Shirley Standlee had a very interesting and unusual life, but it had nothing to do with her acting career. Shirley was a method trained actress who constantly sought to better her acting sill and had a solid run in 1950s TV series and theater. But it all pales in comparison to her role as the wife of one of the 20th century most famous war correspondents and journalists, Fancois Pelou. Let’s learn more about her!
Shirley Standlee was born on Christmas Day (December 25), 1926 in Los Angeles, California, to Elmer Fair Standlee and Mildred Cowdery. Her older sister Suzanne was born on November 10, 1921. Her father was an affluent buyer, and the family employed at least one maid in the 1920s and 1930s.
Shirley grew up in California as a typical upper-middle-class girl, attending civic events and being active in local society. She probably attended school in Los Angeles, and went for an acting career after high school graduation – that is how it all started. Shirley remained very close to her sister Suzanne, and they often summered in LaJolla during the time that Shirley lived in New York.
Shirley worked extensively in television, but made only one theatrical movie – Patterns. And what a movie it is! I for one loved it! Such an incredibly relevant movie to his day, it deals with greed in all it’s form. Here is a great summary from imdb: Well-done story of corporate shark, owner of a vast conglomerate, who tries to break the VP he thinks can no longer do the job. Everett Sloane plays the heartless owner who nurtures his executives with bitter words and daily shouting matches. Ed Begley plays the downtrodden VP; he’s more than able to take care of himself, but after years of fighting with Sloane he’s exhausted. He’s 62 and afraid he won’t find another job and refuses to quit; he’s worked for the company for 30 years and believes he’s got a place there. Van Heflin is the executive brought in to replace Begley, unbeknownst to them both. After Sloane tells him of his plans, Heflin tries to tell the boss that he doesn’t want the job. Begley is his friend. But deep down, he finds that he really does want it, just not at that cost.
The acting performances are uniformly excellent. Ed Bengley, usually a large ham who chewed scenery, is great as a man tired of fighting with wolves, Van Helfin displaying his beguiling mix of warmth and coldness (I love him in all the movies I’ve seen so far, he always has this dual edge), but Everett Sloane! Oh! He’s so PERFECT: I know that some reviewers consider him too histrionic and loud in the role, but this is exactly how some of these people operate – some narcissists love to be heard and seen on a grand scale. But always the menace, the ruthlessness, the egotism – how he shows is across is simply astounding! IMHO he’s a highlight of an very good movie. The story-line is trim and tight, and Rod Serling adds his personal touches here and there, enough to make it more than a pedestrian, million times seen before movie. Kudos to him and all the actors! Shirley’s role is sadly quite small.
That’s it from Shirley!
Shirley was one of the rare women who saw acting as an art for, not the tool for getting rich and famous. She attended the old school acting schools in Los Angeles, and got into the theater circuit in the mid 1940s (she had no designs to become a movie star and Hollywood never interested her). Young, idealistic and talented, Shirley wanted to hone her craft and become a truly great actress. However, even when she eschewed Hollywood and worked in the theater, she was in for a rude awakening. As she later told the papers: “I supported Tallulah Bankhead in ‘Private Lives’ on the road and Helen Hayes in ‘Good Housekeeping’ in 1949, and lots of others in radio and TV since, but all I learned were tricks, effective hut phony, not the real emotion an actress must project.”
A strong inner need to develop herself pushed her to leave California and settle in New York, looking for places where she could learn more about acting. She found what she was looking for in Lee Strasberg and his Actors Studio. She studied for a few yeas with him and immersed herself into method acting. Shirley then found work in supporting roles in both television and in the theater. She worked in a variety of projects with fellow Actors studio alumni, Sidney Lumet and writer/producer Rod Serling.
Shirley married french journalist Francois Pelou in 1954 in New York. In the summer of 1960, the couple adopted a son, Christopher. And now the interesting part of her life begins!
