That Do Or Die Doll—Shelley Winters
In her early days in Hollywood, Shelley Winters made a discovery. If you want to be a star, you better have personality. She hired a press agent. Three days later she made page one of every morning newspaper in town—a feat not to be underestimated in the publicity-conscious town of Hollywood.
That morning thousands of readers saw a picture of an unknown starlet named Shelley Winters being dragged away from an exclusive party by two burly members of the local police force. By the time the afternoon editions hit the stands, that unknown starlet had already been nicknamed the Blond Bombshell and was well on her way to becoming Hollywood’s most colorful glamour girl. Very few readers stopped to read the corrections in the later editions—the corrections that explained Miss Winters was merely being escorted to the local Police Benefit where she entertained. It was a press agent’s stunt and it worked. From that day forward, Shelley Winters was a star.
Since then, Shelley has had her share of newsprint—so large a portion that it’s been difficult to separate the facts from the preess-agent’s fiction. To make any headway, it’s best to start at the beginning—with Shelley’s mother.
Shelley’s mother was a beautiful, talented woman, deeply sensitive, emotional and possessing a heavenly operatic voice. She was bread and balm to the boisterous yet sensitive bundle of nervous energy who was Shelley. She indulged her completely. If Mother had not been a frustrated actress, would Shelley’s iron will and inner drive have been poured into er channels? Did the complete lack of discipline help mold the colorful character of the child who could wear everybody down, indulged in temper tantrums, buttered the slides on the playground, walked a two-story balcony railing at dancing school when four, told the teachers what to do, was a tomboy and a show-off and got into enough trouble to send Mother to school for “talks” with teacher at least once a week? Or was it Mother’s beauty that cut a deep wound that still festers? For very early and very earnestly Shelley decided she was not pretty.
Her impressionable mind fastened like a bulldog on the humiliating inability to live up to Mother’s beauty. She felt uneasy with girls and in self-defense became a tomboy. She was comfortable and at home with boys for there was no reminder of her lack of beauty. It would be years before full understanding that beauty is something within—that she, too, could and would be beautiful when she wanted to. Quickly she learned to cover the exposure of her warm and generous nature behind a facade of aggression and domination. So, inevitably, the bitter battle of dual natures planted the seeds of insecurity, fear and restlessness in the turbulent soul of an intelligent, quicksilvered child.
The shell of brass and flamboyance hardened when Mother went to work when she was twelve. She stayed on the streets till midnight, roller skating, playing games, experiencing the rough night life of a neighborhood not too safe in daylight. She learned to hate housework, for she had taken her mother’s place in cooking meals and cleaning, and she loathed it.
At thirteen, a discerning music teacher, Viola Speers, saw through her belligerence, hooky-playing and trouble making. Miss Speers was a stern woman with an amazing perception. Having had acting aspirations herself, she recognized Shelley’s refusal to get up and perform as a self-conscious shyness that could hide talent. One day an outlet for all Shelley’s drives and wild compulsions found release in a creative channel. Miss Speers suddenly commanded, “You will write and produce the entire assembly program for two weeks from Friday. You’re on your own—do what you want to.”
Shelley wrote a one act musical, “Come out of the Kitchen,” animating the pots and pans, dish mop and teakettle. She picked her cast and rehearsed them like an old pro. She wrote new lyrics for popular songs and cast herself as the dish mop who fell in love with the hero, the broom. She made the costumes and supervised everything, even the sweeping of the floor. She forgot just one thing—Mr. Rosenberg, the piano teacher. When she finally handed him the score of her musical at dress rehearsal with instructions of, “ten bars of this, and verse and chorus of ‘Hold Tight,’ and fifteen bars of incidental music for the teakettle number. Mr. Rosenberg almost had apoplexy. Somehow she convinced him that he could do it and the next day, before a thousand kids, Shelley felt the first thrill of the theatre in the applause and approval. She felt that intangible magnet that exists between performer and audience.
