As a kid, I remember seeing headlines on the tabloids that my mom bought saying things like, “Garbo: Her Tragic Final Days,” or “Paralyzed Ava’s Desperate Calls To Frank!” My mom would occasionally point them out and talk about how much she loved Ava Gardner when she was a kid and how beautiful she was.
I think that the only classic films I had seen at that point were Yankee Doodle Dandy, A Star Is Born, Roman Holiday, and The Wizard of Oz, so I wasn’t familiar with either star, but all of these years later, when I love and write about Art Deco and classic films and Old Hollywood, I think about those magazine covers sometimes. What is life like for one of the world’s most beautiful women when she has reached a “certain age,” and the spotlight no longer shines on her? We get a glimpse of the answer in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.
In the late eighties, Ava Gardner (living in London) reached out to writer Peter Evans to ghostwrite her autobiography. Broke and in poor health, she told him, “I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kind sentimental about the jewels.” In their sessions together (usually in person in the evening at Ava’s while wine was being consumed or over the phone in the wee small hours of the morning when she would randomly call Peter up), Ava spoke candidly about losing both of her parents at a young age and growing up extremely poor. She discussed coming to Hollywood with a Southern accent so thick no one could understand her, and what life was like as she tried to make a name for herself as an MGM starlet.
And yes, the stuff that most of us really want to know about is in there, too, as Ava reveals intimate details about her husbands (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra), along with Howard Hughes (who was in her life for twenty years). Sadly, the woman who was once called the “World’s Most Beautiful Animal” never found that one true love that lasted.
I found myself just as captivated, though, learning about Ava’s struggles. She talked about witnessing the phoniness and heartlessness of Hollywood when Frank Sinatra was at a low point in his career, and she endured physical abuse at the hands of actor George C. Scott. After a tough battle with pneumonia and then her strokes (which left her with a limp, a useless left arm, and a frozen left profile), she had to learn to walk and talk again, and accept that her career was pretty much finished at that point. Always a physically active person, she could also no longer swim or play tennis.
But, she never lost her sense of humor, as evidenced by some of her stories and unique phrases that are peppered throughout the book, saying of Rooney that he was her “shortest husband and my biggest mistake,” and of Sinatra, “We were fighting all the time. Fighting and boozing…But he was good in the feathers.”
Ava Gardner’s life seems like it was more dramatic than any role she played on the screen. Interestingly, she pulled the plug on her autobiography (later putting out a very sanitized version of her life), and one plausible reason as to why is given in the final chapter of The Secret Conversations.
I found it quite sad that Ava was so worried that people might look down on her or think badly of her for revealing the truth about her life, as reading her words and her story made me love this beautiful, courageous, and spirited woman who lived life on her own terms even more.
Reading this book will give you an insider glimpse at what Hollywood and the movies were like in the 1940s and 1950s, and a chance to meet the real flesh-and-blood woman behind one of the most glamorous images of all time who summed up her life like this: “She made movies, she made out and she made a [expletive] mess of her life. But she never made jam.”
Book: Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations
Authors: Ava Gardner and Peter Evans
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (July 2, 2013)
Reviewed by Lara Scott