Unlucky in Love
Presumably, every silver lining has a cloud, but what about the case of that sun-streaked queen, Jennifer O’Neill? By the age of 16, Jennifer was an $80,000-a-year fashion model, and now, almost a dozen years later, between movies (Summer of ’42) and commercials (Cover Girl, Dodge), she has parlayed it all into a peaceable kingdom of 30 acres and a $500,000 stone mansion in Bedford Village, N.Y., some 40 miles from the default capital of the world. Her life is so full of divertissement, and the French provincial home so sprawling, that she is not even certain how many rooms it has. She guesses 18. Her showbiz impresario husband Nick De Noia figures more like 25. But is either of them counting the spare room in which Jennifer, a moonlight painter, hangs her personal portraits of some earlier husbands and lovers?
Among her men are the IBM executive she married at 17, had daughter Aimée by and stayed with for six years; a Wall Street socialite with whom she shared a two-and-a-half-year affair she called “a marriage”; an adman she was married to for 18 months; actor Elliott Gould, with whom she had an ephemeral three-month betrothal, followed by another reported engagement to cosmetics heir John Revson. In the meantime, Jennifer followed up Summer of ’42 with six straight movie duds. They included the current chemical-warfare comedy Whiffs, which was justly condemned by a critic for “crass-ness of truly awesome proportions.”
Most folks on that kind of losing streak would be movie-shy, not to mention man-shy, but never Jennifer. She started all over again last March with Nick De Noia. Seven years her senior at 34, he is a brash showbiz type who is now running both their professional and personal lives with the passion and sangfroid that only love and all those residuals can bring.
“Jennifer never took her career seriously until she met me,” proclaims Nick, a choreographer-director, whose main pre-O’Neill credits include managing the cabaret career of B.J.(Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head) Thomas. “She is so talented she can do anything when she puts her mind to it,” boasts Nick, who’s coached her since the first time they met. “I’d been asked to direct a nightclub act for Jennifer,” he recalls. “I said no, but that I sure would like to meet her. When we did, we talked a little and then I said, ‘Sing.’ She gave me that cold stare of hers but she sang. She was terrible. I said, ‘Sing again,’ and she did, and I started giving directions. It was unbelievable. She followed them perfectly. For 14 hours a day I worked in her living room, and she would do everything I asked of her”—at which Jennifer interjects, “Just call me Silly Putty.”
Eventually, to escape the telephones and do an out-of-town tryout, Nick and Jennifer fled to Puerto Rico. “When it was all over,” Nick recalls, “Jennifer asked if I planned to stay for a few days to rest, and I said, ‘If you are.’ On our second day alone she asked, ‘Does this mean we are going to get married?’ And I gulped and said, ‘Well, I guess so.’ I just knew I had to marry that woman.”
Like a Fitzgerald Golden Girl, Jennifer was born beautiful and rich. Her first home was Rio de Janeiro, where her Irish grandfather ran a bank, but her father, a hospital equipment supplier, moved the family to the States and settled for a while in Wilton, Conn. “I never really had a chance to be a child,” Jennifer regrets. “At 15 I began to model to make enough money to buy a horse.” (Horses for her are not just a rich girl’s whim. As a teenager, Jennifer was a nationally ranked show rider, winning upwards of 200 championship ribbons before a horrifying fall in a 1964 competition in which she broke her back in three places.) “Jennifer never had a teenage life,” notes Carolyn Stewart, a childhood friend. “She was making a lot of money, traveling around Europe, dating older men.” Even Jennifer concedes, “I would have liked going to college with my friends. I had romantic visions of Ivy League football games and all that.”
In any case, “At 17,” she says, “all I wanted to do was get married and have a baby, partly because my parents had such a great marriage. It was an institution I grew up with. So after I got married [to businessman Deed Rossiter] I put all my time into that. Every night it was wine and candles.” Eventually she had her baby, Aimée, now 8, but lost her husband. “I felt terrible about that marriage failing,” she confesses. From then on Jennifer was off on her lifelong marry-go-round.
Like Ali MacGraw and Lauren Hut-ton, other models with brief half-lives in the movies, Jennifer has never equaled her success in 1971 ‘s Summer of ’42, appearing sans distinction in clunkers like Such Good Friends. Most of her performance in this year’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud wound up on the cutting room floor, and she has consistently refused to do nude scenes. “I’ve probably had more tapes on my body than anyone could imagine,” she says, adding unnecessarily, “It’s not that I am deformed or anything like that.”
Nick grew up every bit as precocious as Jennifer, but where she emerged reticent and skittish, he’s pure New York moxie. Nick’s Italian father runs the Triangle Embroidery Company in New Jersey, but instead of aiming for the family business, Nick says, “I sneaked out of the house to take tap dancing lessons.” As a child actor, he went on to Broadway and the old Paul Whiteman’s TV Teen Club show, and after teaching high school English for four years, he returned to showbiz to manage summer theaters and to handle the Joy People and Alan King’s TV specials. He resents—though Jennifer is understandably flattered by—comparisons of them to Roger Smith and Ann-Margret. “I have a separate career from Jennifer,” he sniffs. “I have always had 30 or 40 projects going at once.”
After finishing a made-in-Italy movie this year (Carlo Ponti’s The Flower in the Mouth), and before starting Luchino Visconti’s The Intruder, Jennifer has returned briefly to Bedford to her genteel regimen of riding, painting, writing poetry and reading arcane books on psychotherapy and meditation. (“I have never been into drugs because I want to use my mind, not let it dominate me.”) Somewhere in the future, she says, are nightclub acts, a Broadway role, and “maybe two more children.”
Several days ago Nick signed with New York’s WCBS-TV to produce seven children’s shows, but his real goal will be to help Jennifer transform her old image as erratic fragile beauty into an actress with serious intentions. “Jennifer’s changed since she married Nick,” ventures a close friend, Connie Copelson. “She seems much more at peace with herself.” Jennifer herself admits, “I’ve learned not to be so idealistic. Marriage is not the fairy tale I once thought it was. It takes compromises and a lot of hard work.”