Having Shelley Winters as a godmother was “the greatest thing that could ever happen,” raves Laura Dern, whose mother, Diane Ladd, was one of the legendary actress’ closest friends. “Shelley was a great influence on me. She told me you can lose weight on an eight-day ice-cream diet. I have yet to try it, but I choose to believe it.”
Shelley was a woman of enormous appetites — for food, for men and for juicy roles. She won two Oscars (for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue) and was nominated for two more (for A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure). Yet she became best known for her countless romances and uncensored stories on talk shows and in kiss-and-tell memoirs. “She was like, ‘This is my life. This is the mess and the complication — it’s not easy to be a celebrity and try to find love,'” says Laura. She was so real and so true, and I loved her for that.”
So did Sally Kirkland, another acclaimed actress Shelley took under her wing as a godmother. “Shelley was brutally honest,” Sally recalls to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “And feisty as hell.”
Born Shirley Schrift in St. Louis, Shelley grew up in Brooklyn with dreams of becoming an actress. She toiled at Woolworth’s and organized a successful strike for her female coworkers. When she first broke into movies, she wasn’t taken seriously — until she auditioned to play a dowdy factory worker in 1951’s A Place in the Sun. “She put on an old coat and hat and no makeup and showed up to meet George Stevens,” says Sally. The director initially didn’t recognize her, and he cast her on the spot.
The first of Shelley’s four marriages, to serviceman Mack Paul Mayer, ended after six years when he moved to Chicago and Shelley chose to stay in Hollywood and pursue her craft. “She never had a long, long relationship with any man,” says Sally. “She put all her energy into her career.”
But Shelley unabashedly enjoyed love affairs with many men, most of them celebrities. “She and Marilyn Monroe would make lists of all the men they wanted to date, and Shelley told me Sean Connery was her favorite lover,” says Sally. “I question if she had one love of her life.”
She wed actor Vittorio Gassman in 1952. It was a turbulent relationship — when he complained about the way she cooked pasta, she dumped a pot on his head. They had a daughter, Vittoria, in 1953 but split soon after. Tory, as she’s known, grew up to be a doctor, and “Shelley was always very proud of her,” Sally says.
Shelley continued to take diverse and challenging parts, like the matron who hides a Jewish family in The Diary of Anne Frank and a hooker who blinds her daughter in A Patch of Blue. “I’ve always found something to like in the characters I’ve played, but I really hate this woman,” she said of the latter.
Shelley extended the same unvarnished quality she exuded in real life to her characters. “She was so raw and vulnerable and didn’t need to be a movie star, even though she was a massive movie star,” says Laura. “That’s part of what made her a great actor and teacher.”
Her professional success sometimes caused the men in her life to grow jealous. “I’ll never forget the night I brought my Oscar home,” she said, adding third husband Anthony Franciosa “took one look at it, and I knew our marriage was over.”
Never one for vanity, Shelley packed on the pounds to play a doomed passenger in 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure, but after filming wrapped, she found she couldn’t slim down again. At first, she laughed it off — “I’m not overweight, I’m just nine inches too short,” she quipped. But privately, she tried everything to reduce, including a diet where she was put to sleep for several days, and nothing worked.
Still, she didn’t let that slow her down. “She would get hired all the time, no matter her weight,” says Sally. “It was a personal challenge to her, but not a professional one. She just switched from being a leading lady to doing character roles.”
Her outrageous appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson brought her even more notoriety. One night on the show in 1975, British actor Oliver Reed was spouting sexist opinions when Shelley suddenly threw a drink in his face. “She believed in freedom for women and equality, no matter what race, creed or color,” says Sally, who was introduced to Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy by Shelley. “She told me I’d never be a good actress if I didn’t read the newspapers every day and find out what was happening in the world.”
Shelley made headlines herself when she published her best-selling tell-all Shelley, Also Known as Shirley, in 1980. “She was a pioneer long before other people were doing it,” says Laura. “People made fun of her, but there was no one more truthful.” (A sequel, Shelley II: The Middle of My Century, followed in 1989.)
She kept acting, getting big laughs as Roseanne’s outspoken grandmother on the stand-up’s smash sitcom. “Shelley always worked for her own livelihood,” says Sally. “So much of what she taught me was about being fiercely independent.”
Nevertheless, she loved having men around and lived with a companion, Gerry DeFord, for the last 19 years of her life. “She needed to have him near her at all times for the male polarity it gave her,” Sally says.
Shelley suffered a heart attack in 2005 and was bedridden, but she enjoyed watching her old movies on TV. “She was delighted to see her legacy was relevant, right up to the end,” says Sally, who was an ordained minister and married Shelley to Gerry shortly before her death in 2006. “Shelley was so happy,” says Sally. “She was just like a little child.”
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