“Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” (Simon & Schuster), by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner
“I’m tired of remembering,” actress Ava Gardner laments during one of many sessions with the ghostwriter working on her memoir. “I’m sick of trying to explain myself all the time.”
Her spirit may have been unwilling, but Gardner’s motivation was powerful: She needed the money. At 66, with her acting career over and her body suffering from the effects of a debilitating stroke, one of film’s most beautiful women was nearly broke. The star of “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954) and dozens of other movies (she was nominated for an Oscar for 1953′s “Mogambo”) hoped that a tell-all book would bring her hundreds of thousands of dollars — or at least enough cash to allow her to remain in her London flat.
The project that began in 1988 fell apart after Gardner discovered that her chosen writer, Peter Evans, had once angered Frank Sinatra. Thirty years after their divorce, Sinatra still held sway over Gardner and it’s unlikely she would have remained in the singer’s good graces working with an enemy.
“Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” is not the book that either Evans or Gardner had envisioned when they met at her apartment or when she called him at all hours of the night, sleepless and mournful. It’s less the story of Gardner’s life than a memoir by Evans, who uses his decades-old tapes and notes to recount their short-lived partnership. Echoes of the movie “Sunset Boulevard,” with its aging and pathetic star, are hard to ignore, except Gardner isn’t delusional or trying to seduce her writer. She knew all too well how she got where she was.
Fans of Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s will enjoy the randy banter about the men Gardner married. At 5-foot-2, Mickey Rooney was the shortest of her mates, the best dancer and an unconscionable cheat. Husband No. 2, composer and bandleader Artie Shaw, gave her a hard time for being a rag-tag North Carolina girl, offered her books to read and gave her the boot after barely a year.
Sinatra matched her in jealousy, insecurity, combativeness — and loyalty. She told Evans that Sinatra always telephoned her on Christmas Eve, which was also her birthday. But she never called him, she said, because “he’s a married man, honey.” She was less enchanted with Sinatra’s pal Humphrey Bogart, her “Barefoot Contessa” co-star, whom she remembered as envious of her star status in their film.
Two other lovers loomed large in her past. Wealthy recluse Howard Hughes wanted to marry her, even though she battered him with an ashtray during one fight, and he dislocated her jaw during another. Actor George C. Scott, her co-star in, of all things, 1966′s “The Bible,” would awaken in their bed after drunken rages unaware that he had left Gardner bloody and bruised. No wonder she kept a drink at the ready while mining her memories.
“The Secret Conversations” doesn’t reveal much new about Gardner’s life — she did turn out a memoir before she died in 1990 — and next to nothing about the movies she made, even popular films like “On the Beach” (1959) and “The Night of the Iguana” (1964).
Caught on tape being herself, Gardner comes off as she had feared — vulgar, cynical and trampy. Her words also carry the tones Evans had hoped for — funny, perceptive and genuine.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” (University of Wisconsin Press).