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.
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.
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.