Jennifer Jones swept into her suite at the Madision hotel. She jiggled her eyeglasses nervously between her fingers. She took a breath, took a step, smiled. The last of the big-time Hollywood glamour queens, onstage again at 58 - and still beautiful.
The raven hair short, upswept. The makeup perfect, the skin flawless, the signs of aging relegated to a certain softness around the eyes, mouth. Her now-rounded figure was gracefully cloaked in an impeccably cut brown wool dress. Around her neck three strands of large pearls secured by a fat diamond clip: Like Jones, clearly the real thing.
Thirty-four years ago Jones swept into another room. It was the office of movie mogul David O. Selznick, who instantly fell in love with her. He screen-tested her, starred her in "Song of Bernadette" and she won an Oscar. Jones married Selznick. He worshipped her, protected her and gave her the luxurious, fantasy life of a movie star. And then he died and Jones retreated, did charity work, was a nurse's aide. In 1971 she met millionaire businessman and avid art collector Northon Simon. Three weeks later they were married.
Today Jones is gracious, upbeat, self-effacing. In Washington for her work as a commissioner on the Huntington's Disease Council, she perches on the edge of her chair, and laughs at the ironies which these days are constantly putting her smack in the middle of situations that "I have spent my whole life resisting. Suddenly, these last few years, I find myself doing everything I said I'd never do.
"For instance, before I met Northon I not only didn't know anything about art, but had spent most of my life resisting it."
Then, she says, she thought of museums as dreary, boring affairs.
Eventually, however, during a trip to Siena, Italy, five years ago she finally "got the message. For the first time I looked at paintings of the Madonna and child and saw them as abstracts which Norton had been telling me they were all along.Suddenly the subject matter went away and I could see, for instance, that Matisse had been here.
"And," she adds with a note of triumph, "after several years, I do think I've developed quite a good eye myself."
The 70-year-old Simon appears to agree. In September he named her chairman of the board of directors of the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena with its $250-million collection of masterpieces.
Not, that is, that Jones is through with the movies. It has been three years since she had a cameo in "Towering Inferno," but she says she is looking for a script, would like to work again because, after all, "it is what I know how to do best."
One cannot talk, of course, about Jones' movie caeer without talking about Selznick, the producer's producer whose credits included "Rebecca," "A Tale of Two Cities" and, of course, "Gone With the Wind." To most people Selznick was not only Jones' husband but her Svengali as well.
Jones, however, has a slightly different perspective.
"Well, frankly, I have always had a belief in my own basic talent," she answered slowly, "but obviously I was very fortunate to find David Selznick or have David find me. Every actress discovered or nurtured by him - and God knows, we all need nurturing - well, every actress David helped was very fortunate."
In retrospect, says Jones, that early success - a lead role plus an Oscar her first time out - was something she took too much for granted. "Of course I was delighted, but to tell the truth, at that time I kind of expected it. You know, when you're very young - and I was only 24 - you expect EVERYTHINGS. 'Of course this should be happening,' I thought. What else? I came to New York to be an actress and everything is going according to plan. And the same thing went for the Oscar. Now, of course, if I won an Oscar I'd be overwhelmed, thrilled to death."
Jennifer Jones grew uo in Oklahoma as Phyllis Isley and later Phyllis Walker, when she married actor Robert Walker by whom she had two sons. Not surprisingly, it was Selznick who came up with Jennifer.
"I think David either got the name Jennifer - nobody was named that then - from a book called "Dusty Answer" or from an old English nursery rhyme which said 'I'm going to see Miss Jenny Jones' - or something like that. Anyway, I hated Phyllis so I was glad to change it. I did wonder about the Jones but David thought the two together were very romantic - a good professional name."
Hollywood hair and makeup artist Goerge Masters wrote in his recent book "The Masters Way to Beauty" that the Selznick-Jones marriage was "idyllic."
Masters wrote: "Mr. Selznick was completely enslaved by her beauty and she enslaved by sustaining the illusion for him both as an actress and as a wife."
As an example, Masters cities the Selznick's famous Sunday all-day parties. According to Masters he would arrive at 9 a.m. to do a shampoo, set and makeup for Jones. Around 4 in the afternoon, Jones would sneak downstairs to her private dressing roomwhere Masters waited. After Jones showered, Masters would repeat the whole process and Jones changed into a new duplicate of what she had been wearing, before going back upstairs to her guests who "Would marvel at the way she still looked so fresh and beautiful . . ." Around 10 p.m., added Masters, the same process was repeated a third time.
Upon hearing that tale, Jones, who has not read Masters' book, roars with laughter. "I love George dearly, but I'm afraid that was all fantasy on hispart - a little poetic license. God. I would have been so tired I couldn't have enjoyed my own parties.
"Besides, that does sound awfully narcissistic, doesn't it. I must say I plead guilty to a certain degree of narcissism but not to that extent. It's true, of course, that we did have people over on Sundays but I didn't spend the day changing clothes, I assure you."
Jones feels that stories about Selnzick's domination of her are - well - overblown. "I don't know that David was so dominating. What we were was a very good patnership. I must say, in fact, that I have in all my relationships with men found a certain . . . equality." She stops, seemingly surprised at her own statement.
"Yes, equal rights," she adds giggling, "I would say I have always managed to have my equal rights."
In 1965 Selznick (who was 17 years her senior) died, leaving Jones widowed for fivr years until the 1971 whirlwind courtship by Simon culminated in their marriage on a yacht anchored off the coast of Britain.
"Yes, we were compulsive," she says laughing. "But at our age, my dear, you're not exactly terrified of such things. Norton knew I was an actress but he had never really seen anything I did except, I think, for 'A Portrait of Jenny.' But, anyway, I'm convinced that the older you get, the more risks you're willing to take."
Clearly, however, the tragedy of her life was the suicide two years ago of her daughter Mary Jennifer Selznick, a beautiful girl whom Selznick had adored and who herself had wanted to be an actress. It is a subject she prefers not to discuss.
Today, when not involved with her art interests, Jones spends her time "working in the areas of mental health." Her latest project is to create what she calls a "separation center" - a kind of 24-hour halfway house for people "in the throes of some sort of separation, either from a marriage or relationship." A kind of place, she adds, "where people can come and talk to people with similar problems who might keep them from picking up a phone at 4 p.m. and getting back into a relationship that wasn't right for them in the first place."
As for her own lot in life, Jones says she's happy - that as far as she's concerned, so far she's had a pretty good run.
"Actually," she says, "everytime I stop to think about it, I'm really amazed. I think I've had an extraordinary life.And lots of times I can hardly believe it's me."
"Sometimes," Jennifer Jones Simon says, "I come home and catch Norton watching one of my old movies on television. He always seems kind of amazed that the women he's watching is the same woman he's married to. But I just say to him. 'You're not really looking at that old thing, are you? Come on. Norton, you're looking at my past. Let's live in the moment.'"