I didn’t want to believe it. But it was impossible to ignore. Vanity Fair and the New Yorker had articles about “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” by Peter Evans, an English journalist who passed away in 2012. In his book Evans said he began talking to Ava Gardner eleven days after the first week of January in 1988. I found that very interesting, since Ava had flown from London to Los Angeles on January 12 to get treatment at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. I know this because on January 23 I was sitting in her hotel room at the Westwood Marquis, working with her on her memoir.
I had interviewed her in London two years before for a book I was writing about the Huston family. She had acted with Walter Huston in The Great Sinner in 1949 and she was directed by John Huston in The Night of the Iguana, The Bible, and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. When I asked her why she wanted to work with me, she answered, “Because if you’re good enough for John Huston, you’re good enough for me.”
I was flattered, of course. Ava Gardner was one of the really tough movie legends to snare. She was almost as reclusive in her later years as Garbo. She had three short, reckless marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, all while she was still in her twenties, and had some well-publicized affairs with other high-profile men, including Howard Hughes, Luis Miquel Dominguin, and George C. Scott. She was friends with Hemingway and had acted in three films based on his stories: The Killers, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises. She called her seven year contract with MGM “white slavery,” and never thought much of herself as an actor. “I would have been a hell of a lot better actress had I taken it more seriously.” She left the U.S. because the press wouldn’t leave her alone and, after ten years in Spain, she finally settled in England. She liked to drink, dance the flamenco, and had no pretensions.
One story she told me about Howard Hughes was indicative of her steely will and pride. He had returned from one of his trips, and was angry that she hadn’t met him at the airport. When she said that she had been with her former husband Mickey Rooney, he punched her in the face. She retaliated by grabbing a bronze bell. “I conked him in the temple, splitting his face open and knocking out two teeth. He went down and I was still in such a rage that I picked up this mahogany chair and went at him again. He was scared, cowering in the corner as I lifted the chair over my head. I was going to kill him.” Lucky for Hughes, the maid stopped her.
That was just one of the hundreds of stories she told me when she came to Los Angeles to be treated for a partial stroke. Mickey Rooney came to visit and she waved off his “Jesus” routine. She remembered Artie Shaw as treating her like “his little pet.” The marriage to Sinatra was doomed because “His self-esteem was at its lowest ever. And mine was at its peak. So it was hell for him.” While she was talking to me in L.A., she was also, apparently, talking by phone to this other journalist, Peter Evans, in London. But she had a falling out with Evans when she discovered that he had once written about Frank Sinatra’s connection to the Mafia. I worked with Ava for the month she was in L.A., from mid-January until mid-February 1988. Unfortunately, I was only able to see her on weekends because I was still working on the Huston biography. Consequently, when she wanted me to follow her to London, I had to back off. She found another writer who helped her with a book which came out after her death in 1990.
But I spent a lot of time with Ava at the hospital in Santa Monica, at her sister Bappie’s house, at my house, and at the Westwood Marquis where she was staying. She brought her closest friend Reenie Jordan and another old friend, Roddy McDowall to help refresh her memory. And once, when we were leaving the hotel, she stopped by the elevator in the lobby to see a bride and groom coming from their reception. As she lingered there, the wedding photographer said, “Ma’am, would you mind stepping out of the picture?” Ava smiled and was only too happy to oblige.
If he only knew.
If I only knew! Was I being two-timed by one of the world’s most stunning and captivating women? Maybe so. But that just made me another one of the men who had fallen under her spell. James A. Michener told me of the time he first met Ava Gardner in Spain, at a nightclub where the flamenco dancers were nude, and she was “delicately inebriated and marvelously amusing.” Robert Mitchum said that he turned down Ava’s advances when they worked together on My Forbidden Past in 1950 because she was “too addictive.” John Huston told me of a night he chased her around his pool, hoping to seduce her. “She was like an enchantress. And I was entranced.” She may have been two-timing me, but now readers will have a choice, as I’ve published my Conversations with Ava Gardner as an e-book on Amazon. And if you can read Polish, my publisher there has put it out in print.