Not So Hollywood Wedding Night: Ava Gardner & Mickey Rooney

Ava Gardner in The Killers, her break-out role, 1946.

Hollywood, in its Golden Age, was a dream machine spinning images of adventure, glamour, and most of all, romance.

MGM’s roster of female stars constituted the greatest collection of beautiful and talented women the world has ever known.

One of the greatest was Ava Gardner.

As an emerging starlet in the early 1940’s, before she made a single movie the Southern beauty was simply breathtaking, the talk of the town.

Mickey Rooney was MGM’s golden boy, a versatile star equally adept at musicals, comedy and drama. His signature role as the small-town youngster Andy Hardy made him something of a cash cow for the studio. The Hardy movies were cheap to produce and earned enormous profits.

In his compulsively readable autobiography, Life is Too Short, Rooney claims that his mother worked for a time as a prostitute in order to put food on the table during the depths of the Depression. Thus, it’s not surprising that Rooney pursued women like an obsessive compulsive, seeking affection and love in all the wrong places: call girls, ambitious actresses and mature, lonely women—including Norma Shearer—smitten by Rooney’s brash boyish charm.

The first time Rooney laid eyes on Ava Gardner was when she visited the set of Babes on Broadway, in 1941. She was wearing a wispy summer dress and high heels. Rooney was also wearing a dress and high heels—a Carmen Miranda costume.

Rooney recalls the dream-like moment:

“Hello,” said Ava. That’s all. Just hello. And without a smile. But she said it in the soft drawl of her native rural North Carolina, and I was a goner. I had known many beautiful women in my lifetime, but this little lady topped them all. She was five feet one, but she invariably wore high heels, so she was about my height when I was wearing five-inch wedgies.

Ava was eighteen years old, Rooney, 21, and his technique with women, he admits, was a combination of early Neanderthal and late Freud. He pursued the gorgeous young starlet with ferocious determination. After turning down five dates Ava finally succumbed, out of sheer exhaustion and because as one of MGM’s most powerful stars Rooney could, Ava understood, do quite a bit to advance her career.

After a night of drinking, dancing and table-hopping at Chasen’s, Rooney was smitten. When he saw Ava to her door at two in the morning Rooney impulsively proposed marriage.

Ava, playing a cool customer but in truth a tongue-tied country girl, gave a little hoot, smiled and ducked into her apartment.

For the next few weeks Rooney kept asking and Ava kept evading.

Soon after December 7, 1941, Rooney presented Ava with a huge diamond ring and once again popped the question.

There is nothing like war to concentrate the mind on love and romance.

Ava said yes.

They kissed and Rooney started to grope the inexperienced young woman from Grabtown, North Carolina.

But Ava Gardner would not sleep with Rooney before accepting the sacraments of marriage. She was a virgin, and she insisted, that was the way she was going to keep it until the wedding night.

Rooney was out of his mind with desire.

Hearing of the engagement, L.B. Mayer hit the ceiling. He accused Rooney of trying to destroy MGM. There was an image to preserve and marriage to an unknown hillbilly starlet did not fit the carefully crafted studio profile of Andy Hardy the clean-cut, all-American boy.

Terrified of Mayer’s incandescent temper Ava was ready to postpone the marriage. But Rooney stood up to the most powerful studio chief in Hollywood and threatened to break his contract if Mayer did not give his blessing to the union.

L.B. Mayer realized he was no match for Ava Gardner’s smoldering sensuality and wisely backed down. The wily mogul even hosted a bachelor party for Rooney. The guest list included: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Taylor, Lewis Stone, Bill Holden, Robert Montgomery, Lionel Barrymore, William Powell and Frederic March.

Ava and Mickey were married on January 10, 1942.

The wedding night should have been an MGM soft-focus dream of deep kisses, moonlight and unquenchable passion.

Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney on their wedding day.

