From the Archives: Shelley Winters, 85; Oscar Winner Went From Bombshell to Respected Actress

Shelley Winters

Shelley Winters in “A Patch of Blue." 

Special to The Times

Shelley Winters, a blond bombshell of the 1940s who evolved into a character actress best remembered for her roles as victims, shrews and matrons, died Saturday. She was 85.

Winters, the first actress to win two Oscars in the best supporting category, died of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, her publicist, Dale Olson, said. She was hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack.

Actress Sally Kirkland, who was close to Winters, said she was with Winters Friday night as an ordained minister for the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness performed last rites for her.

Kirkland said she also performed a “spiritual wedding ceremony” for Winters and her life partner, Jerry DeFord. Olson said DeFord had been Winters’ companion for 19 years.


“Shelley was ... an extraordinary woman with powerful charisma, enormous talent, a keen perceptive mind who lived her life and spoke of it as she saw it,” singer Connie Stevens said Saturday. “She was loving fun, and I’m so glad to know her and love her as a true friend.”

Kevin Thomas, a retired Times writer who had known Winters for more than 30 years, said Saturday: “Shelley was a mass of contradictions as only a Method actress can be. Nobody could be more down to earth ... but quicker to fall back on a star’s perquisites. She was mercurial, adorable, infuriating, loyal, brave.”

Although most sources give Winters’ birth date as Aug. 18, 1922, she told Variety’s Army Archerd in 2004 that she had lied to studio head Harry Cohn when she signed with Columbia and was born two years earlier.

A little bit Jean Harlow, a little bit Mae West, Winters was once lumped with such sexy starlets as Marilyn Monroe. But Winters from the start was willing to give up glamour for a good role. After years on studio contract playing negligible parts, she got a break in George Cukor’s 1947 film, “A Double Life,” in which she played a waitress who was murdered by Ronald Colman.


Four years later, she became a full-fledged star as the dowdy factory girl that Montgomery Clift lets drown to be with the beautiful, rich Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun.” Winters was nominated but did not win a best actress Oscar for the portrayal.

But Winters did win in the best supporting actress category for her roles as Mrs. Van Daan in Stevens’ “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959) and Rose-Ann D’Arcy, the abusive mother who tries to turn her blind daughter into a prostitute in “A Patch of Blue” (1965). The actress donated the first Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Also among her 130 films was “The Poseidon Adventure” (1972), which earned her another best supporting actress nomination.

Winters was the author of two well-received autobiographies: “Shelley, Also Known as Shirley” (1980), which was on the bestseller list for many weeks, and “Shelley II: In the Middle of My Century” (1989).

In them, she told rollicking stories that didn’t always put her in a favorable light, taking readers “down the rocky road that leads out of the Brooklyn ghetto to: one New York apartment, two Oscars, three California houses, four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats,” etc., and including a slew of famous lovers. Many of these stories she hilariously recounted on late-night television shows such as Johnny Carson’s.

Born Shirley Shrift in St. Louis, the daughter of a garment cutter-salesman-designer and a mother who had aspirations to be an opera singer, Winters grew up mostly in Brooklyn. While still in high school, she took acting lessons and got interested in show business.

In her teens, she auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in David O. Selznick’s production of “Gone With the Wind.” Though she didn’t get the part, the director, Cukor, “was the first person to treat me as if I were really an actress,” she wrote in “Shelley, Also Known as Shirley.”

While still in high school, she entered local beauty contests, modeled and acted in school plays. She got a part in the national company of “Pins and Needles,” but when the director found out she had borrowed a friend’s union card, she was let go.


The director advised her to study acting, which took her to a dramatic workshop at New York City’s New School for Social Research. It would, she said, “change my life, my Art, my politics and, I think, my soul.”

For a couple of summers, she was an entertainer at one of the hotels in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. She also did a little vaudeville, an off-Broadway play and a national company tour of the Broadway musical “Meet the People.” She met and married her first husband, Mack P. Mayer, who went off to World War II; they divorced when he returned.

When she was appearing as Fifi in the hit Broadway show “Rosalinda,” studio head Cohn spotted her blond good looks and comedic possibilities and asked her to do a test. Soon she was in Hollywood under contract. Her first lines were spoken to Rosalind Russell in “What a Woman!” (1943): “You can’t go in there now, miss.”

Many more films and similar lines later, she was feeling discouraged when Cukor cast her as the doomed waitress in the film he was directing, “A Double Life.” It proved to be her breakthrough role.

Even with this credit, however, Stevens refused to let Winters test for Alice Tripp in “A Place in the Sun,” thinking her too blond and pretty. Winters finagled a meeting at the Hollywood Athletic Club, dyed her hair brown and put on a loose, gray coat, brown shoes and white bobby sox. She waited in the club’s lobby.

