Jennifer Jones is one of the most luminous actresses of the silver screen and, during her heyday, one of the most gifted. She has been nominated for an Academy Award on more than one occasion, because of her magnificent film performances. She was adept at playing both innocent, virginal characters or passionate, hot-blooded ones. Her dark, delicate beauty and vulnerability connected well with moviegoers and she remains a popular favorite of classic film enthusiasts. Jennifer Jones is, as a matter of fact, one of my favorite movie actresses.
She was born Phylis Isley on March 2, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.. Acting was in her genes, as her parents Phil Isley and Flora Mae Suber owned and operated a traveling theatrical troupe. She went along with her parents when they went on the road and performed for small rural audiences at ten cents a pop. While many others in America suffered after the 1929 stock market crash, her family thrived, as dad Phil bought up a number of movie theaters and enabled them to show sound pictures. This became a profitable enterprise for him and his fortunate family.
Given her background, it isn’t hard to understand what fueled Phylis’s ambitions to become an actress. She was eventually able to attend the New York-based Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1937, after having successfully passed an audition, in which she performed a scene from Romeo and Juliet. Also attending was a handsome fellow thespian who also had high aspirations to become a successful actor. His name was Robert Walker. He and Phylis fell deeply in love. When Walker decided to quit the Academy, Phylis did so as well and they wed in 1939.
At the urging of Phylis’s father, the Walkers headed for Hollywood soon after and Phylis was able to secure bit parts in Dick Tracy’s G-Men and the western New Frontier. Neither role brought the kind of attention she had hoped for and, after failing a Paramount Pictures screen test, the disheartened couple went back to NYC. Robert was able to do radio programs, which was a good way for actors, at the time, to get lucrative income if they could work steadily. Phylis continued to hunt for decent acting jobs while doing hat modeling. In quick succession, they had two children. Robert, Jr. was born in 1940 and Michael Ross was born in 1941
When Phylis, still hungry to make it in acting, found out that auditions were being held for the lead role in the play Claudia, she was able to do a reading for the play’s author. Although another actress was chosen, the audition was not a total loss, as she was recommended to producer David O. Selznick, who planned on making a film version of Claudia. Unknown to her, Selznick listened in when she did a reading at his office and was tremendously impressed by her. Four days later, she was offered a seven year contract.
Phylis’s prospects were about to change for the better and she went to Hollywood to do a screen test for Claudia. Having a man as influential as David O. Selznick in your corner was a boon for any actress’s career, as he had produced films like Gone With the Wind, Rebecca, Dinner at Eight and A Star Is Born. He was also the son-in-law of MGM head Louis B. Mayer, meaning that Selznick had big time clout in Tinseltown. He was obsessed with making Phylis a big star and her professional name was changed to “Jennifer Jones”.
While Jennifer was extremely disappointed at not getting the part in the Claudia film, she was comforted when Selznick informed her that she had a screen test for the upcoming film The Song of Bernadette. Director King Vidor was enchanted by her test and she was chosen to play the role of Bernadette Soubirous, the French peasant girl who became a saint. It was for this role that Jennifer received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, which she won.
She, husband Robert Walker and their sons moved to Hollywood. Robert also received a degree of success from his role in the movie Bataan. Things were not running smoothly between them, however, especially since her “mentor” David O. Selznick had fallen in love with his beautiful young protégée. He began pursuing her romantically and, by the time Jennifer and Robert made Since Your Went Away in 1943, their only film together, their marriage was coming to an end. The couple divorced in 1944 and Robert went into a tailspin. Even though he become a popular screen actor, he remained heartbroken and angry over his divorce and was notorious for his alcoholism and raging public outbursts. He died in 1951, after having an allergic reaction to sedatives given by his physician. Some friends of Walker always blamed Jennifer for his downward spiral.
Her career, meanwhile, continued to prosper and she made films, such as Cluny Brown, Love Letters, Duel In the Sun, Portrait of Jennie, Madame Bovary, Carrie, Ruby Gentry, Indiscretion of an American Wife, Good Morning Miss Dove, Love Is Many Splendored Thing, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. She was again nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Love Letters as beautiful amnesiac Victoria/Singleton Morland. She got a third Oscar nomination for playing the sultry, half-Native American Pearl in Duel In theSun, despite the fact that the film received poor reviews.
Jennifer and Selznick had married by 1949, but he seems to have become somewhat of a Svengali in terms of how he directed some aspects of her career. When he secured A Farewell to Arms for her in 1957, he believed it would give life to her slightly sagging popularity. The movie was based on a Hemingway book and had already been done earlier by Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. Selznick’s version starred wife Jennifer and current leading man Rock Hudson. It was a monumental flop and was not well-received by either critics or audiences. Her next movie Tender Is the Night failed miserably, as well.
Tragedy struck when Selznick died of heart disease in 1965. A lonely woman after her soulmate’s death, Jennifer became severely depressed. She took an ovedose of pills, but, after being rescued, denied that it was a suicide attempt. She eventually found love again, marrying wealthy industrialist Norton Simon in 1971, although she was struck by tragedy again in 1976, when Mary Jennifer, her only child with Selznick, committed suicide.
Jennifer’s marriage with Norton Simon was a happy one and she made only one film in her later years, though it was a memorable one. She had an effective supporting role in the 1974 film blockbuster The Towering Inferno. She toyed with the possibility of doing other specific acting roles, but nothing came together. Since her husband passed away in 1993, she has served as president of the Norton Simon Foundation and chairman of The Norton Simon Museum.
As of this writing, Jennifer Jones, a breast cancer survivor, lives a very private life in Malibu, not far from her son Robert Walker, Jr., who is also an actor.