“I Think Onstage Nudity is Disgusting, Shameful and Damaging to All Things American. But if I Were 22 With a Great Body, It Would Be Artistic, Tasteful, Patriotic, and a Progressive Religious Experience. “Shelley Winters
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 in all its states and moods. Yet, nothing is better than her clinches as Winters, playing Charlotte Haze, moves in on James Mason as Humbert Humbert.
In 1951, two not-so-natural blondes paid the rent on an apartment a block south of Sunset Boulevard. They both had studio contracts, and when they weren’t working, they played classical music records and read the accompanying books about composers, and once they sat down and made a list the famous men they dreamed of having sex. Marilyn Monroe, who was younger, put Albert Einstein and Arthur Miller on her list. Winters stuck to movie stars. She lived long enough to check a lot of those names off her list.
She was born Shirley Schrift and took “Shelley” from her favorite poet and “Winters” was her mother’s maiden name, plus it was her publicist’s.
Her first screen appearance 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 is a factory girl drowned by the man who got her pregnant in A Place In The Sun (1951), her first Academy Award nomination.
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 had 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 sex bomb category of roles, but eventually, Winters gave up all pretense of being a sexy star and slipped comfortably into the role familiar to fans today: a blunt, bawdy, overweight broad.
She won an Academy Award for her first role in her new mother mode for The Diary Of Ann Frank (1959). She was 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 passenger in The Poseidon Adventure (1972).
During her half-century in showbiz, Winters was rarely out of the news. Her stormy marriages, her romances with famous men, her involvement in progressive politics and feminist causes, they all kept her name in the public eye. She delighted in giving provocative interviews and seemed to have an opinion on everything. In 1965, she addressed the Selma marchers outside Montgomery on the night before they marched into 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 beefcake 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 her pal Monroe’s. Her conquests also included Clark Gable, Sean Connery and Errol Flynn, but not at the same time. She writes that during a private movie showing at Flynn’s house, a button was pushed and a bed slid into the room, complete with small bar and the top sheet turned back, as the ceiling mirror rolled away to reveal the night sky through a magnolia tree in flower. Winters also claims she had a little thing with gay actor Farley Granger that became a lifelong friendship.
There were three brief marriages: husband number one was Paul Mayer, a US Army captain; the others were to hairy Italian actor, Vittorio Gassman from 1952 to 1954, and hunky, hairy Italian-American actor, 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 for the two at Winters’ deathbed. Kirkland also performed last rites for Winters. On the same day she died, Franciosa had a stroke and died five days later.
It is an astonishing testament to Winters’ power as a performer that she is remembered as commanding so many films where she was only a secondary player, in and out of the plot in an hour.