Ms. Winters was my very first celebrity assignment. I was four months into my trainee duties in the mailroom at ICM and reading scripts for agents in any spare time I could find. One of the industry’s first super-agents, Sue Mengers, liked my work and I began reading more and more for her clients who were, at the time, Ryan O’Neal, Farrah Fawcett, Nick Nolte and Shelley Winters among several other glittery stars of the early eighties. Sue was a charmer; spread-eagled, no panties, and screaming at her Scientologist assistant until the girl would cry. You had to love her.
Ms. Winters, and it was always Ms. Winters to me, was writing her autobiography. It wasn’t any of that James Frey memoir crap, either, man. The lady had the facts, so much so that one chapter listed nothing more than what was in her closet. There was the jewelry-and-fur chapter in which she catalogued her jewels and furs, each with a small and sultry story to make that fur come back to life.
Her companion, a stern and handsome woman named Sue, was always at Ms. Winters side, and gave me the unveiled impression she was suspicious of me. I, on the other hand, was terrified of both women for two very different reasons. I was afraid of Sue simply because she looked like she could hurt me and had the will to do it.
I tiptoed around Ms. Winters because she was Shelley Winters, the woman who starred in some of my all-time favorite films from Lolita to The Night of the Hunter, a movie that haunted my childhood, and finally, A Patch of Blue, the one where the blind white girl meets a young black man and doesn’t know of society’s scorn until her mother, Ms. Winters, catches them and screams “nigger” a lot. She won the Oscar for that performance because it was brave.
Okay, so I am assigned to go over to Ms. Winters’ home to help her “organize” her book. I really didn’t have the vocabulary at that time to do more than smile and nod while she smoked cigarettes in a long filtered holder and drank wine from a tumbler. Sue was always on the edge of my periphery, and I’d gently suggest to Ms. Winters that she tone down the listings, the pages and pages of lists of boyfriends and shoes and restaurants where she had accounts and, well, enough with the lists, lady!
There were two meetings we had at a restaurant. In public. I dressed as best I could given my $125.00 a week salary, but I always felt tacky and out of place (actually, it’s a feeling I still have, but that’s a topic for my therapist). Ms. Winters had mastered the art of the entrance, and once in the door, both times at Joe Allen’s, an industry eatery, everyone in the place knew that she had arrived. I’d meekly trail her and Sue to our table while carrying the three reams of paper that was her rough draft.
Her book agent and editor took over, and I had one last meeting with Ms. Winters at her town home. She was very kind, took my hand, and in that addled voice that was her trademark, she told me how much she appreciated my work. She handed me a gift-wrapped package, Sue glared the entire time as I carefully opened it and found an ornate stein with my initials engraved on it.
“Put it to good use,” she charged.
“It’s beautiful, Ms. Winters.” I left the house and never spoke with her again. Not long afterward, the book came out, and I hungrily thumbed to the Acknowledgement page to see if I was listed. Nothing. Not a word about my contribution, but I what I did have was a bitchin’ beer mug and the sweet memory of looking into those beautiful aged eyes of hers, eyes that had seen a million stories and just wanted to tell them.