In the April 1958 edition of Photoplay, there was a wonderful article written by Caryl Posner, entitled “The Mystery of Jennifer Jones.” It was not until a few weeks ago, while watching TCM that I got to see Jones in a movie. She was sensational. During the film, “Portrait of Jennie,” (which she had starred in ten years previously in regards to this article), Jennifer was captivating and enduring, putting forth considerable charm. After this film, I wanted to see more of here. I have seen several of her pictures since then and have not been disappointed by one of them. Apparently, I am not the only one that wanted to know more about this talented lady, as there is a whole article devoted to this very idea.
Jennifer Jones and her husband, David O. Selznick, stepped out of their limousine, and walked down the long, lush red carpet that stretched to the entrance of the Hollywood theater, past the batteries of photographers with their popping flashbulbs, past the throngs of murmuring fans who pressed close for a glimpse of the stars. For Jennifer, it was a night of triumph, the premiere of her great film, 20th Century Fox’s “A Farewell to Arms.”
“Isn’t she exquisite!” She heard the words, shrilled by a middle-aged woman who bent across the restraining rope for a better view.
And then, the words of the woman’s companion…”But isn’t she the strange one?”
She lifted her head a little higher, and kept on smiling at the crowds. But the words had cut deep. So this was what people thought of her!
Oh, she knew why, well enough. All those items in the papers, that had been running for years. “What’s the big mystery with Jennifer Jones? Why won’t she talk to the press? Why does she hide from people? Why does she let David Selznick do all the talking – is she afraid to talk and act for herself?” That was the gist of it.
She sighed. How could they ever understand? How could you tell someone, when your life has crumbled, bit by bit, like a cookie in a child’s hand?
Ever since that evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, such a long time ago… She was a curly-haired six-year-old, gazing dreamily out the window at the rose-tinted twilight stealing in all around her. But her mother, kneeling at her feet, was having problems.
“Phylis! Phylis Isley! Do stand still,” she mumbled sternly through teeth clenched tightly to hold the pins, which, one by one, she tucked into the hem of the crisp little pinafore. “Do stand still if you want this to be ready for the opening day of school tomorrow… Why, you’re not even listening to a word I say! You’re in another world again?”
But she barely heard the words. She was not thinking of dresses or school or anything like them. She reached for a popcorn ball – one of her mother’s magical concoctions of sugar, molasses and popcorn – and nibbled at it gingerly, wondering how she would announce the new, all-important fact in her life.
She was still wondering when she slipped into a gingham dress and left the house, skipping up the path towards the huge tent on which a sign, “Isley Stock Company,” hung limply in the placid fall air. She gazed up at it a moment for courage, then entered timidly.
Phil Isley, counting the night’s receipts, paused in surprise. “What are you doing up at this hour, muffin?”
“Daddy, I have something to tell you. I – I…” she began hesitantly and then blurted out her secret in a great rush of passionate conviction. “Some day I’m going to become a great actress!”
Phil sighed – he knew this was coming. Only last week, unknown to her, he had been a silent witness while his little girl marched up and down the aisle of the theater, knees bent and arms bowed, in her conception of an ape man. An only child with few playmates, shy by nature, she found in this world of make-believe a happy escape, he knew. But was it good? He doubted it…
In the years that followed, Phil Isley, watching his daughter growing up, watching her growing skill with a sinking feeling like a man clutching at straws, dangled a variety of professions before her. The law. (“Now there’s a good steady living for you, honey. You could indulge your flair for the dramatic an still have a comfortable secure income.”) But his Phylis had been cagey. She wasn’t enticed. Instead, she’d twisted his words around deliberately, and in her own quiet way, set about laying the ground work in persuading her father to send her to New York’s famed American Academy of Dramatic Arts. He couldn’t fight her begging and teasing. For wasn’t the theater in his own blood? In his heart, didn’t he know how strongly she felt? Hadn’t he always felt the same way himself?
He and Flora Mae weakened. Phylis left Tulsa and enrolled at the Academy in January, 1938.
To the youngster from the Midwest, the big city was cold and unfriendly and frightening. So, from the unfeeling faces of strangers she took refuge more than ever in the one thing that, since the plays of Phil Isley had provided for his family, had been familiar and secure – acting.
“Isn’t she serious, though?” one of her classmates said. The New York girls, with their dates and fun, put her down as a grind, and something of a bore. And Jennifer, sensing their rejection, withdrew into her shell all the more.
