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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ava Gardner’
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.
So much has been written about that marriage, the violent public rows, Sinatra's suicide attempts and his jealousy, that some of this seems like old news. But Gardner never minces words. Her friend Lana Turner told her not to marry him. She refused to listen. "He was good in the feathers. You don't pay much attention to what other people tell you when a guy is good in the feathers," she observes.
At the time, Sinatra's career was in the dumps, and her star was on the rise. He was often referred to as "Mr. Gardner," which further deflated his ego. They were both drinking far too much. "We were really knocking it back and fighting all the time. Having to rely on a woman for some of the bills — most of them actually — made it so much worse. "
She not so modestly adds, "I was the one making the pot boil baby, it was me!"
Their split, like their marriage, was melodramatic, but Sinatra, whose career climbed back on top, helped her out financially over the years.
Most of the conversations for the book were conducted late at night when Miss Gardner was well into the bottle and unable sleep. For readers seeking Hollywood nostalgia, there is no stardust here.
"Ava" is a tough and provocative look into the life of the compelling temptress who, though bruised, managed to stay afloat.
As she so triumphantly puts it: "You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey, 'She made movies, she made out and she made a mess of her life, but she never made jam.'"
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek Daily Beast.
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