“I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”
Ava Gardner, in 1988, after suffering two strokes a few years previously, felt pressured to come up with some money, somehow, to cover her expenses. She could no longer act, as the strokes had left her fabulous face paralyzed on one side, and her right arm useless. She toyed with the idea of an autobiography, and friend Dirk Bogarde suggested journalist Peter Evans.
Evans enthusiastically took on the task of ghostwriting Gardner’s memoirs, and things moved along, if not swimmingly, at least steadily, for several months — until Gardner learned, most likely from ex-husband number three Frank Sinatra, that he had sued Evans and the BBC many years before for writing about his association with the Mafia. The collaboration came to an abrupt halt. After Evans’s death in 2012, his publisher, with the permission of Gardner’s estate, decided to publish the notes for the book as Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.
If one is looking for an in-depth look at Gardner’s life and her tumultuous relationships with many famous men, this book will not exactly fit the bill. But it does contain some interesting glimpses of her life, and of Hollywood in the 1940s. What it really does is give a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to write a celebrity biography — with a reluctant, mercurial star and a diffident author. But fans of Gardner will be more than a little disappointed about the lack of coverage of her Hollywood career, and her most celebrated relationship, her marriage to Sinatra, as the book and notes are cut short very soon after he enters her life.
Gardner was a legendary beauty, but never received much acclaim for her acting skills, which she herself said were close to none. But she was good, even great, at times in many of Hollywood’s best films, working with its top directors and co-stars:
- The Killers (1946) – With Burt Lancaster, directed by Robert Siodmak
- Show Boat (1951) – Her voice was dubbed in the movie, but she did sing two songs on the soundtrack album
- Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) – With James Mason, directed by Albert Lewin (with amazing cinematography by Jack Cardiff)
- Mogambo (1953) – with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly – Gardner was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress
- The Barefoot Contessa (1954) – with Humphrey Bogart, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
- On the Beach (1959) – With Gregory Peck, directed by Stanley Kramer
- The Night of the Iguana (1964) – With Richard Burton and Deborah Kerr, written by Tennessee Williams, directed by John Huston
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations does cover, glancingly, her early life in rural North Carolina, and her unusual path to Hollywood. Her brother-in-law, who owned a photo studio, displayed a portrait of teenage Gardner in his shop window. A man who claimed to be a talent scout for MGM (as a way to get to pretty girls), tried to get her number by saying she should get in pictures. Gardner and her family didn’t share her number but took him at his word and brought her to MGM’s New York offices.
Her beauty impressed, but her thick accent did not, so a silent screen test was sent to Hollywood and Gardner and her older sister were soon packed off to the West Coast for her new life as a starlet. She claims to have met Mickey Rooney, who was one of MGM’s biggest box-office stars of the day with his Andy Hardy films, her first day on the lot. He certainly didn’t waste any time trying to get to know the 19 year-old hopeful, and the two were soon an item, and sooner married. Gardner was quite naive when she arrived in California, and although the two were mad for one another, she was blind to his non-stop womanizing, even, ostensibly, after being warned by his own mother.
“I still didn’t know that he was the biggest wolf on the lot. He was catnip to the ladies. He knew it, too. The little sod was not above admiring himself in the mirror. All five foot two of him! He probably banged most of the starlets who appeared in his Andy Hardy films — Lana Turner among them. She called him ‘Andy Hard-on.’ Can we say that — ‘Andy Hard-on?’”
“I don’t see why not,” I said. “It’s a funny line.”
Practically as soon as she had signed her divorce papers, tycoon Howard Hughes was auditioning her for the role of his next lover. Their affair lasted many years, but she didn’t love him enough to marry him, and soon fell for band leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw, which would result in another very short-term marriage. Rooney ignored her and constantly ran around with other girls, while Shaw put her down and tried to make her feel inferior. Gardner definitely had a taste for macho men, as she also had romances with famous bullfighters and Hollywood co-stars Robert Mitchum, and later George C. Scott, who purportedly knocked her around. But she found her match in Frank Sinatra, who may have been waiting in the wings all along:
“I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table — Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex — he said something banal, like: ‘If I had seen you first, honey, I’d have married you myself.’ I paid no attention to that. I knew he was married. He had a kid, fahcrissake!”
Most of the fun in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations comes from the sense that the reader is hearing Gardner talk to Evans in her actual voice. But sometimes the Southern drawl and epithets seem to be poured on a little too thick. Ava admonishes her would-be ghostwriter after reading a sample chapter, “Does she have to curse so much?” If Gardner did indeed speak this way, every other sentence punctuated with “fahcrissakes,” she held onto her Rat Pack parlance until the end.
What also comes through in this short and fast read is an inescapable sadness. Beauty and fame don’t last, which Gardner was intelligent enough to be aware of, but her strokes also robbed her of her physicality, as she describes how she used to enjoy sports like tennis and swimming. She seems to always be alone, calling Evans in the middle of the night, with a tumbler full of wine or liquor in hand, reliving some of her past exploits. There is not just a ghostwriter, but ghosts everywhere, as she laments the passing of friends and mentors like John Huston and “Papa” Hemingway, and morbidly begins to dwell on death, which she fears and believes is soon coming for her. Gardner died of pneumonia in 1990.
Perhaps most poignantly, Gardner resents that the book must focus on her “mistakes,” her broken relationships, which Evans is constantly prodding her to talk about. Ava wants a book, but her way. “Why can’t we settle for what I pretend to remember? You can make it up, can’t you? The publicity guys at Metro did it all the time.” Maybe that isn’t just a question from a Hollywood actress past her prime. Don’t we all tend to remember things the way we want to and not the way they were? Evans never got his memoir, but Gardner did get to tell it like it may or may not have been, soon after ditching this project, in Ava: My Story. Apparently Sinatra had no objection to that.