REMEMBERING AVA: The Ultimate Legend, Part II

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And then it happened. She had crossed paths with the most popular and sexiest singer — or “crooner,” as sexy singers were called in those days — of them all. Although 35-year-old Frank Sinatra’s image was that of “The All-American Boy Next Door,” complete with loving wife and three young children, that image was about to be shattered.

Frank and Ava launched what would become a decades-long, take-no-prisoners, tempestuous, “scandalous” love affair, subsequent marriage, divorce, stormy reconciliations, public quarrels, that would never stop generating major media coverage.

Frank and ava
The smitten couple.

Aside from the physical attraction between them, they had found in each other their emotional match.  The similarities in their characters were almost frightening.  Both were unyielding personalities, possessive and jealous, and their union was a classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

Their romance was a massive public relations problem for their studio.  MGM was the nation’s foremost practitioner of “family values” in most of its films.  But neither Ava nor Frank succumbed to all the outside pressures — their feelings for each other were too overwhelming.  Sinatra, the Elvis Presley/Mick Jagger of his era, had found the woman for him.  And vice versa.

But Sinatra’s career was on the verge of a major decline; he was fired by MGM and his recordings weren’t selling.  Ava’s career however was about to skyrocket. It was literally an “A Star Is Born” scenario. Her friend David Hanna later said that Ava “set less store on her own success than on the happiness of mothering Sinatra, talking him out of his moods of deep depression, bolstering his courage, and reassuring him that he was the world’s best singer.”  She affectionately called him “my old man.”  He called her “my big girl.”

The “old man”and the “big girl,” Las Vegas, 1951.

He gave his “big girl” a diamond necklace for her birthday.  She loved it, but where was the money coming from?  She subsequently learned the necklace had been charged to her!

As far as Sinatra’s wife, Nancy, the mother of his three children was concerned, she had said that her husband wanted “freedom without divorce”; but, finally, she announced that they were separating stating that her married life had become “most unhappy and almost unbearable.” She would later describe Ava as “a bitch,” although it was Frank who’d done the pursuing.

The press circled for the kill. Frank was labeled a louse; Ava, something worse. As one of Frank’s costars, Jane Russell, later observed, as far as Ava was concerned, “being labeled a homewrecker in those days usually spelled finis to a career.”

But Ava subsequently starred in one hit film after another, among them: Showboat, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (Gregory Peck was her leading man), Mogambo (Clark Gable was her leading man), The Barefoot Contessa (Humphrey Bogart was her leading man). The ads for Contessa proclaimed her: “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal.”

Since MGM had never promoted her as a “Girl Next Door,” she appeared to be more than living up to the image of femme fatale.

After their marriage, with her behind-the-scenes help, Frank’s film career was rescued from oblivion: he was cast in a non-singing, dramatic role in the soon-to-be smash hit film, From Here to Eternity,  and his incredible comeback was launched.

In a further unexpected development, the former tomboy from Grabtown, North Carolina, with a Southern accent was so thick in her screentest that she later said it didn’t sound like her — the untrained, rebellious actress for whom the studio never bought a specific property, nor went to any great length to assure her success — was now nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her performance in Mogambo.

Ava Gardner and Clark Gable in Mogambo for which she earned an Oscar nomination.

“Lana was the studio’s first choice for that part!” recalled a bemused Ava.  “She thought it would be an uncomfortable location shoot [in Africa], but it was as comfy as could be! Big mistake, Lana.”

Ava was well aware she had made plenty of her own mistakes.  She was first to be offered the lead role as singer Ruth Etting in Love Me Or Leave Me, along with Ava’s pal, George Cukor, to direct.  The film turned out to be one of the best, if not the best role Doris Day ever had. Cukor had also turned down the offer to direct.

Doris Day in Love Me Or Leave Me (1955). “I guess we made a big mistake with that one,” Ava told George Cukor. His reply: “If we’d done it, it wouldn’t have been as good.”

Ava’s Oscar nomination occurred the same year that Frank was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for From Here to Eternity.

Sinatra with his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity, 1954.

She fervently hoped he’d win, because, if she won, and he didn’t, the consequences in their private lives would be beyond disastrous.

