|For the 19-year-old new arrival on the party circuit, Joanne Connelley, toast of the New York gossip columnists, Palm Beach was like the
Morning After. Mr. Sweeny played golf, while Mrs. Sweeny
sat around pool or the bridge table with women often
twice, sometimes three times, her age.
In 1950, Joanne gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Sharon. Two years later came a second, Brenda. As it was with a lot of her Palm Beach pals, motherhood made few demands on her. Soon she was bored, and probably boring. Who was she anyway, and how could she know? Cinderella was now a girl with too much time and too much money.
Drinking became part of her daily regimen. Nobody really noticed. She was a young drunk, in a world where they were all ages. She developed the classic vanity syndrome of worrying about her weight. The situation was further hindered by diet pills. They took off weight and gave you energy; a miracle! That, with a couple glasses of gin, and you could be on another planet. Sleeping pills could bring you back to the satin sheets for a nap.
She was in the proverbial danger zone. She began to lose interest in her husband, who had long before lost interest in her. She fell into the "guidance" of Dominican diplomat Porfirio Rubirosa, international playboy/lover of so many famous blonde (and rich) women such as Barbara Hutton and Doris Duke (both of whom he married) and Zsa Zsa Gabor. He was famous amongst his set for the size of his equipment, said to be in at least a semi-state of preparedness at all times.
At 21 Joanne Connelley, only four years out of boarding school uniforms, had gone from being a beautiful pawn to an expensive accessory. And then high maintenance.
"She was like a well-decorated cake," recalled Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill," good to look at, but nothing of substance."In short time, the Sweeny marriage was over. There were more men in Joanne's life and none of them her husband. In 1954, naming Rubirosa as the other man, and getting custody of their daughters, he divorced her.
Sweeny had no choice. She had already flown the coop. The year before in Switzerland, she had met Jaime Ortiz-Patino, known to his friends as Jimmy Ortiz, a member of the Bolivian tin mining family, and only two years older than she. By the time her divorce from Sweeny came through, she had accepted Ortiz' proposal to marry.
Years later, she was remembered by the people who knew her then only for her looks. "She was like a well-decorated cake," recalled Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill, eldest daughter of the 10th Duke of Marlborough (and sister of the present one): "good to look at, but nothing of substance."
The Ortiz-Patino engagement came with $250,000 in jewelry (or about $5 million in today's purchasing power). The night before the wedding, something went wrong. Whatever it was that upset her, Joanne wanted to back out. There was a scene. Mother's pressure was applied. Daughter was in no position to back out. She'd left the Sweeny marriage without a sous. Do, or die.
The marriage was performed in Margaret Watts' Paris apartment. The newly weds headed to Capri for the honeymoon. Almost immediately, sordid rumors about them began spreading.
One day, seven weeks after the "I do's," Jimmy Ortiz returned to their villa to find the bride on the bedroom floor, unconscious. Sleeping pills.
When she recovered, she suddenly departed, with her money and her jewels. Ortiz frantically searched for her. He finally found her in a dingy penzione in Naples, limp and dank and barely conscious. Pills.
Taken to Rome for treatment, she fled from her husband again. This time to Lausanne. Then Paris. Then London, then back to Rome. She was a twenty-five year old girl, willful, helpless, and in the classic addictive mode, heading for her bottom.
Now destitute except for money Sweeny would send her, she was taken in by the American reporter Mike Stern. There she gave Stern the story of her marital dilemma, married to a Patino. A marriage, she said, of abuse and brutality. The poor Cinderella, defiled by her prince. Perfect tabloid headlines. Stern sold the story to a magazine. Ortiz sued. Stern was fined, and Joanne was held in contempt, for not showing up in court.
But the docile little middle-class girl from New Jersey wasn't giving up so easily. She still had a mother. And Margaret Watts was thinking of their future: hers and her daughter's. They fought back with suits in France, Switzerland, and England.
Mr. Ortiz-Patino, Joanne Connelley countered in her suit, was a "drug-sodden wife beater" who abused her so that she "lay down to die."
The divorce suit lasted longer than the romance and the marriage combined. The stress and pressure of it put Joanne's life on hold. Now she really did have a drug problem. There was Dexedrine to wake her up, diet pills to slim her down and speed her along, and more sleeping pills to take it all away. All in the name of keeping up appearances. Not to mention that the baby fat that she obsessed about at 21 had become a matter of fact at 25.
She settled with her mother in a remote, rented house in Neuchatel, Switzerland. Very occasionally she traveled to Paris and St. Moritz. She was not a recluse, but she was already out of the picture.
In mid-June 1957, three years after the marriage ceremony that she tried to avoid that night in Paris, the lawsuits were finally settled. The golden girl of 1949 got approximately $100,000 in cash. She also got to keep the jewels. A few million in today's dollars.
In the suit he referred to his wife as a "worthless woman who did everything for money." The results were said to have left her optimistic once again. She would start over. She wrote to Ted Howard in New York and told him. She wanted to get a screen test, to get the "build-up" again. After all, it hadn't been that long, she was still the kid on the cover of LIFE. A very young Norma Desmond, with a serious prescription drug addiction.
Late in the morning of June 31, 1957, two weeks into Joanne Connelley's new life, a maid entered her bedroom and found her "unconscious and pale, breathing heavily." Panicked, she called for Margaret Watts. Fearing the worst, Margaret Watts called a priest for the last rites. Then they rushed the young beauty to the hospital. But not in time. Wrapped in a bathrobe, still wearing the $100,000 diamond Jimmy Ortiz had given her, Joanne Connelley had died.
The cause of death listed as a heart attack. She was 26 years old. Although it must have seemed like only five minutes before, to her, on that snowy December night at the Infirmary Ball in New York when the sun shone on her, eight short years had passed, on what turned out to be one long suicide trip.
She was, in the words of Reinaldo Herrera, who as a very young man knew her at her zenith, "one of those incandescent people whose life is very intense and short-lived."
A friend remembered her as "a kind girl with a vivid interest in people and things. All she needed was a man who could really lead her." But in the end, all she had was Mother, with whom she was holed up in a remote villa in the Alps.
Few, if any, really mourned her passing. She had been the meal ticket for her mother. To her own children, she was the mother they would never have. To her husbands she was dispensable, disposable, and to the press, another pretty picture gone up in the flames of celebrity. To herself, what was left?