Gene Eliza Tierney was born in Brooklyn, New York, the daughter of Howard Sherwood Tierney and Belle Lavina Taylor. She had an elder brother, Howard Sherwood “Butch” Tierney, Jr., and a younger sister, Patricia “Pat” Tierney. Her father was a prosperous insurance broker of Irish descent, her mother a former physical education instructor.
Tierney attended St. Margaret’s School in Waterbury, Connecticut, and the Unquowa School in Fairfield. Her first poem, entitled “Night,” was published in the school magazine, and writing verse became an occasional pastime during the rest of her life. Tierney also played Jo in a student production of Little Women. She then spent two years in Europe and attended Brillantmont International Schoolin Lausanne, Switzerland, where she learned to speak fluent French. She returned to the U.S. in 1938 and attended Miss Porter's School. On a trip to the West Coast, she visited Warner Bros. studios. There, director Anatole Litvak, taken by the seventeen-year-old’s beauty, told her that she should become an actress. Warner Bros. wanted to sign her to a contract, but her parents advised against it because of the low salary.
Tierney’s coming-out party as a debutante occurred on September 24, 1938, when she was 17 years old. Bored with society life, she decided to pursue a career in acting. Her father's response was, “If Gene is to be an actress, it should be in the legitimate theatre.” Tierney studied acting at a small Greenwich Village acting studio in New York with Broadway director and actor Benno Schneider. She became a protégée of Broadway producer-director George Abbott.
In Tierney’s first part on Broadway, she carried a bucket of water across the stage inWhat a Life!(1938). A Variety magazine critic declared, "Miss Tierney is certainly the most beautiful water carrier I’ve ever seen!" At the same time, she was an understudy for The Primrose Path (1938). The next year, she appeared in the role as Molly O'Day in the Broadway production Mrs. O'Brien Entertains (1939). The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote, "As an Irish maiden fresh from the old country, Gene Tierney in her first stage performance is very pretty and refreshingly modest." That same year, Tierney appeared as Peggy Carr in Ring Two (1939) to favorable reviews. Theater critic Richard Watts, Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, "I see no reason why Miss Tierney should not have an interesting theatrical career – that is, if cinema does not kidnap her away."
Tierney’s father set up a corporation, Belle-Tier, to fund and promote her acting career (He later went on to steal all of her money). Columbia Pictures signed her to a six-month contract in 1939. She met Howard Hughes, who tried unsuccessfully to seduce her, but, being from a well-to-do family, she was not impressed by Hughes' wealth. He did, however, become a lifelong friend. A cameraman advised Tierney to lose a little weight, saying, “a thinner face is more seductive.” Tierney then wrote to Harper’s Bazaar for a diet, which she followed for the next twenty-five years. Years later Tierney was quoted as saying, "I love to eat. For all of Hollywood's rewards, I was hungry for most of those twenty-five years." Tierney was offered the lead role in National Velvet but production was delayed. National Velvet would be produced at MGM in 1944.
When Columbia Pictures failed to find Tierney a project, she returned to Broadway and starred as Patricia Stanley to critical and commercial success in The Male Animal (1940). InThe New York Times, Brooks Atkinson wrote, "Tierney blazes with animation in the best performance she has yet given". She was the toast of Broadway before her 20th birthday. The Male Animal was a hit, and Tierney was featured in Life magazine. She was photographed by Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and Collier's Weekly.
Two weeks after The Male Animal opened, before the curtain went up one evening, there was a rumor that Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox had flown in from the coast and was in the audience. During the performance, he told an assistant to make a note of Tierney's name. Later that night, Zanuck dropped by the Stork Club, where he saw a young lady on the dance floor. He told his assistant, "Forget the girl from the play. See if you can sign that one." It was Tierney. Zanuck was not easily convinced that the two women were one and the same. Tierney was quoted (after the fact), "I always had several different 'looks', a quality that proved useful in my career."
