“For those of you who remember me as the innocent, blue-eyed ingénue of Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Music Man,” observes Shirley Jones, “the real life, everyday me is far removed from the characters of Laurey, Julie, and Marian the librarian. … I have never myself been that innocent.”
This is how the actress opens her new autobiography, Shirley Jones: A Memoir, published by Gallery Books. Behind the Hollywood facade of one of America’s best-loved sweethearts stands a woman who knew from an early age precisely what she wanted from life and confidently pursued it. Such comfort within one’s own skin is rare and often requires great strength—a quality that Jones, judging from these pages, possesses in spades. She and co-author Wendy Leigh strike a literary tone that’s both folksy and highbrow — candidly discussing the most intimate details of this iconic performer’s life.
It would be easy to say that show-business success was in the cards for Shirley Mae Jones, who was named after child star Shirley Temple. But few actresses have had such a long and varied career, including an Oscar, to show for it.
Jones started life as a small-town girl from a well-off family in Smithton, Pa., where her family owned the town brewery. She was once asked by a reporter why she hadn’t changed her “simple” name, and she replied, “I wanted to change it to Shirley Smith from Jonestown, but they wouldn’t let me.”
On her first-ever audition for anyone, Jones grabbed the attention of Broadway giants Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. After appearing in their stage productions South Pacific and Me and Juliet, she got her big break when she was cast as the lead in the movie adaptation of Oklahoma! opposite Gordon MacRae, which began her rise to fame.
The 1960 movie Elmer Gantry brought her to the attention of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters. “Until Elmer Gantry, I was seen as a musical star,” she writes. “[Playing> Lulu Bains changed all that for me.” Jones said it was her co-star Burt Lancaster, one of the biggest box-office names in the movie business at that time, who fought for her to get the part of the deacon’s-daughter-turned-prostitute.
Director Richard Brooks took some convincing, because he thought that Laurey from Oklahoma! couldn’t possibly take on such a complex and controversial role. But the morning after filming her big scene with Lancaster as the wayward preacher of the title, Brooks called Jones to say that after watching the previous day’s work, he owed her a huge apology. No one, he felt, could better play the part than she had, and moreover, he was sure it would garner her an Oscar. On April 17, 1961, his prediction came true when her name was read as that year’s Best Supporting Actress.