Jenny Lee Arness was the daughter of James Arness, an iconic actor best known for starring on Gunsmoke for over 25 years. Born May 23rd 1950 in Los Angeles to James and Virginia Chapman (an actress herself) who were separated at birth, Jenny came into this world May 23rd 1950 in California. Jenny had two brothers, Craig and Rolf, who went into surfing and skiing respectively; following in her parents’ footsteps, Jenny chose acting. In 1964 she appeared as Laurie/Amy on Gunsmoke! Jenny Lee Arness lived only 24 years before committing suicide at age 24. What led her to do so and was there some curse of Hollywood that affected her and her family? In this article we will look into Jenny Lee Arness’s life and death as one of Hollywood’s star children who could not escape its pull.
A Broken Family
Jenny Lee Arness grew up in a wealthy and glamorous family, but it wasn’t always happy. At 13 years old, after 15 years of marriage, her parents divorced reportedly due to James’ busy schedule and Virginia’s discontentment with his fame. James received full custody for all three children while Virginia struggled with alcoholism and depression remarrying twice more, both ending in divorce before dying of drug overdose in 1977 – two years after Jenny had passed.
Jenny had a close relationship with James, though his work often kept him apart. When he remarried Janet Surtees – a former flight attendant – in 1978 and had their son Jim together, James struggled with chronic pain and an addiction to painkillers after being wounded during World War II; additionally he battled depression and attempted suicide soon after Jenny died in 1976; ultimately surviving and recovering until his retirement in 1994 and eventually passing away due to natural causes in 2011.
A Troubled Soul
Jenny Lee Arness had an accomplished acting career, yet also lived a troubled life. Insecure about both her looks and talent, and feeling overshadowed by her father’s fame, Jenny endured several failed relationships before eventually reportedly becoming engaged to Greg Bautzer, an older producer with whom she experimented drugs and alcohol use; additionally suffering from bipolar disorder a mental disorder which causes mood swings and erratic behavior.
Jenny’s life began to spiral downwards in the early 1970s when she joined a religious sect called the Children of God, an anti-apocalyptic sect that preached free love and the coming apocalypse. Under David Berg’s control as its leader – who claimed to be God’s prophet – she was brainwashed into having sexual relations with members of her cult while recruiting new ones using sexual encounters as bait; while being isolated from family and friends while being subjected to strict discipline and indoctrination practices imposed by Berg and his followers cult members.
Jenny finally managed to escape the cult in 1974 with the assistance of her father and a private detective, returning home traumatically damaged by the experience. Although she attempted to resume acting work but could not find work; similarly, relationships were hard-hit as Jenny felt alienated and lonely while seeking therapy from various psychiatrists and therapists but none could help her find relief from depression or suicidality.
A Tragic End
On May 12, 1975, Jenny Lee Arness took her own life by overdosing on drugs in Malibu, California. She left a note which read “I love you all, Jenny”. Her brother Rolf went to check on her and was called back when Jenny Lee Arness had overdosed and was declared dead at the scene; she was later buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills alongside her mother who passed two years later.
Jenny Lee Arness was a star kid unable to shake Hollywood’s spell. Born into a broken family and growing up amid fame and fortune as well as pain and pressure, Jenny found solace in acting but her talent also left her vulnerable and dark; victimized by cults while fighting hard against nightmares; fighter dreamer who never gave up, leaving a legacy of both love and sorrow; she was Jenny Lee Arness and here is her storied tale.