To wade into the biography of Hollywood actress Jennifer Jones (Phyllis Lee Isley, 1919-2009) is to step into a melodrama more excessive than any she ever starred in.
Jones was second generation showfolk. Her parents were the owner/operators of a traveling tent show called the Isley Stock Company, where she obtained her first acting experience as a young girl. Jones studied drama for a time at Northwestern then moved to New York to continue her studies at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. There she met actor Robert Walker (1918-1951). The pair were married in 1939. That year, they went to Tulsa, co-starring in a radio drama for three months before proceeding on to Hollywood. Very quickly, Walker got bit roles in some films, and Jones (still billed as Phyllis Isley) got some larger roles in two B movies: New Frontier (part of the Three Mesquiteers series with John Wayne and Crash Corrigan), and the serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men, both in 1939.
In 1940, Jones gave birth to her first son, Robert Walker, Jr. and retreated from acting for a time to become a homemaker, although she continued to work as a model. Then, an earth-shaking change. Jones was discovered by producer David O. Selznick on an audition. He fostered the careers of both the Walkers, casting Jones in The Song of Bernadette (1943) while helping Robert land a contract at MGM, where he was cast in Bataan (1943), his first substantive role. That proved a mere consolation prize, however, as Selznick and Jones had been having an affair. The Walkers separated in 1943. Then there occurred one of the most twisted anecdotes in all of Hollywood annals. Selznick cast Walker and Jones in the World War 2 drama Since You Went Away (1944) and gave the pair a love scene, for which they were required to countless retakes, much to their mutual pain. In spite of this episode Jones married Selznick in 1945.
Jones won a Best Actress Oscar for The Song of Bernadette, and was nominated for Since You Went Away. She would be nominated on three additional occasions, for Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946), and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). The Song of Bernadette, in which was cast as a young girl who had repeated visions of the Blessed Virgin, set the tone of her career, which seemed to swing back and forth between “Madonna” and “Whore” roles. Duel in the Sun would be amongst the latter, in which she was done up in pretty offensive brownface to play a Mestizo love interest to two antagonistic brothers (Joseph Cotten and Gregory Peck). She played the title characters in numerous movies: Cluny Brown (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Carrie (1952, and Ruby Gentry (1952). Other notable films of her classic period include Beat the Devil (1953), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), a remake of The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1956) and an adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957).
In 1951, Robert Walker, a mentally ill alcoholic, died of a combination of booze and barbiturates. Guilt and deep grief must have been Jones’ natural reaction to this development. Always a shy person who avoided publicity, by the late ’50s fewer films came her way, nor did she seem to pursue them very avidly. Her next film was the 1962 adaptation of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. In 1965, Selznick died, further severing a vital lifeline to the movie business. The following year she threw herself into work again by appeared in the British film The Idol (1966) about a mother’s Oedipal relationship with her rebellious son, a mod in Swinging London. Later that year she appeared opposite Rip Torn in a production of Clifford Odets’ The County Girl at City Center.
But this was not enough to quell her despondency. In late 1967 she learned that her close friend Charles Bickford, with whom she had appeared in The Song of Bernadette and Duel in the Sun died. She responded the same day with her own suicide attempt. She checked herself into a Malibu hotel, took an overdose of barbiturates and was found unconscious at the base of a cliff on the beach (she did not jump, as some have concluded due to the location). She was found, and brought to a hospital where she emerged from a coma after a few days, and recovered. By 1969 she was in good enough spirits to star in the AIP exploitation film Angel Angel Down We Go a.k.a Cult of the Damned, a follow-up to Wild in the Streets. Her son, Robert Walker Jr, who’d been a fairly successful character at this point, appeared in the similar Easy Rider that same year.
Jones’ life turned around somewhat in 1971 when she married a wealthy admirer, an industrialist and art collector named Norton Simon, who had earlier attempted to purchase the actual painting of her used as a prop in the film Portrait of Jennie. In 1974 she played her final film role, opposite Fred Astaire in a subplot in Irwin Allen’s Towering Inferno, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. This new lease on life was rudely interrupted however when her 21 year old daughter Mary Selznick ended her life by jumping out the 20th story window of a Los Angeles hotel. It was at this point that Jones devoted the rest of her life to charitable work involving suicide, depression, and mental health. She did however consider returning to the screen at least twice. She was interested in playing murderer Jean Harris, but Ellen Burstyn beat her to the punch in the TV movie The People vs. Jean Harris (1981). Harris, a private school headmistress with drug and depression issues, had shot her husband to death the previous year. She also actively sought the mother role in Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment (1983), which went to Shirley MacLaine.
Norton Simon passed away in 1993. A decade later Jones moved in with her son Robert Walker, Jr., well remembered from classic episodes of Star Trek and Columbo and many other roles. Walker passed away just a couple of months ago. Jones died in 2009 at the age of 90.
To find out more about traveling tent shows and the like, where Jennifer Jones got her start, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.