Drama. comedy, she could do it all.

Dumpy but also, in her day, sexy.  Here’s to the former Shelley Winters.

There were Nelson Eddy, Ronald Coleman, Lawrence Tierney and Errol Flynn. Don’t forget Brando, William Holden and the inevitable Howard Hughes. And that’s just the prelude.

Here’s a peek at the love life of a star who took herself and her acting seriously but never really thought of herself as a sexpot.

But despite the shrill, overweight yenta image she projected late in her career — as below as she is screaming it up in the 1972 disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure — Winters was early on sexual catnip drawing some of the most famous males cats in classic Hollywood.

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We know this because Winters told us in her autobiography, Shelley Also Known As Shirley, published in 1980 and taking us from her St. Louis beginnings as Shirley Schrift through her disastrous second marriage to Italian actor Vittorio Gassman. (A  subsequent third-marriage to actor Anthony Franciosa is not mentioned in this volume.)

Over the course of a very long career — comprising more than a 100 movie and TV titles (including a stint on tv’s Roseanne as “Nana Mary”) from the early Forties through 1999, seven years before she died at age 86 — she acquired four husbands. But there were many lovers.

Not among them were two of her costars, Ernest Borgnine; and Michael Caine with whom Shelley costarred in 1966’s Alfie.

The two didn’t communicate especially well during shooting. Writes Caine: “Shelley Winters told me that she hadn’t understood a single thing I’d said to her … and had resorted to just watching my lips to know when to come in on cue.”

Borgnine, Winter’s costar in The Poseidon Adventure, was more critical:  the damnedest woman you’ve ever seen in your life, the actor wrote in his autobiography.

After nights on the town, Winters would show up at the studio the next day insisting that Borgnine help her with her lines. Of course, (by the time they finally arrived at the set) the stuff was fresh in her memory and I’d forgotten my lines….I just couldn’t stomach her anymore.

Ok, that was Shelly in raucous middle age. Let’s retreat to 1943 at Columbia, where an unknown Winters was appearing in What A Woman!, a romantic comedy costarring Rosalind Russell and Brian Aherne, one of her first films.  She was 23 at the time. A year later she was cast in the movie version of Knickerbocker Holiday starring Nelson Eddy.

One night after shooting stopped, Eddy “stumbled into my dressing room , quite drunk, still in costume, wrote Shelley. Suddenly he came out of the bathroom wearing long red underwear…”Hey, move over,” he barked at the napping Winters.

I was stunned. Up to that point in the filming he had been the very proper New England gentleman…Besides my mother loved his pictures with Jeanette MacDonald and used to drag me to them.

I jumped out of bed. Mr. Eddy, I yelled, think of your image! What would Jeanette MacDonald say?

“Who cares? She slides off her C’s.”  

Winters staged a dressing room escape as Eddy lunged for me and fell on the sofa.  It was not the first time Shelley would be the recipient of unwanted (and wanted) overtures from a big name star.

And then there was Burt Lancaster.

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.

That’s Shirley talking, and it 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. 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 — alas!– fizzled, and soon was in the past.


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