3 September 2017

If you think I am too silly and too stupid, divorce me but don’t hate me

In early 1941, producer David O. Selznick met young actress Phyllis Lee Isley and was immediately captivated by her. He signed her to a contract, changed her name to Jennifer Jones and began building her career. Before long, Selznick (then married to Irene Mayer, daughter of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer) and Jones (then married to actor Robert Walker) started an affair which eventually led to marriage in 1949. The marriage lasted until Selznick's death in 1965.

It's safe to say that Jennifer Jones would have had quite a different career if it hadn't been for David Selznick. Selznick controlled Jones' career, making practically every professional decision for her and selecting the roles she played. He chose good roles like the lead in the 1943 The Song of Bernadette (for which Jones won an Oscar), but he also made some bad decisions, for example by turning down Laura (1944) which would later become a noir classic.

Jones trusted Selznick and placed herself completely in his hands. She was a very insecure person, and even after Selznick had made her a star, she remained unsure of herself and emotionally fragileThroughout her life Jones had several nervous breakdowns and even attempted suicide a few times. (Truman Capote once said: "Jennifer Jones was an extremely neurotic girl, and would have twelve nervous breakdowns before rehearsals had hardly started.") 

The following correspondence between Jones and Selznick clearly shows Jones' emotional vulnerability and also gives an insight into the relationship between her and her powerful husband who was 17 years her senior. Jones' fascinating letter to Selznick was written during production of John Huston's Beat the Devil (1954). Jones had a very hard time on the set and speaks of her problems with the director, her inability to understand her character and how she couldn't remember her lines which consequently cost everybody a whole night's work. (Feeling bad about the whole thing, she told co-star Humphrey Bogart she would pay for the costs.) Jones was convinced that the cast and crew thought she was "a great bitch" and was afraid that Selznick might think her awful too ("Anyway scold me or if you think I am too silly and too stupid, divorce me but don’t hate me David"). Selznick responded by telegram, assuring Jones that he still adored her and that she was not to blame in any way, putting the blame entirely on "that four flushing phoney" (i.e. John Huston).

Incidentally, Selznick was not involved with the production of the film --it was produced by Bogart's production company Santana Productions-- but at his suggestion Truman Capote wrote the screenplay when screenwriters Anthony Veiller and Peter Viertel couldn't get the job done. And, judging by his telegram, Selznick had also invested in the film.

Jennifer Jones and Humphrey Bogart in a scene from Beat the Devil (above) and on the set discussing the script with director John Huston (below). 