When Stevens arrived, he didn’t recognize her, and she didn’t go to him. When he rose to leave, he finally spotted her. She got the test, and the role.

From Stevens, she learned a valuable lesson in acting. After she had done a particularly important scene in which she “wept buckets and thought I was great,” Stevens suggested that she hold back her tears.

“He was right. When I didn’t cry, the scene had much more impact on the audience,” she said.


Among her other films was the well-regarded “The Night of the Hunter,” which starred Robert Mitchum and was the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, a mentor with whom she also studied Shakespeare.

Her study of her craft also took her to the Actors Studio, and she eventually became a valued acting teacher.

“I’m a Method actress, you know,” she told journalist Maryln Schwartz in 1982. “I find feelings of my own to correspond with what’s in the script. On stage, I look at a bottle of champagne with craving. Inside my head, I’m thinking of a great big banana split.”

Eventually, Winters gave up all pretense of being a sexy star and slipped comfortably into the role familiar to audiences today: a blunt, bawdy, comical, overweight broad.

Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker magazine about Winter’s performance as the “hysteric on the loose” mother in Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976), said: “With her twinkly goo-goo eyes and flirty grin, [she’s] a mother hippo charging — not at her son’s enemies but at him. Fat, morose, irrepressible, she’s a force that would strike terror to anyone’s heart, yet in some abominable way she’s likable.”

Film historian and critic David Thomson said Winters was “at her best when driven to wonder, ‘How did a girl like me get into a high-class movie like this?’ ” Her career, he said, had “never lost its sense of loudmouth fun.”

And Diane Ladd, who directed Winters in a 1995 TV movie, “Mrs. Munck,” said Winters was wonderful to direct because “she lives one-16th from her subconscious. She just lets it pour out.”

That generosity of spirit also applied to Winters’ private life.

There were doubtless many other starlets with stories to tell, but who but Winters could tell the tale of the night when Burt Lancaster — the married lover who had just broken her heart — showed up at her apartment at 5 a.m. as she was sleeping off a night of sexual healing with Marlon Brando?

“Burt came up the slow elevator, and I quickly straightened the apartment up as much as I could and then threw on a flannel nightgown,” Winters wrote in “Shelley, Also Known as Shirley.” Brando escaped via stairs to the roof.

And who would ever have told of other liaisons — some brief, some lasting many years — with William Holden, a same-time-next-year Christmas Eve kind of relationship; Farley Granger, to whom she was engaged but never married; Errol Flynn, about whom she once said, “I can assure you [he] was not a homosexual"; and Sean Connery, whom she once lent rent money and who paid her back much later with a mink coat?

She also told how she mistook Howard Hughes, whom she met at a Hollywood party and later became friends with, for a set decorator. And playwright Bertolt Brecht for a janitor.

And she confessed to a screaming on-the-set fight with Frank Sinatra, with whom she starred in 1952’s “Meet Danny Wilson.”

“Ah, well, the fires of youth,” Winters wrote decades later of this episode. “I never have real good fights with anyone anymore.”

Winters said she was a “role model” for Monroe. When, as young actresses, they shared an apartment in Hollywood, it was she who taught Monroe the sexy, lips-apart look for which Monroe became famous, Winters said. There also are pictures of each of them wearing the same striped, two-piece swimsuit for cheesecake photos.

The two of them once decided that they needed to think like men when it came to lovers, and “sleep with the most attractive men and not get emotionally involved.” They made up separate lists of men they wanted to have sex with. Among Monroe’s: Zero Mostel, Albert Einstein and Arthur Miller, whom she later married. Winters’ included Laurence Olivier, with whom she later became friends.

Though Winters’ tell-all autobiographies probably had more to tell than most, she told the Chicago Tribune when she was in her 60s: “Compared to today, I wasn’t Polly Promiscuous, although I wasn’t exactly Vera Virgin either.”

Winters was appreciated for her willingness to help other actors. Among her proteges was Kirkland, who said she learned from Winters that “you can be an Oscar-winning actress and have a sense of truth and a sense of humor all at the same time.”

Late in her career, Winters became a favorite on late-night talk show programs, beloved for her sense of humor and saltiness. She provided Carson one of the most memorable moments on “The Tonight Show” when she dumped a glass of water over the head of English actor Oliver Reed, who had annoyed her with an anti-feminist remark.

“I have bursts of being a lady, but it doesn’t last long,” Winters once said.

Besides her marriage to Mayer, Winters was wed and divorced twice more. Her tempestuous third marriage, to actor Tony Franciosa, lasted three years.

With her second husband, Italian actor Vittorio Gassman, she had a daughter, Victoria Gassman Neuman, a physician, who survives her.

In addition to DeFord and her daughter, Winters is survived by two grandchildren.

Funeral services are pending.


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