Fugitive From The Four Hundred
by Kirtley Baskette
Modern Screen | March 1941
It looked like a dirty joke. Here was this Gene Tierney I’d heard all about, the darling of Hollywood’s most eligible beaux, the bewitching new starlet of Twentieth Century-Fox, the pet of Broadway’s blasé critics, the Blue Book baby graduate of the Ritz stag line.
Here she was looking like something the cat dragged in!
A grimy smear streaking her square little face. Stringy, absolutely filthy hanks of mousy hair dropped lankly around one of the dirtiest necks I’ve ever seen on a nice girl. She wore a dismal calico dress which looked as if it had been fired in grease, then rolled in a dustpan, and two very nice legs twined in muddy abandon beneath the table.
“Am I a mess, or not?” grinned Gene.
“You certainly are,” I said.
“Good!” chuckled Gene. Her green eyes sparked and her Hepburn-high cheeks cracked with a white smile. It made me forget the dirt momentarily. Then Gene, who had been dipping daintily into her eggs Benedict, dropped her fork and clutched wildly at her dusty scalp. “Please pardon me,” apologized Miss Tierney, “but it itches!”
It took a little concentration, at that point, to picture this half-witted, hare-lipped, slatternly Ellie May of “Tobacco Road” as the erstwhile lovely young debutante of Connecticut’s exclusive country set.
But not too many months ago Gene Tierney was making her society debut in wealthy Fairfield, Connecticut. The right boys from the Eastern families and the approved schools, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, whirled her around under Japanese lanterns while the correct society orchestra played and correct mothers and fathers beamed approvingly. In bubbling vintage champagne they toaster her bow to the tight little Four Hundred of her class.
Gene had just been properly “finished” at Miss Porter’s in Farmington. Before that there had been Brillmont in Switzerland and exclusive academies, here and abroad. These between two grand tours of the Continent. And seasons in Paris and on the Riviera.
Gene was only seventeen, but already she had glamour. She was cut to the debutante stamp and was set for a Society campaign, eventually to marry some socially secure, financially eligible and, needless to say, properly approved young gentleman.
But there was a little omen – even at that very far-removed-from-Hollywood debut party. Budding Gene wore a dress copied after the frock Bette Davis wore in “Jezebel.” What was more ominous for Society, Gene had met Bette the year before and already a few ideas were buzzing around in her brain – and they weren’t about the Junior League or The Bachelor’s Cotillion, either!
“They mess me up like this every morning,” Gene Tierney was rattling happily between bites. “First, they spray me with oil. Then they stand off and just heave dirt at me. If that doesn’t work, they roll me on the ground! Every night I scrub in the basin, soak in my tub, and polish off with a shower – and I’m still black! It gets in the pores and sticks. And my hair! John Ford says if I wash it while the picture’s shooting, he’ll kill me. Dates? Oh sure, but they just have to take me as “Dirty Gertie” and like it. But I love it! I’ve got a good, gutty part, haven’t I? I was a little scared last night, though. I went to a dinner party and just before we arrived I learned Hedy Lamarr was going to be there. My heart dived! Imagine me like this stacked up against Hedy Lamarr! Thank goodness, she couldn’t come.”
When Gene first sprang the Great idea on her family there just wasn’t anything doing. Papa Tierney, a respectable Manhattan insurance broker, had his own ideas about actresses, and they weren’t very flattering. One branch of the family had quivered dangerously when Gene’s grandmother, who looked like Lillian Russell, had almost succumbed to stage temptations dangled by the late Daniel Frohman. It was still one of those things you never mentioned outside the family.
But after deb-hopping for a few weeks Gene knew that fluffy life wasn’t solid enough for her. Caviar was just fish eggs after all, champagne nice but dangerous, and the same young twerps said the same old things. She’d done her debbie damndest, too.
