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Shelley Winters, 85; Oscar Winner Went From Bombshell to Respected Actress

January 15, 2006|Claudia Luther | Special to The Times

Shelley Winters, a blond bombshell of the 1940s who evolved into a character actress best remembered for her roles as victims, shrews and matrons, died Saturday. She was 85.

Winters, the first actress to win two Oscars in the best supporting category, died of heart failure at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, her publicist, Dale Olson, said. She was hospitalized in October after suffering a heart attack.

Actress Sally Kirkland, who was close to Winters, said she was with Winters Friday night as an ordained minister for the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness performed last rites for her.

Kirkland said she also performed a "spiritual wedding ceremony" for Winters and her life partner, Jerry DeFord. Olson said DeFord had been Winters' companion for 19 years.

"Shelley was ... an extraordinary woman with powerful charisma, enormous talent, a keen perceptive mind who lived her life and spoke of it as she saw it," singer Connie Stevens said Saturday. "She was loving fun, and I'm so glad to know her and love her as a true friend."

Kevin Thomas, a retired Times writer who had known Winters for more than 30 years, said Saturday: "Shelley was a mass of contradictions as only a Method actress can be. Nobody could be more down to earth ... but quicker to fall back on a star's perquisites. She was mercurial, adorable, infuriating, loyal, brave."

Although most sources give Winters' birth date as Aug. 18, 1922, she told Variety's Army Archerd in 2004 that she had lied to studio head Harry Cohn when she signed with Columbia and was born two years earlier.

A little bit Jean Harlow, a little bit Mae West, Winters was once lumped with such sexy starlets as Marilyn Monroe. But Winters from the start was willing to give up glamour for a good role. After years on studio contract playing negligible parts, she got a break in George Cukor's 1947 film, "A Double Life," in which she played a waitress who was murdered by Ronald Colman.

Four years later, she became a full-fledged star as the dowdy factory girl that Montgomery Clift lets drown to be with the beautiful, rich Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun." Winters was nominated but did not win a best actress Oscar for the portrayal.

But Winters did win in the best supporting actress category for her roles as Mrs. Van Daan in Stevens' "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959) and Rose-Ann D'Arcy, the abusive mother who tries to turn her blind daughter into a prostitute in "A Patch of Blue" (1965). The actress donated the first Oscar statuette to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.

Also among her 130 films was "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), which earned her another best supporting actress nomination.

Winters was the author of two well-received autobiographies: "Shelley, Also Known as Shirley" (1980), which was on the bestseller list for many weeks, and "Shelley II: In the Middle of My Century" (1989).

In them, she told rollicking stories that didn't always put her in a favorable light, taking readers "down the rocky road that leads out of the Brooklyn ghetto to: one New York apartment, two Oscars, three California houses, four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats," etc., and including a slew of famous lovers. Many of these stories she hilariously recounted on late-night television shows such as Johnny Carson's.

Born Shirley Shrift in St. Louis, the daughter of a garment cutter-salesman-designer and a mother who had aspirations to be an opera singer, Winters grew up mostly in Brooklyn. While still in high school, she took acting lessons and got interested in show business.

In her teens, she auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in David O. Selznick's production of "Gone With the Wind." Though she didn't get the part, the director, Cukor, "was the first person to treat me as if I were really an actress," she wrote in "Shelley, Also Known as Shirley."

While still in high school, she entered local beauty contests, modeled and acted in school plays. She got a part in the national company of "Pins and Needles," but when the director found out she had borrowed a friend's union card, she was let go.

The director advised her to study acting, which took her to a dramatic workshop at New York City's New School for Social Research. It would, she said, "change my life, my Art, my politics and, I think, my soul."

For a couple of summers, she was an entertainer at one of the hotels in the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. She also did a little vaudeville, an off-Broadway play and a national company tour of the Broadway musical "Meet the People." She met and married her first husband, Mack P. Mayer, who went off to World War II; they divorced when he returned.

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