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Provocative Facts About Shelley Winters, The Platinum Phenomenon

Brendan Da Costa

Shelley Winters was the blonde beauty that no one in Hollywood took seriously…until they finally opened their eyes and saw that a legend-in-the-making was standing in front of them. Her television, film, and theater career spanned nearly six decades, two Oscar wins, and four husbands. Most modern audiences would know Winters for her eccentric and “rotund” roles later in her life, but she was much more than that. Here are some of the little-known and bawdy facts about the boisterous, bodacious, and beautiful Shelley Winters…


1. She Had Humble Beginnings

Shelley Winters wasn’t even born with the name that would take top billing in countless films. The two-time Oscar-winner to-be was born as Shirley Schrift to Austrian Jewish parents in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father worked as a humble men’s clothing designer. Even as a little girl, however, Winters knew what she wanted from life…

2. She Was A Grinder

Winters knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up…a blonde beauty gracing the silver screen. Coming from such humble beginnings, however, she had to make her own way. Before Winters had even turned 20, she had worked as a model, a store clerk, a vaudevillian, and a chorus girl, all so that she could pay her own way. But she still had to pay her dues…

3. She Was Blown Away By The Wind

Shelley Winters would go on to have one of the greatest Hollywood careers of all time—but not before facing embarrassing rejection. A bold teenage Winters burst her way into the offices of famed director George Cukor to audition for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. She didn’t get the role—that went to Vivien Leigh—but she did get some advice.

Cukor told the teenager to take acting lessons. Ouch. However, that’s exactly what she did…

4. She Had Her Methods…

Winters struggled throughout her career to have studio executives and directors take her seriously. So, she had to change her…methods. Winters was an early proponent of “method acting.” She both took and taught classes through the Actors Studio in Los Angeles and New York. One of her “acting” pupils might surprise you…

5. Her Roommate Rocked

Before Shelley Winters became famous, she had another soon-to-be megastar as a roommate in Los Angeles. The actress bunked up with another blonde beauty by the name of Norma Jeane Mortensen…but you might know her better by her stage name, Marilyn Monroe. Considering what these two got up to, it’s definitely true that blondes have more fun…

6. She’s Making A List…

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Winters reminisced on her earlier days in Hollywood, and she made a shocking confession about her time with Monroe. When they were roommates, one of their favorite pastimes included making lists…of men they wanted to sleep with! According to Winters, Monroe had a thing for Albert Einstein, and may even have slept with him! And it may all have been Winters’ doing…

7. She Shared Her Talents

Winters and Monroe had plenty of time to swap boy-related secrets…just between us blondes. We may actually have Winters to thank for Monroe’s signature looks. It was Winters who taught Monroe how to look appealing to men by coaching her to tilt her head back, lower her eyes and keep her mouth partly open. Monroe must have taken Winters’ advice because she knew all about attracting men…

8. She Had A Look

Shelley Winters followed director George Cukor’s advice on acting lessons and the two became frequent collaborators. It was Cukor who gave Winters her first big break in 1947’s A Double Life. Unfortunately, this would result in directors typecasting Winters as the “blonde bombshell” in their films. Winters would have to go to some pretty extreme lengths to have her fellow filmmakers take her seriously…

9. Her Looks Faded

Winters wanted to break out of the “blonde beauty” stereotype that she was known for—so she did something drastic. For 1951’s A Place in the Sun, Winters ditched her blonde locks and dyed her hair brown. She even bought dowdy clothes—visiting a factory to see how factory girls dressed—and scrubbed off her nail polish. Her idea totally worked. In fact, it worked a little too well.

10. She Was Skilled In Disguises

When the time came for Winters’ audition, she was a little hard to find. The film’s director, George Stevens, arrived at their pre-arranged meeting place but didn’t see the blonde actress that he was looking for anywhere. Winters had changed her appearance so completely that Stevens hadn’t recognized her sitting in a corner!

Needless to say, she got the role. But be careful what you wish for…

11. She Got Taylor-ed

Shelley Winters went out of her way to make herself appear “mousy” for her role in A Place in the Sun. But she didn’t appreciate anyone else doing it. Apparently, Winters was upset with the film’s director for making her appear “unglamorous” next to her super-sultry co-star, Elizabeth Taylor. Thankfully, the role got Winters what she really wanted in the end; some R-E-S-P-E-C-T in the form of her first Oscar nomination.

12. She Lived To Love

Shelley Winters adored the silver screen and television. But her true passion might have been for the stage. As she said: “Every now and then, when you’re onstage, you hear the best sound a player can hear. It’s a sound you can’t get in movies or in television. It is the sound of a wonderful, deep silence that means you’ve hit them where they live.”