The school principal made a speech after the show, “This is the most unusual and engaging assembly we’ve ever had,” he announced and turned to the writer-actress-producer; her eyes filled with tears as he pinned the coveted music pin on the black tie. Shelley fell in love—with music, acting and the very essence of theatre. She had found something to adore openly—and safely.
Viola Speers taught Shelley many things. She gave her free music lessons. She erased, in part, Shelley’s fear of not being pretty enough. She took her home for dinner and became her friend and staunchest fan. She even showed her how math and music were alike—turning an indifferent student into an avidly curious prober. Shelley played the lead in “Good News” that year and by the time she was ready for high school was taking the first steps toward self-confidence.
The summer before high school, she started working in a five-and-ten. While eating lunch with a couple of other clerks, the discussion turned to the beauty contest which was the big thing of the day. One of the girls taunted Shelley about entering. The other girl picked it up. They rode her until she was in a rage, “All right, I’ll enter it and I’ll win it.” She flew out of the cafe clutching her savings, sixteen dollars, and marched into a beauty shop, “You make me beautiful—sixteen bucks worth,” she demanded. They cut, shaped, and set her curly, unruly hair, tweezed her eyebrows and did her make-up. She bought a white satin bathing suit (a very new style at that time) on credit, picked up a pair of falsies to fill out her childish frame, and borrowed her sister’s high heels. But she didn’t take a chance on winning. She rounded up the Boy Scout Troop that was parallel to her Girl Scout Troop. On the eventful day, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts assembled into one brass band. When the lifeguard-chairman held his hand over Shelley’s head, a cacophony of trumpets, drum and trombones filled the air. Shelley won the beauty contest. She still covets the first-prize cup . . . and wonders if she might have won without the insurance of a brass band.
In high school the pattern of her love life took shape. A shape that stood in the shadow of her first love, acting. Feeling her personal magnetism, learning how to dress and accentuate her assets had taken the edge off her desire to be popular. She was popular, so there was no field to conquer. Once she knew she could date, she lost interest in dating for dating’s sake. On her way to look in on the captain of the basketball team in the gym one day, she happened to pass the tryout room for “The Mikado.” She was quite taken by the basketball captain and had been dating him a lot, but when the teacher asked if she’d try out, she couldn’t resist a shot at Kitisha, the villainess. She got the part. She lost the boy. She worked hard and opening night was determined and ready. The high school was so large they had two orchestras of one hundred each. They combined for the opening of “The Mikado” in the auditorium that seated six thousand. When the conductor suddenly became ill that night, a student conductor took over. As Shelley started her main song the orchestra started off wrong. For a few bars she tried anyway. Then Shelley raised her arms and stopped the orchestra. She strode to the footlights, “We will start again,” she said forcefully. The orchestra struck up once more. “One—two—three,” quoth Kitisha and the tune was off the ground and falling beautifully on the ears of the delighted audience. Shelley was a hit.
That same bravado pushed down her deeply embedded insecurity in her last year of high school. She decided to get out of the five-and-dime and model. By this time her figure needed no accoutrements. Designer Teddy Shaw wanted junior models for his Kalman and Morris Evening Gowns. Shelley stifled her inner misgivings and applied. “Can you model?” “Oh, sure,” was the nonchalant reply. Clad in a Schiaparelli copy and awkward and off-balance in high-heeled shoes, Miss Winters stood poised at the top of the stairs, staring down into the faces of the buyers. She took one graceful step and promptly fell down the stairs. Inadvertently she stumbled into the field of comedy. The house was sold with laughter—but no one bought the Schiaparelli copy on her dishevelled back.
Morris wanted to fire her, but Kalman liked her spunk, so Shelley became a stock girl, helping the models and thereby earning a free modeling course, which she carefully took full advantage of. Working all summer at twenty-five dollars a week, she balked at finishing high school in the fall. Her father was furious. He planned for her to go on to college and become a lawyer. He held no brief for the fine art of dramatics so it was not mentioned again in his presence. Father and daughter compromised. Shelley learned to put on her make-up with the rumble of the subway train at 6:30 a.m. She arrived at her modeling work at 7:30 a.m. After a full day, she went to high school at night.
