REMEMBERING AVA: The Ultimate Legend, Part I

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She was the ultimate legend, this wildly sensuous star whose sexual escapades shocked even Hollywood,” ran one typical description of the spectacular Ava Gardner.

Working with her late in her career — I was media contact for MCA/Universal Pictures in New York — she was in town to do a film. I discovered that the “wildly sensuous” Ava, contrary to legend, could at times be very quiet, soft-spoken, and thoughtful — her black-rimmed, oversized reading glasses in place as she looked over the next day’s script pages or correspondence.

And, of course, there were times that brought out the movie queen. While she wasn’t one to live in the past, she enjoyed, if she was in the mood, looking back, commenting on people and events in exceedingly colorful language.

She was by then  suspicious of the media, and kept her distance.  For her, and others in her league, privacy is something that exists only in the abstract. When I told her that leading columnist Earl Wilson, who’d known her for years, was anxious for an interview (we were in her suite at the Waldorf) she sprang up from the couch, “Earl?!  No way, honey. He’ll bring up subjects I have no intention of discussing! Frank hit the roof after reading the last interview I did with him!”

One could hardly blame Earl — and there were numerous others — for trying. After all, as the world knew Ava was the woman who came dangerously close to wrecking Frank Sinatra. She drove an impassioned Mickey Rooney to break down her bedroom door; she incited billionaire Howard Hughes to strike her (she retaliated by knocking him out cold); and caused a love-crazed George C. Scott to chase her clear across the globe — at one point, he threatened to kill her.

Her pal Elizabeth Taylor once described her as the most beautiful woman in the world, an opinion not refuted by Richard Burton, who was strongly attracted to her. And, like Marilyn Monroe, she also attracted leading literati — poet Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote were among those who sought out her colorful company.

Ava on the cover of TIME. Cover Credit: Nickolas Muray.

Page Six, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, TMZ et. al. would have had a field day tracking her exploits — many of which make the adventures of contemporary headline-makers seem kind of bland. She would have been right at home navigating today’s no-holds-barred, anything goes sensibilities.

For contemporary women, Ava Gardner — it was her real name, not studio-invented — remains a fascinating and relevant example of a boldly independent woman who lived according to her own tenets. And through it all, much to her surprise she became and remained a top film star who proved to be a Survivor of the first magnitude.

Helen Gurley Brown, the woman who reinvented Cosmopolitan magazine in the 1960s, making it a template for the “modern career woman,” and an outspoken advocate of women’s sexual freedom, said: “Ava displayed courage in the way she lived. She seemed fearless. It meant a lot to those of us who had dreams of achieving something in life.”

Interestingly, unlike Marilyn Monroe and so many others, there were no suicide attempts on Ava’s agenda. In retrospect, to paraphrase a line from one of Sinatra’s signature songs: that she did it all — or at least most of it — her way.

If she were on extended location for a film, a well-traveled trunk, crammed with memorabilia, including divorce papers from her three marriages, accompanied her.

Publishers were always offering her top dollar to write her autobiography, which was understandable. Hers was an only-in-America, rags-to-riches saga. She was one of those rare individuals whose actual life stories remain as vivid and timely as any that could be invented by a novelist.

Always unpredictable, she never married after Sinatra, although it’s revealing of Frank’s undying feelings for her that he made certain she was notified before each of his subsequent marriages (to Mia Farrow, and then Barbara Marx).

After Sinatra’s marriage to very young — thirty years his junior — beautiful, rail-thin Mia, Ava told star journalist Rex Reed: “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy!”

Ava and her mother Mollie in their hometown of Brogden, North Carolina. Courtesy of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Controversy was Ava’s constant companion since her earliest days. One wonders what her reaction would have been if Frank’s contemplated marriage to Marilyn Monroe had actually taken place. It was Marilyn who turned down his proposal. Just as Ava had turned down Frank’s repeated attempts over the years to get back together.

Born on Christmas Eve, 1922, in the tiny town of Brogden, often called Grabtown, near Smithfield, North Carolina, Ava was the seventh child of a Baptist mother and Irish Catholic father — her mother was forty when Ava was born. Her Dad was a sharecropper.