13. She Rode The Coaster

Winters’ romantic life had just as many—if not more—ups and downs as her career. Funny enough…her career was what got in the way of some of her marriages. Just as things were looking good for her acting career, they would take turn for the worse in her romantic life. Winters was married four times, which according to her, was one time too many…

14. She Was Just Too Hollywood

Shelley Winters kept the details of her first marriage pretty quiet—in fact, it was uncharacteristically quiet for the bombastic Winters. She married Captain Mack Paul Mayer in December of 1942, but their union was doomed to a heartbreaking end. They were divorced by October of 1948. Apparently, Mayer didn’t like Winters’ “Hollywood lifestyle” and wanted a more traditional wife.

What little else we do know about their marriage is enough to melt your heart…

15. She Stayed On Ice

Winters must have held on to at least some affection for Mayer…because she held onto something else. Decades after the two finalized their divorce—and three husbands later—Winters still wore the diamond wedding ring that Mayer had given her. I’m not sure, but in some cultures, I think that means you’re still married.

16. She Had The Powers Of Ant-Man

We all know about the body formations that actors like Christian Bale and Joaquin Phoenix go through for their roles. But these guys got the tricks of their trade from Winters. Winters gained 25 pounds for her role in The Diary of Anne Frank and had to gradually lose 15 pounds throughout the course of filming. But she never lost her charm…

Shelley Winters FactsThe Diary of Anne Frank (1959), 20th Century Fox

17. She Wasn’t Always Proud

Winters won her second Academy Award for her supporting role in A Patch of Blue. But this time her method acting techniques didn’t help her. Winters hated her role in the film, primarily because her character harbored xenophobic views. As a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, she was very uncomfortable and overwhelmed to the point of speechlessness when she accepted her award.

18. She Got Gaslit

The problem in Winters’ first marriage was her “Hollywood lifestyle.” She decided to fix that in her second marriage by tying the knot with another famous actor. Winters married the famed Italian actor, director, and screenwriter Vittorio Gassman in April of 1958. Ironically, the “Hollywood lifestyle” would be the undoing of this marriage too…

19. She Wanted An Honest Man

Shelley Winters was all for the “free love” movement and the liberation of women…just not in her marriage. The actress called it with Gassman when she learned that he was having an affair with one of his Hamlet co-stars—and that’s not even the worst part. The real kicker was that Gassman’s affair was with a 16-year-old girl. Try as she might, however, she just couldn’t shake Gassman…

20. Her Mambo Was Mando

Winters and Gassman worked together on the set of 1954’s Mambo. If you’ve seen the film, whatever tension there was between Winters and Gassman was all real. The two famous actors were in the middle of their divorce during filming. While the temperature behind the scenes was icy cool, it was red hot on-screen and the film sparked a mambo craze in the US.

21. Her Husband Was Hammy

Shelley Winters had her own way of getting back at her cheating husband, Gassman. The actress was known as much for her beauty and talents as she was for her, well, wintry wit. Winters said of her second husband’s acting talents, “He gave Hamlet with too much emphasis on the ham.” It’s not clear if she was referring to his on-screen performance or his bedroom performance…

22. She Had Her Hats Full…

Winters might have sympathized with her ex-husband’s mistress…she was no stranger to being “the other woman” herself. See, while on the set of A Hatful of Rain, Winters became involved with fellow Hollywood actor Anthony Franciosa. There was just one small caveat. Franciosa was in the middle of getting a divorce from his first wife…

23. She Was Not A Procrastinator

Winters and Franciosa wasted no time after Franciosa’s divorce became official. The ink on Franciosa’s divorce papers had barely even dried before he and Winters were printing their marriage certificate. They two tied the knot in May of 1957, the same year that Franciosa divorced his first wife. And there were already rumors of even more lurid affairs…

24. She Really Didn’t Like The Wind

In 1957—the same year as Franciosa’s and Winters’ marriage…and Franciosa’s divorce—the rumor mill was buzzing. The tabloids were speculating that Franciosa was carrying on yet another affair with one of his co-stars on the set of Wild is the Wind. Winters promptly flew to Reno to find out for herself what was going on. Little did she know that she was walking into a trap…

25. She Hit The Ground Running…Into Marriage

Winters arrived in Reno to find out what her boyfriend/lover, Franciosa, was up to on the set of 1957’s Wild is the Wind. It was wild indeed. When she stepped off the plane in Reno, Franciosa’s agent greeted her with a big surprise. He presented Winters with a wedding ring and a proposal for marriage. He had to explain that it was Franciosa proposing and not himself.

