do when there’s always a camera pointed in her face? It’s enough to drive a girl crazy. And, as we’ll soon see—it almost did.
In Tulsa Oklahoma on March 2, 1919, Flora and Phillip Ross Isley had a baby girl they named Phylis Lee Isley. Her stage name would eventually be Jennifer Jones, which could not have been further away from her birth name. Changing your name for your acting career is pretty common, but this just seemed like a slap in her parents’ face.
But I guess Jones had good reason to resent mom and dad.
Jones’s parents were stage actors, and they took their only daughter on the road with them. They owned their own traveling show called the Isley Stock Company and put on shows under a huge tent. It didn’t take long before little Phyllis was joining her parents up on stage. But this lifestyle wouldn't be easy on any child, and it wasn't long before Jones was fed up.
Evidently, life on the road isn't the best way to spend your childhood.
Jones eventually had to quit the stage and hit the books. She enrolled in Catholic School and then signed up at Northwestern University. However, the romance of her earlier life never quite left her, and she just couldn't forget her time under the big tent. I guess bright lights and grease paint were in her blood.
In 1939, she made a big change in her studies: She headed to the Big Apple and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. If she'd known what life had in store for her, maybe she'd have changed her mind.
Jones's big decision brought big changes to her love life as well.
While studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Jones met fellow thespian Robert Walker. The two dated for a short time, and then married on January 2, 1939. Walker would eventually go on to stun audiences in Hitchock’s Strangers On A Train. But right now they were just two young kids in New York City:
in love with each other and acting.
Little did they realize, however, their love was doomed from the start.
Jones’ mother and father must have missed their daughter, because they set up a radio show just to lure her back to Oklahoma. Since her husband was also an actor, she brought him along and they performed on the show together.
After the 13 week run of the show, Jones and Walker had a big question to answer: Where would they go next?
It seemed that Jones and hubby Walker had had enough of New York and the stage, so they went off to Hollywood to try their luck at films.
In 1939, Jones appeared opposite iconic cowboy John Wayne in New Frontier. She then appeared in the movie serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men in the same year. Her next role would not bring her any celebrity, but it would bring her loads of love.
Jones’ next role would not be in the movies, but rather as a mother. Like her two first films, her sons came in quick succession:
Robert in 1940 and Michael in 1941. While raising the kids, Jones worked as a hat model and posed for Harper’s Bazaar. Nothing was really happening with her film career—until she heard something huge coming through the grapevine.
Jones found out that 20th Century Fox was making Rose Franken’s play Claudia into a film. Jones loved the books and play, so she thought she’d be perfect in the lead role. So, in the summer of 1941, Jones marched into the offices of 20th Century Fox and said she wanted to audition.
They let her—and then the worst happened. Moments later, she was running out of the studio in tears.
The reason Jones had left 20th Century Fox crying was that she’d hated her audition. She thought she’d done a terrible job. It’s usually true that when an actor thinks an audition was bad, they’re right. Jones was inconsolable, and went back home to cry her eyes out about losing the part.
And that was when her phone rang.
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It turns out that someone had been eavesdropping on Jones’ audition for Claudia. It was none other than the powerful film executive David O. Selznick—producer of Gone With the Wind. Selznick saw something in Jones and her audition moved him.
He had his secretary call Jones and bring her back to the office. But what did Selznick have in store for Jones?
Jones appeared at Selznick’s office—probably with her tail between her legs—and Selznick immediately offered her a seven-year contract. Jones was absolutely floored.
However, it soon became clear that Selznick saw a little more in Jones than acting ability.
Selznick was anxious to get Jones a leading role, but had nothing happening in his own film company that suited her. At that time, Selznick’s wife was Irene Mayer—Louis B. Mayer’s daughter. Mayer’s film company, MGM, was making a big budget film about a young French girl who sees visions of the virgin Mary. Jones’ audition had convinced Selznick that this was the role to start her career. Now he just had to convince MGM.
Selznick’s brother-in-law, Bill Goetz, was the guy at MGM who was casting The Song of Bernadette. Literally hundreds of actresses wanted this role, and Goetz was slowly making his way through them. Selznick didn’t just ask his brother-in-law to give Jones a chance, he launched a “systematic campaign” and slowly wore Goetz down.
Selznick’s persistence worked and Jones had the part—but her dream soon turned into a nightmare.