It was stupid of me to make that fuss on the telephone and I’m terribly ashamed and sorry especially after all you’ve been through. It must have been dreadfully unpleasant all that business and certainly this is a poor time for Mrs. Jones to begin making demands but when I didn’t hear from you I would only think you must have suddenly discovered your nurse was divine or a new secretary or maybe that fourth at Lenore’s for canasta.  
Anyway I was wild with jealousy when I wasn’t wild with rage at John of all of the stupidities of this silly way of making a picture. Your predictions have all come true—he just keeps ahead by minutes and in my case there is no question of performance—my job is solely to remember lines and positions [and] rattle them off as quickly as possible never mind the meaning etc. etc. All the time I think it must be my fault, but really I know it isn’t. John has just decided to make it a three ring circus with an assortment of types behaving in what he hopes is an untypical way but what seems to me only a sordid and completely unrelated one to the other way. Certainly my character has no reality of any kind and whether she is comedy, tragedy, or something “bourgeois” I haven’t a notion. Anyway in the last scene, still unwritten, (as is tomorrow’s scene, of course) John said that “they” should feel sorry for her, this apropos of costume, but this is a confusing clue because unless I appear in rags and tatters there has been nothing in [the] script so far to indicate that she is anything but a silly idiot and how I am to attract audience sympathy of any sort is [a] source of great bewilderment to me. Surely they will feel as I do at this point, that she needs a great solid kick on the bottom. However lest I sound like another Norma Shearer I hasten to add my complaints are not because she is definitely an unsympathetic character but because at least to me she is completely un- understandable. I don’t know what or how to play and John has given for all practical purpose no help whatsoever. 
There was one horrible night, a nightmare of nightmares which shall remain in my memory the rest of my days. It was a scene at the dock before boarding the boat with Dannreuther. To be shot at night. I had received the scene the night before. Carefully studied it . . . in Positano where we had gone with [the] boys the day before. I arrived home in Ravello the afternoon before the night’s shooting to be greeted with an almost entirely new scene which I quickly learned—this was at three o’clock. At six o’clock we left for Salerno where the scene was to be done, as I stepped into the car another scene was handed to me, meaning changed—some of lines from [the] first version, some from the second which I had just learned and then great long additional new ones. It was dark and I couldn’t study until we got to Salerno but I thought oh well, it’s a long scene, it was quite long, there will be several angles, it will be broken up and even with accent problems I shall be all right. But when we arrived John with his fetish for one angle, one take, etc. had arranged to do it all in one. For the first time in my life, David, I couldn’t remember the lines, I blew and blew and blew until 4:30 in the morning. About 2:00 I said, John, please let’s just let this be a rehearsal tonight or break it up, John. I can’t do it, I’m exhausted, the lines are all confused, I need time to study the scene properly, please don’t humiliate me anymore in front of the crew and other actors. Gina and Morley and Peter* and all the others were kept there all night because they walked through the shot in the beginning with no lines and this was most distressing to me. His answer was, forget the strain you are under and act, remember you are paid to act. Said of course with a grim smile and what passes for Huston charm. At 4:30 completely paralyzed with shame and hating myself for being so stupid, I actually couldn’t remember the lines at all, one time one line would be right and another wrong and then another mixed up in a completely unreasonable way. Oh David it was all my bad dreams in one. Anyway he finally realized the senselessness of carrying on and we left for home. The next night of course I was all right and went right through it even though it had become a great stumbling block but Bogie made a couple of mistakes and because the end of the scene was not really good in that angle, John was forced or rather decided to break it up, which if he had done the evening before there would have been no problem. 
Anyway, I felt so badly, so ashamed and so much like an old actor who has as you say learned all the parts of which he is capable that I did a thing which you will probably hate me for and which in retrospect I rather regret except that at the time of my absolute dismay I couldn’t help it. I told Bogie that, and this was before the scene the second night when he was just barely nodding good evening to me, that he needn’t worry, I intended to pay for the last night’s work. Of course he said nonsense, don’t worry about it, but I said that was my intention and then when I told Jack Clayton the same thing, he said not to say it to anyone else as some of the Italian partners might take me up. . . . Now I realize it was stupid but actually David I did cost them a whole night’s work and in a way if we didn’t need the money so badly I would like not to lose any salary for this silly picture. Because I know I have done a bad job even though I am not entirely to blame because circumstances have made it impossible, still as John says I do not understand the character and that is my fault. I would really feel much better about it if we didn’t have to accept their money. Perhaps you don’t understand this and perhaps I can explain it more clearly when I see you, the way I feel I mean. I am prepared for you to think I am the idiot child, but believe me David, whether all this is my fault or not, I am still not sure that I’m not the one to blame, at least I know I have mismanaged myself badly throughout the film, I allowed that stupid but not unkind or ungood Bogie, only rather cheap between you and me, to get under my skin and the foul mouthed Peter and the whole ratty group. Anyway scold me or if you think I am too silly and too stupid divorce me but don’t hate me David. I have mixed up everything badly and for the first time in my life am working in a company, almost all of whom think me a great bitch I am certain. But I don’t want to ruin your life and if you think I am awful too, please know that you are free absolutely and completely.

If you still want it you have all my love,
[*"Gina" is Gina Lollobrigida, "Morley" is Robert Morley, and "Peter" is Peter Lorre]

Dearest darling,
Letter arrived tonight.
With great difficulty I promise to follow your wishes and disregard it but please please understand you are completely not only blameless but outrageously unforgivably victimized.
If that four flushing phoney ever again says you are PAID to act, please tell him for me that firstly, we contracted for script to be delivered last Christmas; secondly, when this [was] not forthcoming we recognized dangers and we have written proof we begged to be released; thirdly, we are not getting paid, we are gambling investors whereas he is paid fully and is without any gamble or investment whatsoeverfourthly, he is paid to deliver script on which shockingly he failed to perform because he was too busy in America publicizing hisself endowed genious [sic] and in Europe playing Casanova to a harem of frustrated women; fifthly, but for our insistent suggestion of Capote they would now be facing complete disaster since Truman is doing the geniuses work for him; sixthly, no actor in history has been asked to go through what you have on this film but you will continue to struggle and hope for best despite incredibly amateur conditions; seventhly, at their urgent request  we donated fifty thousand dollars worth of time for which we could have had a larger claim on them but which we refused when they sought favors for which they expressed verbal gratitude which we have not seen demonstrated in their behavior. 
Please under no circumstances again demean yourself and dignify these fakers by letting them get you down. You simply must tolerantly patronize them which is [the] only way to cope with such untalented pretense. I adore you and hate myself for not being there to tell them off although I am certain these gentlemen heroes are too yellow to behave that way if I were there which thank heaven I shall be soon. Keep this cable with you to show whenever necessary or even when it can spare you either slightest distress or smallest humiliation from such ignorant brutes.

Jones and Selznick had one daughter, Mary Jennifer. She committed suicide in 1976 at age 21. In 1980, Jones founded the Jennifer Jones Simon Foundation for Mental Health and Education in order to help people suffering from mental health problems.

Jones' letter and Selznick's telegram via Vanity Fair
Original source: West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein (Random House, 2016)

1 comment:

  1. THis was a very interesting read. I knew Jones was insecure but this letter proves just how insecure she really was!