Sally Kirkland Reflects on How BFF Shelley Winters Found the ‘Love of Her Life’ After 3 Divorces

Sally Kirkland Reflects on How BFF Shelley Winters Found the ‘Love of Her Life’ After 3 Divorces

Like so many children born to an immigrant parent, Shelley Winters was taught that in America anything is possible. “My father firmly believed the streets of America were paved with gold,” she wrote in Shelley: Also Known as Shirley, one of her three memoirs. “They hadn’t been for him, but in a way they had been for his daughter.”

Born Shirley Schrift, the actress would rename herself Shelley Winters and become a two-time Oscar winner. Her fame and success would earn her many luxuries — including “three California homes, five Impressionist paintings and six mink coats” — but Shelley’s three marriages would not last, and her relationship with her only child was difficult. Devoted, unconditional love, despite her many affairs, remained elusive until the twilight of her life.

A bold, fearless personality since childhood, Shelley, the daughter of a haberdasher and an opera singer, set her sights on acting early. The conviction of her father for arson when Shelley was 9 uprooted her life. Her mother, Rose, successfully lobbied for a new trial, and Shelley’s father was exonerated and released from prison a year later, but the child’s sense of security had been shattered.

Teenage Shelley boldly auditioned for the role of Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. She didn’t get the part, of course, but director George Cukor kindly bought her a Coke and told her she should take drama classes.

She wound up studying at New York City’s New School, appeared on Broadway, and upon moving to Los Angeles became roommates with another young actress named Marilyn Monroe. “They would make up lists of all the men they wanted to date,” Shelley’s close friend Sally Kirkland tells Closer exclusively, adding that Shelley was perplexed by Marilyn’s list of brainy types, including her future husband, playwright Arthur Miller.

Late at Night

Shelley, on the other hand, liked dark and handsome men. Two of her earliest lovers were Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando. “She either lost her virginity to Burt or Marlon,” reveals Sally. “She kind of played games with me over the years as to which one.”

The beautiful young starlet never felt ashamed of her fleeting romances. “Compared to today, I wasn’t Polly Promiscuous, although I wasn’t exactly Vera Virgin either,” she laughed. Shelley’s candid nature would eventually make her a very popular nighttime talk show guest. “She was very outrageously outspoken,” says Sally. “She had no boundaries, and that was charming once you got to know her.”

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Despite her blond bombshell appearance, Shelley’s bold personality and theatrical training helped her secure a variety of roles she called “victims, shrews and matrons.” At her audition to play a factory worker in A Place in the Sun, Shelley turned up without makeup. “You act with your scars,” said the performer.

Shelley won her first Academy Award for playing a Jewish matron in hiding in The Diary of Anne Frank, but the star, who was raised Jewish, didn’t keep the coveted trophy. “She gave it to Anne Frank’s father to put in the Anne Frank Museum,” says Sally. “It’s there to this day.”

While Shelley’s career thrived, her private life suffered. The actress was married three times. The first, to Mack Paul Mayer, an Air Force captain, lasted just five years, although Shelley wore his ring for the rest of her life. She was also wed to Italian actor Vittorio Gassman, the father of her only child, Vittoria, from 1952 to 1954, and actor Anthony Franciosa from 1957 to 1960. “When you have a huge career, your work is primary,” explains Sally. “Tony Franciosa became a good friend of mine. She was more successful than he was, and he wanted her to be more of a housewife. Men don’t like taking a back seat.”

Shelley’s relationship with her only child, daughter Tori, also suffered. “Her daughter wasn’t happy about her mother being an actress,” says Sally, who adds that Tori studied to become a doctor on the East Coast. Instead, Sally gave Shelley the relationship she wished she’d had with Tori. “She became my mentor, my teacher, my mother,” says Sally. “She was everything to me, and I was completely and totally at her service.”

While Hollywood is famous for discarding actresses beyond a certain age, Shelley continued to work long past her sex symbol period. “I weighed 200 pounds for Poseidon Adventure,” she said. “I played this fat old woman. They put streaks of gray in my hair. I thought I looked like the white whale.” But the role earned her a fourth Oscar nomination.

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The often funny actress described herself as “a senior citizen sex bomb” in the 1990s when she became famous to a new generation as Nana Mary on TV’s Roseanne. “She was a great person and a genius to work with,” said series star Roseanne Barr.

Love Under Fire

In the last two decades of her life, Shelley found a devoted companion in Gerry DeFord. “He was a gay man, but he could have been the love of her life. He was with her 24/7 for all those years. It was a love affair. It just wasn’t sexual,” says Sally.

Gerry accompanied Shelley on her visits to LA’s Silver Spoon, a West Hollywood restaurant where she liked to hold court with fans. “They would show up like clockwork, two or three days a week,” recalls Sally. “Everyone would gather around the table to listen to Shelley and take photos with her.”

In addition to driving Shelley, Gerry cooked, shopped and ran errands for the star. “She loved Gerry because he made her laugh,” adds Sally, who says that the couple would often cuddle up in bed watching Shelley’s old movies on TV. “She would always have the heat cranked way up. It was so hot it was like a sauna.”

Shelley’s daughter, Tori, opposed her relationship with Gerry and tried to keep them apart with the threat of a restraining order. “Shelley would be sobbing, saying, ‘Get me Gerry. I am going to die!’ I mean, she was very dramatic,” says Sally, who interceded on Gerry’s behalf. “Somehow it worked, and Shelley was forever grateful.”

In 2006, a heart attack landed Shelley in a rehab facility, where she asked Sally to marry her and Gerry. “She had a feeling that she was in her last days,” says Sally, who became an ordained minister to conduct the bedside ceremony. “She was so happy, she was crying for joy.” Sally also gave her friend, who died a few hours later at age 85, last rites.

Sally admits that she still misses Shelley. “If she had any regrets, I think they would have been about men,” Sally says. “I don’t think she had any regrets about her career.” To the end of her long, remarkable life, Shelley did everything her own way.

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