The Celebrity Collector

Two-time Oscar nominee Shirley Knight
has a houseful of nice antiques.

By Ken Hall

Shirley Knight has been in so many plays, films and TV shows, and has been awarded or nominated so many times in her 50-year career, it's amazing hers is not a household name. She's been nominated for two Oscars (as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), won two of her three Emmy awards in the same year (1995), has earned two Golden Globes and won one Tony award.

"Someone told me I have won more awards than any actor ever," Knight said with a laugh. "I guess it's possible. I do have a bunch of them." But awards are something she collects because the industry and her peers continue to recognize and reward her. In her regular, everyday life, Shirley is a collector of blue glass items. She also owns many antiques, including wonderful period furniture.

The blue glass collection began some years ago when her daughter gave her a couple of pieces as presents. Then her mother-in-law gave her a very pretty Wedgwood depiction of the coronation of King George and Mary, the Queen Mother. After that, she kept her eye open for blue glass at antique shops and fairs. "I'd go around and see something I like and just buy it," she said.

All of Knight's drinking glasses are blue. She has a blue glass straw dispenser with silver top, and a set of candlesticks featuring winged angels with blue skirts. She has blue wine glasses and a pair of blue champagne glasses. There are blue serving dishes, blue vases, blue plates, blue cups and saucers, and a silver bowl with a blue candy dish inside it.

"I'm not much into jewelry and clothes," she observed, "so when the blue glass presented itself it seemed like a nice thing to collect. I just like it." Many of the items have come from antique shops in Los Angeles, New York, London and Connecticut. Knight has lived in all these places. Today, she calls New York's Greenwich Village home. She recently moved there from California.

Not long ago, Shirley made the mistake of telling some people she liked penguins. "Before you know it, the penguin figurines began pouring in," she said. So she has a collection of those, too, but she didn't actually buy any of the pieces on her own. She says she has a knack for buying something on a whim, then discovering years later that it's valuable or highly collectible - or both.

An example: the artist Egon Schiele, who was a contemporary of Gustav Klimt and who died from influenza in the flu pandemic of 1918. "In the 1960s, I had gone to Vienna and bought some prints of his," Knight said. "I came back to the States, all excited, telling everybody I knew about Egon Schiele, and nobody knew who I was talking about. Today, he has an exhibit in New York."

Knight told the story of how Schiele was thrown in jail for painting several nude self-portraits. Right there, she'd found a kindred spirit. "I'm always fascinated by actors and artists who are off to the side, away from fame's radar but still enormously talented," she said. "I respect them more than the Paris Hiltons of the world." She added she still has her Egon Schiele prints, but no originals.

At one time, Knight had a very handsome collection of very old opera scores, handed down to her by her great-great aunt, who was an opera singer in Europe. Shirley, too, aspired to a career in the opera before acting claimed her, so the scores held tremendous sentimental value - and probably monetary, too. Ultimately, though, she gifted them all, to the Los Angeles Opera Library.

"I wanted them to be taken care of properly by people who could appreciate and tend to them," Knight said. She estimated there were about 23 scores in all, some from the 1800s and early 1900s. Wagner, Puccini and Verdi were all represented, among others. Knight still has some of her opera scores from the '50s, back when they were still hard bound. Today, they're plain paper sheets.

She also has some very old pieces of sheet music from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Much of it is from the Gay Nineties, with titled like "After the Ball." Knight loves them because of the elaborate illustrations and artwork many of them featured. "It's just incredible," she said, adding she's been thinking of framing some of the more interesting examples and hanging them as art.

The period furnishings in Knight's new home are copious and impressive. She has a serving cart with brass wheels and brass handle made in the 19th century. A brass hole in the bottom is for wine storage. Her prized possession is an 18th century lady's writing desk, which she uses as a side table. "I bought it in England a long time ago, probably 30 years ago," she said. "It's so beautiful."

A hooded Queen Anne chair was purchased in New York years ago. "It's been reinforced a lot," Knight offers. An impressive bookcase, with large original glass doors, is from the mid-19th century. A gorgeous Art Deco vanity from the 1920s has an odd-shaped mirror with scoop design. And a 19th century French coffee table, "kind of primitive," was once upright but has been cut down some.

