"Who is Jennifer Jones" by Gladys Hall
Silver Screen Magazine August 1943
Since the day it was announced that the long and nationwide search for a girl to play the title role in the momentous 20th Century-Fox production, "The Song of Bernadette," was over and a "young unknown," discovered by Mr. David O. Selznick, had the coveted part, (which mowed down the hopes of countless contenders; among them, Anne Baxter, Linda Darnell and Gene Tierney) the "young unknown" has
remained literally that. Feeling, and rightly so, no doubt, that the less known about the girl who is playing the sainted Bernadette, so very much the better, her studio long held Miss Jennifer Jones in,
Who, exactly, Hollywood asked, is Jennifer Jones?
Nobody seemed able to say. Compared with Miss Jones, during her first months in Hollywood, Garbo was about as mysterious as a limpid pool of April rain water. Compared with Miss Jones, Hollywood had
never, in fact, had a bona fide mystery woman.
Those in a position to know whereof and whyfore Miss Jones, members of the Press Department at 20th Century-Fox, notably, looked as though they would as soon divulge a military secret as any specific information concerning Miss Jones. Where had she come from? Oh, vaguely, Oklahoma or thereabout…. Had she been on the screen before? Heavens, no, never! On the stage? Why, yes and then again, no…. What was she like? Well, er, ah, and er…. Was she married? S'h'h'h, please….
Jennifer, one was left to assume, had simply materialized "Out of the everywhere, into the here" or straight, perhaps, from the pages of Mr. Franz Werfel's spiritually-stirring book.
Interviews with Jennifer were, at first, forbidden; certainly discouraged and when a newsman, more adroit than his fellows, did manage to get to her – by means of mirrors, perhaps, or by projecting his astral body – he found her well coached on what to say and, principally, on what not to say, although obviously ill at ease. For, also obviously, Miss Jones was an honest, forthright young woman to whom tongue evasions and circumlocutions were strangers.
When, as time went on, a columnist hazarded a guess that Miss Jones was married and, although this came much later, another reporter stated it as a fact that she is married – to young Robert Walker, who is making such a good account of himself at M-G-M – and is the mother of two small sons, her studio and, at first, Miss Jones herself,
simply played ostrich.
Now and again one saw her walking on the lot, emerging from a sound stage or lunching, and talking vivaciously, with Director Henry King.
A tall, slim girl with masses of curly, dark-brown hair, large, dark-brown eyes, a slightly tip-tilted nose, a curly, bright mouth ready with laughter, the suits-sweater-slacks-and-moccasins-type, she looked the most normal, fun-loving wholesome young woman you could hope to meet.
And in this, her first magazine interview, she admitted that normal is "exactly what I am," and that it frightens her, her own of-the-earth-earthiness.
"You see," she said, a little ruefully, but also eagerly, as if enormously relieved that she could talk, could explain herself so that her words poured out, helter-skelter, in spurts and gushes, "I'm so dreadfully normal. I mean, well, for instance, I love clothes. Especially bright colors, reds and yellows and greens which are my favorite colors on me and, you see, I don't suppose the girl who is playing Bernadette should love clothes, especially red ones. Then I put my hair up in bobby pins, which certainly isn't glamorous, but, what is worse, isn't very spiritual, either. I never go to beauty parlors except for manicures, but I use lots of lipstick and bright red nail polish which is always chipped off my thumb because of the bobby pins, you know, and I feel now that I should start going without them, the lipstick and the nail polish, I mean.
"I love to dance. We learned the Samba last summer, Bob and I, and we Samba away all over the living room, but maybe I shouldn't love to dance – now. We play gin rummy a lot, go to the movies a lot, and I'm a fan. It would take me hours to list all my favorites, but Walter Pidgeon is one of them, and Ronald Colman and Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, naturally. She is such a wonderful person and such a great actress.
"I'm frightened of the dark and can't ever leave closet doors open at nights. My favorite food is avocados. I could live on them and just about do. I get excited and embarrassed when I meet people. I never know what to say to important people, which throws me into complete confusion and a succession of scarlet blushes. One of the things I hope to get out of Hollywood is the ability to rise (gracefully, of course) to any occasion. I'd love to be so calm and poised, and to carry things off beautifully.
