To fans of classic films the name Jennifer Jones evokes images of a brunette beauty with distinctive high cheekbones, sensuously pouty lips, and brown saucer-like eyes.
Jones’ journey as an actress began with roots deeply planted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Phylis Isley, the daughter of parents firmly entrenched in show business. Her father, Phillip Isley, was a man who had dreamed of having a career as an actor on Broadway. Although that dream never materialized, Isley and his wife, Dolly, found success booking tent shows—events which fascinated young Phylis and provided her with valuable training. The stock market crash of 1929 turned out to be a boom for Phillip’s chain of movie theaters in the Tulsa area that he had been acquiring throughout the 1920s. One of these was the Circle Cinema, the first suburban theater in Tulsa.
Phylis became fascinated with the great actresses of the Depression era, particularly grounded, down-to-earth types such as Sylvia Sidney and Janet Gaynor. With the exception of Joan Crawford, Hollywood glamour girls did not particularly impress her. Like her father, Phylis longed for a career on the Broadway stage—movies didn’t excite her the way live theater did.
A disciple of Katherine Cornell, teenage Phylis headed to New York after a year at Northwestern University, and enrolled in the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Phylis not only excelled in her studies, she also met a fellow student, Robert Walker. Young Phylis took a temporary hiatus from pursuing her career when she and Walker became husband and wife in 1939. But it wasn’t long before the acting bug began nibbling at Phylis again. Her father used some of his contacts to secure her a contract at Republic Pictures. Her first screen appearance was a poverty row western with the then-unknown John Wayne. Next came the low-budget serial Dick Tracy’s G-Men. Although Republic was providing a steady paycheck, these little ditties were not exactly what the ambitious young actress had in mind career-wise. Plus the separation from husband Walker, who was still in New York performing in radio, was putting a strain on their marriage.
Phylis rejoined Walker in New York, where the young couple had two sons, Robert Jr. and Michael. It was during this time that Phylis was introduced to the enigmatic independent producer David O. Selznick. The famous filmmaker had secured the screen rights to a hit play called Claudia, and Phylis desperately wanted the role. Although she lost the part to Dorothy Maguire, Phylis Walker’s life forever changed with that meeting with Selznick.
From their first meeting, David O. Selznick became fascinated, almost obsessed, with the young brunette beauty. After placing her under contract, he gave her the professional name “Jennifer Jones” and began searching for just the right vehicle to introduce her to cinema audiences. That role came via his brother-in-law, producer William Goetz. Goetz was preparing a film version of Franz Werfel’s best-selling religious novel, The Song Of Bernadette, and after several screen tests, Jennifer won the part. The picture was a smash hit, Jennifer won an Oscar, and followed with a string of commercial and critical successes such as Since You Went Away, Love Letters, Duel in the Sun, and Madame Bovary.
Her list of co-stars reads like a who’s who in Hollywood history: Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, William Holden, Charles Boyer, John Garfield, Montgomery Clift, and her most frequent (and close, personal friend), Joseph Cotten, with whom she shared the screen in four pictures.
Jones’ director collaborations are equally impressive and include the likes of William Wyler, John Huston, Vincente Minnelli, King Vidor, and Ernst Lubitsch.
Like many before her, Jennifer found that success often comes with a high price tag. For her it was the destruction of her marriage to Robert Walker as her professional association with Selznick quickly turned into a romantic one, eventually leading to a 1949 wedding. And there were a few career disappointments along the way. Several consecutive box office failures in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, including Portrait of Jennie, We Were Strangers, and Carrie, put a damper on Jennifer’s reputation. But in 1955 she scored a triumphant comeback with three hits in a row: the romantic classic Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing followed by Good Morning, Miss Dove and then
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.
Although Jennifer’s next two films, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and A Farewell to Arms, were not well received, her status as a major star was firmly cemented both in the industry and with the public.
As the 1960s rolled in, Jennifer made fewer and fewer screen appearances, choosing instead to enjoy her home life with husband Selznick and their daughter, Mary Jennifer. After his death in 1965 and the death of her close friend and former co-star actor Charles Bickford in 1967, Jennifer fought and eventually won a fierce battle with depression. When her daughter later committed suicide, Jennifer became a staunch advocate for mental health issues and established the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation for Mental Health and Education.
Jones made her final screen appearance in Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster epic The Towering Inferno in 1974. The role earned her a Golden Globe nomination as Best Supporting Actress. She then devoted her life to third husband, philanthropist Norton Simon, and her work with her mental health foundation. Jennifer Jones died in 2009 at the age of 90.
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2016