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A chorus girl’s rise to stardom

John Conway
Posted 1/13/23

On January 14, 2006, the renowned actress Shelley Winters died at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, where she had been a patient since a heart attack three months before. Sources differ as …

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A chorus girl’s rise to stardom


On January 14, 2006, the renowned actress Shelley Winters died at the Rehabilitation Centre of Beverly Hills, where she had been a patient since a heart attack three months before. Sources differ as to whether she was 83 or 85. 

Unlike many other Hollywood stars who hid from their Catskill roots, Winters never downplayed the significance her years “in the mountains” played in the development of her career. And that career included a return to the area in her twilight, as she spent time here in 1994, filming the James Mangold movie "Heavy" with Liv Tyler and Pruitt Taylor Vince. 

The film, shot largely at a café in Highland Lake and along River Road in Barryville-- the house on the road that served as her home in the movie was for years referred to as "the Shelley Winters house"-- was a critical, if not box office success, and Winters turned in a laudable performance as the clinging mother trying desperately to keep from losing her son. The movie was shot quickly, and with a limited budget, but it provided Winters an opportunity to return to the county where her career had started more than 50 years before. 

She was not yet 19, and still known by her birth name, Shirley Schrift, when she began working as a chorus girl at Grossinger’s in 1939. Like so many other future Hollywood fixtures, she learned to act here, eventually starring in hotel plays with the likes of Phil Foster and Everett Sloane. 

In those years, Sullivan County hotels employed extensive social staffs, well stocked with talented youngsters who could sing, dance, and tell jokes, as well as act. Large and medium sized hotels might have 20, 30, or even more employees on their social staffs, which were responsible for daily entertainment and at least one major production each week. Many a Hollywood notable started out that way. 

Ironically, some 20 years later, Winters would regularly return to "the G" as a major star, performing, but also working with such personalities as Jayne Mansfield, John Garfield and Doris Day to judge the hotel’s Friday night Champagne Hour dance contests. 

She was born in St. Louis, but when she was very young her father moved the family to Brooklyn, where he found work as a garment cutter. Winters once remarked that her family was so poor she was selling magazines door to door at the age of nine to help them survive. Her father was sent to prison for arson (a crime for which he was later exonerated) and that made her childhood so unbearable, she recalled, that she created a fantasy world from the movies she frequented whenever she could afford them. 

Her two-year stint in the Catskills led to some minor roles in theater, and she financed her acting studies by working in the garment district. A role in the Broadway hit, "Rosalinda" led to a Hollywood screen test and a contract with Columbia Pictures. That’s when Shirley Schrift became Shelley Winter, and eventually Winters-- Winter had been her mother’s maiden name. Despite the name change, success was not immediate. 

Her early roles included "Sailor’s Holiday", "Cover Girl", and "Tonight and Every Night", but were largely uncredited. She returned to Broadway - most notably in "Oklahoma" - and then signed a seven-year deal with Universal, after which her career finally began to gel. She held her own opposite Ronald Colman in his Oscar winning turn as a deranged Shakespearean actor in "A Double Life" and then won an Oscar nomination herself as the pregnant wife Montgomery Clift drowns so he can marry Elizabeth Taylor in 1951's "A Place in the Sun." 

That established Winters as a serious actress, and a number of juicy roles followed, including "The Great Gatsby" (1949), "Frenchie" (1950), "The Big Knife" (1955) , and "The Night of the Hunter” (also 1955). She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as a Jewish mother hiding from the Nazis in 1959's "The Diary of Anne Frank" and then a second for "A Patch of Blue" in 1965. She was also nominated for "The Poseidon Adventure" in 1972, but didn’t win. 

She would appear in over 130 films during her career, but was at least as well known for her off-screen romantic exploits and her outspoken political views as for her acting. She penned two autobiographies (1980 and 1989) and boasted of affairs with Burt Lancaster, William Holden, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, and several others. 

She wasn’t universally liked: For example, she was so abrasive during the filming of "Winchester ‘73" with Jimmy Stewart in 1950, the usually soft-spoken Stewart suggested "she ought to be spanked." 

She was a regular on the talk-show circuit, never at a loss for words, and enjoyed a good argument. She once left the usually unflappable Johnny Carson dumbfounded, when, as a guest on The Tonight Show, she stormed off the set after a heated argument with actor Oliver Reed over his opinion of women, only to reappear moments later to dump a bucket of ice water over Reed’s head. The two had to be physically restrained by stage hands, and were nowhere to be seen when the show returned from an impromptu commercial break. 


John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.


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