Then she met Bob Walker during a class production of “The Barretts of Wimpole Street.” Both had their hopes and dreams, but Bob talked and she listened. On her guard, she’d been afraid to let him get to know her, she’d been tense and frightened. No one had been this interested in her before. As she listened she liked what she heard. And she liked him. It wasn’t long before their onstage love scenes became real.
And she was glad. Suddenly New York came alive for her. It was spring and the city was beautiful and she was in love and was loved. They walked in Central Park and the Village and window shopped and laughed. She hadn’t laughed much since leaving Tulsa. She was changing. Bob Walker – wonderful, gay, extroverted Bob – was changing her.
They courted atop Fifth Avenue double-decker busses and riding the Staten Island Ferry, doused with invigorating salt spray and a magnificent view of New York harbor- all for a nickel.
“Don’t marry an actor,” her father had counseled. “Believe me, I know actors…” But she paid no heed. This was different.
Bob and Phylis flew to Tulsa and married there on January 2, 1939. “If you really want to act, why not go out to Hollywood and make some money doing it?” Phil Isley had once grumbled good-naturedly. And now Phylis remembered. The Isleys gifted their children with a sky-blue convertible for the trip, and a friend bubbled happily, “I foresee a great future for you both in pictures.” Who was to know the crystal ball would crack?
Then those six fruitless first months in Hollywood. Walking the pavements, returning at night to their little apartment to compare notes. Finally, a bit of work for Phylis in two westerns and a Dick Tracy serial and a three-bit line for Bob in a skiing spectacle. And their laughter over these “roles” after the important, serious ones back at the Academy… And finally, one night, Phylis didn’t feel gay about it any more. Over dinner, in tears, she told Bob her sobering conclusions: “They want glamour girls, and I’m not one. If I ever do get anywhere, it’ll be because of my acting.”
Could Phylis Walker have foreseen how the crystal ball was to keep that decision intact, she’s have been amazed. But then, could she have known other things, Jennifer Jones might never have happened…
And Bob agreed and they both wanted to act so desperately and knew they could, that they remembered those happy, carefree, fruitful days back in New York and decided to return. The sky-blue convertible took them there and was promptly sold so the Walkers could set up housekeeping in two dingy, furnished rooms on the fringe of Hell’s Kitchen. They didn’t care; they were happy there. There were appearances together at the Cherry Lane Theatre (at fifty cents a performance) and a few jobs for Phylis with Harper’s Bazaar and as a Powers model. But things were getting worse.
“What are you in now?” her childhood chums from Tulsa would write, and Phylis would reply, “Mostly in the hospital having babies.” In the midst of their poverty, Robert Jr. had been born in 1940, and Michael Ross in 1941.
And then, almost miraculously, Bob got a radio break that led to steady work, and the family moved out to Long Island. And an agent interested in both of them arranged with the Selznick office for Phylis to read for the film version of “Claudia.”
She arrived all keyed up with excitement, gave a bad reading and was dismally aware of it. So where nine out of ten girls would be too proud to betray any emotion, at least until they were safely out of the room, Phylis had burst into tears right then and there. Unknown to her, David O. Selznick was an interested observer of the entire proceedings and directed his secretary to make another appointment with her. “I think you were a little nervous today,” she was told. “Why don’t you come in tomorrow and try again?”
The next day appointment time came and went – and no Phylis. The Selznick office contacted the agent, who immediately got on the wire to Long Island. She remembered when the phone rang. She had been in the middle of a shampoo. Throwing a towel over her head, she’d gone to answer to call.
“Why aren’t you in the Selznick office?” the agent demanded.
“Oh, that second appointment business was just a way to stop me crying,” she assured him.
“You get over here this minute or I’ll never do another thing for you again!” he snapped, and the phone clicked dead.
She hurried into her clothes, grabbed the towel, hopped into a cab with it, and dried her hair all the way into the city. She swallowed hard as she handed the cabbie his ten-dollar fare, and then raced into the Selznick office. Two weeks later she had a long-term contract.
Then had begun eighteen months of sheer exasperation. Bob had been happy about the wonderful break, and so were her friends, but as the weeks passed and nothing happened she began to wonder if all the congratulations might not be a bit premature. She was sent to the west coast to do a one-act play and apparently impressed the author, William Saroyan, because he told her, “If I ever get out of the Army, come see me and I’ll write a play for you.” Then back to New York, where she was placed in the expert hands of Sanford Meisner, one of the foremost drama teachers in the country. Month after weary month, there were diction drills, exercises in body movement and dancing, instructions in how to walk, talk, stand, sit, gesture. David Selznick came to New York periodically to check on her progress and she would ask him, each time with mounting disillusionment, just when her career was to get under way.
