Shelley: Also Known As Shirley

By Shelley Winters

Shelley Also Known As Shirley

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Hooray for Hollywood!

In this (1980) tell-it-all autobiography Shelley Winters, a genuine Tinsel Towner, takes us back to the days when the starlets had stars in their eyes . . . and in their beds.

We follow Winters (Shirley Shrift) from her dysfunctional Brooklyn childhood—money’s tight, her dad goes to jail on false charges of arson, there’s an early teen pregnancy, and she’s struggling, wrestling with age-old teenage questions.

The answers come through loud and clear in this entertaining and compelling life story and oh, a big no to her doubts regarding her own intelligence (she was very smart) . . . and a bigger “no way” on the ugly duckling worry!

Can we say, Blond Bombshell?

Most of us aren’t old enough to recall the Bombshell years and therein lies the secret and secrets of this page turner. Those who fall a few years shy of Club Octogenarian may remember Winters from her controversial and entertaining TV talk show appearances (Merv Griffin, Jack Paar, Johnny Carson, etc.), recalling her as that witty, middle-aged rather “full-figured blond!” Or perhaps—which is the curse of even the great character actors like Winters—think of her as merely the matronly older woman in The Poseidon Adventure.

The fact is that in the early 1940s when Harry Cohn’s (head of Columbia Pictures) Hollywood screen test lured her from the Broadway stage (a chorus line extra, Shelley sang, danced and delivered comedic lines), she was a lovely young war bride, married to Paul Mayer, a handsome U.S. Army pilot.

Then with Paul off to fly missions in Europe Shelley heads west for a battle of her own, the struggle to become a Hollywood studio actor. Albeit a bit ditsy and the diva at times, she’s well armed for the industry fight. Often “acting” the dumb blond to a fare-thee-well, she hones her craft and becomes one very talented (Lee Strasberg and Charles Laughton trained), actress whose stage, TV and film work would bring her well-deserved acclaim.

The woman won two Oscars and The Emmy!

Oscars for supporting roles in The Diary of Ann Frank and later in A Patch of Blue were reinforced by numerous nominations and wins (Oscars, Golden Globes, etc.) for her work with Hollywood’s elite in blockbuster films: Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, Alfie (Michael Caine), Meet Danny Wilson (Frank Sinatra), A Place in the Sun (Elizabeth Taylor) among dozens of others. From time to time she returned to play Broadway and later in life television came calling so many readers will remember Shelley as the grandmother in the sit-com Roseanne.

But this page turner is front-end loaded with tales from those Golden Days in LA. And to her credit there’s never a sense of name dropping in the book. For Shelley, well the names just kept dropping in.

  • While swimming laps in her recently rented LA apartment pool she paddles head-first into and almost drowns Cary Grant.
  • During a break in the shooting of Knickerbocker Holiday a distraught and drunken Nelson Eddie (well past the years when he sang so famously to Jeannette McDonald) brings new meaning to “Canadian Mountie” by staggering into her costume trailer and crawling into bed with her (which sends a teenaged Shelley grabbing for a robe and dashing to the door).
  • At a New Year’s Eve party at movie mogul Sam Spiegel’s house she engages in conversation with Hugh, a tall lanky man wearing an old shiny tuxedo and tennis shoes. Although charming, Winters assumes that Hugh—by his dress—is a set designer. Shelley would soon learn from Ava Gardner—while powdering noses—that the man smitten by and putting the move on Winters that night was in fact Howard Hughes.
  • A bedroom comedy/reality show “starring” Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando ends with Brando dodging a bull rushing Lancaster by hitting the bedroom fire escape–leaving one of his shoes by Shelley’s bed.
  • Who knew that when Shelley and Marilyn Monroe roomed together that they made a list of famous men they’d like to sleep with. . .and that Marilyn had Albert Einstein high on her “hit” list? When Shelley tells her how old he is Marilyn says, “Yes, but I hear he’s very healthy!”
  • The Sinatra/Winters feud during the shooting of Meet Danny Wilson is classic Hollywood.
  • Then there’s the one about the handsome young ex-Navy seaman Bernie Schwartz. Schwartz, a $75-a-week contract player with Columbia, has been sent to Winters’ apartment (for safekeeping) by relatives who knew an aunt of Shelley’s from the Bronx. Swartz bunks on Shelley’s couch for weeks until he finally lands a bit part playing with Piper Lorie in The Prince Who Was a Thief. On set for the debut, watching her “roommate’s” one moment in the flick, Shelley and the entire set hear the darkly handsome Arab prince utter (in a horrible New York accent) the line that to this day remains Hollywood legend. Pointing beyond the camera the “Prince” says, “Yonda lies Da castle of my Fadda!”  CUT!  End of Schwartz’s career?   No, with the help of Hollywood speech therapists and the suggestion of a name change by Winters, “Prince” Bernie goes on to become none other than Tony Curtis.

