Shelley Winters was a character.
The lovably eccentric and outspoken blonde actress, perhaps best remembered today for her later screen roles, interviews, and television appearances, lived life to the fullest.
Shelley started her career with a slew of sensual roles that capitalized on her blonde hair and curvaceous figure, before transitioning to character actress roles. A true Method actress, Shelley was never afraid to put aside glamour for a good role. Throughout her six-decades-long career, Shelley won two Oscars, divorced three husbands, was roommates with Marilyn Monroe, and romanced some of the most notable names in the movies.
The Facts According to Shelley Winters
Shelley holds nothing back in the two volumes of memoirs she wrote, which are unquestionably the most extensive source material about her life. But it’s worth noting as we begin our month with Shelley that she was a notorious embellisher.
“I am determined to make this book different. I’m not interested in the Shelley Winters approach. There’s already enough bullshit around to provide fertilizer into the twenty-first century. I want to try not to bend everything in my life to suit my own purposes, even though we all do that.”
Tough criticism from Tony Curtis on the validity of Shelley’s version of things.
Shelley herself ends her first book [aff. link] with the disclaimer that:
“All the things I’ve written about are exactly as they happened. Some things are even exactly as I wish they HADN’T happened. Perhaps a few things are exactly as I WISHED they had happened. However, I will never know the difference…nor will you.”
Apparently Shelley, writing in 1980, hadn’t reckoned on the internet, which makes fact checking quite a bit easier for anyone who questions her record.
Finding a Truthful Balance
As I spotlight Shelley Winters this month, I want to convey the woman as she wished to be seen, while also respecting the facts that Shelley sometimes played a little fast and loose with.
I’ve done the fact checking, and aim to present Shelley’s extraordinary life accurately, without losing—as Shelley’s good friend Farley Granger put it—any of Shelley’s “pizzazz.”
Here are a few things about Shelley Winters you didn’t know:
Her Dad Went to Sing Sing
Shelley Winters was born in St. Louis, Missouri on August 18, 1920. Shirley Schrift, Shelley’s birth name, was nine years old when her father Jonas uprooted the Schrift family, and took them to New York. Jonas, a firm believer in the American Dream, planned to make his fortune in Brooklyn.
In Brooklyn, Jonas opened a successful haberdashery, and it seemed his ambitions would be rewarded. That is, until one Christmas, rats gnawed on a stash of sulfur matches Jonas kept under the cash register counter, and a small fire started.
According to Shelley, the store was then looted by the firemen who came to put out the fire. Things only got worse for the Schrift family from there. As Shelley remembered [aff. link]:
“In spite of the fact that my father had hidden $400 under the cash register, he was indicted for arson because of the $5,000 worth of insurance on the shop. He and my mother…were convinced the charge was ridiculous. Why would an arsonist set such a small fire? All my father wanted was the $5,000 worth of stolen stock to be replaced.”
But the court didn’t see it that way. At trial, Jonas was found guilty and sentenced to ten to twenty years in Sing Sing.
A Good Woman
Her father survived a near-fatal stabbing, and was released from prison after serving one year, thanks to Shirley’s determined mother, Rose, who successfully forced a new trial. At this second trial, Jonas was completely exonerated.
But Shelley Winters viewed the fire and the ensuing consequences as the end of her childhood. She was only nine years old. Luckily, the movies proved a welcome, if temporary, escape for young Shirley. It was an early love that turned into a passion as teenage Shirley dreamed of a career in the entertainment business.
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Shelley Winters Didn't Think She Was Pretty
Teenage Shirley Schrift wasn’t satisfied with her appearance, and wanted desperately to be thought of as beautiful:
“One day I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror and saw the big mole on the bridge of my nose…the thick blonde eyebrows…the kinky dirty blonde hair and a pair of overlapping eyeteeth. Not wanting to bother my mother with these little problems, I managed to save up a few dollars…”
With those dollars, Shirley got the mole removed, the eyebrows plucked, her hair straightened and curled, and most shockingly, convinced an orthodontist to remove her right eyetooth because, as Shirley saw it, “there wasn’t any space for it.” She couldn’t afford the orthodontia work any other way.
Here’s where things get crazy.
As Shelley says in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“For the rest of the school year I sat in class and did my own orthodontia work. With my thumb I pushed my left eyetooth into a small space made larger by my fingers.”
That’s some dedication right there.
It’s heartbreaking how desperately Shirley Schrift wanted to be beautiful, but her dream came true. As Shelley herself put it,
“the butterfly had come out of the cocoon.”
Now Shirley began winning local beauty contests, much to the amazement of her family, who didn’t realize the transformation that had occurred right before their eyes:
“Shirley, where did you steal that?”
Was father Jonas’ surprised reaction when fourteen-year-old Shirley came home with her first of many beauty pageant cups.
