SHELLEY WINTERS WAS born in the office of New York's famous Group Theatre when she was "about fifteen." The midwife, a secretary-receptionist, advised her that "Shirley Shrift isn't a very good name for an actress." So, "Shirley" was transformed into "Shelley," the name of her favorite poet, and "Shrift" gave way to "Winter," her mother's maiden name. "Years later," she writes, "in their infinite wisdom, Universal Studios added an S to 'Winter' and made me plural."
This is one "show-biz" autobiography that is an absolute delight. Although the writing style and quality range from conversational to occasionally stilted, disorganized and poorly edited, the vitality that pours from every page is overwhelming. Her sharp, fast disconcerting humor, her honesty, warmth and impetuous zest for life (even when life was pretty miserable) are captivating. One cannot help but be amused, amazed and admiring of the ingenuous, wisecracking, street-savvy blonde who traveled "the rocky road that leads out of the Brooklyn ghetto to . . . two Oscars . . . four hit plays, five Impressionist paintings, six mink coats (her Linus blankets), ninety-nine films"; who became a "liberated lady" along the way, hopping in and out of bed with some of the most glamorous male sexpots in Hollywood and New York (William Holden, almost every Christmas Eve over a period of seven years), and had two failed marriages and one beautiful daughter.
Shelly-Shirley Shrift-Winters is a born storyteller. Her photographic memory served not only to master scripts overnight, but to store up all the stories, tastes, textures, smells and feelings of her early childhood in St. Louis in the bosom of her mother's family where her parents had settled after their marriage. Although those were Depression years, the richness of their large, closely knit family life cushioned Shirley and her older sister, Blanche, from, feeling its effects.
Life changed drastically when their father decided New York was the true Mecca of Capitalism. There, uprooted from family, shocked by her father's breakdown, her parents' vicious arguments and suddenly realizing just how poor they really were, Shirley retreated into fantasy and the movies.
Only one teacher recognized the potential in this undisciplined failure of a student, pushing her to study to be a writer or a lawyer. "But she had no idea of the conditions in my home. The only quiet place . . . was the stairwell near the roof." At 14 she organized a three-month strike at Woolworth's where she worked part-time, and became a garment center model by pretending to be 18.
She also lied her way into the national company of the union musical Pins and NEEDLES. Within "two glorious weeks" she had learned every song in the show. Then, someone "squealed" about her false union card. Dismissal was swift but gentle, coupled with strong advice that she study theater professionally. "Thank God I did. I walked out of the Labor Stage . . . and headed for the drama school . . . that was to change my life, my Art, my politics, and I think, my soul."
This is only the beginning of Shelley Winters' odyssey. From here on, every page is jampacked with the famous names with whom she lived, loved, worked, studied, or fought. Her descriptions are colorful, gutsy, funny and not always in her favor. Here are hilarious, fascinating vignettes of Marlon Brando, Farley Granger, Marilyn Monroe, Harry Cohn, Howard Hughes, Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Taylor, George Cukor. Here, too, is her two-year, back-street love affair with a very married Burt Lancaster; her tempestuous marriage to, and vitriolic divorce from, Italian actor Vittorio Gassman; her screaming, slugging feud with Frank Sinatra. The only major disappointments are the dearth of details about her work with the Actors Studio in New York and Charles Laughton's acting classes in Hollywood, and the lack of an index.
Shelley Winters was still Shirley Shrift when she decided she had to be an actress before anything else. She has lived that life, though not always wisely or happily. Despite all the emotional turbulence and pain it contains, this is a happy, engrossing, funny book about a garish, foolish, tremendously talented, rather wonderful woman.
Such a sanguine description does not apply to the life of another famous, volatile actress, Tailulah Bankhead, nor to Denis Brian's perplexing new-old biography of her. Much of Brian's material was published in a 1972 paperback. It is impossible, however, to know exactly how this new hardback edition differs from the original since that is now out of print. Even the publisher seems not to have a copy.
According to the author, Tallulah, Darling was compiled from over 100 interviews with "people who had known her in every aspect of her life," plus a four-hour conversation with Tallulah herself, tape-recorded two years before her death in 1968.
The first two chapters are full of cheep puffery: "I began to find out how complex, shocking, secretive Tallulah was . . . . My aim has been to penetrate the legends, the press agentry, and Tallulah's own fancies, to get as close to the facts as possible, a fascinating task because the facts were often hidden." Despite these cheap titillating promises, Brian produces very little new information about either Tallulah's life or her personality. Most of the material is anecdotal, while only a few pages of excerpts from her own interview are used -- probably, because too much of it is useless stream of consciousness.
Tallulah, Darling seems to be an attempt to capitalize on her legend, as well as on the current celebrity gossip craze. Tallulah buffs may want to read it on the off chance of picking up a few additional quirky details, even, perhaps, a couple of new twists on old stories. But, those looking for a comprehensive biography of this outrageous, unpredictable, savage, occasionally endearing and once breathtakingly beautiful southern belle -- whose personality and life style became her major career, whose acting career always teeter-tottered between mediocrity and brilliance, and whose excessive alcohol and drug consumption led to slow dreadful deterioration -- will find greater substance in Lee Israel's Miss Tallualh Bankhead , published in 1972. Almost everything Brian writes about, plus much that he doesn't, is chronicled by Israel in greater depth and in a much more literate fashion.