Gene had dutifully let the Ivy League boys push her around at proms. She’d toured the Manhattan glamour spots and café society cubicles at all exhausting hours. She’d grinned a fixed smile into candid cameras. She’d listened, bored silly, to the gossip about who’s going with whom in Manhattan’s Mayfair and what about it. She’d smoked too much and swilled too many cocktails and indulged in entirely too much senseless small talk. She’d spent too much money, charged too many expensive clothes and earned too many dark circles under her young eyes. And the only Big Idea, as near as Gene could figure, was to see and be seen, talk and be talked about – until some rich and right man looked you over in the social display window, had you wrapped up and sent to the altar. Okay, perhaps for Brenda Frazier. For Gene it added up to a case of Ho-Hum.
But what to do? She thought for a while about settlement work, but that wasn’t too original. She mulled over nursing, but she was too young. Besides, that chat with Bette Davis was brewing ideas. Gene struck a deal with her dad.
“Give me a month,” pleaded Gene. “If something important doesn’t happen by then, I’ll give up the idea and be so social you won’t have me around.”
Tierney, pere, shook on it. What’s more, he said he’d take her around town and help out on the dramatic job hunt.
There were a couple of things, Gene admits, that softened her family a bit on her backsliding. First, her dad had suffered some business reverses which made I look as if he wouldn’t be financing too lavish a social campaign. Then, too (she confesses under pressure), she had gone and gotten herself engaged and the family didn’t approve one bit. At seventeen you couldn’t blame them much. Anyway, they thought Gene might forget her puppy passion if she was busy dreaming about a career. As for her really landing one, they thought they were as safe as Joe DiMaggio at home plate. They’d forgotten, obviously, that their child was christened Gene Eliza Tierney – and that her initials spelled GET.
“We did a ‘horsing’ scene today,” Gene was announcing, yanking a dried twig and a couple of acorns out of her hair, and downing her buttermilk. “Horsing? Well, the boys on the set call it ‘niggling.’ It’s pretty low-down. I guess you’d say I was actively on the make for Ward Bond, who plays the part of Lov Bensey one of us po’ white trash in ‘Tobacco Road.’ Gosh! I just thought. One of my ancestors was General Lee. Me – I’m a Lee of Virginia – playing po’ white trash! Anyway – this horsing is pretty torrid stuff. I was embarrassed to tears before I did it. I had them clear all the men off the set first. After the scene I turned as red as a tomato and ran off and hid! But while we were making the scene I never thought anything about it.”
Each Wednesday for four weeks, Gene drove in from Connecticut to New York, and her Dad took her by the hand and trudged around with her to agents, producers, and Broadway big shots. If a little pleased “I-told-you-so” smile played around his mouth, it seemed justified. Gene had never taken a dramatic lesson or even hammed through an amateur play. As far as she was concerned, upstage was the way Princeton boys tried to act, and off-stage was what referees penalized you five yards for. She got what is known in professional circles as “the quick brush.” Home at night she can remember her father winking at her mother while Gene did a slow burn.
It wasn’t till the fourth week of the Society versus Stage episode that gene found anyone who’d look at her twice without frowning. Then George Abbott picked her out of sixty other yearning sub-Duses for the ingenue in a play called “Mrs. O’Brien Entertains.”
Mrs. O’Brien didn’t entertain over four weeks, but that was long enough for Gene to attract some Hollywood talent scouts. So when Papa Tierney asked Gene as nicely as possible if she was ready to holler “’Nuff!,” she replied by singing up for a crack at the movies. She was already a fugitive from the Social register, and she intended to stay on the fuge!
“Excuse my bare feet,” requested Gene, kicking off her slippers. “That’s better. You know, I don’t see how I’ll ever get pumps on again. I haven’t worn shoes for weeks. My feet are immense – but I don’t care. I love going barefoot anyway. The other day I was sitting in Mr. Zanuck’s office. Before I knew it, I had my shoes off and was walking around barefoot on the carpet! Isn’t that awful?”
Now Gene would just as soon skip lightly over this first Hollywood episode, if it’s all the same with the customers. In the first place, there was much mental anguish on the part of her family and friends, and she hates to recall the sad details. They were convinced Gene was sliding down the Primrose Path from bad to a lot worse. All sorts of lurid tales about Horrible Hollywood popped up in their memories. Gene might just as well have announced she was signing up with a Sultan’s harem for six months. But movie talent scouts have a way about them, and pretty soon Gene, accompanied by her attractive mama, fully equipped with shotgun and horsewhip, was hanging around Columbia Studios wondering what next.
