She was the Barefoot Contessa. She was either married to or had affairs with Mickey Rooney (husband), Howard Hughes (lover), Artie Shaw (husband), Frank Sinatra (husband), and George C. Scott (lover), among others. She never had children. She was quick-witted and funny and loved booze, nightlife, and sex. And the face, my God, the face, certainly one of the most beautiful creatures ever to appear on film from the early 1940s and beyond.
Ava Gardner, both the Hollywood legend and the hilarious down-to-earth woman, is the subject of the excellent book Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner. In 1988, Evans, a journalist hired to ghostwrite Ava’s memoirs, spent months with Gardner, audiotaping hours’ worth of interviews with her. Ava, 65 at the time and having recovered from a major stroke, needed the money a tell-all memoir could provide and reluctantly agreed to collaborate on a book about her life. “I’m broke, honey, I either write the book or sell the jewels,” she told Evans. “And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”
|I love this picture of Ava in blue.|
It was fascinating to read about how a gorgeous, but poor, girl from North Carolina found herself on her way to Hollywood to become a contract player, then a starlet, and eventually a major movie star. Some of my favorite passages were about Ava’s youth in North Carolina and what it was like to grow up during the Great Depression, the daughter of a sharecropper:
“There was never enough money. Daddy’s ass was always in some kind of sling or another. It was a struggle for them but they got by and I always felt loved. There was always milk on our doorstep. If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say. I remember when I started out in movies, in the forties, one of the Hollywood papers said we had been dirt poor. It was a story some MGM press agent must have put out to make my life sound more interesting than it was. That pissed me. Dirt poor! It made it sound as if we were white trash. I didn’t even mind being called a hillbilly but dirt poor crossed a line. There were plenty of hard times, no question. We were often broke, but never in our lives were we dirt poor. I resented it when reporters put it in their stories. It made me mad.”
|Ava and Mickey on their wedding day, January 10, 1942. © Everett Collection.|
In addition to her youth I loved reading about how she got to Hollywood—the ol’ cliché of a photo that caught someone’s eye, followed by a screen test, but in her case dubbed to hide her thick southern accent—and her beginnings in Tinseltown, especially her marriage to Mickey Rooney (my, he was a randy guy back in the day). He was the biggest movie star in the country when Ava married him in 1942. She was 19, he was 21. Their marriage lasted a year.
|With Clark Gable in a scene from Mogambo, 1953.|
The book is also an interesting window into the nature of interviews and truth-telling between subject and journalist, with the tension between Ava and Evans becoming part of the structure. Evans noted how often Ava forgot the exact dates of things, leaving him to untangle the order of events or even if the things he’d read about or she’d claimed had actually happened. She was also on guard. Evans writes that she had told a friend about working with Evans on the book, “Do you think I’m crazy? Of course I’m not going to tell the whole truth…I’m going to say things that leave the impression with people that I want left with them.”
Ava wanted a lot of the sex and her frequent cussing left out of the book, but I have to side with Evans, who argued to leave it in—it is so much more authentic to hear Ava’s real voice, and all the sex and F words are better left in!
|Ava and Frank in 1951. Photo by Murray Garrett/Getty Images.|
Ava and Evans never delve too deeply into her marriage to Frank Sinatra, unfortunately, because of Ava’s reluctance to talk about him, and Frank’s influence on her, which continued long after their marriage was over. In fact, his supreme influence on her was what halted the interviews Ava gave to Evans in the first place, as well as the autobiography project itself.
The book ends abruptly, as does the author’s life—in August 2012, as Evans was finishing the book that had been shelved for nearly twenty-five years, which had been approved of by that time by the estate of Ava Gardner (Ava passed away in 1990), he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Still, even in its somewhat unfinished state, this is a wonderful last book to have left behind by Mr. Evans, presenting a thought-provoking and fascinating rendition of a remarkable Hollywood life.
|Ava in her later years: still gorgeous!|