The jumbled montage of the next two years had a definite pattern. Full of insatiable curiosity and driving ambition, she started her habit of doing at least four things at once. During the day she modeled for fifty dollars a week; at night she filled herself with theatre at Piscatore’s Dramatic School. Suddenly aware of the world she wanted, her every free moment was spent at the modern art museum, concerts, reading voraciously on politics and philosophy, listening with hungry ears to good music and sneaking into theatres for the second and third acts for free. And somehow she managed the time to take out a marriage license. She was going to marry a wonderful boy, but she turned down 38th Street by accident on her way to get some feathers for a hat. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union was holding auditions for a new play, for members only, of course.
“Are you sure you’re a sewing machine operator?”
The bulletlike retort was becoming typical, “Sure, I’m sure. I’m Sonia Epstein.” She got the part. She borrowed Sonia’s union card . . . and marriage and the wonderful boy were a thing of the past.
Somehow Blanche, her sister, and Mother managed to keep her dramatic aspirations from Dad even during the summer months while she toured the Catskill mountains in the summer theatres. It was Blanche who loaned her the money to join Equity when she finally got a professional job in “Conquest” in April with Henry Hull. The show flopped in Delaware and never made Broadway. But it was a time of decision for Shelley. She became a dedicated actress. She would not go back to modeling.
With that decision she faced Dad. The fight could be heard in the upper reaches of Brownsville. “He finally literally threw me out of the house.” Threw her into sharing one room with two other girls for fourteen dollars a week. Forced her into a wary but illuminating friendship with those she had never trusted—girls. When you starve together, bring back food for the others after a date and lend and borrow your best, love and warmth seep through. Slowly human relations become understandable. There she found her dearest friend, Constance Dowling. And it was from that one room that she went out one afternoon to leave a lasting impression on Charles Martin.
Charles Martin took her to a cocktail party and watched with amazement as she tore through hors d’oeuvres like a truck driver at a free lunch counter. “Why don’t I call down and order you a steak?” suggested Charles.
“Why don’t you?” was the quick answer. He did. She ate. Then they went to dinner.
“How about a steak?”
“Fine—on the dinner and two chocolate parfaits.”
After the theatre they went to El Morocco. “Would you like something to eat?” grinned Charles.
“Now that you mention it, I could eat a steak—on the dinner and. . .”
“I know, I know,” sighed the unbelieving Martin, “and two chocolate parfaits!”
But the “do or die” girl couldn’t starve forever. Slowly off-Broadway shows started coming her way. She worked with Elia Kazan’s Actors Studio. She worked in musicals. Hating them, she seemed to always get a job in them. “I was accustomed to doing a solo in the chorus line. I always was two steps behind or two out in front.”
It was during a tour of “Meet the People” that mature love hit Shelley. They met in Detroit. He was of the theatre. They talked the same language, were stimulated beyond talks and the impulsive, carefully hidden Shelley submerged the dedicated actress Shelley. Just after Pearl Harbor, while playing Rosalinda in “Die Fledermaus” on Broadway, she had to decide which was more important—the actress or the woman. Harry Cohen, of Columbia Pictures, saw her performance and signed her to a contract. Her first picture was to be “Cover Girl.”
Immediately after that, her wonderful young man enlisted. Shelley’s choice was instinctive and complete. They were married. She spent the next two months on a different kind of tour. She followed her husband from Louisiana to South Dakota while he learned of B-17’s. While Harry Cohen tried to locate his new contractee, she was learning the beauty of sharing human relationships. All of her generosity, sensitivity, and pent-up emotions were given and received with delight. When he was sent overseas, she picked up the threads of her career and moved to Hollywood. They wrote daily letters, but when he returned they were perfect strangers. They had nothing to say to each other. After an attempt at annulment, Shelley sadly got a divorce.
Hollywood was a completely new kind of world. For the first time Shelley tried to conform. She let them redo her hairline, fit her with long eyelashes, style her hair long and change her walk. She was a miserable and bewildered imitation of Rita Hayworth. After a year and a half, Columbia dropped her contract. She was ashamed to go home. She had to make one hit before she went back.
