In 1988, only two years before her death, Ava Gardner, living in semi-seclusion in London, unable to get work, and running dangerously low on funds, asked the late British author Peter Evans to ghostwrite her autobiography.
Deadpanned Gardner: “I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”
Only now, years after Ava and Evans’ death, has this frank memoir been published. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations is a sad and intimate book about the fate of a great Hollywood star. Born poor in rural North Carolina, Ava was given a Hollywood screen test thanks to a radiantly innocent photo of 18 year-old Ava displayed in a shop window.
After meeting with Ava in her London flat, Evans realized that the aging star was deeply conflicted about publishing an honest memoir. He also realized that she was a hopeless drunk. But the lure of working with one of Hollywood’s legendary stars trounced the author’s common sense. Already, in the preliminary stages, Gardner, drunk, depressed, and lonely, was calling Evans in the middle of the night, and rambling on, quite candidly, about the glorious, yet often sordid past. Evans, a solid, if sleep-deprived pro, faithfully recorded her reminiscences in a notebook he parked on his night stand.
Said Ava about her great rival, Elizabeth Taylor: “She was pretty. I was beautiful.”
On her youthful marriage to notorious womanizer and gambler Mickey Rooney: “My shortest husband and my biggest mistake.”
Ava then married band leader Artie Shaw, born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky: “He was a dominating son of a bitch… always putting me down.”
She carried on a passionate affair with Howard Hughes, but did not love him.
Her third marriage to Frank Sinatra was, to say the least, tempestuous: “We were fighting all the time. Fighting and boozing. It was madness…. But he was good in the feathers.”
Unfortunately, in the morning, when Ava would read what Evans recorded in the middle of the night, she was horrified and refused to allow Evans to use her most honest memories.
Before backing out of the memoir entirely—there is a rumor that Sinatra paid Ava not to write the book—Evans convinced Ava to meet with Simon & Schuster’s distinguished publishing executive, Dick Snyder, in order to secure a contract—and a hefty advance.
Gripped by anxiety about her fading looks, Ava considered cancelling the meeting.
Evans, by now a diplomat/psychologist/ghostwriter said:
“Have you put your makeup on yet? I’m sure you’ll feel much better once you’ve put your face on.”
“Call Jack Cardiff,” she said after a silence.
“What can Jack do, Ava?”
“Call him now and explain the situation. Tell him I desperately need him,” she said, and put the phone down.
I rang Cardiff and told him exactly what Ava had said. That afternoon, the world’s finest cinematographer rearranged the lamps in her drawing room—and placed a key light above the chair on which she’d sit for her meeting with Snyder.
He called me in that evening. “It’s the best I can do discreetly,” he said. “When she sits in that chair tomorrow, keep telling her how beautiful she looks. Keep on saying that. How beautiful she looks. Lay it on thick. She won’t believe you, she’s too smart to fall for blarney, but it’s what she wants to hear. It’s the tribute you must always pay to great beauties when they grow old. Remember, it’s always the cameraman who grows old, never the star.”
It’s too bad the book Evans envisioned was never written because Ava had a remarkable facility for voicing unvarnished, if bitter, observations.
“You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey,” she tells Evans in her tobacco-stained voice. “She made movies, she made out, and she made a [expletive] mess of her life. But she never made jam.”
Karen and I wish all our friends and relatives a lovely and inspirational Shabbat.