“Keep studying,” he replied. “Your time will come.” After over a year of this, she had had enough and asked outright for a release from the contract. “Look,” Selznick told her patiently. “I know the waiting has been tough, but just trust me, will you? I have a feeling something wonderful is about to break.”
Meanwhile, David had announced to his family one evening that he was thinking of naming his new discovery Jennifer. Up piped little Donald, aged five. “Are we going to see Miss Jennie Jones?” – a reference to a favorite nursery rhyme which begins, “I’ve come to see Miss Jennie O. Jones, Miss Jennie O. Jones.” And Jennifer Jones it was.
Three months after David’s hint to “something wonderful,” Phylis, now re-christened Jennifer Jones, was summoned by 20th Century Fox to test for “The Song of Bernadette.” In the finals, she’d been told later, the six candidates directed their rapt attention to a stick being held just out of camera range. It was the moment Bernadette first sees her vision. “The other five girls did very well,” producer William Perlberg had commented when it was over. “But only Jennifer actually saw the vision.” And with that, Hollywood’s plum role of the year was hers.
Now it was time for the press agents to take over. It was time to make her less of a mystery – to give her a buildup. But it wasn’t. Strategy dictated otherwise and it seemed to almost to be in cahoots with her natural tendency to withdraw from contact with her fellow human beings.
She was a special property, David told her, and opening new supermarkets, carousing nightly at Ciro’s or posing as Miss Ultra-Violet of 1943 was not for her. Bernadette was a saint. All leg and bosom art was definitely cut out, and liquor or cigarettes were unmentionables. In addition, the studio forbade her even to wear nail polish or pluck her eyebrows, and under no circumstances was she to be photographed with her husband and children.
Meanwhile, MGM scouts in New York had spotted Bob Walker, signed him to a contract and brought him to Hollywood. He was a smash hit as the sailor in “Bataan,” and was rushed into “Madame Curie,” and from that into “See Here, Private Hargrove.” Selznick, forthwith made plans to bring the Walkers together as the young lovers in his projected epic of the home front, “Since You Went Away.”
And now the publicity pendulum swung the other way. This was a natural – two young people who’d met at dramatic school, fallen in love and married, endured poverty, plugged together and hit success in Hollywood almost simultaneously. Actually, it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to them because it turned their lives inside out.
At first, flushed by their combined salary of $600 per week, they’d rented that expensive villa in Bel Air. Jennifer had always prided herself on her skill at home-making, mending the family clothes, and squeezing the family orange juice every morning. But all that was to become a thing of the past. A gardener and cook were engaged and a nurse couldn’t get along with their pet dog, out went the dog. Both she and Bob were working twelve-hour days – 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. – six days a week. In addition to her work, plus dancing and diction lessons and memorizing lines for the next day’s shooting, Jennifer had somehow to get ten hours’ sleep to look her best before the camera. And Bob, who’d always had difficulty keeping enough flesh on his slender six-foot frame, began to lose weight alarmingly. And somehow the minor differences of opinion – which should have remained just that – blew up into serious quarrels.
At times when the pressure felt unbearable, Jennifer would get out on the tennis court with good pal Ingrid Bergman and whack the ball around for an hour or two. But in addition to the 329 pages of “Bernadette” script (“Enough to floor Helen Hayes,” cracked one wag), Jennifer was wrestling with a marital problem growing steadily worse.
At the conclusion of “Bernadette,” Jennifer and Bob went right into “Since You Went Away.” There had been a sharp disagreement about careless driving, and Bob went out and bought a motorcycle, something Jennifer wanted no part of. When co-workers watched them arrive at the studio separately – he on the motorcycle and she in the Mercury – previous rumors of marital discord took on new meaning. And in November of 1943, the roof fell in. Jennifer asked the studio to announce a “friendly separation,” and the repercussions could be heard all over town.
Officials at Fox were nothing short of appalled. Their biggest production of the year had just been launched, and its saintly heroine now looked to be on the verge of divorce. Selznick had the uneasy feeling that his investment in “Since You Went Away” was about to go up in smoke, and MGM, where Bob ranked as the most promising newcomer since Robert Taylor, just didn’t like the idea at all. All three vainly brought pressure upon the young couple to stay together. In addition, a national woman’s magazine was about to hit the stands with a fat layout just brimming over with Walker marital bliss. Thus caught with her hair down, the editor was dispatched to the coast to make a personal plea for reconciliation. She got absolutely nowhere.
