Shirley Jones opens the door to her house in Los Angeles and appears every inch the ladylike Marian the librarian or sweet farm girl Laurey or cheerfully steady Mrs. Partridge, offering a warm smile and handshake.
Her elegant, modestly high-necked jacket is black, her makeup is discreet and her silver hair tidy. Jones' living room has the sort of traditional furniture and knickknacks (exception: a prominent Academy Award) that would fit any suburban house.
It all adds up to the publicly familiar Shirley Jones, whose crystalline soprano voice and dewy prettiness made her an immediate star in the 1950s film versions of “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” and who captured a subsequent generation of fans in TV's “The Partridge Family” in the 1970s.
Then there's “Shirley Jones,” her new autobiography (written with Wendy Leigh and published by Simon & Schuster's Gallery Books imprint) that turns the 79-year-old actress's image on its head in startling — even shocking — ways.
“So bring out the smelling salts, hang on to your hats, and get ready for the surprise of your lives!” she writes, coyly, in the book's introduction. It's not false advertising.
There's a recounting of her early life and dazzling career that included working with two musical- theater masters, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, as well as many of Hollywood's top actors, including Marlon Brando (king of the retakes to exhaustion, Jones said), Jimmy Stewart (charmingly ditsy) and Richard Widmark (the only co-star she fell in love with).
But a substantial part of the book is spent on her troubled marriage to the late Jack Cassidy, the glossily handsome actor and singer whom she describes in a passage as her first lover and “sexual Svengali,” and whose lessons she shares candidly.
That includes — X-rated spoiler alert — Cassidy's impressive endowment, Jones' own “highly sexed” nature that made orgasms a breeze, Cassidy's pre-marital sexual encounter with Cole Porter that Jones says left her unfazed, and her apparent tolerance for his infidelities.
The character of Marian, the spinsterish librarian in 1962's “The Music Man,” another smash hit for Jones, “wasn't me,” she says firmly. And her autobiography makes that abundantly clear, although she says it took the passing of years to bring forth such candor.
“I never would have written this book if I weren't the age I am now,” she says.
So she's grown-up enough to tell her story, and her admirers should be grown-up enough to read it? “That's exactly how I feel,” Jones replies.
She overturned her squeaky-clean image once before with her Oscar-winning portrayal of a vengeful prostitute in “Elmer Gantry” (1960) opposite Burt Lancaster, and the role that she considers her most important. It also brought backlash from her admirers.
“I got letters up the kazoo: ‘Why would you ever take a part like this?' ” Jones recalls.
Marty Ingels, the comedian who is her second husband of 35 years and counting, jokes that he is offended by her personal history.
“All that stuff she did with her husband (Cassidy), all those adventures ... I'm looking into the grounds of having my marriage annulled,” he says.
That draws a boisterous guffaw from Jones, whose loyalty to her outspoken, eccentric spouse has provoked speculation about how she could have jumped to Ingels from Cassidy, deeply troubled but unquestionably urbane.
Jones has a simple answer for doubters: Ingels makes her laugh every day and keeps life from being boring.
The Western Pennsylvania native's autobiography begins innocently enough, with Jones born in Charleroi and moving as a toddler to Smithton, where her father helped run the family-owned brewery, the Jones Brewing Co.
She describes herself as a rebellious tomboy, “wild, willful and independent,” who became obsessed with movies and their stars but intended to turn her love of animals into a career as a veterinarian. Talent intervened.
In 1953, on a post-high school graduation trip to New York with her parents, a friend introduced her to an agent who, immediately impressed, told her to attend an open audition with John Fearnley, the casting director for the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein.
She received a part in the chorus for Rodgers and Hammerstein's “South Pacific” and then, a year later, the starring role in the duo's “Oklahoma!”
With the end of the big-screen musical era, Jones fought for recognition as a serious actress to win the role in “Elmer Gantry” and other dramatic fare. “The Partridge Family,” about a widow and her musical family and co-starring stepson David Cassidy, allowed her to work in Los Angeles and be home at night with her young children.
“I liked my job, but when I came home, I never thought of it,” says Jones, who still takes on occasional theater, movie and TV roles.
Of the many photos scattered around her house, all but one — a group shot showing the triumphant Jones and Lancaster on Oscar night — are of children and grandchildren.
Jones had a chance to reflect on her life anew while recording the audio version of “Shirley Jones.”
“What came to me is, ‘I did this, and obviously I loved it when I was doing it,” she said. “I had a great time. I have no regrets whatsoever.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for the Associated Press.
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