It’s Christmas in the Houston airport in the days when it was standard practice to over-sell every flight—passengers as livestock. The five of us are returning from a limpid vacation in Zihuatanejo in a little open-air jalapa in the jungle above the beach. Feliz Navidad. It was a step out of the purblind cave of the American Christmas frenzy. Five of us: me, wife, three kids (four, seven and nineteen). We are tired, sunburned and dumped out of our tropic torpor and into the rage of American entitlement. We are cranky and we’ve been bumped from our flight. Twenty of us are bristling, ready for a fight. The guy ahead of us at the desk is about to hemorrhage in vein-busting apoplexy. He’s on his way to a custody hearing and he’ll lose his daughter if he doesn’t make it to SF. The “please sir, if you’ll just calm down I’m sure we can get you on the flight” does no good and the other airline uniforms rise up in unison to have a little “side bar” with him. We’ll never get on. Five seats—never gonna happen. The buzz of the embarkation lounge is thick with energy like excited fans at a ball game the whole season in the balance. Will we? Won’t we? The airline is offering hundred-buck vouchers or off peak tickets to volunteers who want to give up their flight. In an unexpected benediction the lady at the desk decides to grant us a boon. If…we’re willing to take five seats apart, we can go.
The punisher becomes our fairy godmother. OK. We are transformed. We can go to the ball. This is in 1988 and cigarette smoking is being pushed out of our lives and on airliners pushed to the back of the plane in a tobacco ghetto. One of our seats is in that concentration of poison air. The dad will take it. Our slim group of five is the last to board, the last to be freed from the Bastille of Terminal B. As we walked onboard, clouds of fine mist—water-vapor pouring into the cabin out of a line of vents above the windows. It’s a long barrel shaped swirl running the length of the cabin. I’d seen this before, these cool air vaporizers in flower shops but the airline version was pouring out sheets of clouds. Just as the passengers started the swelling murmur of alarm at what looked like smoke, the stewardess’ voice announced it was just the system hydrating the cabin for the flight—they usually did it between boardings but with the quick turn-around at holiday time…whatever, it was bewitching and a little spooky. And most of all, very theatrical. My spot in smoking is a center-seat squash-job between a wrinkled doyenne with pearls and good bones and a young Hispanic woman. As I take my seat, a rumble of a tobacco cured voice edged with an East Coast upper-crust finishing school accent announces to me: “This is the smoking section, and I smoke.” It was pretty obvious she smoked with that grey wasted look that comes with tobacco’s collagen-reducing blood-vessel-constricting effects on the face. All the older folks in the smoking section looked like members of a single family.
As soon as the smoking lamp is lit my seat-mate lights up, hungrily sucking at her cig. The seatbelt light is off and little Eli and Amelia appear to make assurance I am really back there. The tension of getting on the flight and the creepy vapor cloud has them rattled after our quiet days on a tropical beach. It’s a… “Hi Daddy, we’re right near mom” but the cigarette smoke gets ’em like a smoldering mosquito coil and they vanish back into the dark. It’s a night flight. The cigarette voice rumbles,”Your children are very pretty, I haven’t traveled with children since 1951. A very long flight to Argentina. Before jets you know.” “What were you doing in Argentina?” “Oh, I was making a film.” “What kind of film?” “The Way of the Gaucho.” Her fine bones come into focus. I swoon just a little. The sedimentary layers peal away from her face. “Are you Gene Tierney?” “Why yes. How on earth do you know that?” “I saw The Way of the Gaucho on TV a couple of months ago. Ever since I saw Laura, when your name pops out in the TV Guide I try to see whatever you’re in. I loved Laura (7 Academy Award nominations) and my first wife was named for the movie. I loved your character in the Egyptian, the sassy princess gunning for power.” I can see she’s shocked I do know who she is. The tough smoker veneer fades and her aching vulnerability, the famous little overbite that gave her a constant pout, comes into focus. My thoughts race through…what I know of her bio… but I am speechless. She takes up the slack.
