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September 19, 2013

Memoir reveals the real Shirley Jones

Cooperstown Crier

---- — In 2002 I had the pleasure of seeing Shirley Jones perform at Hyde Hall. It isn’t often we get a star of her magnitude at a local venue and it was exciting to see her in person.   

Jones was the consummate professional, singing show tunes and regaling the crowd with tales of her professional life. She definitely knew how to connect with her audience.

Old-timers will recall Shirley from such classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals as “Oklahoma!” and “The Music Man.” For most baby-boomers like me, she will always be remembered as Shirley Partridge, the All-American mom on the hit television series, “The Partridge Family.” “The Partridge Family” ran from 1970 to 1974 and followed the adventures and misadventures of a rock-and-roll singing American family (it was inspired by the real-life singing family, The Cowsills). The show is probably best known for launching the singing career of teen idol David Cassidy who played Jones’ oldest son and is her step-son by her first marriage to actor Jack Cassidy.

Jones carried the image of a wholesome, small-town girl and ideal mom her whole life. She grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh and for a long time seemed- to-be happily married to Cassidy, raising three sons of her own (including another teen idol, Shawn Cassidy). Even though she eventually got a divorce, there seemed nothing about her that would spoil her “sweetheart” image.

Until now!

Shirley has just penned her autobiography and in it reveals a side that the public never knew existed. Simply titled “Shirley Jones: A Memoir” it begins with her telling her readers they are going to be in for a few surprises. Apparently she decided that as she approaches her 80th birthday she isn’t going to worry about image. She bares all about everything in her life.

There really wasn’t anything unusual about her childhood except for the fact Shirley had a world-class singing voice. She grew up in Smithton, Pa, and her family ran a brewery. Her voice led to her winning the Miss Pittsburgh beauty pageant when she was 18 and to finishing second in the state (the winner competed for Miss America). By chance she ended up in New York auditioning for a part in the chorus of a musical and was discovered by Richard Rodgers. She was soon cast in the lead of “Oklahoma!” and the rest is history.

While Shirley’s professional life blossomed, her personal life was like a yo-yo. Once she met Jack Cassidy she became totally enchanted by him. She was the perfect example of the expression, “love is blind.”

To put it mildly, Cassidy was a cad. He was unfaithful, a neglectful father, did drugs and smoked and drank too much. To top it off, he was bipolar. Despite it all, Shirley put up with his philandering and outlandish behavior for 18 years. She simply couldn’t resist his charms. Even after finally divorcing him she admitted she would always love him. 

It seemed inevitable that Jack would meet a tragic end and he did. He fell asleep in his apartment while smoking a cigarette and the resulting fire burned him beyond recognition. By then Shirley had met her second husband, Marty Ingels, but was still crushed by the news.

Shirley’s biography seems to confirm the common belief that the celebrity existence is wild and out of control. Drinking, drugs and infidelity are a way of life for many people in it. Shirley herself was at the fringes of it but couldn’t help but be affected by it. The image of the sweet, innocent lass of her early musicals, or the strong, maternal role in her TV series would be hard to maintain under those circumstances. It may help explain why her favorite roles were when she played against type.

Shirley’s memoir is not for everyone. If you have a certain image of her that you don’t want spoiled it’s not for you. If you don’t want to read explicit thoughts on personal matters I would skip it. But if you want to learn about the real Shirley Jones and life in the fast lane then you’ll find a woman who is completely comfortable in her own skin. In that sense her book is a refreshing change of pace.