Ava Gardner was the greatest screen siren Hollywood ever produced. Sexier and more interesting than Marilyn or Audrey, even Elizabeth Taylor thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She broke Howard Hughes’s jaw and Frank Sinatra’s heart, met the great, good, infamous, and downright despicable, and liked a drink or five. There are three places to go to start an Ava addiction: The Killers, her breakthrough role alongside the blazing hot Burt Lancaster, Ann Helen Peterson’s smart and saucy profile of her at The Hairpin, and Lee Server’s classic, definitive biography Love is Nothing.
Server’s book is an astonishing read, one that opens up the strange machinery of the studio system in it’s heyday and of how celebrity and stardom worked through most of the twentieth century. It’s also full of eye-popping anecdotes from Gardner’s steamy life. It’s one of my favourite non-fiction titles, and I’m talking about it here because it’s a much better book than Evan’s newly released tell-all. Of course I had to read it, and I enjoyed the blazes out of it, but it left a bit of an icky taste in my mouth afterwards.
The set-up is pure Ava drama: the former party girl had become a recluse in her flat in London after a debilitating stroke. She was feeling the pinch, and called on ‘entertainment’ journo and friend-of-friends Peter Evans to ghost write her autobiography. He was unsure about taking the assignment, he writes, after being warned of her temper and demanding nature, but this was the woman known as The Love Goddess. She had a great story to tell, and he couldn’t resist.
Evans interviewed her and worked on a memoir, even setting up meetings with a honcho at a big publisher. But Gardner had forgotten to check whether one of her ex-husbands had ever sued him, and Evans seems to have conveniently forgotten to mention that Sinatra once took him to court. She got spooked, Frank paid her out, and the book was quashed. But after her death Evans took the recorded transcripts and kept working on them. After his death, they have been finally published. And what a ride it is.
This book fills in some of the questions about Ava’s life – her poor but loving upbringing on a farm (she resented being called ‘dirt poor’ by her studio), the discovery that changed her life, being married at 19 to Mickey Rooney – then arguably the biggest movie star on the planet – and the stars and gangsters of Hollywood, her drinking, her relationship with Hughes, her sex life…and Frank.
Scintillating stuff. In between revelations, we have the biographer’s duty of prying facts from her, taking her depressed late night phone calls, and weathering her moods and manipulations. Ava had a wonderful way of talking, Southern and straightforward, cheerfully vulgar but eloquent. She objected to him reproducing her swear words (“I sound like a fish wife!”) and found remembering the past often too painful.
I ripped through this like a storm, but not without a cocked eyebrow here and there. Evans writing is often pedestrian and he carries on with some jokes or themes simply too long. His tabloid past is apparent: there’s no shades here, no subtlety, and you can’t not wonder how much of it Ava wouldn’t want to have revealed. Not that she comes out of it badly – bawdy, for sure, and very much a woman of her time, but one with an enormous heart.
This is really a two star book, but I enjoyed it despite its many flaws because I’m infatuated with you-know-who. So it gets and extra one for being light relief.