Shelley Winters’s Greatest Secret
Petty annoyances which before would have caused Shelley Winters to blow up and turn over applecarts all around town now find her almost mystically remote. A promised picture role withdrawn? A new apartment all awry and life gone hectic? Somebody daring to take her name in vain and spreading invidious and baseless rumors? It doesn’t touch her. Under her blonde, tousled poodle cut is a mind occupied with other matters, mainly those related to the great event before her—the expected birth of her son. A son? She knows it’s going to be a son? Oh, sure. She committed herself on that point to her husband, Vittorio Gassmann, right from the first.
“Will it be a boy?” he practically ordered when the doctor gave her the news and a columnist phoned him about it before she had even reached home again.
“Absolutely,” she told him.
In the third month of her pregnancy, about the time she moved into the new duplex apartment building she and Vittorio bought, she still had few doubts. Talking to some friends (an executive from the studio, a writer, workmen installing a gas outlet in the fireplace, numerous callers and various deliverymen—but all friends) she did admit an outside chance of error. But only for a fleeting moment.
“A girl?” she commented. “Well, if it’s a girl, she’ll be beautiful. But I’m certain it will be a boy. Shelley Winters, mother of a U. S. president. Imagine! Pretty good, eh? Of course he may have some competition. Elizabeth Taylor’s baby will be born three months ahead of him. Vittorio and I had dinner with Elizabeth and Michael the other evening. She looks wonderful. The boys talked European theater and we talked babies. I can’t get a thing zipped up any more and Elizabeth advised me where to get maternity clothes. But I don’t know. I’ll wait. We had a lot of laughs.”
The executive from the studio smiled appreciatively. Shelley’s interior decorator, who was passing through, nodded ‘pleasantly to everyone and headed for the room tentatively designated as the nursery. Mrs. Rose Schrift, Shelley’s mother, brought her a cup of tea and warned, “It’s hot.” Naturally, Shelley took a sip anyway and winced. She always has to find out things for herself—that much she hasn’t changed. “It’s hot,” she agreed.
That day, for instance, nothing had seemed to work out right about the apartment, including the Japanese gardener who again doggedly showed up at dawn to noisily water the plants despite their protests. (“Why does he have to sneak up on them in the dark?” Shelley asked). Besides this, and the fireplace’s need for modernizing, the water heater had made ominous noises, the shower leaked. (“How do you fix a washer?” Shelley had phoned plumber.) The pipes of the hot air heating system needed cleaning. (“Do they send a furry little cat through the pipes?” Shelley wondered.) A man came to deliver two bags of fertilizer nobody could remember ordering. Someone else bought venetian blinds which didn’t fit; and a neighbor who knew Shelley dropped in and told her the other neighbors on the street thought her husband was crazy.
Through all this Shelley remained serene, only mildly interested about the household disruption involved and just casually amused about the neighbors.
“Vittorio only sounds crazy,” she said. “He is rehearsing for his plays in Italy and he has to get back his old voice power because they don’t use microphones even when they play in those old Roman amphitheaters to audiences of 50,000 people. He does vocal exercises every day till the windows rattle. Up the street there is a neurologist, and every time he hears Vittorio he grabs his surgical kit in the hope I’ll call him over to operate. He thinks Vittorio will make a fascinating case.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?” she was asked.
“Uh-uh,” Shelley replied. “The only thing that bothers either one of us is the door. It squeaks when Vittorio is trying to study his plays. He yells about it, and I pour oil all over the hinges, but there is always a little squeak I miss.”
“What’s happened to you, then?” came another question. “Where is the good old Winters temperament? I heard you didn’t even get angry when 20th Century-Fox phoned you in Mexico that the picture you were to do with Richard Widmark had been cancelled. And that, they tell me, was before you even knew yourself you were going to have a baby.”
Shelley smiled blissfully. “It’s physiological, the doctor says,” she replied. “The glands pour something into the blood and then you don’t care what the score is. It’s a good thing the studios can’t get hold of the stuff. I didn’t know the baby was on the way in Mexico, but it was. That’s why 20th’s notification didn’t bother me. I’m having the first vacation I have ever had since I was 12 years old and I love it. I’m even taking naps now. Me! I never even sat down before during the day. And nights? I used to be a real nightclub girl. Now Vittorio has to hit me on the head to keep me up after dinner . . . he should dare to try!”
“Well, after the baby is born you’ll be your old self again,” her friend ventured.
Shelley thought a while. “I don’t know. I’ve got ideas now I don’t think I’ll forget afterwards—a brand new way of seeing things. I’m beginning to feel that a career is not all of life. If you keep dwelling on it it becomes everything, but that kind of everything can be pretty empty.”
That’s how it is with Shelley. Her personality adjustment to approaching motherhood is intriguing everyone, including Shelley herself. She is proud of the fact that three times during September she got new picture offers and was able to turn them down without the least personal dither and without automatically canvassing a dozen and a half of her friends for advice. She was tempted by one of the offers, a chance to play opposite Dick Basehart in an independent production entitled, Cry Tough.
“If you take this role and start the picture you will have to finish it, and in your condition this might prove difficult,” Vittorio warned.
“You mean I’ve got to face the facts of life?” she asked.
When he nodded she decided. “Okay, life wins . . . I won’t even start.”