"I'm going to get a thrill, oh, yes, I am, out of seeing my name in electric lights. Which is, you see how I mean, all too human. And when I gave my first autograph, I felt as though I were signing a document of state.
"I'm a very absent-minded person, have been all my life. In fact, I'm not a very efficient person, any way you take me; can't sew very well, can't drive a car very well, cooking just so-so. It takes me a long time to dress, too, and then I'm always a little wrong; hair isn't right, or nails, or there is a huge run in my stocking.
"I'm greedy for things, which is, oh, dear, horribly materialistic. But there it is. I love perfumes. I'm funny about perfumes, though. If anyone else uses a certain scent, I don't want it any more. I love people to give me presents; adore packages that come in the mail. I'd love a mink coat, oh, yes, I would, and a leopard coat, too. I don't care for jewelry though, and never wear any except, with a black dress, the conventional pearls.
"I have a nasty temper. I do blow up and am usually so sorry afterwards I can't go to sleep until I've made it right with whomever I had the fight with. I think it's so bad to – to carry things over.
"I'm superstitious about everything. I don't smoke, never did. It would kill my father if I began. I like men. I like men who are fun; men who have a certain kindness about them and men who have that sort of know-their-way-around thing, seem to take care of you, to be bigger than you, in every way. I love to eat before dinner. I love music, although I can't sing or play because I'm sorry to say, I stopped taking music lessons when I was twelve. I sometimes wish my parents had been firmer about that. I'm an only child and it pops out, I'm afraid, all over me. Think I'm more or less spoiled, but also think," Jennifer laughed, "that I'd better stop confessing my faults lest I seem too unworthy a choice for Bernadette. Being so dreadfully normal, as I said, and not a saint, dear knows, I'm bound to feel a little frightened playing one. But I tell myself that my personal worthiness has nothing, really, to do with my playing the part. I'm an actress, and it's a job. But – you can't help feeling personally involved, feeling the responsibility. All I can do is play Bernadette as well as I can, aware that some people will be displeased, hopeful that others will be pleased and that, whatever the reaction to my performance, I just won't offend anyone…
"Now, let's see – where were we? Oh, yes, well, I love to trim Christmas trees. With Bob and the babies. I hope I never want NOT to trim Christmas trees. I've heard that some people in Hollywood call in an electrician to trim their trees for them. Oh, I HOPE I never to THAT! It's such a relief to be able to speak of Bob (I'm so very proud of him) and of the babies, Michael and Bob, Junior. Playing Bernadette, as I am, it is perfectly understandable why it is in better taste for me not to obtrude my private life. The studio wasn't, by the way, and isn't trying to make a mystery woman of me – good gracious, even a major studio couldn't do that, for no one more unmysterious ever blew into Hollywood – they simply hoped to keep the character of Bernadette as untouched as possible by the girl who brings her to the screen. Left to my own devices, I'd talk my head off about my family for when things matter terribly to me I want, terribly, to talk about them."
Jennifer paused, her breath quite lost and no wonder. She caught it again, said, "I love to act. I want to act until the day I die. I wanted to act the day I was born – in Tulsa, Oklahoma, March 2, that occurred, by the way – I do believe. I knew that I consciously wanted to be an actress at the age of five. My dad, Phil R. Isley, was a showman, the director, star and operator of his own stock company which toured the West playing pieces like "East Lynne," "The Old Homestead" and the like. (Dad now operates a string of picture houses in Texas.) When I was five, we were in Dallas that year, mother used to take me to see the stock company plays. I didn't understand them, but no matter, I just loved them.
"Dad wanted a son who would, he hoped, grow up to be a lawyer. When the son turned out to be me, he hoped I would be a lawyer, and until I was quite grown up keep assuring himself that my desire to be an actress was `kid stuff' and would, eventually, wear off. However, he allowed me to take Expression at school believing it would be good for me, give me poise and self-confidence when I was `admitted to the Bar!' So I started performing before an audience at the age of six, reciting little pieces for company at home. My `specialty' was Rufus Rastis Johnson, other little Southern things and a few Irish numbers, which made quite a dialectician out of me and threw my parents' long-suffering guests into coma, I am sure."
Back in Tulsa again, young Phyllis graduated from the Edgemere School as Class President and May Queen. "I'd had three pretty good years of dramatic and speech training, too," she said, "and my first role on the stage, in a school Christmas play, was that of a peppermint candy stick!"