Mickey Rooney confesses the awful truth:

After the ceremony, we kissed our families good-bye and headed for our honeymoon in Carmel, at the Del Monte Inn…

We didn’t have a normal, sexy wedding night. I was a nervous wreck. Getting there had been more than half the fun. Now I didn’t quite know how to savor my victory. To quiet my nerves I drank too much champagne at dinner and barely made it back to our room before I took off my pants and sank into the bed. By the time Ava emerged from the bathroom, all dressed in white satin and lace, I was snoring heavily—dreaming, no doubt about how nice it was, being married to the most beautiful woman in the world.

The marriage was a predictable disaster. Rooney was interested in booze, betting, and babes—not necessarily in that order. Ava reports in her autobiography, Ava: My Story,  that she spent the day posing for MGM publicity photos—her career had yet to ignite—then cooked, cleaned and decorated the house. She was trying to be a good wife.

But Rooney was a serial adulterer who spent all his time at the studio, the track, and a brothel stocked with prostitutes who were dead-ringers for Hollywood movie stars.

Go figure.

Finally Ava walked out on him. One year and five days after he slipped a ring on her finger bearing the engraving: “Love Forever,” they were divorced.

Years later, Ava somewhat wickedly characterized their union as Love Finds Andy Hardy.

Ava’s career soared after appearing as the femme fatale opposite Burt Lancaster in The Killers, 1946. But her love life was tumultuous, a blizzard of booze, wrenching love affairs and failed marriages to Frank Sinatra and Artie Shaw, volcanic and abusive men.

Rooney racked up an astonishing seven additional marriages after Ava.

Neither ever found true contentment in love or marriage.

Hollywood was and still is a dream factory that all too frequently weaves nightmares.

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15 Comments

  1. Johnny
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Anyone that marries as often as Rooney has to have some serious issues about women and romance.  He’s married more women than Larry King for goodness sake.
     
    Recently I finished reading Mark Harris’s Pictures At A Revolution and he has the story of her calling Mike NIchols about playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate.  Nichols said when he got to the hotel she was surrounded by real life lounge lizards even though she was just 43.  Fortunately I was lucky to see some of her movies on the big screen in college.  Watching her in Mogambo was breathtaking as her beauty would just wash over you and that’s how I’ll always remember her.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink

      Johnny:

      As I said, Rooney’s mother was a sometimes prostitute. That will create issues. Also, child actors rarely mature, living in a bubble during their formative years leaves little space for social and moral development.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  2. Christopher
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Well, Robert, not to excuse Rooney’s behavior, but if I were faced with the prospect of a bedroom romp with someone as luscious as Miss Gardner, I might get a little tipsy – OK, a lot tipsy – beforehand too!

    And this is the third time I’ve seen a reference to that Hollywood bordello of the stars.  One of those trashy “Hollywood Babylon”-type books said it was known as “Mae’s” because the madam looked like Mae West.  I wish I could remember where I first read about it.  And I recall Budd Schulberg writing about similar escapades in the 1920s, only this time with call girls in a hotel instead of a bordello.  Too bad somebody doesn’t separate the wheat from the chaff and do a book about Mae’s – or whatever it was called.

    BTW, Robert, I’ve just about finished The Hebrew Kid, and I adore it.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      Christopher:

      Several years ago I was on location for one of my films doing emergency rewrites for the star, one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. Actress summoned me into her trailer to discuss a scene she was “not getting.”

      I step into her trailer. She’s just out of the shower wrapped in a very small towel and huge fuzzy pink slippers.

      No false eyelashes. Cold cream on her face. No body make-up so cellulite was visible. She was just, y’know, an ordinary half-naked lady.

      She drove me crazy for about 45 minutes. All the time I’m yearning to get home to Karen.

      Did the rewrite; we ran through it a few times. Actress assured me I was a genuis, thanked me with a kiss on the cheek.

      As a teen, when I stared at the poster that helped make her famous I used to have boyish fantasies. But in the flesh… nothing but the fracturiing of another Hollywood illusion.