She also owns a pair of large figural windows from the 1920s that depict women in repose. "They're very Art Deco-y," Knight said, "like something out of the very early issues of Vanity Fair. Each one measures about two-feet by four-feet. My daughter might be taking them off my hands. We're both in the process of deciding what to do with them." Knight is the mother of two daughters.

Shirley Enola Knight was born July 5, 1936, in Goessel, Kan. It was a drive-by birth; her parents were en route from Oklahoma to Wichita at the time, and Shirley just decided to make her debut along the way. She had a normal midwestern upbringing in Lyons, Kan. Her father, Noel Johnson Knight, was an oil company executive. Her mother, Virginia (Webster), was a homemaker.

Shirley showed an interest in singing quite early. At age 8, she entered a statewide talent contest, singing "Alice Blue Gown." She took second place. The first-placed winner was none other than her 6-year-old sister, Gloria, who sang "Slow Boat to China." When she was 14, Shirley wrote a short story titled "A Realization at a Funeral," which was published in a national magazine.

Knight attended Phillips University and Wichita State University, both in Kansas. She went to Los Angeles and trained for the stage under Lee Strasburg. By age 21, she had already made her TV debut, on NBC's "Matinee Theater." She married Gene Persson, with whom she had a daughter, Kaitlin. She later remarried, to the English writer John R. Hopkins. They had a daughter, Sophie.

Knight has appeared in dozens of films and television programs. Her movie career started in 1958, with "Five Gates to Hell." Two years later, she earned a Best Actress nomination for her performance in "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs." And two years after that, she scored another Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Her TV career also got started in 1958, with a part on the western "Buckskin." She's been on some of the most memorable shows in TV history, including "The Outer Limits," "The Fugitive" (the original and the remake!), "Playhouse 90," "Rawhide," "Hawaiian Eye," "Surfside Six," "77 Sunset Strip," "Naked City," "Lawman," "Bourbon Street Beat," "Barnaby Jones" and "Alias Smith & Jones."

Her Emmy awards were won on the strength of performances on "NYPD Blue" (1995), the made-for-TV movie "Indictment: The McMartin Trial" (1995), and the popular series from the 1980s, "thirtysomething." Knight has had a recurring role on the smash hit "Desperate House-wives," playing Bree's mother-in-law, Phyllis Van De Kamp. It is unclear whether she will appear in further episodes.

Knight has been in scores of movies, including "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" (2002), "As Good As It Gets" (1997), "The Group" (1966), "The Dutchman" (1968, for which she won a Jury award at the Cannes Film Festival as producer) and "Petulia" (1968). In 1969, she had the starring role in "The Rain People," a movie written specifically for her by Francis Ford Coppola.

Throughout most of the '70s and '80s, Knight traded in her film career for parts on Broadway, where she was accorded acclaim and success. She earned Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations for her work in "The Young Man From Atlanta," and won the Tony Award for her part in the play "Kennedy's Children." She also won the Joseph Jefferson Award for "Landscape of the Body."

In 1994, Leonard Maltin, writing in his "Movie Encyclopedia," said Knight was "an expert at playing disturbed modern women," adding, "She astounded viewers with her accomplished (Oscar nomination) performances." Knight's daughter, Kaitlin, is an actress and singer. Her other daughter, Sophie, is a writer. Her husband John died in 1998 after a long battle with Parkinson's Disease.

Fans of Shirley Knight may write to the star at her business manager's address: 19528 Ventura Blvd. # 559, Tarzana, CA 91356. 

Shirley Knight has won two Emmy Awards, a Tony, and been nominated for two Oscars in a career that spans nearly 50 years.

European drinking cart, with beautiful brass wheels and handles.

Small side chair, early 20th century, needlepoint with inlaid wood.

Hooded Queen Anne chair, purchased at a shop in New York .

Shirley (left) plays Phyllis Van de Kamp, the mother-in-law of Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross) in the TV hit "Desperate House-wives." (photo courtesy ABC)

Part of Shirley's blue glass
collection.

 

 

 

 

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