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The crazy love affair of Shelley Winters and Tony Franciosa that ended in tears


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In dark glasses and heavy makeup, a scarf hiding her fluffy blonde hair, no one recognised the woman in the window seat of the TWA airliner flying westwards from Rome to New York on a March afternoon in 1954.

At 33, Shelley Winters, Oscar-winning actress and Hollywood's highest-paid woman star, was a shadow of her usual dynamic rebellious self.

Which was not surprising. She couldn't eat or sleep and had cried every day for the past three months.

In her handbag she carried 50 sleeping pills. When she reached America she intended to take them all.
 
Life, it seemed, was no longer worth living for Shelley Winters. Her parting from Italian matinee idol Vittorio Gassman was world news, as was the fact that he had left her for a beautiful 16-year-old starlet.

Back in Hollywood, Shelley Winters didn't take the sleeping pills. Instead she signed a $100,000 contract with RKO boss Howard Hughes and desperately began to try to rebuild her life.

She had no intention of falling in love again — she had been hurt too much and too often by unsuitable men — but it seemed she had no choice. While appearing in a Broadway play a few months later, she met an unknown dark haired actor of 26.

His name was Tony Franciosa and within days they were inseparable. For the next seven years their affair, and later their marriage, would be the talk of Hollywood.

Shelley Winters remembered: "It was fun and fights and grand passion and low comedy. Together we did some of the finest acting we ever did in our lives!"

Two years of tempestuous courtship followed their meeting and gossip columnists had almost given up speculating on whether the couple would ever get married when Tony Franciosa travelled to Nevada to make a movie Wild Is The Wind, with Anna Magnani.

Next day his agent, Stan Kamen, called on Shelley to deliver a small white box. Inside was a wedding ring. "Tony just called," Kamen said. "He wants you to fly to Reno today and get married!"

An hour after the ceremony Tony Franciosa returned to the mountain location to continue his movie leaving his bride in Reno. Lonely and bored, Shelley Winters hired a car and paid a surprise visit to the apartment her bridegroom had rented. But who was most surprised?

"I pushed open the door and found him kissing Anna Magnani on the couch... I just lost my head and threw everything at them that I could lay my hands on. Tony said that they were just rehearsing a scene for the next day's shooting but surely he didn't expect me to believe that. I knew, only hours after our wedding, that I could never keep him on the straight and narrow," Shelley remembered.

"Tony let loose among the beauties of Hollywood was like a kid in a candy store. I knew that however much I loved him he just couldn't be satisfied with one woman."

She was right. Where ever her handsome young husband went, sensational headlines followed. He was jailed for assault on a photographer, linked with half a dozen stars including Ava Gardner, Anna Magnani and Lauren Bacall.

But Shelley still loved him. There were countless reconciliations and tearful reunions. For a few months the pair were idyllically happy ... until Shelley one day picked up a copy of the scandal magazine Confidential...and read that her husband was having an affair with heiress Judy Balaban.

In the resulting row Shelley smashed a heavy perfume bottle against her husband's head, then rang up Hollywood police and announced: "This is Shelley Winters. I've just killed my husband."

She hadn't, but Tony needed hospital treatment. While he was away she threw all his possessions into the garden, including his 32 suits, and called his agent to take the stuff away. Next day she started divorce proceedings. Tony married Judy Balaban but they didn't live happily ever after.  Shelley never married again. "I don't seem to have got the knack of finding men who are good husbands" and resumed her career as Hollywood's most charismatic woman superstar. She didn't see Tony for nearly 20 years. Then one day at a shindig she saw "a tall sort of familiar handsome middle-aged man. I asked him who he was. 'I can't believe this,' he said. 'I'm your ex-husband.'

Shortly before her death at 86 in January 2006, Shelley Winters remembered: "When I block out something I do it in style. I had loved him so much and been so hurt that I just tried to blot him out of my life forever. But when I saw him it all came back. It was an affair that I knew from the start would end in tears, but there were a lot of good things about it too. Since then I've bumped into Tony several times.

Once he asked me why I had never married again and I told him: 'Marriage with anyone after you would be very dull...' "Thirty years after the tears and the traumas, just the sight of that guy's smile made me feel young and foolish all over again."

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