To Jennifer, there had been something horribly unreal about everything. This had been the kind of stuff they ground out in pulp fiction – “actress achieves success and loses her personal happiness.” And yet it had been agonizingly real. All her life had been a preparation for that moment, and then? She was trying desperately to work out a purely personal problem, and the whole world seemed to be sitting in giving advice. In New York, years later, she’d turned to a friend and remarked wistfully, “Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent right here.” But that was only a memory. For she was Jennifer Jones, star – and her thoughts, actions and problems were news. It was Jennifer’s first experience in the goldfish bowl, and it was not pleasant.
To the world she put on a brave face, and told reporters: “If I give a good performance as Bernadette, my private life won’t make any difference.” When the film went into general release, she’d been thrilled. Critical hosannas resounded, the public, she was told, was flocking to see the picture, and on her twenty-fifth birthday, as one of five Oscar nominees, she had found herself riding to the Academy Award ceremonies.
“Do you have a speech prepared, just in case?” agent Henry Wilson, her companion, had queried.
She had looked at him as if he were out of his mind. “Don’t be silly, Ingrid’s a sure thing for “For Whom The Bell Tolls.’”
You have one chance out of five,” he’d replied.
Later, after the results had passed into the record she had entered the Mocambo for the traditional victory party. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the orchestra leader had announced. “I give you the First Lady of Hollywood.” And as everyone present had risen to applaud she felt like the screen’s newest Cinderella, with tears spilling over, unchecked. She had reached the heights, but her personal happiness lay in bitter ashes. Was it all worth it? It was not the first time she had asked herself that question. Nor would it be the last.
The next morning, to the intense disappointment of romantics the country over, she filed suit for divorce. But true to her own lifelong personal code, she would never discuss it. Marriage, after all, was a private affair, she felt. The only two people who really know what goes into any marriage are the two who live with it, day in and day out. In June of 1945, she became legally free. She thought her troubles were over, but tragedy lay dead ahead.
Under David’s shrewd guidance, her career continued to prosper as she went up for Oscars four years running. Her roles, though few, had been choice and designed for versatility. She played, successively, a saint, an all-American girl (“Since You Went Away”), an amnesia victim (“Love Letters”), a screwball (“Cluny Brown”), a passion flower of the old Southwest (“Duel in the Sun”) and a ghost (“Portrait of Jennie”). But anything she did on screen was totally eclipsed by the drama that was gong on in real life.
At the first evidence of Bob Walker’s erratic public behavior some were content to label him just another “Bad Boy of Hollywood,” while others flipped glibly that “He’s torching for Jennifer.” But at each new incident – duly noted by newspapers across the country- it became unmistakably clear to her that his was more than a case of mere mischief or a broken heart. This was a man seriously ill, in imminent danger of complete psychological collapse. After a brief, disastrous remarriage in 1945, Bob committed himself to Topeka’s famed Menninger Clinic to straighten himself out.
And throughout the harrowing period, Jennifer’s first thoughts were for her sons. How desperately she’d wanted to shield them for the ugly, glaring headlines about Bob, the rumors. Those she could take. But the boys, so young and impressionable. She’d protect them from as much of it as she could, and it was then that the publicity curtain came down. She knew any interviews would almost certainly include material about her former marriage, and there had been enough reference to it in the newspapers already.
But there was always David, standing firmly behind her. As each new headline struck like a fresh blow, he was the bulwark between Jennifer and those who sought to pry. She felt so secure when with him. “I had pushed my way into pictures and thought I’d have to keep pushing all my life,” she once confided. “But all of a sudden, everything seemed to be taken out of my hands.” Now the man who had raised her to the shining heights of stardom took control of her private life as well. At first, she was sure it was friendship and the business necessity of protecting a prize property who seemed on the verge of total nervous exhaustion. Bu the comfort and sympathy David extended to her during that trying period established a strong bond between them that eventually ripened into love. Then, in the spring of 1949, their engagement was announced. David liquidated part of his huge movie empire, and they went abroad.
And soon Bob had been discharged from the Menninger Clinic. She felt so proud of him when he announced: “I’ve succeeded in getting rid of a ton of bricks I’ve been carrying around all my life.” But a skeptical Hollywood adopted a “let’s wait and see” attitude. And then began the real tragedy of Robert Walker. In three subsequent comeback pictures he proved that his acting power had sharpened as never before. She heard that his on-set cooperation and quiet behavior stirred the admiration of those who knew him and knew the struggle he seemed to have put behind him. But for Bob, time was fast running out.
In July, Jennifer and David tied the knot not once but twice – in Genoa, Italy. After a wedding abroad a rented yacht in the harbor, they repeated their vows at the city hall, and then sailed off for a Riviera honeymoon.
