- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 27, 2006



By Lee Server

St. Martin’s,

$29.95, 560 pages


She was one of the most beautiful women of her era, a glittering presence in that past world of the larger-than-life movie stars of the 1940s, yet for Ava Gardner, her beauty proved a burden that may have cost fulfillment of her talents as an actress.

Veteran film producer John Huston, who directed Gardner in “Night of the Iguana” at a time when she was beset by her personal demons, told her co-star, Deborah Kerr, that being so beautiful could be a curse from the gods.

“It has been so for Ava and she has well and truly paid for her beauty,” said Huston bleakly.

“Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing” begins with a poignant prologue framed by the funeral of the star, after which Mr. Server presents her life in often dark and depressing detail. His summary is succinct — ” She liked jazz and driving too fast and nights that went on forever. She loved gin and dogs and four-letter words and Frank Sinatra.”

This is an oddly sad book about a woman who had everything except peace of mind and faith in herself. She was a buccaneer who roared through life in an emotional tsunami of liquor and lust. Yet it is unfortunate that the quote attributed to her, “love is nothing,” prominent on the book jacket beneath the beautiful face, is truncated and out of context.

What she actually said, according to her biographer, was “love is nothing but a pain in the ass,” which sounds well in character and probably related to her brawl of a marriage to Sinatra as well as her other disastrous relationships. At least with Sinatra, there appeared to be no question about the lasting quality of their affection for each other, demonstrated when either was in trouble. Yet the reader is left with the thought that had Gardner been capable of dismissing love as her words suggest, she might have been able to come to terms with her success and herself instead of devoting much of her life to being scandalous.

She was only 19 when she became a movie starlet, virtually on the strength of an alluring photograph that captured the attention of film makers. She hit the fast track immediately despite a lasting discomfort with facing the camera, and discovered the joy of sex in her first marriage to Mickey Rooney. He was succeeded as a husband by the coolly intellectual bandleader Artie Shaw, who once told Gardner that had the rest of their relationship been as good as their sex life, they would never have divorced.

But it was the equally insecure and moody Sinatra who dominated Gardner’s emotional life and shadowed her throughout the series of tempestuous relationships that followed, from billionaire Howard Hughes to Burt Lancaster to Robert Mitchum. The most inexplicable, perhaps, was her recurrent descent into depravity with actor George C. Scott, a raging alcoholic who brutally beat her. In between, despite her self deprecation of herself and her work, she made acclaimed “film noir” movies such as “The Killers,” for which her personality was tailored.

As Mr. Server put it, “A carnal, dangerous angel in the chiaroscuro dreamscape of film noir, she was a success at last. Smoldering in black satin, she loomed over Broadway, eight stories larger than life. She became the principal sex symbol for the movies’ new dark age.” Yet the range of her films illustrated her capabilities. After her appearance in the exotic “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” one critic hailed Gardner as “the greatest surreal woman in the history of film.” And in “Showboat” she disclosed what she called a “whiskey tenor” singing voice.

Yet being a Hollywood goddess never made Gardner happy. Her biographer suggested that acting remained difficult for her and that low self-esteem accounted for a lifestyle in which she flitted from one emotional catastrophe to another. She always played herself down, contending that she worked “only for the loot.”

“Deep down, I’m very superficial” was how she cynically summed herself up.

She was an unparalleled collector of men, but she also made friends with co-stars like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly and Deborah Kerr who spoke of her wit and warmth and charm. Yet even her friends acknowledged that the appeal of her personality could be overwhelmed by her capacity for liquor as well as a fleeting attention span. She flitted from one exotic location to another, collecting and disposing of lovers from beach boys to bullfighters. And in the end, the girl from North Carolina, who grew into one of the most beautiful women in the world, wound up her life quietly in a London apartment with her beloved dogs and Carmen Vargas, a maid who was also her devoted friend.

She was brought home to be buried, in Smithfield, North Carolina, where the setting recreated Gardner’s gray and rain drenched burial in her film, “The Barefoot Contessa.”

Her eulogy was delivered by a minister who was a friend of her family but didn’t know the famous offspring, and Gardner would probably have relished not only the irony of the scene but his comment that she was “authentic, genuine, but no saint.”

She would also have appreciated the epitaph he bestowed on her.

“She was who she was.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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