But Shelley doesn’t soft peddle the dark days here. Following a postwar divorce, Mayer the pilot/ex-husband, flies home to Chicago for a life of normalcy. Shelley, with little hope, no agent, recently released by Columbia Pictures, stays behind in LA (with her Brooklyn doting parents’ “supervision”) to make the rounds. Auditions lead to rejections that would have chewed up and spit out most aspiring actors.

Yet for Shelley, anticipation (of stardom) becomes more than half the pleasure and it’s her accounts of these tough times where the fun begins for the reader. Anything but shy, she takes us right to the good stuff.  While striving for fame and fortune, the stars come out (and in) at night. There were serious love affairs with John Ireland, Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Burt Lancaster.

And Shelley?  Well the woman was sentimental and loyal to a fault. Why, every Christmas Eve she and William Holden met for an annual studio sleepover, a tradition that lasted well into their later years.

Perhaps a few too many swept-off-her-feet (literally) details when “Stars” struck Winters boudoir—-Shelley laboriously ending these encounters (in print) the way the films of the day handled sex—-fireworks exploding and waves crashing on beaches.

But for all the read’s sensational star gazing and grazing there’s an insider’s view here of a very tough business written from the perspective of again, a resilient, driven and talented actress. Along with her on-set viewpoint of how movies are made we sense and feel the dark side of Hollywood—excessive drugs and drinking, actors making bad bedfellows, marriage miseries, newspaper dirt, mental breakdowns as common as head colds, bad contracts signed, incompetent agents hired and fired and despicable studio bosses (by name) read like a David Letterman “Bottom Ten.”

There are several tours as a political activist and then, later when Winters returns to New York, there’s great stuff from Broadway—rows with stage directors, rounds with Norman Mailer, days at the Actors Studio Guild and accounts of her nights on the town.

But the break that would lead to stardom came back in LA with her 1947 performance as a  waitress, the victim of an insane character played by Ronald Colman in George Cukor’s A Double Life. And this career-launch couldn’t have been better timed. From the 1940’s to the mid 1950’s, with television still in its infancy, big production Technicolor films packed America’s lavish air-conditioned theaters. Movies were a billion dollar business and the actors and actresses larger than life—America’s Gods and Goddesses.

Shelley? Well, studios “loaned” big box office actors to competing companies for crazy money and Winters had now become a well paid “very hot commodity!  So on warm summer nights during those golden years the former Miss Shelley Shrift, the Jewish kid from Brooklyn, could cruise down Hollywood and Vine in open convertibles (with an Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster or John Ireland behind the wheel) passing marquees luring audiences to her blockbuster films: The Great Gatsby with Alan Ladd; Winchester 73 with James Stewart, or Night of the Hunter—with Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.

In the book’s final chapters Shelley covers her tumultuous marriage to Vittorio Gassman, the famous Italian stage actor who fathers her child. Her detailed account of this love/hate (continents apart, careers apart) relationship is something that readers will no doubt love or hate!

But for all Winters’ creative gifts as an actress, the genius that plays between the pages of her autobiography is (along with the wit and candor) her ability to seamlessly weave compelling anecdotes—one scene after another like a well edited film–into a unique introspective look at post WWII Hollywood.

So, relax, sit back and enjoy the delightful show (and tell), Shelley: Also Known as Shirley will keep fans of the grand old flicks in their seats until the lights come up and the final credits roll.

  • For a copy of Shelley: Also Known as Shirley order through your independent bookstore, your library or click above on the book’s cover. You can buy the book (used) on Amazon for about the 1950’s price of a ticket to a Hollywood B movie.