In a crazy coincidence, on this day in 1958, Vladimir Nabokov‘s controversial novel Lolita is published in the USA, and on this day in 1920, Shelley Winters was born. In the 1962 film version of Lolita, Winters’ promiscuous, pushy, predatory body language is used perfectly. Yet, nothing is better than her clinches as Charlotte Haze, as she moves in on James Mason as Humbert Humbert.
In 1951, Marilyn Monroe and Winters rented an apartment together just off of Sunset Boulevard. They both had studio contracts, and when they weren’t working, they both dyed their hair blond and played classical music records while reading books about the composers. They made a list of the famous men they dreamed of having sex with. Monroe had Albert Einstein and Arthur Miller on her list; Winters had actors on hers.
Born Shirley Schrift, she took “Shelley” from a favorite poet, “Winters” was her mother’s maiden name, plus it was her publicist’s name.
Her first film role was in What A Woman! (1943), and then she played a waitress strangled by Ronald Colman in George Cukor‘s A Double Life (1947) before being run over by Jay Gatsby’s car in The Great Gatsby (1949). She plays a factory girl drowned by the man who got her pregnant in A Place In The Sun (1951), bringing her the first of her Academy Award nominations.
She wrote her own smart wisecracks even if she played dumb:
“I did a film in England in the winter and it was so cold I almost got married“.
Welsh poet Dylan Thomas sent her letters, and on a visit, she asked why he’d come to Hollywood, and he said to “touch her tits”. Winters quipped:
“Okay, but only one finger.”
She went for the sexy roles, but eventually, Winters gave up on being a sexy star and slipped comfortably into the role familiar to her fans today: a blunt, bawdy, big broad.
She won an Oscar for The Diary Of Ann Frank (1959). She was convincing as a racist mother in A Patch Of Blue (1965), receiving another Oscar; a Tommy-gun-wielding Bloody Mama (1970); an hysterical mother in Paul Mazursky‘s Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976) and most famously, as a doomed passenger in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
During her half-century in showbiz, Winters often made news with stormy marriages, romances with famous men, and her involvement in progressive politics and feminist causes. She had fun giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything. In 1965, she gave a short pep talk outside Montgomery, Alabama on the night before they all marched to the state capitol.
Winters published two dishy memoirs, Shelley, Also Known As Shirley (1980) and Shelley II: The Middle Of My Century (1989), where she writes about how she made her way through much of the guys on that 1951 wish list:
“The only way to keep warm in this apartment is to get into bed. ‘My body generates a great deal of heat’, mumbled Marlon Brando.”
When Burt Lancaster sent her a love note, she replied:
“Fuck me please and send a copy of your speech later.”
She ended up in bed with William Holden after five different studio Christmas parties.
She claimed that her acting, wit, and “chutzpah” gave her a sex life to rival Monroe’s. Her list of actor conquests also includes Clark Gable, Sean Connery and Errol Flynn, but not at the same time. She writes that during a private film showing at Flynn’s house, a button was pushed and a bed slid into the room, complete with small bar and the sheets turned back as the ceiling mirror rolled away to reveal the night sky. Winters also claims she had a little fling with gay actor Farley Granger that became a lovely lifelong friendship.
There were her three brief marriages: number one was Paul Mayer, a U.S. Army captain; the others were to two hairy Italian actors, Vittorio Gassman, from 1952 to 1954, and Anthony Franciosa, from 1957 to 1960. In January 2006, hours before her death, Winters married longtime companion Gerry DeFord, with whom she had lived for two decades. Sally Kirkland performed the wedding ceremony at Winters’ deathbed. Kirkland also performed the last rites for Winters. On the day she died, Franciosa had a stroke and died five days later.
It is a testament to Winters’ power as a performer that she is remembered as being so compelling in so many films where she only has a supporting role.