November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

IT IS AT ONCE THE ROMANCE AND THE TRAGEDY of Gene Tierney’s life that she is best remembered for a single, breathtaking portrait. As a former debutante who had attended the upper-crust Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Conn., Tierney, then 24, seemed ideal for the role of the chic young Manhattan career woman in the 1944 movie-mystery Laura. As the detective assigned to investigate her death, Dana Andrews falls in love with the bewitching portrait of Laura over the fireplace in her apartment. Then, several days after her supposed death, he falls asleep on her sofa only to awaken and find that Laura was not just a dream, captured on canvas, but…

Directed by Otto Preminger, Laura became a classic. Says Vincent Price, who played her feckless fiancé, Shelby Carpenter: “I think it’s because of Gene that Laura has held up so well, because she was really a timeless beauty.”

Although she made 36 movies, many of them charming (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Leave Her to Heaven, for which she was nominated for an Oscar), Tierney, who died Nov. 6 at age 70, never starred in anything else really memorable. Indeed, her life had already been marred by tragedy by the time Laura appeared. About a year before Laura, while married to fashion designer Oleg Cassini, she had contracicd German measles during a pregnancy (a woman later told her that she had been so eager to see Tierney at a USO show that she broke quarantine) and gave birth to a retarded daughter, Daria, now institutionalized. She and Cassini had another daughter, Christina, now 42; their marriage ended in 1952.

Tierney’s name was once romantically linked to John F. Kennedy’s before his marriage, and she had an unhappy affair with Aly Khan (who later married Rita Hayworth) in the early ’50s. In 1957 she checked into the Menninger Clinic for the first of several lengthy treatments for chronic depression, from which she never fully recovered. Even so, her 1960 marriage to Texas oilman W. Howard Lee lasted until his death in 1981. Finally, Gene Tierney, eternally Laura to moviegoers, died in Houston from emphysema. Says ex-husband Cassini: “She was the unluckiest lucky girl in the world.”

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