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NY Times, April 27, 1999

Jennifer O'Neill finds inner peace

By ALEX WITCHEL

"For years women have told me, 'My husband fell in love with you in 'Summer of '42,"' said Jennifer O'Neill, who played the 22-year-old "older" woman who seduces the 15-year-old boy in the classic 1971 film. "Now they say, 'My husband is in love with you and so is my son."'

She smiled good-naturedly. Jennifer O'Neill is 51 now and possibly the most stunning grandmother in America. (Yes, grandmother -- three times over.) You can see why she was the spokeswoman for Cover Girl cosmetics for 30 years. That job, she says, and her role in "Summer of '42" have been professional highlights in a life filled with so much turmoil and unhappiness, so much of it caused by Ms. O'Neill herself, that she has just published her aptly titled autobiography, "Surviving Myself" (William Morrow).

Here's what she's survived: eight husbands and nine marriages (she married one twice), nine miscarriages, a suicide attempt at 14, shock therapy after her daughter, Aimee, was born and a broken back after a riding accident. ("I did precisely what Christopher Reeve did," she said. "God had his hand on my shoulder.") Her fifth husband sexually abused Aimee, and Ms. O'Neill accidentally shot herself in the stomach with a gun he kept in their home. ("The bullet missed my spine by a fraction of an inch," she said.)

There's more, including loads of ill-considered career moves, but those are the highlights -- as it were.

"When I first thought about writing the book, I went back and forth between 'Who would be interested?' and 'It's nobody's business,"' Ms. O'Neill said recently, sitting at a corner table at Aureole. "All my life I was a person on a treadmill of drama and trauma, trying to fill up a hole inside. My daughter encouraged me to explore the tough issues in the book, starting with the issue of sexual abuse, with the idea that the truth will set you free. But as I reviewed my life, I was horrified. I realized so many issues had not been healed. So I've been revisiting them and trying to understand."

As Ms. O'Neill spoke, she ate a three-course lunch and sipped a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Tall and still model-thin, she was dressed in a black pantsuit with a flowered blouse and a purse to match. She seemed like a placid out-of-towner, murmuring "How unusual" about the lemon custard and peering at the menu through oversize glasses. The only hints at a darker side came with questions she did not want to answer, like one about a stepdaughter. Her easy manner changed instantly. Her face darkened, her mouth tightened and the song "I'll Be Hard to Handle" came to mind -- and stayed.

But despite the glimpse of inner turmoil, Ms. O'Neill seems to remain philosophical about getting older. The triple rows of pearls at her neck didn't entirely hide the lines there. Neither did she try to camouflage her crow's feet. "I don't think anything is wrong with plastic surgery," she said, "but I haven't had it. It's such a cliche to say that the inside is what counts. But when I feel peaceful and happy, that's what's important."

Certainly on the surface of Ms. O'Neill's upbringing, everything seemed as it should. She was raised in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Wilton, Conn., by her mother, Irene, and her father, Oscar O'Neill Jr., who owned a medical supply company. They moved to New York City, and their daughter enrolled at Dalton. By 15, she had been signed by the Ford Modeling Agency, appeared on the cover of Vogue and was earning $80,000 a year -- in 1963.

"The outside seemed marvelous, exciting and perfect, and it was none of the above," Ms. O'Neill said. "My parents and I are great friends now, but my initial need for them to love me was very painful. Parents need to love their children unconditionally. That's where self-respect is born."

She said she had tried psychotherapy unsuccessfully: "Therapy would always interest me, but I couldn't connect my mind to my heart. It left me mentally stimulated and emotionally disconnected."

What reconnected her, she says, was becoming a born-again Christian in 1988. She is careful, however, not to proselytize. "I don't want to preach to anybody; I only want to say what happened to me," she said. "I was approached by a Christian publisher, but I didn't want this book to sit only on a Christian shelf. I hope I wrote it with my arms wide open to everyone."

She is in her ninth marriage, to Mervin Louque, a music producer in Nashville. "I know I'll be with him forever," she said, then smiled as she heard herself speak. "You know, it's amazing," she went on. "With every single one I was sure it was IT. I can't understand how I'm sitting here and not the biggest cynic. With each marriage it was almost like doing a new character and going on location, setting up house with a new extended family, new stepchildren. Looking back, I don't know how I did it. I was so determined. I just wanted to be happy, to be loved. And that is not an attractive package, someone who wants to be loved so much."

What does she think she did wrong?

"I chose people who put me down," she answered immediately. "It was what I was accustomed to. Nothing I did was good enough."

What also affected her, she said, was her parents' lack of interest in her education. Though they sent her brother to boarding school, they never made her schooling a priority because they assumed she would marry and have children. Ms. O'Neill eventually transferred from Dalton to the Professional Children's School because of her work. She did not graduate.

Instead she became an actress. She has 30 feature films to her credit, though none besides "Summer of '42" was a commercial hit. She admits to choosing badly, starting with "Such Good Friends," an Otto Preminger flop that she chose after "Summer of '42," and going on to include titles like "The Prince and the Surfer" and "Love Is Like That." In recent years her most successful projects have been films for USA, the cable network.

She has developed a line of skin care products that she just started selling on the Shop at Home network, and she has taken on public speaking engagements (she addressed the National Prayer Breakfast last year in Washington). But Ms. O'Neill has no intention of abandoning her acting career. She wrote a story for a sequel to "Summer of '42" and hopes that Timothy Hutton will sign on once a screenwriter is hired. She is also to play herself from the age of 38 in the television movie version of "Surviving Myself," and she sings on an album of inspirational music that is to be released this year.

It is inspirational enough just to hear her views on aging. "As I get older," she said, "I hope that mentally I can gracefully replace what's not in the mirror with things everlasting. If you over-focus on this dropping or that dropping, you will not be a happy person. Life after 50 is surely for me the best part of my life." Her relationship with her daughter Aimee, now 31, is the best it has been, she says. Her son Reis is 18 and a would-be actor. Her son Cooper is 12, and Ms. O'Neill calls him "the light of my life."

It must be difficult though, to look back on so many of the bad choices, the ways she damaged her career and herself, and wonder what she might have done differently.

She shook her head seriously. "I'm resilient," she said. "I'm really happy now. To me the success of my life is the reflection of my presence, be it mother, wife or friend. All my life I've been unstoppable, but now I feel unswayable. That feels like success to me."

"As for acting," she went on, "I cared very much about being a good actress, and I learned over the years. But it wasn't my main motivating force in life; that was my drive for relationships. The concept of letting a great offer go for the sake of a marriage is unheard of in Hollywood. I did not make popular decisions. I never moved to Hollywood. I wouldn't take my clothes off to act. Hollywood never owned me.

"My need for love owned me."