It was a Bible-reading household, and the rules were strict: Beware of Sex, Beware of Men.  Ava didn’t always follow the rules.

“I was a tomboy,” she recalled, “skinny and ungraceful. But, honey, I had fun!” Once asked what she’d done with her time down in Brogden, she candidly replied she’d just gone around “pickin’ bugs off tobacco plants.”

She blossomed into a startlingly beautiful young teenager, desperate to escape from Mama’s well-meaning but suffocating concern. Tragedy struck when Ava was 16; her father, 61 years old, died.

15-year-old Ava Gardner in 1937 looking poised and glamorous in this photograph by her brother-in-law Larry Tarr.

A twist of fate subsequently changed the course of young Ava’s life. She had planned on becoming a secretary, although she dreamed of becoming a movie star. Her older sister, Beatrice, nicknamed “Bappie,” married a photographer, and the couple moved to New York. When Ava came to visit — she was eighteen — Tarr did a series of photographs of her, enlarged one of the portraits, and displayed it in his shop window at 607 Fifth Avenue.  

It was spotted by a messenger boy working for MGM, who took it to two important New York-based studio executives. Ava was offered a screen test. Despite her heavy Southern accent, she passed the test and was offered a standard seven-year contract, with renewable options every six months.

It hadn’t taken long for her dream to begin its journey. On the West Coast, when she told the studio publicity people how she’d landed the contract, they didn’t believe her, it sounded too much like something they’d invent to make her “bio” more interesting.

It would be equally hard for the Hollywood community to believe what happened next.  The young contract player — as were all newly signed contractees — was taken on a tour of the studio lot. She was brought to a soundstage where Babes On Broadway was filming, and was immediately spotted by Metro’s top young star, 20-year-old Mickey Rooney.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes on Broadway, 1941

He was in drag for a comedy number, and his co-star, Judy Garland, Ava’s age, was on the set. She recalled, “Mickey was bowled over by Ava’s looks. She had beautiful green eyes, like a cat’s! Mickey started showing off for her like crazy.”

Ava had never encountered anyone like him. However, unlike many of her Hollywood counterparts, she was neither ready nor willing to do anything to advance her career. Her soon-to-be close friend, Lena Horne — then in her mid-twenties and also under contract to MGM — later pointed out that she and Ava may have been the only two women on the MGM lot who didn’t use the casting couch to get ahead.

“Not that we were Pollyannas who didn’t have boyfriends,” she explained, “but they were never the right boyfriends, never the men you were supposed to be ‘nice’ to.”

Sydney Guilaroff with Ava Gardner and Dirk Bogarde on the set of The Angel Wore Red, 1960.

The MGM hierarchy, in these pre-“MeToo”movement years, did not reward this attitude. Consequently, Ava’s star rose almost despite them. Her big break would come not in an MGM picture, but on loan-out to another studio. But she took full advantage of what the studio had to offer —  a talented array of top-of-the-line experts in every field. There were voice lessons, how to walk, pose, sit, stand, make-up, hair; how to dress — and, equally important: what not to do when it came to presenting herself, not only before the camera but in public.

By all accounts, she was an avid student. On one occasion, hair stylist Sydney Guilaroff admonished her: “Stop chewing that gum, Ava!” She instantly complied.

Meanwhile, she refused to go to bed with Mickey, and he told friends he was going to marry her no matter what. Within six months, employing all the subtlety of a battering ram in relentless pursuit of “the love of my life,” he showered her with gifts, including a six-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring.

To the dismay of their studio, the couple “tied the knot,” as columnist Louella Parsons reported.  “Mickey is so much in love, and they make such an adorable couple!”

Mickey was stunned to discover that Ava was a virgin. “Don’t forget to say ‘ouch,’” her mother had supposedly jokingly told her.

Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner on their wedding day.

Suddenly her photographs — “Mrs. Mickey Rooney!” — were appearing in the all-important fan magazines, and her name in key gossip columns.

Ava, strictly a small-town girl, was in no way equipped to handle showbiz veteran Rooney’s volatile lifestyle. She was, however, a willing student when Mickey gave her valuable advice on how to act before the camera and catch the camera’s eye when in a scene with other actors.

