xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #11: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

“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.

Ava Gardner, in her heyday

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.

Mickey Rooney and Ava

“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.

Frank Sinatra and Ava

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.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: ‘Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,’ by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

Shucks Mahoney’s #CBRV Review #46: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans

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.

Can we blame him? Rowr.

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.