Shelley’s new mood seems to embrace Vittorio as well, so that he too appears surrounded by an aura of gentle reasonableness. This helps wet down the dust of any conflict that does arise. One arose about their travel plans. Vittorio had his heart set on Shelley accompanying him to Italy in October when he returned for a five-months engagement with his play company there. Shelley was to stay right through Christmas and then return to Hollywood so that the baby could be born in the United States. Vittorio was to follow in April when his show closed, bringing his mother along. But her doctor advised Shelley not to attempt the trip until November, and when she reported this to Vittorio he couldn’t understand it.
“Why?” he asked. “You get on a plane, you sit, and then you are in Rome.”
“The doctor says it’s not wise to travel until the fifth month,” she told him.
Vittorio waved a deprecating hand. “Italian girls who are going to be mothers must be tougher,” he declared. “They go anywhere anytime.”
Shelley just .nodded agreeably. Then Vittorio demanded to know whether she was going to do what he said or what the doctor said.
“What the doctor said,” she replied.
Vittorio opened his mouth as if to pronounce some ultimatum . . . and then incipient fatherhood must have taken control of him. “Good girl . . .” he said. “We have to be careful.”
There was also the question of Shelley holding to some sort of diet. Her doctor didn’t want her to put on more than 20 or 25 pounds during pregnancy, and she had already gained 10 by the beginning of the third month. Vittorio, however, claimed that in Italy mothers-to-be gained up to 50 pounds and nobody cared.
He produced a pencil and paper and did some figuring. “You think not?” he asked. “If by the third month you have already gained ten pounds, and you are hardly started yet. . . .”
“Yes?” prompted Shelley, pretending she didn’t know what he was leading up to.
“I am afraid you are having this baby on the Italian plan,” he said.
The mysterious ailments which sometimes affect expectant fathers as well as mothers had not bypassed Vittorio before he left Hollywood. For one thing, he suffered from indigestion, something new for him, and he claimed it was a sympathetic reaction to Shelley’s condition. He began to complain when he noticed that she was making a habit of popping from bed right to the kitchen the first thing every morning. “It’s like a track race every morning with you,” he said. “Why?”
She told him that her doctor had advised eating immediately after arising to settle her stomach and prevent nausea. Vittorio smote his chest. “Why didn’t you tell me before?” he demanded. “Me too. I have been having heartburn ever since we found out about the baby.”
The next morning he beat her to the kitchen. The day after that, when she went to take some vitamin pills her doctor had prescribed, Vittorio followed right behind. He flipped a whole handful of the pills into his mouth before she could stop him. “They’re not for heartburn,” she told him.
“That’s all right,” he said. “I am interested in American medicine generally.”
Their original idea of buying the duplex apartment was to live in the ground floor apartment themselves and rent the upstairs apartment for income. But right from the first Vittorio began to discourage possible tenants. When Shelley asked him why, he reminded her that his mother would be with them. “It will be a good place for mother to live and a good place for the baby,” he said.
“But won’t you want the baby to be downstairs with us?” she asked.
Vittorio looked as if he couldn’t understand her. “What for?” he asked. “There is nothing you can say to a baby until he is five years old.”
Shelley laughs this off, of course. Baby is going to stay very close to mama and papa, the way she sees the parental program. What has bothered her is the probability of the child’s speaking Italian.
“If this is the case, you won’t be able to talk with him at all unless you learn Italian,” Vittorio has teased.
Shelley is taking no chances. She is studying hard. She has also obtained the University of Chicago recommended “Great Books of the Western World,” in 54 volumes, and intends to read every one of them.
“Anything my kid wants to know, from Homer to Tennessee Williams, I’m going to be able to tell him,” she says.
To get time for this, she has quit working on a sweater for Vittorio which she has been knitting for five months and which is still one sleeve short of being all finished.
Even if some of Vittorio’s ideas are a little hard to take, all in all he is making a fine prospective father, according to Shelley. Although he was born in a home where a nurse attended his wants from infancy on (and still does when he visits his own family), he forgot all about this the day they moved to their new place.
“He started off normal,” she said. “He refused to get out of bed when the movers came in the morning. But afterwards he made a great finish, even washing the dishes and taking out the garbage.”
Their worst day, she says, came the afternoon they both went to her doctor to discuss the money end of parenthood. The doctor wanted to know Vittorio’s income for the past five years so he could establish an average on which to base the fee. When Vittorio heard what the fee was to be, Shelley saw his lips moving in the way they do when he is mentally converting dollars into lira. From the expression on his face, it looked to her as if he was up into the millions of them. After they got home, Shelley made him a drink and he became fairly philosophic about his fate.
“Still,” he said, “births in America and births in Italy are entirely different phenomena. In Italy if you want a baby it is merely a matter of love. In America you have to be deaf to your heart until your bank book says, ‘Okay! Go ahead and have a baby!’ ”
“Except if you are an Italian in America,” murmured Shelley.
No, at this writing Shelley is about the calmest girl in Hollywood. When Farley Granger heard about her good fortune, he came. over and brought flowers. After he left Shelley said, “Gee, he’s a nice guy. Its a shame Vittorio and he can’t be friends.” (Vittorio is the one who is doing the balking.) Then she shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, well,” she commented, and you knew that was not going to bother her either.
—BY LOUIS POLLOCK
(Shelley Winters can be seen in Universal-International’s Untamed Frontier.)
It is a quote. MODERN SCREEN MAGAZINE DECEMBER 1952