This was Jones’ first big role, and it added a lot of stress to her life. Particularly traumatic was watching the dailies—the footage of that day’s filming. Jones obsessed over the way she looked and it made her anxious.
Selznick’s solution? He banned Jones from even watching the dailies. This wasn’t even his company’s film and here he was, calling the shots.
But Selznick had just gotten started. Soon, he was going to dominate every aspect of Jones's life.
Selznick got this idea that he didn’t want the audience to know anything about Jones before they saw her on the screen as Bernadette. To do this he forbade her from attending the premiere of the movie.
It didn’t matter that MGM probably wanted her there for publicity. Selznick was in control and he wasn’t giving any of it up. He even wanted control over her family.
The Bernadette of The Song of Bernadette was young and naive. Even though Jones was convincing as an actress, Selznick wanted the star’s real life to come across to the public as virginal. For this reason, Selznick had Jones hide away the fact that she had a husband and two sons.
But this was a small price to pay for what was coming next.
While Jones' character Bernadette was seeing visions of the Virgin Mary, Jones’ own visions were probably dollar signs. It was her first lead in a hit movie and the rewards were amazing. Before, she was just a kid who acted under a tent, and here she was:
a star in Hollywood. But it wasn’t just money that Jones got for her acting—there was also the ultimate reward.
It was only Jones’ third Hollywood role—her first lead—but she hit the motherlode: a nomination from the Academy for best actress. To say her competition was steep is an understatement.
The night of the 16th Academy Awards soon arrived and, to make it even more exciting, it was the first time they’d been held in a large venue: Gruman’s Chinese Theater. To everyone’s surprise, Jones took home the 1944 Academy Award for Best Actress. Now her career would surely take off.
She had a trophy, a contract, and a loving husband—what could possibly go wrong?
Apparently, Jones still wanted more—and so did her boss Selznick. You see, the two of them kept a dirty secret. They had secretly started an affair sometime during the filming of her Oscar-winning performance.
Jones said a hasty goodbye to her husband and set up camp with Selznick. But Hollywood was small, and she would soon come face to face with her ex again.
Just one year after Jones dumped Walker, Selznick cast her in a film opposite him. In the film—Since You Went Away—Jones has a scene where she says farewell to her lover, played by Walker. There was no method acting needed, as the couple’s real-life drama gave the actors the emotions they needed for the scene. It certainly worked for Jones, as she was once again nominated—this time for Best Supporting Actress.
But while the role brought accolades, it also brought a whole new host of problems.
For the promotion of Since You Went Away, the studio decided to ignore Jones and Walker’s separation. Instead, they focused the publicity on the fact that the onscreen couple was a real couple—with two lovely boys. They dubbed them “Mr. and Mrs. Cinderella” and sent the box office soaring with a media frenzy. But how was the shy and reserved Jones dealing with all this notoriety?
With all this positive attention, Jones should have been on cloud nine. Instead, she faced crippling self-doubt. In an interview in 1981, she spoke about what life was like after her early success. She said she had a kind of stage fright. It didn’t seem to matter how much people loved her acting, she was starting to freeze up. It was becoming quite clear that Jones was not really Hollywood star material—and that was a problem.
Unlike other Hollywood stars at the time, Jones was very shy.
She didn’t like having her picture taken, because she was anxious about how she’d look in it. Jones spent hours choosing the best outfit—even when she was just leaving the house. She also hated giving interviews. In fact, she had to create a little charade to perform just to avoid facing the media.
Jones often received phone calls from Selznick’s publicist, and they were always about doing some kind of promotion for her career. Jones began to dread those calls—until she came up with a sneaky plan. If she answered the phone and it was the publicist, Jones would pretend to be the maid and say that Jones was out.
The next phone call she received, however, couldn’t be so easily avoided.
Jones got a call from her ex, Walker. Turns out, since Jones had left him for Selznick, Walker’s life had gone downhill. His career was doing fine, but he desperately missed his life with Jones.
Walker was drinking heavily, and shortly after the release of his most famous film, Strangers on a Train, Walker fell into a fit caused by too much of the hard stuff. Jones was already stressed—and the tragedy that followed was too much for her to bear.
Walker was in a bad state, mostly because he missed Jones.
His drinking had gone to a very dangerous level, and his doctor wanted to help. The doctor gave Walker some medication meant to calm him from his fit. Unfortunately, the medication was too strong, and the worst thing happened: Walker died. Jones took it hard, and to make the pain even worse, she probably felt extreme guilt for her role in Walker’s demise.
