Friday, June 12, 2009

Ava Gardner Remembered

Honeymooners Mr. and Mrs. Mickey Rooney (Ava Gardner) visit the bride's family in North Carolina. Ava's mom offers a platter of Southern fried chicken to her new son-in-law.
Ava Gardner Remembered
by Peter Evans

At lunch the other day, a friend asked me about my friend Ava Gardner. He had seen her on television the night before in Joe Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, in which she played the title role 55 years ago.

"She was so beautiful in that movie. But I always sensed that even then she had a pathological urge to self-destruct," he said.

Well, maybe. She was certainly a wondrously complex and an extraordinarily courageous woman. I adored her.

Once described as "the most irresistible woman in Hollywood," Gardner had seduced, and been seduced by, married to and divorced from, lived with and walked out on, some of the most famous names of the 20th century. She had toyboys before Cher had toys.
Ava and husband #2, Artie Shaw, 1945.
"My vices and scandals are more interesting than anything anyone can make up," she told me when, in 1988, we embarked on the autobiography she invited me to ghost for her. I knew that she was essentially a private person and it was a book she never wanted to write. "I'm broke, honey," she admitted when I asked her why she was finally prepared to tell her story. "I either write the book or sell my jewels. And I'm kinda sentimental about the jewels."

Outspoken, caustic and often wickedly funny, she relished talking about the past, her highs and lows, her indiscretions, her stormy marriages to actor Mickey Rooney (when he was the biggest star on the MGM lot), to Artie Shaw, and finally to Sinatra.

"I didn't know that spilling the beans was going to be this much fun," she told me one evening, getting into her stride after a few glasses of wine at her Knightsbridge apartment. Nothing was spared – until she read it on the page.

"Jesus Christ, Peter, we can't publish this,'' she exploded.

"But Ava, it's your life," I pleaded.

'Exactly,' she said, and that was the end of that.
Ava and Frank Sinatra (husband #3) at the Riverdale in Reno, Nevada, 1951.
A posthumous autobiography was eventually published but it was nothing like the book it could – and should – have been. It wasn't our book. It wasn't about the Ava I knew.

A star of the 1940s and '50s, Gardner epitomised Hollywood's golden years. She was telling nothing but the truth when she said that her story didn't need any embellishment. Nor did she pull any punches in what she wickedly called my 'debriefings' of her, a phrase she had learned from a John Le Carre spy novel I had given her to read. ("Very good," was her verdict, "but I met more frightening villains in Hollywood.")

Ava as Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Contessa.
She talked honestly, and sometimes painfully, too, about her hard-drinking, her affairs with millionaires and matadors, the guys she met in bars, and the scandals that her old boss, Hollywood's boss of bosses, Louis B. Mayer, had hushed up – including the night Howard Hughes dislocated her jaw and she felled him with a marble ashtray.

"I thought I'd killed the poor bastard," she told me. "There was blood on the walls, on the furniture, real blood in the bloody Marys. Mr. Mayer sent in his henchmen to clean up the place and get me out there fast. He feared it might become a murder scene. I don't think he cared too much about me, but he didn't want any scandal attached to his studio."

Fortunately, Hughes recovered and asked Gardner to marry him. But the mix was too volatile.

"Our chemistry was the stuff that causes hydrogen bombs to explode. Til death do us part would have been a whole lot sooner than later if we'd tied the knot," she said. "Howard was a control freak, and I was too independent to take his crap. He was out of his mind most of the time even then, and he got crazier through the years."

Gardner was sixty-six years old when we first met at her apartment in London. She wore nothing but an angry scowl and a bath towel. "I loathe it when people spread bedtime stories about me," she explained her bad temper and the reason why she had been delayed getting dressed for our meeting.

"I was in the tub when a friend called from L.A. She said that Marlon Brando told her he'd once slept with me. That's a goddam lie," Ava said, and had called Brando on it straightaway. If he really believed that they had ever been lovers, she told him, his brain had gone soft. Brando apologised, and said that his brain wasn't the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. "Isn't that punishment enough?" he lisped.
Ava moved to Englad in the mid-60s. Here seen on a London Street with her beloved corgi, Cara, 1969. Ava's London flat at Ennismore Gardens, her final home.
Ava forgave him. "A lot of men fantasize about me," she told me with a confident self-awareness, and calmer now that she had finished dressing. "But that's how Hollywood gossip becomes Hollywood history, honey. Someday someone is going to say, 'All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner are true.' And the truth about me, just like the truth about poor, maligned Marilyn [Monroe], will disappear like names on old tombstones. I know I'm not exactly defending a spotless reputation, honey. Hell, it's way too late for that. Scratching one name off the scorecard won't mean a row of beans in the final tally. It's just that I like to keep the books straight while I'm still around to do it.'

Her fine cheekbones still gave her face a sculptural force. But two years earlier, she'd had a stroke that partially paralysed her left side and froze half her face in a rictus of sadness. It would have been a hard blow to bear for any woman, but for an actress who had been hailed as 'the world's most beautiful animal' it was a tragedy.

Ava in 1985 in her final work as an actress.
"As if getting old wasn't tough enough," she said, but with no sense of self-pity at all. "You just have to make adjustments. Life doesn't stop because you're no longer beautiful. But I'd be lying to you if I told you that losing my looks is no big deal. It hurts, goddammit, it hurts like a sonofabitch.

"My body's failing every which way," she told me after stumbling in her apartment and badly bruising her side. She walked with a cane; once a heavy smoker, she had pulmonary emphysema, the lung disease that had just killed her friend and one-time lover, John Huston.

She kept in touch with a few old Hollywood friends; she had a small circle of people she trusted and regularly saw in London – the actor Dirk Bogarde, her former MGM publicist, Paul Mills and his wife, Spoli, the English director Michael Winner.

She hated to be called a recluse. 'I'm just winding down, honey. It's been a long haul from Grabtown [North Carolina, where she was born Ava Lavinia Gardner, in 1922]. I'm just taking a little time out. I'm entitled to that,' she told me shortly before she died in January, 1990.

I miss her a lot.