She sat down and quietly analyzed the situation. She had conformed. She was a walking carbon copy. She was uncomfortable in the adopted personality she’d used for over a year. The shrewd little girl from Brownsville returned to her owner and made her important discovery: “It’s not by talent but personality that you become a star. And you have to be a star before they’ll let you be an actress.” She planned to exploit her own individual personality. Not through a “date every night and being seen,” but by the very nature of herself. She would again make things happen. Back on an even keel with herself and an objective to gain, the indomitable will led her through the next heartbreaking year.
She went to work in night clubs. Under a different name, she sang from San Riego to the old Serenade Club on LaCienega Boulevard in Hollywood. The restlessness and insecurity lurked behind her determination. John Ireland helped her through that maddening period. He sat at the bar while she did her comedy routines and songs. After the club closed, they would go to a quiet cafe. Shelley would appease her physical and theatrical hunger over a late dinner and incessant talk of acting. Between jobs, she picked up her unemployment check and headed for the race track with John. “The races were like a disease. Something in me needed to go and gamble with that tiny check. When that bad time was over, I never went to the races again. I’ve never needed to.”
When the sun shone again on Shelley, it was typical that it shone from both the east and the west. Lawrence Langner wanted her to replace Celeste Holm as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma.” At the same time, George Cukor wanted her for “Double Life.” Shelley had first signed the contract for “Oklahoma.” She also knew what the part of the waitress in “Double Life” could do for her career. So? Naturally, she tried to do both without telling anyone her dilemma. She was running wildly from fittings for Ado Annie to fittings for “Double Life.” Her conscience became a nagging, screaming torment. At last she unburdened her guilt to Cukor. He screamed with laughter. Finally, he got Lawrence Langner on the phone. After everyone had a good laugh except Shelley, it was agreed that she could do both. The schedule was worked out. In “Double Life” the brilliance of her acting ability was seen on the screen for the first time. It brought an Academy Award nomination and two pictures at 20th “Cry of the City” and “The Great Gatsby.” Then Universal-International offered a contract.
Shelley has a long memory. She did not forget her analysis—personality first, talent second. While her agent fought for money, Shelley stood beside him fighting for the right publicity. She got publicity—some right and some wrong. But she will never deny that since that time she has had more than her share of a provocative press.
For it was immediately after signing the contract and hiring a press agent that Shelley went to that very impressive party at Errol Flynn’s home. She is tongue-tied with only two people in the world—the Queen of England and Clark Gable. She was being happily tongue-tied with Clark Gable in a corner of the living room when the commotion started at the door. Two policemen strode in and walked up to Shelley, “Come with us, Miss,” they commanded. Shelley stood in the midst of her first party, shocked, shamed and frightened. They refused to tell her what she’d done or why she had to leave. As they took her out, one on each arm, a barrage of flash bulbs went off. Sick and shaking she turned to Herb Stein and begged, “Please call my mother and explain.” The police car took off with reporters still trying to find out what the charge was. When the police car pulled up to the Shrine Auditorium and the grinning cops invited her to come in and entertain at the Police Benefit, it took minutes for her to understand what had happened.
The next morning she understood when she read the.morning papers. The rest is obvious. Shelley had become a star overnight.
Simultaneously she became the Blond Bombshell. Now strongly in the public eye, her honesty, outspokenness and permanent built-in temperament became colorful, magnified and debatable. The roles that U-I put her in cemented the impression—“all hipswinging blonds daring some- body to do something.” Her revolt at “It’s just a movie, get it in the can” kept her on suspension two years out of seven. When she respected a role, she worked with everything in her. If she didn’t respect the role, her caustic remarks echoed through the printing presses. Her uncanny ability to say the right dramatic thing at the right time helped build the press Frankenstein that later caused her to cry out in protest at the gross misunderstanding. Shelley’s own urge to “make things happen,” plus early publicity, which made her a character before she could prove otherwise, and the press itself taking for granted she was the Bombshell without checking her out personally, all had a hand in creating the Saga of Shelley.