“The Way of the Gaucho wasn’t very good,” she says. “With all the Peron-istas in an uproar and Evita in the hospital with cancer. A very difficult time. But I remember so little these days. You know they flushed my mind with shock therapy. 27 times.” I knew something about that, and that she was a tireless advocate for humane mental health treatment. “Broadway was my love. That was art. You never knew if you were about to fall on your face or step into some magic.” I say I think I know. I’m a painter myself and when its going right it means it could turn into a dud or a beaut at any time. It’s the tension that makes it.
“Movies were mostly not that,” she says. “The only artistic tension in the movies was with all of those people trying to squeeze out the dollar. Preminger was different.” “Do you live in San Francisco?” “No I am visiting my daughter. I live in Houston.” Houston, I think. Why Houston? We drift into smoky silence. I feel I’m an intruder because as a celebrity, even though faded from general memory, I know a lot more about her than she knows about me. She had had big troubles, tabloided and splashed everywhere, a daughter, a German measles baby born blind, deaf and severely retarded, institutionalized, her on-again off-again marriage to Oleg Cassini, Jackie Kennedy’s clothes designer. She lights up. As she pulls on the smoke the ember lights up the dowager down on her cheeks powdered for sixty years.
“I have trouble with my memory so the sense of things is not what it used to be.” She repeats, “I had 27 shock treatments in the fifties, I even ran away from the hoosegow a couple of times but there was nowhere for me to go…Cassini had another life. My father and the studios stole all of my money. It was a pure torture, those shocks. Imagine being electrocuted over and over. It destroyed great parts of my mind, my memories, especially the best ones early on Broadway. I can look at pictures of me back then and it jogs something into focus but it’s like a raging flood swept through my mind leaving debris everywhere.”
This person sitting next to me, rough life under belt, albeit a glamourous life—had a romance with Senator Jack Kennedy before Jackie. She was American Royalty. A faded real-life goddess, a WWII pinup girl in a tropical pattern two-piece, A heart throb. My whole world is this smokey cocoon in row 32. Focused on her. The kids, the travel stress calmed, I can relax into this special moment. It’s like seeing a spectacular sunset in the mountains or like that Painted Bunting I saw in the Ozarks. Stunning, memorable. Like now, knowing this memory will be staked into my mind forever.
She starts talking again. “I look at pictures from that time and I see a stranger.” What got you back? “The Menninger Clinic” she says, “love and support. Love is the only medicine. Yes, before Menninger’s it was insulin, ice wrapping the body, lobotomies, and the shock therapy. Barbaric, the whole country was locked in the repression of real loving feelings. Mental illness got itself jumbled up with Communism. It is all dream-like to me now, but I had twenty very happy years in Houston with my late husband. A real marriage out of the limelight for twenty years.”
“Menninger’s saved my life. It was in Kansas, a place of very practical people. Part of my therapy was to get a ‘normal’ job and I took one as a sales clerk in a department store. I was ‘discovered’ working there and the cruel tabloids said I was rescued and taken back to Hollywood. Silly. But I did go back to do another film with Otto Preminger in ’62, Advise and Consent but I was still shaky. I loved working with Preminger—three films—you know he directed Laura.” After the star-struck giddiness of sitting here with this goddess I loosen up telling her about my life, art and kids and our idyllic Mexico adventure. Very primitive, with a toad jumping out of the water as my wife sat on the toilet. That gets her laughing and coughing the smoker’s hack. She lights up to calm her lungs.
As we de-plane in SF the woman who’s been on my left pulls me aside, she’s Miss Tierney’s aid and further reveals that Miss Tierney had been bumped from first class because all the smoking seats had been filled. “She was fit to be tied and very cross. She never talks to anyone. You are very lucky. What did you say to her?” “Nothing really, I simply knew who she was. Now I have a slim notion of who she is.”
Can you call it falling in love? I do.
Gene Tierney died of emphysema 11 months later. She was 71.