Hollywood called once again; Tierney signed with 20th Century-Fox. Her motion picture debut was in a supporting role as Eleanor Stone in Fritz Lang's western The Return of Frank James (1940), opposite Henry Fonda. A small role as Barbara Hall followed inHudson's Bay (1941) with Paul Muni.
In 1941, Tierney co-starred as Ellie Mae Lester in John Ford's comedy Tobacco Road, along with the title role in Belle Starr, Zia inSundown and Victoria Charteris (a.k.a. Poppy Smith) in The Shanghai Gesture. The following year, she played Eve in Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, along with the dual role as Susan Miller (a.k.a. Linda Worthington) in Rouben Mamoulian's screwball comedy film Rings on Her Fingers, Kay Saunders in Thunder Birds and Miss Young in China Girl.
Receiving top billing in Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1943 comedy Heaven Can Wait as Martha Strable Van Cleve signaled an upward turn in Tierney's career, and her popularity increased. Tierney recalled, during the production of Heaven Can Wait: "Lubitsch was a tyrant on the set, the most demanding of directors. After one scene, which took from noon until five to get, I was almost in tears from listening to Lubitsch shout at me. The next day I sought him out, looked him in the eye, and said, 'Mr. Lubitsch, I'm willing to do my best but I just can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me.' 'I'm paid to shout at you', he bellowed. 'Yes', I said, 'and I'm paid to take it – but not enough.' After a tense pause, Lubitsch broke out laughing. From then on we got along famously." In 1944, she starred in what became her most famous role: the title role in Otto Preminger's film noir Laura, opposite Dana Andrews. After playing Tina Tomasino in A Bell for Adano (1945), she played the jealous, narcissistic femme fatale Ellen Berent Harland, opposite Cornel Wilde, in the film version of the best-selling Ben Ames Williams novel Leave Her to Heaven, a performance that won her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (1945). Leave Her To Heaven was 20th Century-Fox' most successful film of the 1940's. It was cited by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese as one of his favourite films of all time, and he assessed Gene Tierney as one of the most underrated actresses of the Golden Era.
In 1946, Tierney starred as Miranda Wells in Joseph L. Mankiewicz' debut film as a director in Dragonwyck, along with Walter Huston and Vincent Price. That same year, she starred in another critically praised performance as Isabel Bradley, opposite Tyrone Power, in The Razor's Edge, an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's novel. She followed that with her role as Lucy Muir in Mankiewicz' The Ghost and Mrs. Muir opposite Sir Rex Harrison (1947), which many critics and film scholars have noted to be her greatest performance besides Laura (for which she did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress). The following year, Tierney co-starred once again with Power, this time as Sara Farley in the successful screwball comedy That Wonderful Urge (1948). As the decade came to a close, Tierney reunited with Laura director Preminger to star as Ann Sutton in the classic film noir Whirlpool, co-starring Richard Conte and José Ferrer (1949).
Tierney gave memorable performances in two other film noirs (both in 1950) – Jules Dassin's Night and the City and Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends.
In 1951, Tierney was loaned to Paramount Pictures and gave a memorable comic turn as Maggie Carleton in Mitchell Leisen's classic ensemble farce The Mating Season which had elements of screwball comedy with John Lund, Thelma Ritter and Miriam Hopkins.This was also the year Tierney gave a tender performance as Midge Sheridan in the Warner Bros. film Close to My Heart (1951) with Ray Milland. The film is about a couple trying to adopt. Tierney felt this was her best role in a half-dozen years, as it touched the chords of her own experience. The film addressed the issue of "nature versus nurture" and opened an early conversation about the adoption process. Later in her career she would be reunited with Milland in Daughter of the Mind (1969), which has a cult following.