After Edgemere, Phyllis attended the Monte Cassino Junior College in Tulsa, which is run by the Benedictine Sisters. "The dramatic teacher, a Miss Charlotte Lee was," Jennifer recalled gratefully, "quite wonderful to me. She believed in me. Of all the gifts one human can give another, that is the loveliest. She cast me as the lead in `Mrs. Moonlight,' and in `Sun-Up.' I played all the characters so that people sat through an evening of solid Phyllis going through the entire Dramatis Personae in a fluffy white dress on account of how I felt a white dress was neutral and would adapt to all the acting. It was all my life. If I had gone up on a single line in `Sun-Up,' I would have jumped into the Arkansas, it was so important to me."
Phyllis' childhood was not all play-acting and piece-speaking, however. She had her share of playing dolls, skipping rope, going on picnics, making fudge. "I liked to play with little girls better than with boys," she said, "and with good reason! My father's business partner had two young sons, Bob and Pat, with whom I was infatuated in turn, first Bob, then Pat. And they treated me like dirt under their feet. When we'd take drives in the car, they would argue loudly about which one of them would have to sit next to HER in the car. Later on, they complained when they had to take me to play golf with them. Nervous as a witch, but humble, I caddied for them and always managed, wouldn't you know, to lose their pet golf balls. I went through the mill with those boys, believe me!"
Leaving Monte Cassino, Phyllis wanted badly to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. But, only seventeen at the time, her parents did not feel she should be that far away from them, and persuaded her to enter Northwestern. "I stayed a year," said Jennifer, "went to Speech School, but tried, honestly, to interest myself in other things, and failed. Even when I was pledged to Kappa Alpha Theta, I was not a good pledge, couldn't get the full flavor of it because I was so anxious to get on, prepare for my real life, the
Intelligent people, who recognized and respected a definite compulsion for what it was, Jennifer's parents withdrew their objections to the stage and, the next year, she entered the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. The following summer, and for about a year thereafter, she toured the West with the Mansfield Players, the Ted North Players and the Harley Sadler Company.
"These tent shows still troupe up and down the West," Jennifer told me, "and are simply marvelous experience. They make you, or should make you, pliable, versatile and, certainly, unafraid of hard work. The Mansfield Players were a little higher class than the others since they sometimes played in regular theatres in place of a double-feature. The Ted North Company, however, and the Sadler Company pitched their tents outside each town, and we went to work. I don't suppose," Jennifer added, "that a graduate from a tent show could ever do that odd thing called `going Hollywood,' no matter what name and fame Hollywood might give him."
It was during the period of tent-showing that Jennifer met and married Robert Walker. The babies were born, one soon after the other. The young Walkers went East, lived in a suburb a few miles out of New York and Jennifer filled in her spare time between making formulas, marketing, cooking meals, etc., by doing a little modeling for John Powers, and appearing in an act at the Automobile Show. "Just keeping my hand in," she explained.
The young Walkers were not living on Easy Street, exactly, when Jennifer saw "Claudia" on the stage. Whereupon her ambition, temporarily in abeyance, flamed again into conflagration. She had, she told her agent, she simply HAD to play Claudia.
"My agent told me," Jennifer said, "that Claudia was a `nice possibility' for me and as they were preparing to put it on the screen, he suggested that I try to see Mr. Selznick. I hadn't thought of pictures, didn't suppose I had enough experience for them. My idea had been to try for the road company. But, I thought, no matter whether in tintypes of television, Claudia for me, so barging, all by myself, into the office of Miss Katharine Brown, Mr. Selznick's New York representative, I told Miss Brown my background, then launched into a violent tirade. `I was born to play Claudia,' I declared. `I will play it. I MUST play it. I can play Claudia better than any one ever dreamed it could be played!' Miss Brown viewed me with a mixture of amazement and amusement, then
said, `Think so? Well, here is a scene. Read it.' Keyed up as I was, nervous and excited, I was just hammy and AWFUL. When I'd finished Miss Brown said, quietly, `You know, Phyllis, that was pretty bad.' I did know it and, starting to cry, I said, `If I could read it for you again…'
In the midst of this stormy exhibition, with Phyllis boo-hooing around the office, making a quite fearful scene, Mr. Selznick walked in. Catching the last of the impassioned sentences pouring from the dark, distraught girl as she flung herself out of the door he was impressed first by her force, and then by her appearance. At the elevator, Miss Brown caught up with Phyllis. "Come back tomorrow at five," she said. "Mr. Selznick will see you then."
