The terrible doomed romance of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones.

The Terrible Doomed Romance of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones

The Terrible Doomed Romance of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones

The secret history of Hollywood.
Nov. 27 2015 11:36 AM

Portrait of Jennie

The terrible doomed romance of David O. Selznick and Jennifer Jones.

Duel In The Sun
Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones in a scene from 1946’s Duel in the Sun.

Photo by Selznick Releasing Organization/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 11 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

In 1941, Phylis Walker was a 22-year-old struggling actress, married to fellow struggling actor Robert Walker and the mother of his two sons. Originally from Oklahoma, Phylis had met Robert at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1938. They were married a year later, and soon moved to Los Angeles looking to further their acting careers. Phylis had to travel most of the way to the bottom of the studio food chain in order to get a job; she was signed to a five-year contract at Republic Pictures, a Poverty Row outlet that made the Zorro and Lone Ranger serials, as well as B Westerns. She made her screen debut opposite John Wayne in a film called The New Frontier, and then landed a small part in a Dick Tracy serial. Then she got pregnant, and she and Robert, who was already disillusioned with Hollywood, headed back to New York. There she landed an audition for the Chicago run of a play called Claudia. David O. Selznick had bought the film rights to Claudia, and he watched Phylis’ audition. Phylis thought she blew the audition, and she didn’t get the part, but she did get a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick’s production company.

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By the summer of 1942, Selznick and his partner in Selznick International Pictures, Jock Whitney, realized that in order to avoid a huge tax bill, one of them was going to have to sell their share of Gone With the Wind to the other. Selznick ended up selling his rights to Whitney, because he couldn’t persuade Whitney to buy him out. The sale would provide Selznick with an immediate cash windfall of $400,000, and, after interest, a total of about $700,000. Given the enormous value of the film, which has not yet and probably will never stop earning money, this was an incredibly shortsighted decision for Selznick to make. To make matters worse for Selznick’s pride as well as his bank account, Jock Whitney would soon thereafter sell Gone With the Wind to MGM.

Selznick still hadn’t done anything with his latest discovery. But in the fall of 1942, he knew that over at Fox, his brother-in-law Bill Goetz—the husband of his wife Irene’s sister—had tested 300 actresses for the titular lead role in the film The Song of Bernadette, a peasant girl who has visions of the virgin Mary. Selznick didn’t just ask Goetz to test his new discovery, whom he was calling Jennifer Jones, for the part—Selznick mounted what he’d call a “systematic campaign,” slowly working on Goetz over a matter of months until the casting decision came down to Jones and Anne Baxter, and Jones won.

Coincidentally, around this same time, Robert Walker was cast in the Tay Garnett film Bataan at MGM, and so he joined his wife out in Hollywood. But Selznick wanted Phylis to keep her husband and kids out of sight; Bernadette was supposed to be a saintly, virginal teenager, and Selznick didn’t want to spoil the illusion—just the beginning of Selznick’s attempt to control his new protégée. He banned her from watching dailies after her first screening of them gave her anxiety over how she looked, and he famously banned the actress from attending the premiere of The Song of Bernadette. He wanted the audience to see her character on the screen, without any idea of the actress who appeared on the red carpet going in. Selznick managed all this even though he wasn’t producing or in any way officially involved with the film.

On March 2, 1944, Jennifer Jones won an Oscar for The Song of Bernadette, her first film role under her new name, and under Selznick’s shaping of her identity. Selznick had not been rooting for his protégée (and, now, his lover); in fact, he straight up told her that he was throwing his support behind his other contract star, Ingrid Bergman, who was nominated in the same category for For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the awards fell on Jennifer’s 25th birthday, and she was the ingénue of the moment, which has always counted for something. Her husband stayed home that night, listening to the ceremony on the radio, drinking. The next day, Jennifer filed for divorce.

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Did Jennifer believe that David was soon going to do the same, that they would easily exchange their current spouses for one another? If so, she was wrong.

There were already signs that the real Phylis couldn’t live up to the fantasy Selznick attached to Jennifer Jones. His new star’s lack of experience and naïveté were a selling point for Selznick, in that they made her malleable, but even as she began to amass credits, she seemed uncomfortable with so much of the work of being a star. She hated having her picture taken; she couldn’t bear to do interviews. She was so insecure about the way she looked that sometimes she could barely get dressed, and other times it would take hours to settle on something to wear just to leave the house. This got worse after it became public knowledge that she had left her husband. By the summer of 1944, when Jennifer would pick up the phone and find it was Selznick’s publicist on the other end, surely looking to schedule an interview or photo shoot, Jennifer would pretend to be the maid and claim that “Miss Jones is out of the city.” Selznick came up with a plan to ease Jennifer through a press day: “Limit it to three interviews, with one in the morning, lunch with a martini forced down Jennifer’s lips, then one in the afternoon, then another martini.”

This incredibly nervous woman hardly fits the image of the cold-hearted home-wrecker, and maybe that was part of the problem—Jones could leave her own marriage, but she wasn’t the kind of person who could ask the man she loved to leave his, and Selznick took advantage of that. If Selznick had immediately ended his own marriage, allowing Jones to publicly align herself with him, maybe she would have at least felt protected. Instead, Jennifer Jones felt all alone in front of a firing squad.

Irene wanted him to give up his mistress, obviously, but she also wanted him to quit gambling. He would lose more than $300,000 in 1945 alone. He was afraid that if he did break it off with Jennifer, Irene would leave him anyway, and then he’d be all alone. He also felt that he couldn’t break it off with Jennifer, that she was too fragile, and she’d never survive without him to prop her up. Finally David begged his wife, “Don’t leave me. For if you do, I will have to marry her.”

