Many years ago in the city of New York, I was invited to lunch.
Shelley Winters, the movie star and a friend ever since I starred with her in the writer and film director James Bridges play, “Days of the Dancing” was always ready to cheer up a friend and was full of helpful surprises. This lunch was one of those moments.
Shelley and I had toured the summer stock circuit with the play. Robert Walker Jr. had starred with Shelley until he broke his ankle one night and Shelley wildly insisted that I could take over the part. I did, and we continued the tour.
For me Shelley was easy to love, others found her a handful. Her emotions flowed like some Italian plaza fountain. You were never quite sure how to react. However, out right rejection of any of her spontaneous ideas was not allowed. So when she called and said that she wanted me to go to lunch with her, a special lunch, I just showed up at her Central Park West apartment on time.
Shelley’s apartment was on 74th street and Central Park West, overlooking the Park. My mother, a New York telephone operator, told me she once had handled an emergency call from Shelley years earlier. Mother had to talk Shelley out of throwing herself out the window as Shelley ranted and raved. (Possibly over an argument with Vittorio Gassman or maybe Anthony Franciosa.) In those days, telephone operators were told to stay on the line when people called the police for emergency help.
I loved going to Shelley’s apartment with the doorman greeting you and Broadway musical star Joel Gray on the same floor. (Only two tenants to a floor.) Roddy McDowall had an apartment like Shelley’s, further south, as did Montgomery Cliff.
Actor and Photographer Roddy had taken my acting head shots that same summer as we walked around Central park. I went to Monty Cliff’s apartment with James Bridges, the author of the play that Shelley and I were starring in just to meet Monty. That is a whole other story.
The day of this special “surprise” lunch the doorman had the taxi waiting for us as we came out of the elevator. It was beautiful day, warm with a breeze, the park sparkled green. New York is surrounded by water and you could smell the rivers water. Shelley looked great, she wore black as I recall. She was a bit overweight. I loved her looks and the way her eyes always met yours when she talked to you. She told the cab driver to head downtown to 72nd street. That is the same street as the Dakota. The apartment complex where John Lennon was to live and die in years later. I still had no idea where we were going or what the deal was with this “special” lunch.
The cab slowly made the turn onto the large broad 4-lane street, much wider than the ordinary west side streets, we edged passed the Dakota and soon stopped at a tall impressive apartment tower on the north side of the street. Just as quickly, the front seat next to the driver was filled with a robust and handsome head of hair. When the man turned to face Shelley and me in the back seat, he was indeed handsome and also quite angry. The man was actor Farley Granger. http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-farley-granger-20110330,0,5937382.story
Farley had a beef with Shelley, one that seemed to have been festering all morning or for years perhaps. I think it had to do with the timing of the pick up. However, he seemed so angry it must have been about much much more. Farley kept asking me if I agreed with his reasoning. I recall stammering some weak noncommittal answer.
Farley relaxed as quickly as he had gotten excited and we rode a conversational sparse but smooth ride down to Sullivan Street and West Broadway. Getting out we immediately went into a loft building and up just one flight of stairs. On that first floor landing the door was opened by a very beautiful young blonde woman with a radiant smile. She seemed to know all of us, even me. I have no idea who she was and cannot remember her name.
In the kitchen, a tall gray-haired man, with a pirate’s black eye patch turned from his choir of making a salad and greeted us. “Wine every body.” It was Nicholas Ray, the iconic film director of James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause.” http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-et-book-20110728,0,7209086.story
Shelley wanted me to meet Nick Ray, that was my surprise “gift” to me. We were introduced, but as I recall now Nick and I hardly spoke for the rest of the day. Maybe he was not so impressed with this young actor friend of Shelley’s or perhaps he just loved all the great stories he was telling us… and his beautiful young girl friend serving us lunch. You can understand how he managed to be a great filmmaker, as he loved to tell a good story. At the time, he told us he was teaching film at NYU film school.
The lunch was fabulous–bread, pasta and a salad–and of course wine. One floor below Sullivan Street buzzed with summer afternoon traffic. Shelley, Farley, and now Nick Ray seemed to love to get into little spats as to who said what when and who did what — so many years back in their cumulative past. I again was given the task of chiming in on one side or the other when asked: “Frank, what do you think. Is Shelley, talking shit, or what?” I cannot remember contributing to any of these conversations. Nick’s beautiful young girl friend wisely said as little as I did. However, she had a charming smile, which helped me stay relaxed.
Shelley told a story about how Nick was able to sleep with Marilyn Monroe, thanks to Shelley’s efforts and Marilyn’s plans and desires.
As Shelley related it, Marilyn had a list of writers, directors, and or producers and actors she wanted to sleep with and lucky man Nick was on the list. Shelley was seeing Ray and was a roommate and friend of Marilyn Monroe. Nicholas Ray was next on the list and Shelley was all up for helping her girl friend… get… well, get laid (It is so comforting to a mortal like myself to think Marilyn Monroe had an issue with this.)
As the story went from Shelley’s mouth to my ears that afternoon, Shelley invited Marilyn to dinner with her and Nick. Then as planned in mid-dinner Shelley was to feel ill and excuse herself and exit stage left to a cab and home. Marilyn would then be left with Nick and hopefully her conquest that night of the hot young director, Nicholas Ray. Shelley swears it all worked.
Nick denied the whole experience, and in fact claimed not to remember the event at all. Shelley accused him of male selective memory. “You did sleep with Marilyn?” “Yes,” Nick answered but protested that, Shelley had nothing to do with that and he did not remember any dinner.” He did finally admit that he dated and went out with Shelley. “Yes, but…” This argument never got settled that day or ever I would suppose, but there was much laughter around these provocative discussions.
(About a year later, I learned that Nick had lung cancer and in a few short years, he would be dead).
I was pleased to have had a lunch to remember and to have met and spent time with Nicholas Ray and Farley Granger. However, I have never told anybody about this lunch until now. Perhaps, it was Farley Granger’s dying last March 2010–he was 85. Maybe that fact brought this forgotten lunch so many years ago back to mind. Thanks Shelley, thanks Nick Ray and Farley Granger all gone now; and as to the beautiful blonde girlfriend of Nick Ray’s — if she is still alive and well, if she is around, I would hope she would call me, or Facebook me, and we will ahh… do lunch.
Robert Walker Jr., Shelley Winters, and Frank