After appearing opposite Rory Calhoun as Teresa in Way of a Gaucho (1952), her contract at 20th Century-Fox expired. That same year she starred as Dorothy Bradford in Plymouth Adventure, opposite Spencer Tracy at MGM, when she had a brief romance with Tracy.Tierney then played Marya Lamarkina, opposite Clark Gable, in Never Let Me Go (1953), which was filmed in England. She found Gable patient and considerate, but lonely and vulnerable, as he was still mourning the death of Carole Lombard. She remained in Europe to play Kay Barlow in United Artists' Personal Affair (1953), which was released that same year. While Tierney was in Europe, she began a romance with Prince Aly Khan, but their marriage plans met with fierce opposition from his father, Aga Khan III. Early in 1953, Tierney returned to the U.S. to co-star in a film noir film as Iris Denver in Black Widow (1954) with Ginger Rogers and Van Heflin.
Tierney married twice, first to costume and fashion designer Oleg Cassini on June 1, 1941. She and Cassini had two daughters, Antoinette Daria Cassini (October 15, 1943 – September 11, 2010) and Christina "Tina" Cassini (born November 19, 1948).
In June 1943, while pregnant with Daria, Tierney contracted rubella during her only appearance at the Hollywood Canteen. Daria was born prematurely in Washington, D.C., weighing only three pounds, two ounces (1.42 kg) and requiring a total blood transfusion. Because of Tierney's illness, Daria was also deaf, partially blind with cataracts, and had severe mental retardation.
Tierney's grief over Daria's condition led to many years of depression and may have begun her bipolar disorder. Some time after Daria's birth, Tierney learned from a fan who approached her for an autograph at a tennis party that the woman (who was then a member of the women's branch of the Marine Corps) had sneaked out of quarantine while sick with rubella to meet Tierney at her only Hollywood Canteen appearance.
In her autobiography, Tierney related that after the woman had recounted her story, she just stared at her silently, then turned and walked away. She wrote, "After that I didn't care whether ever again I was anyone's favorite actress." Biographers have theorized that Agatha Christie used this real-life tragedy as the basis of her plot for The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. The incident, as well as the circumstances under which the information was imparted to the actress, is repeated almost verbatim in the story. Tierney's tragedy had been well-publicized for years previously. During this time, Howard Hughes, an old friend, saw to it that Daria received the best medical care available, paying for all of her medical expenses. Tierney never forgot Hughes' acts of kindness.
Tierney and Cassini separated October 20, 1946 and entered into a property settlement agreement November 10, 1946. An uncontested divorce followed in California on March 13, 1947 with the entry of a finalized divorce decree on March 13, 1948. The couple later reconciled on August 19, 1948, but did not remarry. During her separation, during the filming of Dragonwyck, she met young John F. Kennedy, who was visiting the set. They began a romance that ended the following year, when Kennedy told her he could never marry her because of his political ambitions. Tierney then reconciled with Cassini, but they divorced on February 28, 1952. "Cassini promised in his 1952 divorce from Gene Tierney that he would write a will leaving both of his daughters half of his fortune". Cassini later bequeathed $500,000 in trust to Daria and $1,000,000 to Christina.
Cassini and Tierney remained friends until her death in November 1991 when she bequeathed one dollar to her daughter Daria and the residue to Christina.
In 1960, Tierney sent Kennedy a note of congratulations on his election victory; she later admitted that she had voted for Richard Nixon, saying, "I thought that he would make a better President."
In 1958, Tierney met Texas oil baron W. Howard Lee, who was married to Hedy Lamarr from 1953 to 1960. Tierney and Lee married in Aspen, Colorado on July 11, 1960, and lived in Houston, Texas. She loved life in Texas with Lee and became an expert contract bridge player. In 1962, 20th Century Fox announced Tierney would play the lead role in Return to Peyton Place, but she became pregnant and dropped out of the project. She later miscarried.
Gene Tierney died in 1991 of emphysema in Houston, Texas. She had reportedly started smoking after a screening of her first movie to lower her voice because "I sound like an angry Minnie Mouse", and later became a heavy smoker. She is interred in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston, Texas. Tierney was survived by daughters Antoinette Daria Cassini and Christina Cassini. Daria died on September 11, 2010, a month before her 67th birthday. Daria was interred alongside her mother at Glenwood Cemetery, in Houston, TX.