Shelley Winters: The Blonde Bombshell
It’s a little surprising given that most of us know Shelley best as a character actress, but Shelley Winters started her career as a blonde bombshell. For the better part of the 1950s, Shelley was the resident blonde bombshell at Universal-International Pictures (now known as Universal Studios). For the length of Shelley’s seven-year contract with the studio, she played an endless slew of sensual blondes, from femme fatales to gangster moles, and curvaceous Western heroines.
Indeed, for the first part of her career, Shelley Winters was viewed as one sexy lady.
Shelley Winters Was Serious About Acting
Shelley didn’t rest upon her blonde bombshell image. Ultimately, she dreamed of being a serious actress of stage and film. Even at the prime of her beauty, Shelley Winters worked to improve her craft. As Shelley shares in her autobiography, during her years at Universal [aff. link]:
“By day I was UI’s [Universal International] Blonde Bombshell, and by night I was a serious intelligent actress, studying Shakespeare, speech and acting technique.”
Initially, Shelley studied with the revered actor Charles Laughton in Hollywood. Shelley discovered the Actors Studio in New York early in her career, and became a member in the mid 1950s, at one point serving on the Studio’s board of directors.
Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg paid Shelley the ultimate compliment when he called her the actor of her generation who could “articulate the use of my Method the most accurately,” and even invited Shelley to teach classes at the studio.
Shelley Winters Was VERY Popular with the Boys
Again, it may be a little surprising given that many of us are most familiar with Shelley as a character actress in her later years, but during her Hollywood prime, Shelley Winters was popular with the boys.
And she got around.
Shelley enjoyed romances with many of the most desirable men of her generation. Here’s a little bit about her most famous studs:
Errol Flynn was so into Shelley that, after inviting her over to see the fancy bed (Shelley says) he kept behind a glit sliding panel close to his bar, Flynn let Shelley borrow his first edition copy of The Great Gatsby, which Shelley decided was too priceless to return.
William Holden and Shelley didn’t see each other throughout the year, but each Christmas Eve for the duration of her seven year contract with Universal—minus the two years she was married to Vittorio Gassman—Bill and Shelley got together for a night of romance.
Marlon Brando was a good friend and on-and-off again lover through the years. It was Brando who was there for Shelley when she went into premature labor while her husband was overseas: Marlon chivalrously dropped everything on the set of his current film project, The Wild One (1953), and raced over to Shelley’s place on his motorcycle to get her to the hospital in time.
And Shelley and Sean Connery enjoyed a few romantic weekends before Connery became James Bond. Shelley was one of the first to ensure Connery that his debut Bond role in Dr. No (1962) was electric and star-making.
My Favorite Shelley Winters Date
My favorite Shelley Winters paramour tale actually involves an actor Shelley admits to having never known in the “biblical sense”: Clark Gable. One night early in her career, Gable stopped by Shelley’s apartment, which she shared with her parents and sister, to pick her up for a party. The reaction of her mother on seeing the magnetic Gable at the door is hilarious. And completely un-motherly.
I’ll let Shelley take it from here:
“Gable put a pale green chiffon scarf around my shoulders and pinned a green orchid to my gold beaded bag. He said, “Good evening,” to my stunned family as he showed me to the door, I can’t be sure, but I almost thought my mother breathed in my ear, ‘DON’T be careful.’”
Certainly not the most motherly of advice. But perhaps an understandable reaction from any woman when meeting Clark Gable.
Shelley Winters Was Fun
Shelley Winters was eccentric. It was part of her lovable charm. And whether joking about how roaming cats are a part of all good Italian restaurants, or referring to Howard Hughs as “Hugh” throughout their decades-long friendship because she misheard his name on introduction, Shelley Winters was also fun.
Good friend and one-time boyfriend Farley Granger remembers how Sam Goldwyn at MGM desperately wanted Farley to go out with a nice, quiet girl, like Ann Blyth, for publicity purposes.
But Farley, who describes Blyth and the other Goldwyn-approved dating candidates as “quiet and serious…with no sense of humor…lovely and proper and no fun,” wanted to spend his time with a girl who was fun.
And that, in a word, was Shelley Winters.
As Farley describes Shelley [aff. link]:
“I can’t even remember when or where we first met, but as long as I’d known her, Shelley Winters was important to me…
Shelley was totally unpredicatable, a wise-cracking blonde who loved the spotlight…She always had a crack or a quip ready for the press…Her pizzazz was one of the things that made her so attractive, and she did have a sense of humor, and we did have fun.”
Sounds like there was never a dull moment with Shelley.
More Evidence That Shelley Winters Was AWESOME: Do It Debbie's Way
In 1983, Debbie Reynolds made a workout video, Do It Debbie’s Way. Celebrity friends of Debbie’s came to participate in the show, doing the workout moves that Debbie demonstrates.