Home again, with David deeply absorbed in his family and work, they began to avoid nightclubs and parties – the big affairs – for the quiet kind of togetherness they both loved. There were trips around the world to check on various business interests and Jennifer was beginning to recover from the tragic period that lay behind her.
In New York, they strolled hand-in-hand through Greenwich Village and paused for a moment outside the Cherry Lane. “I wonder,” she mused thoughtfully, “what it’s like now.” And during a visit to New York death firmly closed one chapter in Jennifer’s life for good and all. The shocking news of Bob’s sudden death.
Pale and shaken, with David at her side, she immediately fled to California to get the two boys who had been spending the summer with their father. On the evening he died – from respiratory failure after a dose of stimulants – his sons were away visiting friends. The simple funeral was held in Bob’s home state of Utah and Jennifer, thought she sent flowers, did not attend. Asked why neither she nor the boys were present, she quietly replied, “I want them to remember him as he was.”
Goodbye Bob – and goodbye Phylis. Once upon a time there were two kids who took their dreams to the big city, and for a while, those dreams seemed to merge as one. But who says every rainbow has to have a pot of gold? That’s the way life is sometimes. Tough. Hard. Just the breaks. You used to say that yourself, Bob. And despite anything and everything, life goes on.
In 1953, Paramount announced Jennifer for one of the prize parts of the coming year: the title role in “The Country Girl.” But no sooner was she set for it than she learned she’d have to bow out. And though Grace Kelly later did it, and won an Oscar, Jennifer got something infinitely more precious. On August 12, 1954, she and David became the parents of a seven-pound, eight-ounce baby girl.
For a while, it looked as if the child would be going through life without a name. First they pored through the Bible, then went out and bought a book with a thousand names in it. After a few weeks of this, David announced in favor of “Mary” and stood pat. Jennifer, running down a list of French names, came up with Gaye. “Droopy!” was the boys’ verdict. “How do you know she’s going to be gay? And even if she is, why advertise it?” Out went Gaye. And in came a new idea.
Old family friend Joseph Cotton and his wife Lenore solved the problem. Over a month had passed since the baby’s birth when Joe and Lenore came to visit – and made it perfectly plain that they wouldn’t leave until the baby had a name. Taking note of David’s preference of Mary, and the fact that Jennifer had always liked her screen name, Joe artfully suggested “Can’t you just hear some boy saying, “Mary Jennifer, I love you!” That did it.
Today Mary Jennifer, her mother and father, and Robert and Michael live on Tower Road in Beverly Hills, in the spacious home once owned by John Gilbert. And the position of the house – high atop Benedict Canyon – seems to symbolize Jennifer’s remoteness and genuine aversion to publicity. But the curtain of silence has two sides.
It is not generally known that Jennifer was the first actress to enter Korea, gave readings in the hospitals, and was personally cited by General Van Fleet. Nor does space permit a listing of various tributes from co-workers to her character, generosity and quiet integrity. But what really annoys friends is the fact that her position as the wife of one of the industry’s giants somewhat overawes most people.
“They should stop treating her like some great unapproachable goddess,” emphatically states Elaine Stritch, who worked in Italy on “A Farewell to Arms.” “She’s simply not like that. Some nights we’d all go out and do the town – and Jennifer came right along with us. We’d hoot and holler, sing and dance, and just generally have a ball. It’s true that Jennifer’s somewhat nervous – that’s her nature. And I do think she should get out and have more fun, more laughs. Because when she does, she has as good a time as anyone.”
“Jennifer and publicity will never be a winning combination,” comments a friend who should know. “She is naturally shy and extremely sensitive. Furthermore, she just doesn’t believe that there’s much to be said about her and her work one way or the other. And then there are the painful experiences of the past.
“Now she has the security she hasn’t really known since childhood. She has her husband, their baby, her sons and maybe one picture a year. And that’s all she wants. Can you blame her?”
Jennifer and David walk through the heavy brass doors, into the plush Hollywood theater and down the aisle to their seats. Yes, she had her husband, her little girl, her sons. Before her was the exciting prospect of two new pictures – “Mary Magdalene” and the screen version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is The Night,” which David would produce for 20th Century Fox.
But the way out of the darkness of tragedy is long and difficult. For Jennifer, the sunlight of the present is still haunted by shadows.
“What are you looking for? What are you trying to escape from?” a friend recently asked her when she confided her plans for a trip abroad – alone – and her latest interest in Hindu philosophy.
She didn’t know the answer. She only knew that she had to keep on trying to find it.