Well, Gene wondered all summer at $350 a week. Having an olive complexion, she got a nice tan at the beach, but that was about all. Came fall and she hadn’t even been atmosphere in a Class B thriller. Her contract was up and she packed for New York. Columbia said au revoir but not good-bye. “You can come back next spring at the same money,” they told her. Gene hadn’t the slightest idea she’d be making a hit on Broadway, but she said “No, thanks,” just the same. “That would make me chasing after the movies,” observed Gene, quite shrewdly, “and that’s no good. When I come back, I’ll make the rules.”
When Gene did come back, practically kidnapped by Darryl Zanuck from a solid hit on Broadway – Mr. James Thurber’s “The Male Animal” – she dictated her own terms, and for a nineteen-year-old girl, who had never looked into a lens before, they are honeys. Gene has the darndest contract at Twentieth Century-Fox you’ve ever read!
She’s getting $800 a week from the start, unheard-of sugar for an untried starlet, still as movie-green as a Pullman seat. Gene set that figure herself, as well as how frequently it should be upped. It’s in black-and-white, too, that she gets her pick of parts. She can duck out of Hollywood quite legally every six months and do a play on Broadway. They can’t make her dye her hair or fool around dolling up her pleasantly uneven teeth. They can’t change in any way her height, weight or posture – and that means no diets. Nobody can summon her mother on the set for any reason. No studio camera can command Gene for leg art or for stunt photos. And it’s strictly against the written rules for the publicity boys to build up any fake romances! Not that that’s necessary.
“Oh, hello!” Gene was shouting genially, looking up from a strange mess of French toast and ice cream she had fancied for dessert, and across the Café de Paris to a handsome but puzzled looking man. “Hey – don’t you know me?” The man returned to his soup. “You see?” giggled Gene, “I’m such a fright nobody recognizes me. That’s John Sutton. He’s the first man who ever kissed me – professionally, that is. In ‘Hudson’s Bay.’ Just a few weeks ago I caught him making a pencil check on a little pad, and asked him why. He said it was for the three hundred and ninety-fifth time he’d kissed me! Now I get a blank stare! Hi, Butch!” Another tall, handsome man stared at Gene blankly. “I’ve got a brother named Butch, and my police dog’s named Butch, too. That’s Butch Romero. U-m-m-m! Tall, dark and handsome is right! But he won’t give me a tumble. Nobody dreams of Genie with the dirty brown hair!” She pretended to sigh.
The fact is, despite her crummy condition, Genie has more men dreaming about her than is good for a twenty-year-old girl. In New York, after “The Male Animal,” she became almost the official sweetheart of the customarily sour-pussed dramatic critics. One, Dick Watts, went quite seriously overboard for Gene and is still supposed to be mooning around. Even bilious-tempered George Jean Nathan, the donor of Butch the dog, incidentally, gave Gene a farewell party when she set out for Zanuck-land. Nathan groused moodily then that it was good-bye forever; the same old thing was happening again. Broadway discovers a promising young actress and Hollywood immediately seduces her with gold and keeps her in bondage. “You’ll never see the stage again, Gene,” he predicted gloomily. Gene made a bet on that. She says she’s going back to Broadway next fall and collect it.
Meanwhile, Gene Tierney isn’t doing a bit badly in Hollywood. She went right into “The Return of Frank James” the day after she pulled into Hollywood. But the very night she arrived he went to Ciro’s. Since then the most attractive and ardent male animals in Hollywood have kept romantically on her trail. John Swope, Tim Durant, Burgess Meredith, Bentley Ryan and Baron Polan are a few of the more dashing beaux currently cluttering up her date book. And there’s still a boy back East, Gene admits.
By now, you see, Gene Tierney doesn’t feel quite so strongly about high life and the villainous upper classes. The fiery opinions of a girl’s teens burn pretty bright, and while Gene has indeed given Society’s frivolities the shake – and for keeps – she’s candid enough with herself to admit she still likes a good time and attractive men, some dancing with her drudgery. So she’s ordering a little of each now, and it works out very well.
