He was charming and, oh, God, so handsome! And he was , I think, one of the most gracefully athletic men I’ve ever seen. Just watching him walk was almost a physical pleasure.

Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to report that the above quote — excerpted from the autobiography, Shelley Also Known As Shirley, published in 1980 — does NOT refer to either one of us.

No, it comes from Shelley Winters  and describes the guy who, one night in the late 1940’s during an elevator ride in a New York hotel, invited her to a Broadway performance of South Pacific. She accepted, and a flaming romance was born.

Burt Lancaster was in his mid-Thirties at the time, his career was very much on the rise. He also uttered these time-honored words: “My wife and I are not getting along and are discussing a separation.” 

In her late twenties, Shelley was far less known but nonetheless was quite a looker, a far cry from the overweight actress later in her career specializing in blowsy female parts. When she accepted that date with Lancaster, she was also between her first and second marriages (she had a total of four in all).

She had also had a small but key role in Ronald Colman’s 1947 Oscar winning film, A Double Life, (below) and her career was on the rise. (She professed to adore Colman but her reaction to Lancaster was entirely another matter.)

 

Back at their hotel, at the end of that long Broadway musical evening — a sumptuous dinner at the tony restaurant, Le Pavillion, following the show —  Shelley reported that I don’t know how it all happened, but all I remember is being on a blue and white bedspread on a thick white rug on the living-room floor and Burt didn’t have any clothes on and he was gorgeous and I didn’t have any clothes on and I felt gorgeous and now Gigli was singing “O Paradiso” on the phonograph.

This was not just one more Hollywood one-night stand.  Winters and Lancaster took one another very seriously.  When the actress was hit by a car (owned, as it happened, by theater magnate J.J. Shubert) and tossed six feet landing back-on-asphalt, it was Lancaster who nursed her back to health providing her tea, sugar and pain pills. He messages me gently and was so kind as he kept trying to distract me with funny stories.

While he was trying to sort out his marital problems, he installed her in a Hollywood penthouse apartment (the Villa Italia near Schwab’s drug store). A particular advantage was that the parking garage afforded him the privacy he wishes to maintain his affair. No one could see him coming or going.

This went on for some time (their affair lasted more than two years) until Winters chafed under the secrecy she was forced to maintain.  Burt (would) take me out for an early dinner because he had to get home before eight or he’d turn into a pumpkin.

Then there was the considerable pull of Shelley’s fierce ambition. Winters learned from her friend, novelist Norman Mailer, that director George Stevens was casting a key role in his classic 1951 film, A Place In The Sun, costarring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

Shelley set her sights on the part — that of the plain Jane working girl named Alice Tripp, who first attracts Clift’s drifter character — and went after it with the vengeance.  She lost weight, talked up director Stevens, lobbied everyone in sight. She eventually got it and her career took off, winning her her first Oscar nomination.

By this time, Winters also figured out that being the wife of a popular male movie star would not be all it was cracked up to be.  The romance with Lancaster fizzled, and soon was in the past.

Shelley’s autobiography takes us from her St. Louis beginnings as Shirley Schrift through her post-Lancaster second marriage — which turned out to be a volatile disaster — to Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. 

Read it.  It’s great fun.

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