When British journalist Peter Evans was first contacted by aging Hollywood diva Ava Gardner about ghostwriting her autobiography, she warned him, “If I get into this stuff, oh honey, have you got something coming.”
The notoriously frank and libertine actress, among Hollywood’s greatest stars of the 1940s and ’50s in films like “Mogambo” and “On the Beach,” had lots of stories to tell – some sordid and shocking, some hilarious and sardonic. So in putting her life on paper, Gardner knew she was playing with fire, and she foretold Evans so.
But, the financially strapped movie star also told her co-author, “I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”
And so Evans spent many late-night sessions in Gardner’s home, carefully recording her reminiscences and bawdy comments. Having had a few drinks and being unable to sleep, she proved to be shockingly candid about her three marriages, her many lovers, her fellow actors and her glamorous lifestyle.
In fact, she was so explicit that when she finally read the proofs of the book, she balked and halted publication. It was only long after her death in 1990 at age 67 that the long-dormant manuscript resurfaced and has finally come out as “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” (Simon & Schuster, $26).
Reflecting on a life that took her from a dirt-poor childhood in North Carolina to the opulence of Hollywood stardom, Gardner describes her early studio years, when she fell under the thrall of Mickey Rooney, America’s top box-office star and an infamous womanizer. She quickly married the diminutive actor and just as quickly divorced him after a year. “He was my shortest husband and my biggest mistake,” she said.
Next she fell for famed bandleader Artie Shaw, but that marriage also ended after one year (he would eventually be married eight times). “He was a dominating S.O.B.,” she said, “always putting me down.”
After enduring a passionate but loveless affair with industrialist Howard Hughes, she married crooner-actor Frank Sinatra. But her third marriage was a stormy one. “We were fighting all the time,” she said. “Fighting and boozing. It was madness. But he was good in the feathers.” Other paramours such as George C. Scott and John Huston also get the frank and cuttingly witty Gardner treatment.
As tell-all autobiographies go, Gardner’s is pretty candid and steamy, but no more so than those of other celebrities we see airing their dirty laundry in public these days. The biggest revelation of “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” is in giving us a glimpse back at Hollywood’s golden age and letting us in on intimate disclosures by a legendary diva, who lived a life that was both exhilarating and heartbreaking. Gardner may have been a product of the studio system, but she was always, without reservation, her own woman.
- Dennis King