She learned a lot in those years. She was the busiest actress on the sound stage. Her curiosity had her questioning the sets, cutting, musical scores, dialogue, directors and evenutally production. “I’d even sweep the floor of the stage if I could learn something,” she admitted. She also learned that it can be a mistake to act in a picture! In “Frenchy” she had a scene by her father’s grave. The actress in her automatically went to work to make it a moving scene. It was so moving (and out of context with the rest of the Western) that she embarrassed the audience. “It was a mistake,” she said bluntly. Occasionally she landed a role that she could believe in. Between pictures like “Phone Call from a Stranger” and “A Place in the Sun,” the unpredictable Shelley would suddenly appear in a little theatre version of “Of Mice and Men” or “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Other actresses were appalled that she’d take such a chance with her career. But the restless need for perfection and creative work forced Shelley to seek variety on the stage, while she played the same part over and over on the screen.
In her personal life she was still full of uneasiness with anyone outside of theatre. She still found it extremely difficult to trust. She still leaned heavily on male companionship, “I prefer friends to lovers,” she said glibly. But behind the quip her sensitive nature was using the safety of friendship, while still feeling the uneasy fear of love. She met a wonderful man and the surge of all her responsive love went out to him. Then she decided he didn’t want an actress for a wife. She had the ability to turn her feelings off. At the time she convinced herself that “the first love of my life is theatre.”
She also took a flyer in gracious living. High in the Hollywood Hills she found a dramatic home replete with flagstone, fireplace, picture windows framing a magnificent view and a huge living room. She fell in love again and became the epitome of femininity. Her emotions took over and conquered the driving aggression. She, who had always been so casual clotheswise, became the picture of allure in dramatic lounging pajamas. Their only problem was waiting. His divorce wasn’t final. Eagerly anticipating the day he would be free, she gave herself the rich joy of being courted. This heady wine lasted until the day he got his freedom. In panic, Shelley flew to San Francisco, blindly busied herself and skipped the whole episode. She drove it ruthlessly from her mind.
She continued to take her love out on friends. Everyone who has become her friend is a friend for life. She is generous and giving to a fault. She has driven directors to distraction pushing them for jobs for her actor friends. She uses her directness and strength with the same enthusiasm for someone she believes in as she does for herself. She was delighted when she and Farley Granger, a good friend, co-starred in “Behave Yourself.” They were given two round-trip tickets to Rome by the producer, Howard Hughes, as a “thank you” when they finished.
They flew to Rome and Shelley met Vittorio Gassman. All the odds of background, religion, language and geography precluded any lasting happiness, so they fell in love. For Shelley it was the free pulsating love that she had waited for. She knew no fear. They ignored the obstacles and blithely planned to live six months in Italy and six in the States. She knew nothing of the Italian way of life. She didn’t know that Italian husbands come home at noon for lunch and spend three or four hours with their wife and then expect to go out to a favorite bistro at night, talking business with friends while the wife sits home. He didn’t know that in America the complete sharing of a life together on all levels is the basis for happy marriage. They knew that love would conquer all. And so they were married.
Shelley gave herself completely to the role of wife. She learned to cook spaghetti fifteen different ways, became a devoted sponge, absorbing his every mood, and her acting ambitions became secondary to her desire to see that Vittorio’s great talent was recognized in Hollywood. But when they were in Italy, Shelley felt uneasy and away from home. When they were in Hollywood, Vittorio was the one to feel rootless. The delight they had found in discovering that each was the owner of a tremendous temperament turned to dismay as they discovered they were using it on each other. The thrill of discovering that Shelley was going to have a child brought them close together again for a while, but the obstacles were too big in the long run.
Shelley was ill all during her pregnancy. She was watching television one night with Jerry Paris, one of her closest and best friends. They were making plans to visit Marlon Brando on the set of “The Wild One” the next day. Suddenly, right then the pains began. It was eleven o’clock that night of February the twelfth in Hollywood. It was much later than that in Italy where Vittorio was touring with “Hamlet.” Jerry bundled Shelley into the ear for the hurried trip to the hospital. In the elevator she suddenly turned and said, “I won’t have my baby until Valentine’s Day.” For the first time, her iron will and sentimentality touched and blended into one sweet purpose. She lay quietly alone through that night and all of Thursday refusing to have her baby. Her doctor was amazed, “I’ve delivered a lot of babies. I’ve never seen a woman decide when she’ll have her baby by sheer strength of will.”
