About Phylis Lee Isley
Though often overshadowed by some of her female contemporaries as the years passed, Jennifer Jones came to embody one of the preeminent examples of a Hollywood star. She was a top box-office draw and multiple Oscar nominee during the 1940s and '50s, known for her off-screen love affair with producer David O. Selznick as much as for her varied on-screen performances. Just as suddenly as she had risen to greatness, Jones dropped out of the limelight and withdrew into anonymity, spending the last several decades of her life well outside of the public eye. For her contribution to the motion picture industry, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6429 Hollywood Blvd.
She was born Phylis Lee Isley on March 2, 1919 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the daughter of Flora Mae (née Suber) and Phillip Ross Isley. She was raised Roman Catholic and she attended Catholic school. Her parents toured the Midwest in a traveling tent show they owned and operated. Jones attended Monte Cassino Junior College in Tulsa and Northwestern University, where she was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta sorority before transferring to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City in 1938. It was here she met and fell in love with fellow acting student Robert Walker. The couple married on January 2, 1939.
They returned to Tulsa for a 13-week radio program arranged by her father, and then made their way to Hollywood. Isley landed two small roles, first in a 1939 John Wayne western titled New Frontier, followed by a serial entitled Dick Tracy's G-Men. In these two films, she was billed as 'Phyllis Isley' (Phyllis now spelled with two Ls). However, she failed a screen test for Paramount Pictures and decided to return to New York City.
While Walker found steady work in radio programs, Isley worked part-time modeling hats for the Powers Agency while looking for possible acting jobs. When she learned of auditions for the lead role in Claudia, Rose Franken’s hit play, she presented herself to David O. Selznick’s New York office but fled in tears after what she thought was a bad reading. Selznick, however, overheard her audition and was impressed enough to have his secretary call her back. Following an interview, she was signed to a seven-year contract.
She was carefully groomed for stardom and given a new name: Jennifer Jones. Director Henry King was impressed by her screen test as Bernadette Soubirous for The Song of Bernadette (1943) and she won the coveted role over hundreds of applicants. In 1944, on her 25th birthday, Jones won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Bernadette Soubirous. That year, Jones' friend, Ingrid Bergman, was also a Best Actress nominee for her work in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Jones apologized to Bergman, who replied, "No, Jennifer, your Bernadette was better than my Maria." Jones presented the Best Actress Oscar the following year to Bergman for Gaslight.
Over the next two decades, Jones appeared in a wide range of roles selected by Selznick. Her dark beauty and sensitive nature appealed to audiences and she projected a variable range. Her initial saintly image — as shown in her first starring role — was a stark contrast three years later when she was cast as a provocative bi-racial woman in Selznick’s controversial film Duel in the Sun (1946). Other notable films included Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945), Cluny Brown (1946), Portrait of Jennie (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Gone to Earth (1950), Carrie (1952), Ruby Gentry (also 1952), Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953), Beat the Devil (1953), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), Good Morning Miss Dove (also 1955), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) starring opposite Gregory Peck and A Farewell to Arms (1957). Her leading men during this period included Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Gregory Peck, John Garfield, Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Montgomery Clift, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Robert Stack, John Gielgud, Rock Hudson, and Jason Robards. The portrait of Jones for the film Portrait of Jennie was painted by Robert Brackman.
Her last big-screen appearance came in the spectacular disaster film The Towering Inferno (1974), in which she danced with Fred Astaire before a fire threatened partygoers in a new San Francisco skyscraper who were celebrating its official opening as tallest building in the world. Her exit from the picture was also the most sympathetic when, after helping to assist two children to escape the disaster, her character fell 110 stories to her death from a scenic elevator on the outside of the building which was derailed following an explosion. Her touching performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Scenes from early on in the movie showed paintings lent to the production from the Norton Simon art gallery. Simon was her husband at the time the movie was produced.
Jones's first marriage produced two sons, Robert Walker, Jr. (born April 15, 1940; Jones's only child who would not predecease her), and Michael Walker (March 13, 1941 – December 27, 2007). Both later became actors. Jones had an affair with film producer David O. Selznick, which eventually led to her separation from Walker in November 1943 and divorce in June 1945.
Jones married Selznick on July 13, 1949, a union which lasted until his death on June 22, 1965. After his death, she semi-retired from acting. According to media reports, Jones attempted suicide in November 1967 after hearing of the death of close friend Charles Bickford. She was found unconscious at the base of a cliff overlooking Malibu Beach; she was hospitalized in a coma before eventually recovering. Her daughter, Mary Jennifer Selznick (1954–1976), committed suicide by jumping from a 20th-floor window in Los Angeles on May 11, 1976. This led to Jones's interest in mental health issues.
On May 29, 1971, Jones married multi-millionaire industrialist, art collector and philanthropist Norton Simon, whose son Robert had committed suicide in 1969. Years before, Simon had attempted to buy the portrait of her used in the film Portrait of Jennie. Simon later met Jones at a party hosted by fellow industrialist and art collector Walter Annenberg. Norton Simon died in June 1993. Jennifer Jones-Simon was Trustee Emeritus of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.
Jones was a breast cancer survivor. Actress Susan Strasberg, who would die of the disease in 1999, who was then married to actor Christopher Jones, named her own daughter Jennifer Robin Jones in the older actress's honor.
She enjoyed a quiet retirement in Southern California close to her son. She granted no interviews and rarely appeared in public. She died of natural causes at her home on Thursday, December 17, 2009, aged 90. She was cremated.