LOS ANGELES — Shirley Jones opens the door to her house 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, 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' 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 in the 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.
The character of Marian, the spinsterish librarian in 1962's “The Music Man,” another smash hit for Jones, “wasn't me,” she said firmly. And her autobiography makes that abundantly clear, although she says it took the passing of years for her to bring such candor.
“I never would have written this book if I weren't the age I am now,” she said.
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,” replied Jones.
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. 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 said.
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.”