Seven months after the wedding, the “storybook marriage” was over.  More headlines! One account described the couple as two children playing adult games. A view that Ava did not dispute in later years.

The day the divorce was granted, Ava’s mother died after a long bout with breast cancer.  She was devastated.  Her sister “Bappie” was on hand to share her grief, provide comfort, advice, and understanding, as she would during other crises in Ava’s life.

Eccentric, attractive billionaire Howard Hughes, seventeen years Ava’s senior, appeared on the scene. Hughes’s awesome ability to make things happen — his private plane, with him at the controls, had flown Ava and medical specialists to her dying mother’s bedside which naturally impressed the still-impressionable young woman.

A major film producer, and notorious womanizer, associates described the reclusive Texan as a man obsessed with “business and women’s breasts.”

One of the only photos of Ava and Howard Hughes — he hated publicity and avoided cameras.

“Women liked him,” recalled Hughes executive Noah Dietrich. “They were taken by his boyishness, his seeming helplessness.” 

He’d had an affair with heiress Barbara Hutton, who said, “Howard feels he has to control a situation. When he doesn’t, panic sets in.” Still, Hutton found him “an easy person to be with. The charming thing about Howard is that he isn’t charming.”

30-year-old Katharine Hepburn had come close to marrying him.

Ava was not immune. His lavishing of expensive gifts added to her regard for him. But despite enjoying a relationship, she wasn’t in love with him, and let him know it. She asserted her independence, and he panicked.

She was furious on learning that he’d hired private detectives to snoop on her. Nasty scenes ensued and on more than one occasion, violence erupted. During one scuffle, Ava slugged him with a heavy silver candlestick, knocking him out cold.

But, to her surprise, he didn’t lose interest in her, and would reappear later in her life.

She was vulnerable to the attentions of another older, famous, successful man who, to her immense relief, seemed genuinely interested in her mind as well as her body. Quite a dramatic change from Rooney and Hughes.

34-year-old Artie Shaw was already a legend in the music world, a famous musician, composer and dance bandleader. He was well-educated, held several degrees, and was a writer as well. Tall, dark, handsome and intelligent — “Maybe too intelligent,” remarked one of his ex-wives — the general consensus was that Shaw would help her discover what life and love were all about.

Ava and Artie.

She would come to rely on him when it came to business dealings with MGM. “Artie wasn’t afraid of those tough bastards,” she later said.  She respected him for that.

He’d already been married three times. Four years earlier, he’d wed another MGM beauty, then-19-year-old Lana Turner; it lasted less than a year. Shaw told me that if people thought Lana was beautiful, they should have seen Ava. Lana, also under contract to MGM, and Ava would become great friends. Years later, the studio planned to co-star them in a film that never was made, My Most Intimate Friend.)

“Ava had a personality, and she was intelligent,” said Shaw. He was determined to educate her, literally (she later referred to him as “my college education,” “and she meant it,” said Shaw). He was a fervent devotee of psychoanalysis, and insisted she begin therapy, providing her with books on the subject as well.

She tried desperately to please him. But he was impatient, quick-tempered, and friends contended it was her involvement with Shaw that soured her attitude about men.

She was 23 when they married, and, before her 24th birthday, she filed for divorce. Once again, the media went viral with this latest news; Ava was becoming quite a meal ticket for reporters covering the entertainment scene.

Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster in The Killers.

Ava’s friend, Ruth Rosenthal, said that Ava’s serious drinking began that year.  “I think it eased her pain, and she stuck with it after that.”

The trauma of her divorce coincided with a turning point in Ava’s career. After a long series of secondary roles, The Killers, with Burt Lancaster, and The Hucksters opposite Clark Gable, put her over the top.

The tempo of her private life accelerated yet again. While today she’d be celebrated as a trailblazer, back then, to her studio’s great dismay, she was more and more the blatant nonconformist in an era of strict conformity.  She was apparently a feminist long before the term was coined, and had no qualms whatsoever about hitting the top night spots solo or with adventurous female pals like Lana Turner.

Part II coming tomorrow.

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