      So glad you like my book. Flattery will get you most everywhere.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  3. exdemexlib
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Here is a better, more direct link, without any unwanted other news or images

    http://www.npg.org.uk/glamour/exhib.htm

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  4. exdemexlib
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 11:02 am | Permalink

     

    Hollywood, in its Golden Age …

    There is an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London, featuring unseen portraits of Golden Age Hollywood stars:

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2012181/Unseen-images-Elizabeth-Taylor-Marilyn-Monroe-Audrey-Hepburn-display.html

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  5. Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I met Rooney once; had an assignment to shoot him for a lefty weekly I once worked for. He had a suite at one of the city’s grand old hotels, and had a massive (for the time) TV moved into the room. It dominated the living room area, and blared out daytime TV the whole time I was there – soaps and chat shows. What was normally a 20-minute shoot took hours, as Rooney wanted to chat, mostly about his career; my memories might have gotten fuzzy, but I actually have this image of him, a la Dana Carvey, saying something like “I was the biggest movie star … in the <i>wooooorrrld</i>.” It was charming and pitiful at the same time, but I haven’t forgotten it.
    I really ought to try and find those photos again; they’re in my negative binders somewhere, behind the analogue wall.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      Rick:

      I know a few people who worked with Rooney and they all described behaviour that sounds suspiciously like ADHD.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  6. neenermom
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    Mr. Avrech, I, too, must read your blog every day.  I absolutely enjoy the ones that deal with old Hollywood, an era that seems so long ago, and I don’t consider myself all that old.  While I knew that Mickey Rooney has had ‘issues’ over the years, I didn’t realize that Ms. Gardner went from one extreme to the other, sad really.  My next books might be their autobiographies.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Neenermom:

      Always nice to hear that my Hollywood posts have a loyal audience.

      Along with Ava and Mickey’s memoirs I strongly recommend Lee Server’s excellent bio of Ava Gardner, Love is Nothing.

      Do stay in touch.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Wonderful story Robert. Here I am ready to go to work but can’t leave yet until I get my Seraphic Secret fix.
    Frank Sinatra was smitten with Ava too, as was Howard Hughes and I’m sure a score of others.
     
     

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Bill:

      I’m flattered that you consider Seraphic Secret akin to a drug fix:-)

      Ava described herself as a LSL, Little Southern Lady, who obeyed SLC, Southern Lady Conventions when she arrived in Hollywood.

      After she divorced Rooney and became a star she started drinking, cussing, and sleeping around.

      An older screenwriter/producer friend who worked with her on one of her last films described her as profane, bloated on booze, and a predator for young men. He was actually scared of her.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

      • Bill Brandt
        Posted July 7, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        I was trying to remember where I heard this anecdote – most likely you as you are the reason I have learned so much about classic Hollywood – but I remember a  story of Frank Sinatra – recently dumped or divorced and smitten with Ava – and she lived just down the hill from him in an apt – and Frank in a bit of bravado no doubt fueled by alcohol – yelled – in the middle of the night? – Ava! I’m in love with you! (or similar words?) – whereupon she opens her window and says “God Night Frank! – or words to that effect?
        At 60 – a memory is a terrible thing to lose ;-)
        If you saw <i>The Aviator</i> with Leonardo deCaprio – do you think the depiction of Ava was realistic Robert? I think the actress playing Hepburn was spot-on…
         

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

        • Robert J. Avrech
          Posted July 8, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

          Bill:

          I don’t recall that particular Ava/Sinatra story but I did write about their date in the desert where they shot up a small town, were arrested, and then lawyers flew in with bags of cash and presto they were released, and the arrest records conveniently lost.

          Don’t remember The Aviator clearly enough to comment. It’s been a while.

          Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

4 Trackbacks

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  • By Joan Fontaine’s Not So Hollywood Wedding Night on September 1, 2011 at 9:52 am

    […] Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney’s Not So Hollywood Wedding Night. This entry was posted in Hollywood Wedding Nights, Joan Fontaine and tagged Brian Aherne, Classic Movies, George Stevens, Gunga Din, Jean Negulesco, No Bed of Roses, Olivia de Havilland, Rebecca, The Women. Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL. […]

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