July 18, 1983 12:00 PM

In her 50th summer, a woman of independent means, curious and innocent alike, one of those dreamy people who drink booze mixed with low-calorie soda, Shirley MacLaine sits on the dais, listening to Erma Bombeck discourse on television mothers and toilet paper. She will follow Erma Bombeck. Her topics will be reincarnation and extraterrestrial beings, both of which she has come to believe in, and which she has written about in a deeply personal book. The huge crowd arrayed before her—this is Dallas, at the American Booksellers Association convention—roars at Erma Bombeck. Shirley MacLaine roars at Erma Bombeck. Inside she is churning. “I can operate that way, on two levels,” she explains. Usually that sort of trick is called acting, of which she has done some. Indeed, her trademark red hair is now buried deep in the roots of a sunny blond she was required to affect for a picture she recently finished making. Erma Bombeck concludes, to happy applause. Now Shirley MacLaine must rise up and talk about her search, her convictions. After Erma Bombeck. And during breakfast, for God’s sake. She has, she believes, resided in Atlantis, and she knows fellows who say they go out with ladies from outer space. This is the Shirley MacLaine No One Knows, and this morning, before your very eyes, for the first time in public, she is going to reveal same. “Will people think all my paddles are in the water?” she asks.

She picks up her reading glasses and her speech and heads toward the rostrum, following Erma Bombeck. At breakfast. In all of Shirley MacLaine’s life there has been one perfect moment. This is not liable to be another. “I was not beamed down from the starship Enterprise,” she begins, assuring the skeptical assemblage, and the rest is downhill from there.

When you get to Shirley MacLaine’s time in life, the worst thing you can ever read about yourself is “still pretty.” That is like in baseball when the manager gets a vote of confidence from the owner. Guaranteed, a week later: fired. Same with still pretty. Luckily, Shirley MacLaine is not still pretty, because pretty is never what she led with. Her brother—now, there is pretty. But this is the girl who ended up with Jerry Lewis in a movie that also had Dean Martin in it. The vulnerable little loser: hooker, mistress, Oklahoma housewife.

For a long time, in fact, MacLaine dined out on her legs, but people stayed around to see and know the rest of her, and she became a singer and an actress and then an adult, a reader, a writer, a person, important and whole. The kid with the good gams who was named for li’l Shirley Temple even thinks the best is yet to come. “I’ve always wanted to be a character actor,” she says. “I’m going to be blindingly good at that. I can feel it. Blazingly good! For the rest of my life I’m going to get the parts that have gone to Katharine Hepburn.”

This is uttered with a certain passion, blue eyes staring over the rum and Tab. And it is not wise to dispute MacLaine when intuition and insight are afoot. While her new “spiritual odyssey” has been going on for a decade, she says she has always been “ahead of myself, ahead of my time,” with a heightened sense of the mystic, of déjà vu and prescience, all of them canted by Oriental philosophy.

“I seemed to think in Eastern terms from the time I was 9 or 10—long before I ever visited there, much less lived in the East and studied it,” she says. “I know I lived there in past lives. I have a very good soul memory. I know there is life before birth. I can’t prove that, but then I couldn’t have proved that I had microbes on my arm until the microscope was invented.” For emphasis, she thrusts out one pale, freckled forearm.

About her neck there are two striking pieces of jewelry. One is a large teardrop crystal, the gift of a Himalayan monk. The other is a gold cross, a gift from her parents when she was 12 and growing up in Virginia. One day, a few years later, when she had come to New York after high school, she suddenly clutched at her neck and found the cross was gone. In her distress, a voice inside her began telling her to go to the northeast corner of 57th Street and Seventh Avenue. At last she did. The cross was lying on the pavement.

“I don’t believe in accidents anymore,” she says. “I don’t mean there’s a grand design, with our lives all planned for us. But I’ve seen too many coincidences, and I’m sure that people who float in and out of our lives are there for reasons.” Since her third book, Out on a Limb (Bantam Books, $15.95), appeared, with attendant publicity, people have begun to approach MacLaine, stopping her on the street, telling her of their own experiences and beliefs, thanking her for lending some Western respectability to such traditional Eastern thought. In the many mansions of reincarnation, MacLaine is becoming the house mother.

Unfortunately for Shirley (if not for her publishers), more people “are concerned with my in-body experiences than my out-of-body ones,” she concedes. Interest in her carnal life runs particularly high in the British Commonwealth, because a pseudonymous character in her book, known as Gerry, is identified as a prominent British socialist politician. The book tells us two other things about Gerry: He is missing the upper joint of the little finger of his left hand, and he was, more’s the pity, married to another woman at the time that he and Shirley were enjoying a liaison all over God’s green earth.

The British press is apoplectic. “My wild, crazy love affair with Labour’s sexiest MP,” cries the Daily Mail, and English correspondents pour into Dallas for a scheduled MacLaine press conference. The furor is such, we are advised, that politicians all over Great Britain are walking around like Napoleon, their left hands thrust into their shirts lest a missing little-finger joint be revealed. It is election time. “I guarantee you Gerry is not Margaret Thatcher,” MacLaine declares facetiously to the press. “That’s one down!” cries a voice from the rear.

