- The Washington Times - Friday, May 21, 2010

AVA GARDNER: TOUCHES OF VENUS
Edited by Gilbert L. Gigliotti
Entasis Press, $26
208 pages

SPIN
By Moira Egan
Entasis Press, $24
111 pages

I confess a crush on Ava Gardner that survives even now. It explains why I found this collection of meditations on the late (she died in 1990 at 67) Hollywood star by an equally star-studded collection of writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry to be required reading for me. I don’t know whether maturing young men currently daydream of romance with idealized, yes objectified, women from Hollywood’s culture mill. What they have access to on their home computer screens is probably so graphic as to kill both romance and idealism.

But in my teens we had fierce arguments over the relative merits of the objects of our adoration. I was picky. Marilyn Monroe was too fat and blowsy and I suspected not too clean. Jane Russell was too predatory, almost feral. Betty Grable too old. Lauren Bacall too smart. Ava Gardner was dangerous, I sensed that, but also that she had buried within her some restless sadness that only I could redeem. If only she had been lucky enough to meet me.

So some years later you can imagine my reaction when I was working on a daily newspaper down in North Carolina when I got an unusual assignment. I was to interview a man from Ava Gardner’s hometown of Wilson who had spent two weeks as her guest in Madrid. The story bordered on the surreal.

The man, it turned out, had won a trip for himself and his wife to Spain for having sold more mobile homes than anyone else in both Carolinas and that had gotten his picture in the Wilson newspaper. While packing for the trip, he got a call from some of Ava’s relatives: Would he please take a box with him on the flight for Ava. He was assured she would be delighted to receive it and they were unwilling to trust it to the mails. In those innocent pre-terrorism days, it was a perfectly neighborly thing to agree to do, plus they might actually meet the star herself.

Boy, did they ever. Gardner’s chauffeur collected them at the Madrid airport and whisked them through the formalities and off to her mansion, where she greeted them - this is the trailer salesman’s wife now: “barefooted, in tight black pants and a man’s white shirt; Ray (the husband) almost couldn’t get out of the car.” But he did and thrust the large Styrofoam box at her. Ava pried it open and there, nestled by straw packing, were eight half-gallon Mason jars of high-octane Piedmont, N.C., moonshine, or “white whiskey,” as it was known.

As the salesman recalled, Gardner thumped the side of a jar expertly to “check the bead” of its purity, unscrewed the top and took a two-handed gulp that drained about a quarter of the two-quart jar. “Damn,” she was quoted as exclaiming. “It’s like being back home again.” And thereupon the salesman and his wife were swept into a fantasy fortnight, staying at Gardner’s mansion, fed, feted and rendered stupefied after being thrust into the social whirl that included celebrated bullfighters, Ernest Hemingway (“just a friend”) and the kind of bogus royalty one sees in films.

“Oh, yes,” the salesman added, “and there was a man living there in the house, a nice man named Robert Graves.” Now that did catch me up short. Robert Graves, the famed British poet and novelist? Yes, a nice man who didn’t have a lot to say. Some years later, I saw a wire-service photo of Robert Graves being given some huge honor by Oxford University, and there amid the cheering scholars was Graves in his medieval robes accompanied by Ava Gardner.

This book explains what that was all about. There is a memoir by Graves that captures her restless spirit and a final poem Graves gave to Gardner late in their chaste friendship that wishes her, “Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy. This is given to few but at last to me.” To read through this book is to realize that more than the saccharine lyrics sung to Marilyn, Ava was both a frame of reference and an inspiration for young women and young men both in their lives and in their muse. How she would have laughed.

Forgive the digression, but the book is just one of the two latest put out this spring by Washington fine arts publisher Entasis Press that poet Ed Perleman founded to sift through the writing program at the Johns Hopkins University campus on Massachusetts Avenue. The program fosters local writers of promise and - though you wouldn’t know it from other cultural media outlets - it has become a nationally recognized literary force.

Which is why you also should order up the collection - a sampler, really - of the poetic styles of Baltimore-bred poet Moira Egan. Her book “Spin” is no ethereal evocation of Emily Dickinson. Although her sonnet structure is disciplined, the woman who appears in Ms. Egan’s voice is salty, ribald, vulnerable, and too smart for her own good, with too many appetites fed by the cocktails she drinks, and with too many itches that someone else has to scratch. Her “Bar Napkin Sonnets” should be read aloud every Saturday night in all the booze joints in Adams Morgan.

Both these books should be on your shelves to show out-of-towners that creative writing thrives right here on the Potomac.

James Srodes is a Washington author. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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