She needed that will in the months to follow. She faced the failure of her marriage and decided to get a divorce. Both tried to control their trigger-tight tempers, but bitterness lashed out through the press. Then the press had a field day. Foreign correspondents misquoted Shelley and the monster snowball of recriminations took place. It took months for the anger and hurt to drain them both and leave a firm basis for friendship and sharing parenthood. Now they have a mature understanding of each other’s virtues and a disregard for faults. Vittorio has taken his place as friend instead of lover.
The baby changed her perspective completely. “I can’t be depressed. Every decision I make now involves someone else. The responsibility is sometimes frightening. I want so much for her, it’s become a new world of looking into the future.” Shelley has found another love to be adored openly—and safely. Hers are two loves now, Gina first, then acting.
Even while startling the industry and public as well with a sudden whirl into entertaining at a Las Vegas Club, her thoughts were on her daughter and the future. She was a smash hit with her bold maneuver to get back in the public eye—careerwise. Having satisfied herself that she could always make a living in clubs, she again sat down and analyzed her position. She wanted very much to insure the future for Gina. “I’m happy to pay taxes. But in any other business the older you get, the more experience, the more valuable you are. In this business it just isn’t true. I still want to prove myself as an actress. I want to say ‘yes’ to the right picture and ‘no’ to the wrong one. Every time you’re dishonest you hurt something inside yourself.” These observations resulted in Gina Productions. With Uncle Ben handling the business end, Shelley went into production of “Cash on Delivery” in England. She plays the part of a Jersey City canary. John Gregson is a magnificent foil for the fun. In this picture, Shelley looks lovely. When complimented, she quickly started to explain, “It’s those wonderful English cameramen, they can make anyone look . . .” suddenly she stopped and with a charming smile of awareness continued, “Thank you. I think I looked terrific, too.”
Continuing to prove herself, she took the role of Willa in “Night of the Hunter,” opposite Robert Mitchum. Both of them fell under the spell of Charles Laughton’s wonderful direction. In intricate, high-keyed roles they both have probably given their best performance to date. When she respects and admires her director, Shelley is as pliable as putty. It was obviously mutual admiration. Laughton gave her a picture sitting with John Engstead for a Christmas present.
Impatient to fill the year with as many good roles as possible, she flew back to England to play the German girl in “I Am a Camera.” She acquired an accent, flat heels, dark hair and raced intensely through the part so she could get back to Gina by Christmas.
She made the date and vowed never to leave her alone again. “I was so blue in England, missing her. While I was gone, she named herself Tordy. I missed part of her growing up. Wherever I go, she goes from now on.” Tordy has a miniature dressing table next to Shelley’s and they have long girl talks there. Not yet two, Tordy is an intelligent, lovely child with an amazing knowledge of what’s being said. Shelley lavishes enough love and affection on her to more than make up for the lack of parent. She has also changed Shelley’s attitude toward men. Now she looks at her dates with that extra awareness. Would he be a good father? She hasn’t really conquered her fear of men, but with pretty Tordy as a daily outlet for her love it will be easier.
The inner driving force of Shelley is changing. “I hope I’ve learned to be tactful, if not, I’m going to put adhesive tape over my mouth. I know I’ve found self-confidence. Now I understand security is simply feeling capable within yourself. And I’ve learned that maturity is a very tough thing to achieve; it is no respecter of age. I’m not ambitious the way I used to be. I love acting, but I don’t want that to be all of my life. I want a home and a husband (who is maybe in the business, but not an actor) and I want to enjoy my child.
“You know it’s never really too late to learn?” she added.
No! It isn’t when like Shelley, you run most of the way.
—BY DEE PHILLIPS
It is a quote. PHOTOPLAY MAGAZINE MAY 1955