Jones was still dating producer Selznick at this time—but he had drama of his own going on. When he started seeing Jones, he was already married to Irene Mayer, the daughter of one of the scarier movie moguls:
Louis B. Mayer. Lucky for Selznick, it was Irene who instigated their split, which left Selznick available for Jones. But before they could marry, they had an epic movie to make.
Selznick spent a lot of time thinking about ways to outdo his most notable accomplishment: Gone With the Wind. Now he had Jones, and he was going to make her into a star as big as Vivien Leigh in a film as big as GWTW. The film was 1946’s Duel in the Sun and the stakes couldn’t have been higher—for both Selznick and Jones.
Selznick wasn’t taking any chances on Duel in the Sun, which had earned the nickname “Lust in the Dust”. It was a sexy western and Selznick wasn’t leaving anything to chance. He sent Jones to Max Factor in order to have a rubber contraption made to enhance Jones’ bosom. Jones refused to wear it—but that didn’t prevent the film from causing a scandal.
The Catholic Church was not happy with two things about Duel in the Sun: The plot lacked morality, and, more importantly, the actress who’d been so virginal in Song of Bernadette was now half-naked on the film's posters. Jones, a Catholic herself, must have taken the church’s accusations personally. Maybe this was the reason she made herself into an honest woman.
It took them a few years, but on July 13, 1949, Jones and Selznick finally decided to tie the knot. They held the ceremony on a yacht on the Italian coast—so there was no shortage of knots to use as examples. Jones had it made: She was an actress married to a film executive who had his own studio.
Unfortunately, that's just when everything started to go wrong.
Because of her husband’s position, Jones certainly had no shortage of film roles. The only problem was that she seemed to have lost her mojo for acting. For the next decade or, critics consistently described her characters as passionless and lacking feeling.
Maybe being married to the producer had made her lose her drive to succeed. It got so bad that she couldn’t even hit someone with conviction.
In 1952, Jones took the lead role in Ruby Gentry. In one scene the script's direction was for her to slap her co-star Charleton Heston across the face.
Both the director and Heston himself had trouble convincing her to slap Heston full-on so it would look real. After much cajoling, Jones finally put her back into it—and instantly regretted it. She somehow managed to break her hand in the process.
Her next leading man, however, presented a very different problem.
In 1957, when Jones appeared with Rock Hudson in the film version of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, the critics didn’t buy her romance with her costar (though later revelations about Hudson might explain that). Whatever the reason, the movie tanked, and Selznick never made another film.
He wasn’t, however, done with manipulating Jones’ career.
Jones’ problems in films seemed to have started when she hooked up with Selznick, but that wasn't even the worst part. Rumors that Selznick made all the decisions for his wife’s career started swirling through Hollywood. He decided what films she could or could not be in, so it might have been that Selznick was making all the wrong decisions.
There's certainly plenty of proof of that...
In 1944, 20th Century Fox was making a film noir feature based on the book Laura by Vera Caspary. Jones was their first choice for the title role. The movie went on to be a huge hit, with the National Film Registry eventually selecting it for preservation.
Unfortunately, you won’t see Jones in the film, as her husband didn't approve of it. But it wasn’t just her he controlled.
In addition to controlling Jones, Selznick also wanted to control the people who worked with her. He sent countless memos—while hopped up on amphetamines—about the camera angles that suited her best and even about her makeup and costumes. Selznick seemed to want to be in charge of every aspect of Jones’ career. Something had to give.
After a decade and a half of being controlled by Selznick, Jones was finally free—but her freedom came at a cost. After suffering several heart attacks, Selznick passed on June 22, 1965. Although she’d lost her husband, at least now Jones was free to do the films she wanted. It was her chance to show the world what she could do on her own, but was she up to this new challenge?
In May 1971, after years of spiraling in the wake of Selznick's passing, Jones finally seemed to have recovered. Her life at the time was outside of Hollywood and she was focussing on raising the daughter she’d had with Selznick: Mary Jennifer. But she had to return to normal life eventually.
One evening, she was attending a reception in LA and there she laid eyes on an interesting man.
He wasn’t like other men she knew. He was...different, and in a good way.
Jones’ new obsession, Norton Simon, was a semi-retired business mogul who had turned to art collecting. He said Jones had first drawn him in with her beauty.