In fact, Gene would be the last person in the world to regret her Society background. She knows that’s why she can ride and ski, swim and play tennis with the best of them. Why she’s clever around men, well-read and bright in her conversation. Why she can speak French without a copybook accent. Why she can design her own clothes and look like a little number out of Hattie Carnegie’s, or wear a tweed skirt and an old Brooks sweater with style. Why sophisticates and show people alike find her charming.
On the strictly business side, too, Gene’s not selling short her sub-deb days. A girl who has been used to money isn’t likely to let even $800 each Saturday turn her head. The greatest single asset Gene Tierney brought to Hollywood, besides her unquestioned talent and personality, is poise and a level head. Hollywood’s glamour might possibly throw a talented beauty from the corn belt. But a young lady such as Gene, who has wintered on the Riviera, stopped in London and Paris for the season, is not likely to lose her head over the tinsel glitter of Hollywood. Little Miss Independence who at nineteen could talk right up to plush bottomed producers and get what she wanted has all the self-confidence required in a town where poise too often boils down to bluster.
Nor for the same reason, is Tierney a snob or likely to become one. Her Revolutionary forebears are real, her Irish-Creole ancestry aristocratic and valid, so she doesn’t have to pretend. She’s the kind of a kid the camera crew adores but never gets familiar with. None would dare tell her an off-color joke. While we talked waitresses dropped by to tell Gene their troubles and gasp at her get-up. She always strikes up windy conversations with taxi drivers, Gene said. In Albuquerque, in a recent flying vacation back home, Gene startled the airport weather bureau by busting right in with the pilot. “Hello, boys,” cried Gene. “How’s the weather?” At the port near Fairfield she went in the coffee shop for a bite and ran across a Polish girl she’d known in grade school. They visited so busily across the counter that Gene almost missed her plane.
But Gene Tierney is down to earth with decorum, and regular with reserve. She doesn’t forget her good taste or manners, no matter what the situation. At a preview recently a news photographer focused on her and her date. “Come on, Miss Tierney,” suggested the flash-bulber, “put your arm around him.” Gene smiled and took hold of his hand instead. If anyone calls her “Honey” or “Baby” she just doesn’t hear. Her boy friends must all meet her mother first and be approved before there’s any stepping out. And when Mama Tierney went back East last Christmas, leaving Gene to toil on “Tobacco Road,” a chaperone moved right in.
It’s things like that which finally banished any doubts the Tierney family and Gene’s blue-blooded friends might have held about her fate in Horrible Hollywood. Now her dad is solidly on her career side, her mother’s pretty proud of “Princess” (that’s Gene to her mother) and both little sister pat and brother Butch are wondering if Hollywood does not hold something for them, too. Pat, a ravishing beauty of fourteen, visited Gene this summer and lost eighteen pounds in the excitement. But when she started blossoming out in fancy Hollywood hair-dos and striking glamourous poses at odd moments, Gene thought it was time Pat was packed back to school in Virginia. That’s where she is now. As for Butch, who was a Phi Beta Kappa at Yale and now is finishing up at Harvard’s School of Business – well, the other day the dean called him in. “I wish,” said the dean, “you’d ask your sister in Hollywood not to mention the fact why you’re here.” Butch wanted to know why not. The dean pointed to a stack of letters. “Look at those clippings,” he said. “They cost us eight cents apiece!” Maybe one more time won’t bankrupt Harvard.
But Gene was depositing her napkin (The Stork Club never saw one quite so black) – and up she bounced in dusty determination. “Back to the turnip patch along old Tobacco Road,” grinned Genie. And noting the inky napkin, “Oh, dear! I should never use a napkin. I’m practically clean. Now the boys will rub my face in the dirt again – and how they’ll love that!” We were halfway out of the café before her glanced down at her bare, black feet. She’d left her slippers under the table. Gene flashed back through the shocked and staring lunchers and retrieved them.
“I wonder,” she grinned, “what the good old glamour girls would say if they could see me now! Maybe,” she added, “it’s just as well they can’t! They might not understand at all!”