The Face—that’s what fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo calls her. “She was just one of the great beauties of the 20th century,” says Scavullo, who shot her mostly during the 1960s. “I’d look at her in the studio, and the sun would come through the window and hit her face, and I’d get weak all over. She was a heart-attack beauty to men. But I always felt there was something going on behind that face—a sad little girl there.”
The face that launched a volley of magazine covers—and tantalized a generation of adolescent boys in 1971 ‘s epochal Summer of ’42—belongs to Jennifer O’Neill. And Scavullo is right: There was a sad little girl there. Just how sad is evident in O’Neill’s new autobiography, aptly titled Surviving Myself. In sum, O’Neill, 51, has survived: eight husbands and nine marriages; nine miscarriages; one suicide attempt (at 14); electroshock therapy; a broken back from a Christopher Reeve-type riding accident; her daughter Aimee’s sexual abuse by O’Neill’s fifth husband; and accidentally shooting herself in the hip. In short: enough trauma and drama to fuel a season’s worth of TV miniseries.
“It was unbelievably cathartic and enlightening—it was worth baring my soul,” O’Neill says of writing the book. “I looked back at my life, the pain, the demons, my aspirations. I couldn’t have done it any other way and set myself free.”
O’Neill, who lives in a rustic three-bedroom house 20 miles from Nashville, was encouraged to tell her story by daughter Aimee, while her parents and her current husband, music club owner Mervin Louque, initially found the project scary. As did O’Neill herself. “I remember her sitting up in bed, with papers all around, crying, ‘I can’t do this!’ ” says Louque, 48.
The root problem of her existence, says O’Neill, has been her extravagant need for approval and love. “I had a lot of successes in my life,” she says. “But the irony was, I didn’t feel successful. In order to understand where this hole in my heart came from—and my drive—you have to know where I came from.”
O’Neill was raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Wilton, Conn., by her father, Oscar, 80, a successful medical-supply business owner, and her mother, Renee, 76, a home-maker. To Jennifer, her parents enjoyed a storybook romance, from which she and her older brother, Michael, were largely excluded, especially during the down times. “When my mother was unhappy, she had the ability to withdraw affection, and that was very painful,” says O’Neill. “I became an over-achiever, thinking I could earn love and attention that way.” It didn’t work. “If I got six A’s,” she says, “it wasn’t, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ They’d say, ‘What’s with the one B?’ ”
When O’Neill was 14, her parents decided to move the family to New York City and leave her dog Mandy and horse Monty behind. Jennifer, who had not been consulted, was devastated. “My parents were not in touch with me,” says O’Neill. “They didn’t realize that [the two animals were] my whole world.”
On Easter Sunday 1962, Jennifer swallowed a bunch of her mother’s sleeping pills before curling up near Mandy. “I didn’t want to die,” she says. “I was screaming for them to hear me.” O’Neill was taken to a local hospital, where her stomach was pumped and she recovered.
That same year, O’Neill found a less perilous way to gain center stage, when the Ford modeling agency saw photos she had done for a small magazine and put her under contract. By 15, Jennifer was on the cover of Vogue and earning $80,000 a year. “The hardest part was battling my shyness,” says O’Neill, who was at once highly insecure and driven. “But I was very photogenic, and I learned how to work the camera.”
After saving up her modeling fees, O’Neill, determined to re-create her childhood idyll, bought a horse. But Alezon, a reluctant jumper, balked before a wall at a horse show and threw O’Neill, breaking her neck and back. “The injury still haunts me,” she says. Yet even as O’Neill mended, her career and love life both lifted off. At 17, she met Deed (she declines to divulge the last names of her husbands), a dashing ex-Marine and the first of a series of men she tried desperately to please. “I was on a mission to get married and have children,” says O’Neill. “I wanted to be adored like my mother.” By 19 she had given birth to Aimee, now 32 and an animal behaviorist. Under the pressure of her own insecurities and constant criticism by Deed, she began a long struggle with depression that led to electroshock therapy.
Meanwhile, the movies came calling. In 1970, O’Neill starred opposite John Wayne in Rio Lobo. A year later, separated from Deed, she got her big screen break. In Summer of ’42, the 22-year-old O’Neill played a war widow who sexually initiates a dreamy-eyed teenage boy. The movie “created a fantasy” that still endures, O’Neill observes. “Men still come up and tell me, ‘I fell in love with you in Summer of ’42,’ ”
All told, O’Neill has made some 30 films, including Scanners and Such Good Friends. But Hollywood didn’t fill the void in her soul. “I had great drive to become a star,” she says. “But it didn’t make me feel whole.” Neither did the six men she married over the next 20 years (one she married twice), who were as varied as their professions: businessman, songwriter, actor, ad exec, movie producer.
O’Neill’s most problematic marriage was to John, with whom she had a son, Reis, now 18 and a production assistant in Los Angeles. (Her other son, Cooper, is 12.) O’Neill turned her career over to John, only to discover later that her nest egg was gone and that John had been sexually molesting her daughter. Aimee tried to tell her mother what was going on, but John denied it, and O’Neill desperately wanted to believe him. “I did the same thing to my daughter that was done to me,” says O’Neill. “I didn’t listen, and I didn’t affirm her.”
Aimee, who today has three young children of her own and is the stepmother of two teenagers, has forgiven her mother. “We’re close now,” she says. “She’s acknowledged not being there for me during my childhood.”
For years, O’Neill says she looked for answers in therapy. But eventually, she says, she found the “key to the puzzle” when she became a born-again Christian. “For me, finding my faith, making a commitment to God, meant finding unconditional love,” she says. “I kept looking for it in all my relationships. Now I don’t have to expect that from others anymore.”
O’Neill has been married for almost three years to Louque, also a born-again Christian. “This time of my life is the best,” she says. “I have my arms around all the important things.” O’Neill has started a new line of skin-care products and promotes them on the Shop At Home Network; she does public speaking, performs in live theater and is part of a singing group, O’Neill & Co. She has written a film treatment, Summer of ’62, as a proposed sequel to her famous movie, and expects to play herself in a TV movie of Surviving Myself. For the rest, she is an avid horseback rider, cook, painter and furniture designer. “Jennifer is a go-getter,” says Louque.
Indeed, the resilient O’Neill likes to think of herself as “a work in progress.” It’s her belief that “when you begin spending time in a positive direction, instead of repeating old tapes, you have a clean slate with endless possibilities.”
Barbara Sandler in Nashville