"Believing that Miss Brown had only tried to be kind to me when she said Mr. Selznick would see me," Jennifer said, "I was at home the next day, starting to prepare dinner, when the phone rang and Miss Brown's voice said, "Where are you, Phyllis? You have an appointment with Mr. Selznick at five o'clock, you know."
"In a fever, 110 degrees, I'm sure, I quick like a bunny put my hair up on those bobby pins (such things always enter my life), called a taxi, (it broke the bank. Eight dollars, migosh, to take me into town), took my hair down in the cab and walked in to see Mr. Selznick.
"Well," Jennifer sighed and smiled, "we are now almost up to the Present. Mr. Selznick asked Miss Brown to work with me on the `Claudia' scene, which she did. Miss Rose Franken, author of `Claudia,' directed me when I made the test, and Mr. Selznick signed me on the strength of it. But, of course, I never played Claudia. Which was, and still is, a tragedy in my life.
"All this was in July of two summers ago. In August, Mr. Selznick brought me to California to play in Saroyan's `Hulloa, Out There!' at the La Ribera Theatre in Santa Barbara. It was a wonderful experience.
"After the play, I went back to New York and made tests. Lots of tests. One was for `Keys Of The Kingdom.' Time passed. More time. Mr. Selznick didn't know, he kept telling me, just when he was going into production. Several parts in plays came up for me, but Mr. Selznick wouldn't let me accept them, which killed me. He didn't
know, he explained, when he might need me. Meantime, he had me studying dancing and dramatics, was giving me a general grooming. Mr. Selznick does things thoroughly. When I strained at the leash, which I did often, especially when I had to turn down parts in good plays, Mr. Selznick would tell me, `There, there, now, just hold on, keep working.'
"Then I read `The Song of Bernadette.' I had no idea at the time that anyone had bought it for pictures. But I thought, golly, this is a wonderful break for somebody! I was curiously restless the whole two weeks I was reading and re-reading the book.
"Sometime in the early summer of a year ago, Mr. Selznick was in New York again. `Something very wonderful is coming up for you,' he told me, `just be patient.' I thought it was the part of Nora in `Keys Of The Kingdom.' That would have been wonderful enough!
"By this time, I had read that Mr. Selznick owned the screen rights to `Bernadette,' but I had also read about all the girls who were testing for it. Almost every day it was announced that this one or that one had got it.
"One day – I was at my dancing lesson – Mr. Selznick's office called and asked me to come over immediately I'd finished what I was doing.
"You are going to test for Bernadette," Mr. Selznick told me, abruptly, as I walked in.
"I thought, `The impossible can happen; it has.'
"I was to leave for the coast within a week, Mr. Selznick added, was to `take it easy,' not get `too excited about it or be `too disappointed' if I did not get it.
"I was in Hollywood for two weeks before I made the test. By the time I met Director Henry King, I was so tense I really went sky-high, and could hardly say `Hulloa' to him. I do get so terribly excited about things, it's one of my worst faults.
"We made not one, but an exhaustive series of tests. One of the Grotto scenes; one with the Dean, another with Bernadette as a very young girl in pig-tails, one or two after she became a nun. Then they were finished, and – it was three weeks before I heard. But when a thing is over, is done, I am calm again, can go away and forget about it, retreat into my other little world.
"At the end of the third week, Mr. Selznick called me. He said, `Well, it's all sealed, signed and delivered. You are
"There are not," Jennifer said, slowly, "many moments like that one."
"Oh, and in the meantime, I had been rechristened. No one liked my own name, Phyllis Walker. `Doesn't mean anything,' they said, rather puzzlingly. So every one in the office dreamed up names for me. Whitney Bolton thought of Jennifer and then Mr. Selznick's little boy, humming the nursery tune, `Miss Jennie a Jones,' thought of the Jones, and I liked it right away, like Jennifer Jones. It gives me something, makes me feel different."
Jennifer drew a long, somewhat quivering breath.
"So now you know," she smiled at me, "who, exactly, is Jennifer Jones."
Copyright Silver Screen Magazine