Probably because Franciosa was busy with his other mistress…

26. Her Husband Liked Bacchanal…Or Was That Bacall?

It did not take long for Winters to learn why Franciosa’s first wife left him…because it didn’t take Franciosa long to fall back into old habits. Winters ended their marriage when she learned that Franciosa was having an affair with the equally sultry actress Lauren Bacall. It’s not clear that the two ever fought over Franciosa, but tensions between the two Hollywood beauties were definitely high…

27. She Wasn’t A Fan Of Broken Telephone…

Shelley Winters once received a phone call from her husband’s mistress, Lauren Bacall—and what Bacall said was so catty, it’s impossible to forget. Bacall called Winters and complained, “I’ve been waiting for Tony for an hour. Where is he?” Winters replied to the sullen siren, “You’re complaining to me because my husband is late for a date with you?” to which Bacall replied, “If your husband doesn’t respect your marriage, why should I?” Why indeed…

28. She Would Have Been Lost At Sea Without…

Whatever Winters thought of Franciosa after that heated phone call with Lauren Bacall, she had to give credit where credit was due. In the first of three autobiographies that Winters wrote, she spilled the tea on Franciosa’s…skills. Winters wrote that “if sex were an Olympic sport, Franciosa would have been team captain.” Aye, aye, Captain!

29. She Enjoyed Luncheons

With all of these marriages under her belt and rings on her fingers, Winters had great advice…even if she never took it herself. Winters once said, “The best way to find out about a man is to have lunch with his ex-wife.” Of course, this only helps if he has an ex-wife. But it’s Hollywood we’re talking about here…who doesn’t have an ex-wife?

30. Her Husband Had Oscar-Envy

It wasn’t just the affairs that had Winters turning cold on her hots for Franciosa. It seems like the less famous half of this Hollywood power couple harbored some jealousy for his superstar wife. Winters recalled, “I’ll never forget the night I brought my Oscar home. […] Tony took one look at it, and I knew my marriage was over.”

31. Her Lucky Number Was Not Three

After her marriage to Franciosa, Winters was pretty much over the whole “wedded-bliss” thing. “After three times,” she said, “I realize marriage is not for me. I love to get married, you know, but I don’t like to be married. You go away on a honeymoon, you have a great time, you come home, they want to come in the house!” It would be years before Winters married again. Crazy, crazy years…

32. She Was A Nervous Wreck

As Shelley Winters got older, her weird ways got, well, weirder. Winters worked with fellow Hollywood superstar Debbie Reynolds on the 1971 film What’s the Matter with Helen? The question should have been, “What’s the matter with Shelley?” According to Reynolds, Winters’ psychiatrist advised her against taking the role because her character experiences a nervous breakdown.

Why was he so concerned? Well, Winters was experiencing her own real-life nervous breakdown at the time. She almost drove her fellow co-stars crazy…

Shelley Winters FactsWhat's the Matter with Helen? (1971), United Artists

33. She Made People Nuts

Winters and Reynolds became great friends on the set of What’s the Matter with Helen?, but that’s not to say that filming was easy. Winters employed her “method” acting techniques on the set of the film much to the chagrin of her co-stars. In the words of Reynolds, “She’s the kind of actress who becomes the part she’s playing[…] so all through the film she drove all of us insane!” And that was the least of their worries…

Shelley Winters FactsWhat's the Matter with Helen? (1971), United Artists

34. She Was Sharp As A Knife

Working with Shelley Winters on the set of a film can be a life-affirming or life-endangering situation—and Reynolds found that out the hard way. She recalled a scene in which Winters’ character had to come after her with a knife. She had to have the prop man make sure that the knife was fake because she knew Winters “was going to go for me for real!”

Even after that, Reynolds said, “I’m very fond of Shelley.” Maybe a little too fond of her…

35. She Kissed A Girl And She Liked It

On the set of What’s the Matter with Helen?, Winters made a daring suggestion. She proposed to the film’s director that her character and Reynolds’ character should share an intimate moment. Without a second thought, Winters and Reynolds locked lips! Even though the cameras were rolling, the shot did not make it into the final cut.

Shelley Winters FactsWhat's the Matter with Helen? (1971), United Artists

36. She Ran Out Of Time

Despite all of the awkwardness, Reynolds drove Winters to work every day on the set of What’s the Matter with Helen? One morning when Reynolds was on her way to pick up Winters, she noticed a woman trying to flag down cars on Santa Monica Boulevard only to realize that it was Winters. Winters explained to Reynolds, “I thought I was late.”

37. She Had To Read Reed

Shelley Winters made a controversial appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The actress appeared alongside another guest, Oliver Reed. The two had a somewhat less than “amicable” disagreement over the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s. They ended up trading more than just words while the cameras were rolling…

38. She Was A Tall Glass Of Water

When the discussion became clearly tense, Winters abruptly announced that she had to leave. She shook hands with Reed and Carson and left the stage, leaving everyone stunned—but it didn’t end there. Just like in her career, she came roaring back. Winters returned unannounced a few moments later with a beverage…and proceeded to dump the full contents of her glass onto Reed’s head.