More important than any mere election, MacLaine has thrown down a gauntlet before the British press. She has written a whole damn book suggesting that she, an international movie star of the first water, and a well-known British politician conducted a glorious affair right under their noses. Their manhood has been called to question—a challenge only slightly mitigated by word from Australia that Gerry is probably not really a socialist from England, but a conservative from Australia, Andrew Peacock, the leader of the opposition (though diehards from Scandinavia insist the lover in question could be none other than Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme).

But Shirley ain’t saying. Only this: “Gerry was a very important part of my life. He is intelligent and human, a man capable of great leadership and change.” Could this be the right-wing Peacock, as described by the unremitting McGovernite, MacLaine?

Shirley will only say: “Gerry was many people, as we all are.”

The Melbourne Herald digs in. “Is he Andrew Peacock?”

“Andrew Peacock is many people,” counters Shirley, and tries in vain to bring this joust to an end. Fat chance. The Gerry questions keep coming, sideways, backdoor, in through the windows. After a while she even starts to enjoy it. “You know,” she says at last, “if I’d balled as many politicians all over the world as you guys say I have, I’d be inside a bottle in the U.N.”

Not long ago, when going through customs on a trip to Canada, MacLaine found herself unable to answer when faced with the fundamental question: Where do you live? She is by herself now, with an apartment on the East Side of Manhattan, another on the top floor of a building she owns in Malibu, and a small hideaway near Mount Rainier, where she goes to write. “I can’t go for very long anymore without writing,” she says. Indeed, she speaks of her writing with a passion she otherwise reserves only for sleep. Shirley MacLaine speaks of sleep in terms religious and sensual alike. She carries a machine with her that makes good background noises for sleeping, just as other women lug hair dryers about. She believes that the soul leaves the body during sleep and cavorts.

And it is wonderful how MacLaine chats about souls. There is a great life to souls, as she knows them. Most people who talk about souls make them out to be all musty and stodgy; MacLaine’s souls seem to be having fun.

Of course, this reflects her general outlook. More than most people on this earth, she has found spiritual answers, and if some of her friends humor her and think she’s going through a dotty period, she is secure enough to shrug it off. She has succeeded professionally on two fronts. Her book went through six drafts, plus an earlier incarnation as a novel, but finally made it to print. Her movie career lagged after Being There in 1979, becoming becalmed in listless adultery comedies like Loving Couples and A Change of Seasons. But she recently finished shooting Terms of Endearment with Jack Nicholson, and next month she will take to the boards again with her own traveling one-woman musical revue. She is a very contented person now.

“I just love my life. But then, I’ve never really been depressed, never been sick, never poor. I’ve never had anyone close to me die. I’ve never had any of the things occur to me that normally make people go on the search I’ve been on. I’m just eternally optimistic. I focus on the good. That’s why, whenever I fall in love, it’s so good. I got swept off my feet in my 40s, just like in some refined adolescence.”

There is no one man in her life now. In Malibu, she lives with her only child, Sachi, 26, who MacLaine believes may have been her mother in another life. Sachi, an actress, is the daughter of MacLaine’s only marriage, to producer Steve (My Geisha) Parker, who settled in Japan years ago. Shirley remains on good terms with almost all the men who have spent any time in her life. “We’re just out of bed now, that’s all,” she explains. She prides herself on her monogamous habits, and since the marriage with Parker drifted into dissolution and finally divorce, she has had three long live-in affairs. (Let us call these three fellows Terry, Perry and Cottontail, because, if you have been taking notes, you know that all men are many people.)

Whoever comes next, he is liable to be a new breed. “I thought I would have started on patterns now,” MacLaine says, “but I’m more experimental. I meet someone new, I like him, but I see the type. I say: ‘Hey, I’ve been there.’ ” No sense being a recidivist.

“I think a lot of women would be threatened by the variety of men in my life,” adds Shirley, “especially since many of them haven’t been Americans. That’s difficult to deal with—a new culture, new food and manners, perhaps a new language. But I’ve learned one thing about men: Whatever his background, a man’s relationship with his mother filters everything for the rest of his life.”

Flying first-class from Dallas to New York, she has her feet up now. People who know they have good legs tend to do that a lot. “After all, I’ve been around the park a few times by now,” she says. “I’ve got a lot of crags in my brain, and they show. My legs have always been good, my body has always moved good, and my face is good, too, but my mind is better than anything else I have. I’m not educated, but, by now, I think even better than I dance.”

One day in the spring of 1940 Shirley was on her way to school. This was in Richmond. She was skipping along, carrying her books, approaching a field bright with spring flowers. Even now she can remember that she had on her favorite dress, gossamer, shades of blue mixed with pink, so diaphanous she loved to wear it on the seesaw, for if she could bounce herself high enough, the dress would fly up, over her head, and she could see the world through its colorful soft shades. And on this glimmering day, as she came to the field of flowers in her favorite dress, a huge butterfly glided by her, with wings of iridescent green and blue and purple, and alighted on a marigold. The little girl stopped, stock-still, and stared, feeling that she was the marigold, was the butterfly, was one with them both. And, she says, “I was totally, blissfully happy.”

Then, inevitably, the butterfly quivered, lifted its wings and flew away. The spell was broken, and the one perfect moment in Shirley MacLaine’s life was gone.

In a way, then, it has all been anticlimax since she was 6. But then again, who among us has ever known perfection even for an instant? The redhead with the legs is still convinced that, yes, there is a companion moment somewhere out there for her, one that can match the butterfly upon the marigold that lives in her soul.

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