By then, however, disaster was already on the horizon: Ava left him, and Frank was so forlorn that he attempted suicide (it wasn’t the first time) only months before the Oscar ceremonies.

He won the Oscar. Ava didn’t. Taking no chances, she was in Europe on the night of the ceremonies. Audrey Hepburn had recently burst on the scene, and won Best Actress for Roman Holiday.

Sinatra’s emotional breakdowns over Ava brought powerful new meaning to his renditions of romantic ballads of lost love; “Songs for Losers” would become an integral part of his concert repertoire.  Ironically, his obsession with her, and his ability to express his feelings through his music, ultimately paid huge professional dividends — record-breaking album sales, a reborn film career.

Meanwhile, Ava relocated to Europe, where her affairs with matadors, and others, kept the international media on continual, as one journalist phrased it, “Ava Alert.” Her connection to Frank would never be severed.

“Frankly,” recalled Artie Shaw, “I think, at times, both Ava and Frank, despite the pain, enjoyed the publicity, the drama of it all.”

Flash Forward twenty years… I’d be working closely with Ava on her publicity schedule while she was doing a film in New York. “Get Ready,” warned Howard Newman, smiling, a public relations man who’d already worked with her.  “You won’t be bored!”

I was ready! I was told she’d already turned down the opportunity to pose for one of the most prestigious ad campaigns then in progress:  the fur industry’s Peter Rogers’ “What Becomes A Legend Most?” series, for which Richard Avedon photographed top stars, past and present, wearing designer mink coats. Their payment for posing: the costly coat (each worth well over $20,000). Lauren Bacall, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland — and contemporary legends including Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand — along with Ava’s close pal, Lena Horne, were among those who had participated thus far.

Ava’s reason for turning down the opportunity: “I no longer wear dead animals on my back, honey.”  And this was years before the founding of PETA!

Ava as Maxine Faulk in The Night of the Iguana, 1964.

Unlike most of her contemporaries, Ava was still in demand for major films; she’d scored successes in relatively recent films such as The Night of the Iguana, The Bible, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, all directed by the revered John Huston, who considered her a genuine talent as well as a great beauty.  

“You just had to know how to deal with her,” said Huston.  “If you proved trustworthy, she was on your side. Properly cast, she was wonderful.”  

Other great directors she’d worked with — John Ford, George Cukor, Joe Mankiewicz — respected what she had to offer, both as an actress and a powerful screen presence. Director Mike Nichols had met with her, regarding casting her in his ground-breaking film, The Graduate, in the role, that of a sophisticated, married older woman who seduces a young college graduate, that went to Anne Bancroft.

While in New York, Ava would be staying at the Waldorf, the hotel in which Sinatra maintained an apartment in the Towers (purportedly costing close to a million a year in maintenance); it was hardly a well-kept secret that while Frank and Ava had long since gone their separate ways, they’d never lost touch.

My first meeting with her took place at JFK Airport, where she was arriving from Europe. The Ava magic was operating from the moment she disembarked from the plane. At age 54, she still radiated that “sense of excitement” director Cukor spoke about, and seemed oblivious to the stares of those who recognized her.

Ava in The Sentinel (1977), also the year we met.

Her energy level was awesome — she was restless, seemed bored, and was anxious to get through customs quickly. A top-level executive from the airline was on the scene.  “Is this going to take all afternoon?” she asked impatiently, chatting all the while.  She was demanding. But sweet. Likeable.

There was a slight slur to some of her words, bringing to mind all one had heard about the legendary Ava drinking. It only added to her distinctive Southern charm, reminding one not of Tennessee Williams’ aging, alcoholic, depressed film goddess in Sweet Birth of Youth, but rather of a worldly Scarlett O’Hara!

Ava Gardner with her assistant and confidante Mearene “Rene” Jordan. Ms. Jordan was 24 when she went to work for Gardner as a maid in 1946.

The airline executive, a tall, handsome man, straight out of Mad Men, impeccably groomed and dressed, seemed to be straining to catch Ava’s interest on a personal level — but her attention was elsewhere. She was traveling with a companion, who functioned in multi-capacities — confidante, secretary, friend, gofer, housekeeper. The affable, matronly woman seemed to anticipate every nuance of her employer’s behavior (I’d learn that they’d been together for many years), and Ava finally breathed a sigh of relief when she passed through customs.