First, something about Pelou. Born in 1924 in France, he was trained to become an economist and worked in the editing department of Agence France-Presse, (APE) preparing dispatches, but always dreamt of exotic lands and travel. In 1950, he was sent to cover the Korean war (and his wanderlust yeas started). He had a reporting stint in China, then came to the US from Tokyo and settled for a brief time in San Francisco. He then joined the AFP office in New York, where he worked in the political section before taking up the Sports section which he kept for four years. It was during this time that he met and married Shirley. For AFP, he covered the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo. Then came 1963 and his claim to fame. He was the first French journalist sent to Dallas the day after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and, two days later, he was a eyewitness to Oswald’s killing in the basement of the local police headquarters by nightclub owner Jack Ruby. He was interviewed by other reporters and covered Ruby’s trial the following year which gained him mainstream fame and recognition. He told the papers: “Ruby was next to me and shoved me to go kill Oswald who was coming right in front of me (…) Oswald was the first to see his killer arrive, that’s why I always believed they knew each other.”
A few months after the assassination of President Kennedy, Francois and Shirley left New York for Vietnam and lived in Saïgon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) where he was a war correspondent and Bureau Chief for AFP. Francois got the rep of a highly-objective reported and was well regarded by both fractions. Also in Vietnam, Francois met the fierce Italian female reported Oriana Fallaci and fell madly in love with her. Their relationship would last for more than ten years and span several continents, from Saigon to Rio-de-Janeiro, from New York to Madrid, and of course Tuscany and Florence (where Oriana was from). Francois himself said about Oriana: “Oriana Fallaci arrived in my bureau in 1967. We covered many events together, she would become very important in my life.” He called her a real tornado and she dedicated at least one of her books to him. (NOTE: Fallaci is a incredibly interesting, scandalous and divisive personality. Learn more about her here and make your own conclusions, but as far as female journalists go, she was one of the best). I wonder how Shirley felt about all of this – Francois was her husband after all. I know that its terribly hard to live in such circumstances and that lust and passion often run rampart when you are at death’s door every day, and that such affairs are commonplace, but I could find no information on how Shirley lived, was she afraid for Francois every day? or was it a bit more relaxed than I imagine it?
After four very stormy years, Shirley and Francois were evacuated from Vietnam during the 1968 Têt Offensive, and he was transferred to Rio de Janeiro the same year. It was a time of great strife in Brazil, with constant political protests between Brazilian pro-democracy moderates and right-wing forces, governed by the brutal military regime and dictatorship. There was drama for Francois here too, and this is perhaps the most intense of all of his journalistic endeavors.
Francois was working on the story about kidnapping of the Swiss ambassador, while the Brazilian secret police have forbidden the press to speak about this affair, because it is the third kidnapping of ambassador by the guerrillas of Captain La Marca (Which were a thorn in their side for a long time). They contacted AFP to give conditions for the ambassador’s release. Taking a huge risk, François immediately published this information and informed the French Embassy, knowing that he has just violated the orders of the Brazilian police. He was immediately arrested and held in a dirty, stinking cell in the attic of the prison, and to make it all worse, there was a intense heat wave. During a long and grueling interrogation, he lost consciousness twice but gave away nothing on his contacts with the guerrillas.
Meanwhile his office was searched. The police took his things, including two bottles of moon-dust that he got from US astronaut Pete Conrad. However, arresting Francois proved to be a costly mistake for the regime, as he was a well known journalist, pretty famous since the death of Oswald, and when his arrest made the headlines, there was violent public outrage, with the generous backing of the American press who don’t like what the military was doing. Francois was released, brought at 3 AM, under guard, to the Rio airport, pushed into an Air France plane and immediately exiled from Brazil. He spent the end of the year in Paris, happy and satisfied to be the instigator of the release of sixty guerrilla political prisoners in exchange for the Swiss ambassador.
In the 1971, the family returned briefly to New York City, then lived in Hong Kong, Paris and, ultimately Madrid in 1975. Francois becomes very close to future King Juan Carlos, and is the first reported who learns of Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s death.
After eight years of life in Madrid, the family left for Brussels where Francois covered European issues, but he got bored very quickly and decided to retire to his house in Marbella. Around this time, Shirley and Francois separated for good, he went on to live in in France (in an ancestral home built in the 1760s, located in the city of Conques) and she stayed in Madrid. Francois entered into a relationship with a Frenchwoman, Caroline, who remained his companion for the rest of his life. In a 2016 interview Francois claimed that he gave Shirley “his word” (whatever that means) so they never had to do all the official divorce stuff. Their son Christopher moved to the United States where he lives today. He served in the US Navy before retirement. Shirley spent the rest of her life in Spain.
Shirley Standlee Pelou died on December 10, 2018, in Madrid, Spain. She was cremated..
Francois Pelou died in France in 2019.