Shelley Winters’ autobiography Shelley: Also Known As Shirley will always have a special place in my heart because it was my gateway drug, so to speak, into the wonderful world of old Hollywood biographies.
I have always been in awe of my parents’ library. Both of them were/are avid readers with a wide range of interests. In their basement, about half of the walls are lined with Ikea’s white Billy bookshelves (about 4 for my mom, 5 for my dad), each completely filled with books. At night, I would sneak down and pick a book I found interesting. From my dad’s collection I discovered Raymond Chandler, Wilkie Collins, Daniel Keyes, J.R.R Tolkien, Lord Byron, and biographies of Marilyn Monroe, and the Sex Pistols. From my mom, the Brontes, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. I can’t remember from whose collection I borrowed Nabokov’s Lolita, but it made my mind explode into a thousand pieces within the first few pages. It was from my mom’s collection that I first discovered Shelley Winters.
I have a fuzzy memory of reading her autobiography in the backseat of our car. It was cold outside and I couldn’t put it down. I had seen her in Pete’s Dragon as the horrible villainess Lena Gogan, but I don’t think I actually knew who she was. Some of what she wrote was shocking for me to read at the time (at least I remember an overall sense of shock and awe). I have re-read it many times since and some of the events detailed still blow me away. Shelley Winters is a remarkably candid writer. She discusses her trysts with Hollywood It-Boys like Marlon Brando, Errol Flynn, Burt Lancaster, and William Holden (they had an annual Christmas Eve “tradition”…) with humor and detail, while also managing to skirt around the gory details in true cinematic fashion “cut to…”
Shelley has one of the best “voices” I have read when it comes to an old Hollywood autobiography. I have since become less critical of boasting when it comes to taking stock of one’s life. Everyone should be able to look back and be proud of their youthful beauty and accomplishments, but still, and arrogant tone often puts me off of some old Hollywood autobiographies. Shelley, who began life as Shirley Schrift, comes off as an every-girl who made good. When she discusses her, at times turbulent, childhood in New York (her father spent a few years in prison, which greatly affected the family dynamic), the ultimate feeling you get from her is pride, despite, and because of, the occasional hardship. Shelley has a clear-eyed view at how the diverse neighborhood she grew up in made her a more open-minded person, how her strong Jewish faith shaped her life, how her Italian best friend whose family became a second family to Shelley after her father went to jail shaped her love for all things Italy, and how having determination and faith in yourself, even when people tell you you are not attractive or talented enough, can sometimes pay off.
Aside from Shelley’s wonderful storytelling, the details of her life themselves are incredibly fascinating. From her theatre days, to her doomed romance with married actor Burt Lancaster, to her supporting actress Oscar nomination for her role in A Place in the Sun, to her marriage and life in Italy with the “Italian Marlon Brando,” actor Vittorio Gassman, the book is packed with exciting, humorous, and colorful jaunts and stories of a life well lived.
At times reading it I’ve wondered just how well she knew some of the fellow stars she writes about, as occasionally the descriptions are pretty generic (Marilyn Monroe’s breathy voice, Howard Hughes’ dressed down appearance at a party causing him to be mistaken for a prop man, etc.), but then again, maybe these lasting descriptions are the way they are in part because of this 1980 autobiography. At any rate, I’m willing to give Shelley the benefit of the doubt.
Speaking of Marilyn, did you know that she and Shelley were roommates? Shelley details how they picked out furniture together, listened to Frank Sinatra records, and made lists of men they wanted to have love affairs with. Considering the countless biographies written on Marilyn, I still find Shelley’s accounts of her the most interesting.
Her quick wit and sense of humor and fun are on full display in this book. One of my favorite moments details when Shelley is picked up for a date by none other than Clark Gable. “He said, ‘Good Evening’ to my stunned family and as he ushered me to the door, I can’t be sure, but I almost thought my mother breathed in my ear, ‘Don’t be careful.'”
Ultimately, I think I first loved this book and it still ranks among my favorites today because it made me love Shelley. I love her gutsiness, her political activism, her determination to make herself feel beautiful (as a teen she spent her own money to get her teeth fixed, moles and warts removed, and eyebrows tweezed)…and then refuse to be just another pretty face. I love what she, through this book, gave to me personally. I’ve come a long way from that first borrowed book. Shelley: Also Known as Shirley was the door that opened and let me in to the beautiful garden of fading faces once well known, whose stories will never die for those of us who refuse to let them.
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