BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ava Gardner’

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AVA GARDNER: THE SECRET CONVERSATIONS
By Peter Evans, Ava Gardner
Simon & Schuster, $26, 305 pages

Ava Gardner was gorgeous.

She was the green-eyed superstar of the 1940s and ‘50s. An Oscar-nominated actress and the ultimate glamour queen, she was irreverent, passionate, sexy, funny and candid, and she tore through Tinseltown leaving a legendary list of lovers and three husbands — Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra — in her wake.

When not boozed up, she saw clearly through the hype and hypocrisy of Hollywood and loathed the superficiality of the moguls and the business.

In the 1980s, down on her luck and disfigured by a stroke, she lived quietly in London and began a collaboration with journalist author Peter Evans to tape and tell her tumultuous life story. “I’m broke, honey, either I write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels,” she explained in her typically sardonic style.

The result: “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,” a profane, freewheeling, sometimes tortuous form of self-confession. It is an earthy, uncensored account of a once irresistible woman determined to settle some scores, dish some dirt and, above all, sell her story. In a sometimes rambling stream of consciousness, she zeroes in on, primarily, her three former spouses.

Miss Gardner, the daughter of a sharecropper, was born in rural North Carolina. At 19, she arrived in Hollywood after being discovered by a talent agent who saw a winsome photo of her in a Fifth Avenue store window. She quickly attracted the attention of Mr. Rooney, then America’s top box-office star, who earned more money than heartthrob Clark Gable.

Mr. Rooney was a notorious skirt chaser — even his mother warned Miss Gardner about his wandering eye — but Ava married him anyway. The marriage lasted one year. He cheated on her constantly, and on one liquor-fueled evening, he pulled out his little black book and started reeling off the names of the other girls. When sober, he never admitted he was two-timing her, and he never apologized.

“My shortest husband (Rooney was 5 feet 2 inches) and my biggest mistake,” she quipped.

She then tied the knot with noted bandleader Shaw who eventually married eight times. Bombshell Lana Turner was wife number 3. Miss Gardner was 5.

Shaw considered himself an intellectual. He was also a domineering bully, and Miss Gardner went into analysis to cope. “Artie was difficult, he was complex, but I was stuck on him.”

She enrolled in UCLA earning B pluses. “[Artie] was a dominating [expletive] and put me down so much I lost confidence in myself. He dumped me one week after our first anniversary and broke my heart.”

She consoled herself with an off and on again affair with eccentric Howard Hughes. It lasted for year. She labels Hughes a “control freak,” and “low-key guy sexually.”

There was a fling with George C. Scott. “When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying — he’d beat [me] and have no idea the next morning what he’d done.”

World-famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin was another lover, and then there was the tempestuous union with Sinatra.

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