Her pattern of diva-like behavior only continued…

39. Her Antics Got In The Way

Winters wasn’t always—if ever—the consummate professional. On top of her method-acting-antics, Winters could be a bit demanding on set. In 1985, for example, she had a tantrum on the set of Always and stormed out. If you’re looking for her credits at the end of the film, you won’t find them. The film’s director reshot all of her scenes with another actress. Oh, Shelley…

40. She Was Too Loosey-Goosey

So, Winters wasn’t always on the set of Always. An actress of her caliber would never be out of work, right? Hm, think again. In 1991, Winters found herself booted from the set of yet another film for her scandalous behind the scenes behavior. This time, Winters showed up to the first day of filming for The Linguini Incident with…incident. The actress was clearly inebriated and promptly fired.

41. She Had A Friend With Decades Of Benefits

Though she might have married some philanderers, Shelley Winters wasn’t blameless in her divorces. Not by a long shot. The actress had her own affairs. One long one in particular. Winters carried on a decades-long romance with the actor Farley Granger whom she met on the set of Behave Yourself!. The two stayed friends for life.

42. She Conquered Them All

According to her autobiography, Shelley: Also Known As Shirley, Farley Granger wasn’t her only male conquest. Winters claimed to have had several affairs with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She claimed to have “conquered” the likes of Marlon Brando, Sean Connery, and Errol Flynn. This is the woman who gave Monroe her wiles, so I believe her.

43. Her Name Was Selma

Shelley Winters was a lifelong progressive Democrat. She was an outspoken feminist who fought for women’s liberation through her work and her activism. One of the crowning achievements in her career as an activist was when she addressed the crowd at Selma before their historic march. But not all of her activism was exactly helpful…

44. She Almost Changed The Course Of History

On the set of Lolita, Stanley Kubrick suggested that Winters read the novel before meeting with Vladimir Nabokov to earn his approval for the role of Charlotte. Winters was campaigning for John F. Kennedy at the time. When Kennedy saw that Winters was reading Nabokov at the height of US-USSR tensions, he told her to cover the book in a brown paper bag so as not to jeopardize his chances of getting elected.

45. Her Star Was Unhitched

Shelley Winters was well-experienced in the ways of the heart long before she walked down the aisle for the first time. When she was still a teenager, she had an underage affair with a fellow actor—and it ended in disaster. The brief fling resulted in an unplanned pregnancy, and the actor proposed marriage to her. Winters let him down (not so) easily.

The actress told him, “…you’re a bit-part actor and I’m a potential star.” Scratch that, “guaranteed star”…

46. She Gave It All Away

Shelley Winters worked so hard to get her first Oscar nomination, you’d think that she’d hold onto her first Oscar win. But when Winters finally won her first of two Oscar statuettes for her supporting role in 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, she did the unthinkable. Winters thanked the Academy…and promptly gave her Oscar away. She donated her Academy Award to the Anne Frank Museum. And to think what she did for that role…

47. She Couldn’t DeFord Another Wedding

After Franciosa, Winters almost swore off marriage forever. Keyword: almost. The actress never walked down the aisle again in a literal sense, but she did marry later in life—like a lot later. In 2006, Winters married her live-in boyfriend of 19 years, Gerry DeFord, in rather unusual circumstances. Let’s just say that she wasn’t wearing white at the wedding. It was more like a hospital blue…

48. She Took Her Final Vows

For Shelley Winters, it was never too late to find true love. Seriously, this story sounds like something out of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. The ailing actress had an impromptu marriage in a peculiar setting. While on her sickbed, Winters married Gerry DeFord in a ceremony officiated by the actress Sally Kirkland. The marriage took place just hours before Winters took her final breath. But she still had some regrets in life…

49. Her Heart Was Heavy

Shelley Winters only had one daughter, by her second husband, Vittorio Gassman. Sadly, she had to terminate two other pregnancies in her lifetime. Before her passing, Winters was quoted as having said, “I am a very lonely woman. I would give everything—my money, my Academy Awards, my career—if only I could have those children now.”

50. She Had The Last Laugh

Mere hours after marrying her partner of 19 years, Shelley Winters passed away of heart failure at the age of 85…but not before taking some revenge on one of her exes. Franciosa—who probably caused Winters more stress than anyone else—must have still loved her after all of those years. On the day of Winters passing, Franciosa suffered a stroke. It may have been Winters’ final bow before the curtain call…

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15


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