Shelley Winters was one of the celebrity friends.
While Debbie, Terry Moore, and the other ladies are decked out in 80’s workout gear, Shelley wears a black sweatshirt and sweatpants, with the words
“I’m only doing this for Debbie”
boldly printed on the front. It’s clear that Shelley is only there to help her friend out.
As adorable as Debbie and the other ladies are, Shelley Winters steals the show in her sweatpants, cracking jokes, and sharing that certain workout moves remind her of things she did last weekend “at a hotel in the Valley.”
Shelley is fun, and she makes the show fun by just being herself.
Take a moment to watch the clip above. You’ll see what I mean.
I’m not at all embarrassed to say that my daughter and I do this workout together regularly. And Shelley cracks us up every time.
Shelley Winters Was Married Four Times
In addition to her romances with some of Hollywood’s most desirable men, Shelley Winters married four times. Here’s a little bit about each marriage, none of which could be considered dull:
Paul Mayer (m. 1942-1948)
Paul was an old friend of one of Shelley’s St. Louis relatives. The two met before the start of Shelley’s Hollywood career, while she an aspiring stage actress touring with Meet the People. Shelley and Paul hit it off right away, and quickly married after Paul joined the Army Air Corps. Paul was overseas when Shelley, discovered by Harry Cohn, signed with Columbia Pictures, and moved to Hollywood to become a movie star.
Amidst all the temptations of Hollywood, Shelley remained faithful to Paul while he was serving abroad. But when Paul returned from the war, the two discovered they’d grown apart: Paul wanted to move to Chicago and start a family, while Shelley was anxious to stay in Hollywood and pursue her career. The two amicably divorced in 1948. Shelley reportedly always wore the ring from their marriage.
Vittorio Gassman (m. 1952-1954)
The esteemed Italian actor met Shelley while she was on a European tour with almost fiancé Farley Granger, promoting a film.
It was love at first sight.
The only problem with their rapid romance was that Vittorio was Catholic, Italian, and very much married. As anyone familiar with the romance of Sophia Loren and Carlo Ponti can tell you, Vittorio’s religion and marital status in Italy made divorce near impossible. But Shelley and Vittorio persisted, and ultimately wed in Juarez, Mexico on April 28th, 1952.
A beautiful daughter, Vittoria, was born Valentine’s Day 1953. But Shelley and Vittorio bitterly divorced the following year. Turns out that while Shelley and Vittoria were in Hollywood, Vittorio was in Italy having an affair with his sixteen-year-old co-star in his acclaimed stage production of Hamlet.
Shelley was not ok—or quiet—about it all. Shelley and Vittorio made international headlines with their tempestuous spats as they filmed Mambo (eventually released in 1955) together in Italy, right after Shelley discovered her husband’s infidelity. Doesn’t that sound fun.
Anthony Franciosa (m. 1957-1960)
Eight years her junior, Shelley and fellow Actors Studio member Tony Franciosa co-starred on Broadway together in the critically acclaimed, A Hatful of Rain (1955-1956). Shelley describes the physical attraction between her and Tony at the start of their relationship as “almost comical.”
Even at the writing of her 1989 memoir [aff. link], Shelley still didn’t completely understand her marriage and attraction to Tony:
“Despite many years of self-examination, I have never been able to understand my affair with and subsequent marriage to Tony. It was a kind of obsessive compulsion…I don’t know how he was in other relationships in his life, but for us it was fun and fights and grand passion and low comedy. We did some of the finest acting we ever did in our lives together.”
Tony, famous for his quick temper, was booked and narrowly escaped a prison sentence after getting into a fist-fight with a photographer who wouldn’t leave him and Shelley alone at an estate auction. Throughout the marriage, Shelley worked to keep Tony’s temper and emotions on an even keel. But Tony’s infidelities seemed to grow with his Hollywood stardom. The two divorced in 1960, after Shelley discovered his affair with Judy Balaban, the wealthy daughter of Paramount Studios president Barney Balaban. (Judy was also famously one of Grace Kelly’s bridesmaids.)
Eerily interestingly, Tony Franciosa died of a stroke just five days after Shelley.
Gerry DeFord (m. 2006-Shelley’s death 10 hours later)
Shelley married longtime partner Gerry DeFord, 30 years her junior, 10 hours before her death on January 14, 2006. Shelley’s daughter Vittoria opposed the deathbed marriage to DeFord, who had a criminal record for drugs and theft. Vittoria, a respected physician of internal medicine then and now, understandably didn’t want her mother’s fortune, reportedly valued at $10 million, going to DeFord.
I can’t find any more recent updates, but as of Shelley’s 2006 passing, Vittoria was fighting DeFord to retain legal rights to her mother’s estate, which Vittoria had managed during her mother’s last years so Shelley could focus on overcoming her drug dependancy.
