Despite all the salacious stories included in Ava Gardner: The Secret Confessions, my favorite story from the book is fairly chaste, revealing nothing about Mickey Rooney’s libido or Frank Sinatra’s penis. The story involves an aged Gardner meeting Dick Snyder, the CEO of Simon & Schuster, the publishing company planning on publishing her memoirs. “Didn’t anyone tell you?” she objects. “I stopped auditioning a long time ago, honey.” Desperate to live up to her image as “the world’s most beautiful animal,” Gardner called in her favorite cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who rearranged the lamps in her living room, placed a key light above her chair, and placed a shadow over the half of her face that had been frozen by a recent stroke. The story reveals the crafty ambition and aching vulnerability behind Gardner’s tell-it-like-it-is persona. Perhaps the reason the story resonated with me is because it is among the only stories in the book that touches upon Gardner’s mastery of her craft. Cardiff was the cinematographer of her two best star vehicles, The Barefoot Contessa and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. He, unlike the book’s author Peter Evans, knew how to create the mystique of Ava Gardner.
Peter Evans, a journalist and writer, thought he was being Punk’d when Ava Gardner asked him to write her memoirs in 1988, but it turned out to be all too true. Ava, you see, needed the money. “I’m broke honey,” she said. “I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” But before making the ultimate decision, Ava had to be certain that Evans was not a “faggot.” In what cannot be described as her finest moment, she explains, “Don’t get me wrong. I get on fine with fags, I just prefer dealing with guys who aren’t.” (Later in the book, Gardner describes the difference between gays and fags: “Gays make the best ‘walkers.’ They are good company. You can tell them your secrets. They are useful to have around. They bathe a lot. A woman can go to bed with a gay. At a pinch. Faggots… they’re something else. They are cruder.”) Insisting on having a straight man ghost her memoirs may have been Gardner’s mistake here. I’m guessing what she was looking for was another adoring man to fall in love with her, but what she got was a man who couldn’t help but see Gardner purely as a sexual creature and purely in relation to the men in her life. Evans never digs deeply into Gardner’s stunning career, nor into her relationships with other women. When Ava asks Evans about his thoughts on The Barefoot Contessa, he responds, “It’s flawed but it’s still an interesting picture. I’d like to see it again before we deal with it in the book.” The film is mentioned later in the book, mostly to relay some gossip on Humphrey Bogart, but nowhere does the author describe watching it again. In fact, it’s hard to gauge from reading the book how many of Gardner’s films Evans studied before sitting down with her. His research seemed more focused on reading Sinatra biographies than assessing Gardner’s career and influence as a woman and an actress.
Truth be told, I enjoyed Ava Gardner: The Secret Confessions a great deal. Ava’s voice comes through loud and clear on the page. And Evans makes the bold and interesting decision not just to tell Ava’s story, but to tell his own story of writing the memoirs. And I’m not opposed to juicy gossip. I relished turning the pages and reading about fucking Mickey Rooney (Lana Turner “called him Andy Hard-On”), not fucking Marlon Brando (“I don’t know about Jimmy Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Larry Olivier, Jackie O, and the rest of the names Marlon’s supposed to have carved on his bedpost, but my names definitely not one of them, honey”), fearing Louis B. Mayer (who described Ava as having “cunt power”), dating Howard Hughes (“He wouldn’t employ blacks in his aircraft plane? Fuck him! Fuck all bigots”), smoking pot for the first time with Robert Mitchum (“I felt as if I was sitting about two feet above the stool”), and shooting at streetlights and store windows in Indio with Frank Sinatra (“God knows how we got away with it. I guess Frank knew somebody! Somebody with a badge. He usually did”). The stories, as told by Ava and relayed by Evans, are tawdry and fabulous. But anytime Ava has doubts about including the wildest of her stories, Evans reassures her by saying that the stories are honest, and Ava deserves an honest book. But is this book, which defines Gardner almost solely in relation to her famous loves, the book she deserves?
Evans was not to finish ghosting Gardner’s memoirs. It wasn’t until decades later that, with the blessing of her estate, he sat down to write this new account of his time with her. In the epilogue written by Ed Victor, we find out why Evans never finished ghosting Gardner’s book: She found out he (and the BBC) has been sued by Frank Sinatra for a million dollars. That Evans never told Ava this little detail of his life is mind-boggling. Though he clearly enjoyed her company, Evans often portrays Gardner as a narcissist. Case in point: “Like many actors… she was without curiosity about other people.” Still, this doesn’t explain why he couldn’t have slipped in his past with Sinatra into one of their conversations. Ed Victor goes on to state that Gardner “eventually went ahead with another writer and produced a bland, sanitized version of her story, which was published after her death.”
The “bland, sanitized” book in question is Ava by Ava Gardner and it’s been on my bookshelf since its release in 1990. I remember gobbling it up long ago and thinking that Gardner came off like a bold and ballsy woman. So after putting down Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, I decided to pick Gardner’s official autobiography back up. Gardner’s frequent swearing was toned down for this publication, and the stories didn’t go into quite as much detail about sex. But the book is hardly bland and sanitized. In fact, many of the same stories that are meant to be shocking in this new book are right there in the book Ava released, such as Mama Mickey Rooney’s first words upon learning her son was engaged to Ava: “Well, I guess he ain’t been into your pants yet.” Getting beaten up to a pulp by George C. Scott is in there. So are her two abortions during the Sinatra years, heartbreakingly vivid (“I’ll never forget waking up after the operation and seeing Frank sitting next to the bed with tears in his eyes. But I think I was right. I still think I was right”).
What Ava by Ava Gardner gets right is giving Gardner some credit as an actress. Fascinatingly, this credit doesn’t comes from Gardner herself, who remains self-deprecating about her talent in both texts. Instead, Gardner’s official autobiography is sprinkled with remembrances from Ava’s friends and costars. From Gregory Peck: “To my mind she developed into a very fine actress. I’ve been telling her that for years, and she always waves it off.” From Roddy McDowall: “The highly irritating thing about Ava is that she has no regard for her intellectual capacity or her talent. She was a wonderful actress and she never believed it.”
Ava Gardner might best be remembered as the brazen sex goddess who seduced Sinatra and Howard Hughes, but her true legacy is on screen. The book she truly deserves will include both her ribald voice and an examination of her place of her life as an actress. Perhaps Evans was too caught-up in gossip-gathering to examine her legacy more thoughtfully. Or perhaps he, as a non-faggot, was only interested in Ava as sex object. Or perhaps he couldn’t look past Ava’s own self-deprecating words. After all, as Lena Horne says in her remembrance in Ava by Ava Gardner: “She was down. She was Ava, not Ava Gardner the star. She never believed that the image they saw was what she really was. And she resented that that image made people expect something, when she wanted to be herself.” Evans’ new book attempts to present the authentic Ava Gardner, but ultimately, it’s just a piece of the puzzle.
Abdaddy’s Must-Watch Ava Gardner Films
- The Barefoot Contessa. Ava may have called it a piece of crap and hated working with Bogart, but the film stands for itself. Based partly on Gardner’s life (with much inspiration from Rita Hayworth’s as well), the film is a sweeping, romantic love letter to love goddesses everywhere.
- Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Director Albert Lewin was ahead of his time, making a film that plays like a surreal painting come to life. Should be a classic.
- The Killers. Hemingway considered it the best film inspired by his work. He was right. Ava went on to star in two more Hemingway adaptations.
- Mogambo. Ava gets a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
- The Night of the Iguana. Ava is reunited with John Huston, who was an uncredited writer on The Killers, but this time they bring Tennessee Williams to life instead of Hemingway.