I recall thinking, if she looks this good now, what must she have looked like in person, in her early Sinatra-Mickey Rooney-Artie Shaw-Howard Hughes days!  She was dressed simply, and fashionably, looking sleek in a long-sleeved, high-necked white blouse, tailored black skirt, quilted black, gold-chained Gucci bag, medium-heeled black pumps.  Her dark hair was pulled back into a chignon; she wore a minimum of makeup, high cheekbones prominent, and her profile was exquisite.

“Let’s get out of here!”  She seemed actually to prance through the long corridors of the airline terminal, out to the waiting studio limousine — a seasoned thoroughbred anxious to run the track. They’d taught her well at MGM — her walk was memorable.

“I recall thinking, if she looks this good now, what must she have looked like in person, in her early Sinatra-Mickey Rooney-Artie Shaw-Howard Hughes days!”

When we got to her suite at the Waldorf, on entering the luxurious dwelling, she immediately kicked off her shoes — in person she really was the Barefoot Contessa!

The scent she wore was subtle but sensuous.  She worked on opening a bottle of iced Dom Perignon waiting for her in a silver bucket, courtesy of her agents. Before the cork popped, she grabbed a piece of ice from the cooler, put it in her mouth, and crunched it to smithereens.  She poured a sparkling glass of the bubbly for me.

Her friend Howard Newman arrived.  He’d known her for years, and they gossiped about mutual acquaintances.  When informed that director Nicholas Ray had become involved in some personal imbroglio, and Newman said it had been a somewhat pornographic incident, Ava smiled knowingly.  

“Nick always did have a pornographic mind,” she said in that famous purr of a voice — the voice that graces the soundtracks of so many films and had been a sultry siren call heard by so many legendary men.

In Nicholas Ray’s One Touch of Venus, 1948.

When I told her I’d just seen – it was one of my favorite Ava films, I’d seen it many times – One Touch of Venus, she was incredulous. “Where the hell did you see that?!” she exclaimed; she’d made the film over 25 years earlier.

“On television — it plays beautifully, you’re wonderful in it and so is everyone else, Robert Walker, Eve Arden — the whole cast!”

That broke the ice. We were pals from then on.

Interestingly, remembering One Touch of Venus didn’t conjure up happy memories for her.  She bitterly cursed the powers-that-were (long since deceased) for not preventing Robert Walker, who’d been, briefly, a lover, from committing suicide; she suspected foul play. “They killed him,” she exclaimed angrily, springing off the couch and pacing around the room.  Ava’s hostility toward many of the old studio executives seemed curiously fresh and intense.  The events she was talking about had occurred decades earlier.

I’m reminded of the last time I saw her, in her suite at the Waldorf.  She’d just learned that a close friend had died.  Ava, in shirt and slacks, champagne glass in hand, was seated on the couch, her feet tucked under her.  She became very reflective.  “I wonder … how I’m going to g0 ….”  There wasn’t the slightest trace of fear or trepidation in her voice — merely curiosity.

Click to order Frank & Marilyn by Edward Epstein.

The end came on January 25, 1990, after a long respiratory illness, preceded, in the late 1980s, by a debilitating stroke. Age 67, she died in London, where she maintained a beautiful apartment, located in Ennismore Gardens, and which had been her home base for many years. Londoners respected her privacy, which, ironically, had become perhaps her most treasured possession.  

America finally got back its errant superstar; as she’d stipulated in her will, she was buried besides her loved ones in the family plot, back in Smithfield, North Carolina; the Country Girl had finally returned home.

She’d finally written her autobiography, for which she’d been paid an advance exceeding one million dollars. It was published posthumously.

How would Ava be remembered? There was a most unlikely development regarding her legacy: a museum, dedicated entirely to her, was founded.  Located in the heart of Smithfield, one can visit the Ava Gardner Museum, which features state-of-the-art exhibitions, along with special events and regularly scheduled showings of her films.

A most unexpected epilogue to the incredible life led by Ava Lavinia Gardner.

Click here for Part I

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