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With the matter unresolved, David went on location to produce a film that struck many as a love letter to his mistress. Actually, love letter is probably not the correct term. Irene was biased, of course, but the term she used was “pornographic.” Split the difference?

In Duel in the Sun, Jones would play a “half-breed” who disrupts the lives of two brothers on an Arizona ranch with her uncontainable sexual allure. Jones’ Pearl doesn’t want to be a bad girl, but in what would seem like racial stereotyping today but then was totally normal, it’s in her blood. She hopes for romance with the good brother, played by Joseph Cotten, and she even marries a nice man, played by Charles Bickford. But she can’t stay away from the very bad brother, played by Gregory Peck.

In order to play the part, Jennifer would have to find a way to summon her inner sex goddess, a tall order for a woman who could barely pose for a glamor photograph. Taking a page from Howard Hughes, whose sexed-up Western The Outlaw was in the process of making stars out of Jane Russell’s breasts and the alleged aerodynamic bra Hughes himself had designed to hold them aloft, Selznick arranged for Jennifer to go to Max Factor and have them create a rubberized contraption to enhance her own bosom. Just as Russell didn’t really wear Hughes’ bra, Jennifer managed to get the effect her producer was after without actually encasing her breasts in rubber.

That Jones could not have been less comfortable in this role is evidenced by the multiple attempts to shoot Jones performing a seductive dance, which eventually had to be scrapped. That there was something ethically icky about the whole endeavor is evidenced by the fact that on the day they shot a scene in which Gregory Peck’s character rapes Jones, a crowd gathered on set to watch what they assumed would be comedy, because Jones was incapable of acting sexy enough to be raped. That the whole thing was too personal for anyone’s comfort is evidenced by the story that in postproduction, Selznick ordered Dimitri Tiomkin to create “orgasm music” for the rape scene. When Selznick was not happy with the composer’s first stab, he said, “It’s not the way I fuck.”

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The film went so over budget and over schedule that at some point Selznick put into motion a second unit, which shot with actors simultaneously to the main unit, as though it was A unit. Shortly after that, director King Vidor quit. Selznick took over directing himself.

In August 1945, David and Irene finally separated. As he was leaving their home, Irene said to her departing husband, “I’ve had the best years of your life.” She was trying to lighten the mood. She didn’t know how right she was. David O. Selznick left his marital home and went to his father-in-law’s office. Louis Mayer and Selznick conferenced for hours. That night, Selznick lost $30,000 playing gin with Sam Goldwyn. By the end of that year, his gambling debts for the previous 12 months totaled $1 million.

It was another three months before he and Jennifer, who was having something like a nervous breakdown after working on Duel in the Sun for a full year, began appearing in public as a couple. A month later, Jennifer swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. She had her stomach pumped.

A year later, Duel in the Sun finally premiered. Selznick had been asked by the censorship office to make some changes—to trim a shot revealing too much of Jones’ breasts, to cut a kiss that too-romanticized the illicit sexual relationship at the film’s core. Hoping the film’s notoriety as a lavish sex flick would fill houses before anyone saw reviews, Selznick rushed Duel in the Sun into wide release—a modern strategy that was virtually unheard of at the time and that worked to turn a profit out of a very strange, not totally successful, but still fascinating film.

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By the end of 1946, Selznick’s gambling losses totaled nearly $600,000 for the year. His company’s financial situation was dire. He was separated from Irene, living with Jennifer, but apparently still holding out hope that his wife would take him back. By the end of 1947, the divorce was still not settled, but Selznick was so short of cash that he offered Irene his prized Matisse painting as collateral in exchange for an $18,000 personal loan. Selznick never managed to pay off the loan and get the painting back.

In the midst of all this, Selznick produced one of his strangest films, a vehicle for Jennifer in which she would age from a pre-pubescent child into a young-adult goddess, and through which Selznick would lay bare his own untenable, totally self-destructive obsession with his muse. Portrait of Jennie starred Joseph Cotten as Eben Adams, a Depression-era artist who roams Manhattan’s freezing streets, broke, trying to peddle unremarkable landscape paintings, until he meets a little girl in Central Park who inspires him to paint from life. Every time Eben meets this Jennie, she seems to have aged a year or more, and the details of her life that she shares make it seem like she’s living in the past—literally, that she’s stuck somehow in the 1910s. She keeps asking him to wait for her to grow up, and then they’ll be together forever. He does wait, and it doesn’t take her long to grow up, but the painter arrives at the point where the only thing he can paint is her. And then she disappears, and when he tries to find her, he finds out that Jennie died, years before. In a completely nutty, but gorgeous sequence, shot in Technicolor in a film that’s otherwise black and white, Eben tries to save Jennie, but of course he can’t. He can’t save her, and he can’t have her, and he can’t make art without her.

The story of the film almost too closely paralleled where David O. Selznick was at, and tragically, where his life was going. Portrait of Jennie would be his last American film. It cost nearly three times what it eventually earned. Deep under the spell of Jennifer, dependent on Benzedrine and in the throes of a gambling addiction, Selznick had lost his ability to speak to the masses.

Finally, in July 1949, while on a yachting vacation in the Mediterranean, David O. Selznick married Jennifer Jones in Genoa, Italy. When they got to the part of the civil ceremony about their bond surviving sickness, health, and debt, Jennifer laughed, but David laughed louder.

*Correction, Nov. 29, 2015: Due to a photo provider error, the caption on the original photo in this article misidentified Joseph Cotten as Gregory Peck. It has been replaced by a photo of Jennifer Jones and Peck from the film Duel in the Sun.