But it was her charity work that was the defining factor. Jones was working with young people with drug problems at the time. But, in a strange way, Simon had known Jones before this encounter.
Years before Jones and Simon laid eyes on each other, Simon had fallen in love with a portrait he was trying to buy.
The portrait was a prop in a 1948 film called Portrait of Jennie, starring Jones. So, in fact, Simon had fallen for Jones quite a few years before he’d actually met her. It wasn't long after their meeting that Jones reciprocated the feeling.
As an art collector, Jones’ husband often visited Europe in pursuit of more art. Jones, who had once thought museums were boring, now was Simon’s constant companion. The two impulsively married in London while on one of their trips.
They’d only been dating for a few months when they tied the knot on a tugboat—which was the second wedding on water for Jones.
In 1974, Jones decided to give films another shot. She appeared in the star-studded disaster flick Towering Inferno, but really...who didn’t? The cast was huge and full of Hollywood royalty who had let their fame lapse.
Her romantic interest in the film was dancing legend Fred Astaire. But there was a dark connection between this film and Jones’ real life.
Jones’ appearance in the disaster film about a tall building had an eerie prescience. In the film, Jones’ character has a fatal fall from an elevator in the tower. Only two years after the release of The Towering Inferno, Jones’ daughter also fell from a 22-floor building—two days after Mother’s Day. Like Jones’ character in the movie, her daughter didn’t survive.
Jones’ daughter had not gotten over the passing of her father, Selznick. She also had emotional breakdowns and used morphine and barbiturates.
For these reasons, authorities ruled Mary Jennifer Selznick’s fall from the building a suicide. It was a huge blow to Jones. She’d lost her lovely daughter. What would she do without her?
Instead of wallowing in depression about her daughter’s suicide, Jones took action. She founded the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation For Mental Health and Education.
Her goal was to remove the stigmatization of mental illness. Jones led the organization until 2003. Jones was certainly an advocate for people suffering from mental illness, and it may have been that interest that led Jones to her next venture.
Jones read the novel Terms of Endearment by Larry McMurty and immediately wanted to turn it into a film. She bought the rights to the popular book and saw herself as the best person for the lead role.
The director, James L. Brooks, had only one problem: Jones, at 62, was too old. Shirley MacLaine—15 years younger—got the role and the Oscar that went with it.
Jones’ husband Simon visited his doctor and received a startling diagnosis: Guillain-Barré syndrome. GBS is a rare syndrome that affects the immune system and can, in some cases, cause paralysis.
Simon was soon incapacitated and turned to Jones for help. He quickly named Jones president of his museum and she was thrust into a new career. But did she have what it took?
Jones had gone from someone uninterested in museums to the president of one. And she was not just president by title.
Jones dove right in and worked with architect superstar Frank Gehry on the interior design of the museum. Jones had found a second career and loved every minute of it. Her husband’s condition, however, had gone from bad to much worse.
Eventually, Simon’s illness led to his passing in 1993. Jones soon moved in with her son and his family in Malibu.
She lived a peaceful life surrounded by many grandchildren until her passing on December 17, 2009. There was a cremation, and her ashes lay with her second husband Selznick. Whether she actually wanted this is anyone’s guess.
It wouldn't surprise us if the control-obsessed Selznick had arranged it before his demise.
On May 7, 1991, scientists were looking for a name for a new planet. They decided on 6249 Jennifer in Jones’ honor. She’s in good company up there in the dark sky. Other celebrities with planets named after them include Sean Connery, Meg Ryan, and even Mr. Rogers. If we’ve learned anything about Jones, she’s likely a planet by itself, trying to avoid being noticed too, too much.
Maybe what Jones wanted when freed of Selznick was just to be left alone.
Her career took a slow and sad route to nowhere. Then, in 1967, just two years after her husband’s passing, a good friend of hers—Charles Bickford from The Song of Bernadette—also passed. Jones was distraught, and it drove her to disturbing places. She took a bottle of pills, some booze and checked into a Malibu Beach hotel.
Jones took the sleeping pills and drank the booze. In her altered state, she wandered close to a cliff overlooking the beach. Hours later, they found Jones rolling unconscious in the Malibu surf. She almost didn’t make it. Later she claimed that the whole thing had just been an accident, but it remained a dark cloud over her life for the rest of her days.
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