Shelley Winters Loved to Eat
Shelley Winters loved to eat.
As Shelley writes in her second volume of memoirs [aff. link]:
“I realize that most people remember events and then the food they had. I remember the food and then the event. I guess taste is a sense that also comes under the heading of sense memory. A very strong one for Shelley.”
Throughout her early career, which was at least as heavily based on her blonde bombshell appearance as her acting talent, one of Shelley’s greatest trials was finding balance between her love of food, and maintaining the figure her screen image depended on.
Shelley recalls being relegated to the “gourmet diet lunch” section of the commissary during her years at MGM, and being told to “go practice dieting” from studio heads like Harry Cohn. She was even required to lose weight before signing her first film contract with Cohn at Columbia Pictures.
As a character actress during the second half of her career, Shelley could be more relaxed about her figure, a welcome relief after so many years of constant dieting. Always admirably comfortable with her body at any size, Shelley once comically recounted what renown fashion designer, Jean Louis, said to her when she left Columbia Pictures:
“With his charming French accent, Jean Louis told me to remember Sarah Bernhardt’s advice to all young actresses: ‘Keep your figure.’ I don’t think I heard him clearly, damn it.”
Shelley's Favorite Combo
Shelley’s favorite meal, her way of celebrating the good times, and her “standard tranquilizer” during the hard times, was tuna fish sandwiches and chocolate milk shakes.
The slightly eccentric combo is somehow perfectly Shelley. Take a look at my Shelley Winters inspired Mint Chocolate Milkshake recipe here.
Shelley Winters Was Roommates with Marilyn Monroe
According to Shelley, for a brief time at the start of her Hollywood career, she was roommates with another struggling starlet, none other than Marilyn Monroe. It’s important to note that other than Shelley’s words, I can’t find any solid evidence that supports these claims…
But, with the exception of one or two Marilyn anecdotes that do not ring true—read my article on A Double Life (1947), Shelley Winters, and Marilyn Monroe for more information on those anecdotes—Shelley’s stories and insights on Marilyn could be accurate. Photos of the two stars in later years, particularly at the 1960 Golden Globes, where Marilyn and Shelley are all smiles as they greet each other— Marilyn even takes Shelley’s cheek quite tenderly in one picture— suggest a deep friendship with perhaps a long history.
"We Had Fun"
On David Letterman in 1989, Shelley said that she and Marilyn were roommates for “about a year on and off,” until Shelley became serious with her soon-to-be-second husband, Vittorio Gassman. During this year, the two blonde starlets had a blast furnishing their new place, playing the field, consoling each other through disappointing relationships and career turns, sharing clothes—the two even split the cost of a mink coat, and dreaming of becoming Oscar winning actresses who also enjoyed happy family lives.
According to Shelley in 1987’s Marilyn Monroe: Beyond the Legend:
“It wasn’t sad when we began to get good roles, it was a wonderful thing. We had fun. All this stuff about [Marilyn] being doomed and having a miserable life is totally untrue. It was exciting and wonderful.”
Shelley Winters Wasn’t Afraid to Ditch the Glamour. And Won Two Oscars as a Result.
Shelley Winters was always ambivalent about her blonde bombshell image. Though young Shirley Schrift desired to be considered beautiful, as a movie star, Shelley Winters was smart: she knew that looks alone would not guarantee her career longevity. Artistically, Shelley was not fulfilled with the simple roles Universal quite routinely gave her during her years under contract at the studio.
Blonde Bombshell Shelley made a bold career move when she petitioned for, and won, the unglamorous role of factory worker Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun (1951). The move was indicative of the career risks Shelley was willing to make. Her reward was a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Winning An Oscar. Or Two
Shelley further cemented her growing reputation as a talented actress when she accepted the role of Mrs. Van Daan in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank. For the matronly role, director George Stevens asked Shelley to gain 25 pounds. Shelley was in her late thirties at the time, and still playing sensual women on screen, but she accepted the role, and gained the weight. This time Shelley’s willingness to break from the bombshell image resulted in an Oscar for 1960’s Best Supporting Actress.
Experimenting with unglamorous roles early in her career helped Shelley transition into a respected character actress. As a character actress, Shelley found success on Broadway in such acclaimed plays as A Hatful of Rain (1955-1956) and The Night of the Iguana (1962), and even won a second Best Supporting Actress Oscar for A Patch of Blue (1965). Shelley’s willingness to take risks and ditch the glamour undoubtedly contributed to her six-decades long career.
Celebrate Shelley Winters
And that’s my introduction to our November Star of the Month, Shelley Winters.
Join me next week for all about Shelley’s friendship with Marilyn Monroe, and a film that demonstrates Shelley’s bombshell image as well as her dramatic skills, 1947’s A Double Life.