Conversations with Ava Gardner (an excerpt)

Conversations With Ava

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“After Mickey and I separated, I got a call from a friend saying there was a man who wanted to meet me, and his name was Howard Hughes. I thought she said Howard Hawks, the director, who wanted to see me for a film.  Kay came by with Johnny Meyers, who worked for Hughes as sort of a pimp, but not really. He entertained Howard’s girlfriends when Howard was busy or just didn’t feel like going to nightclubs. After Johnny checked me out he asked if I would be willing to meet his boss.  I was still thinking it was Howard Hawks. “Sure,” I said. He took me to one of Howard’s many houses and during the course of the evening I realized this man wasn’t who I thought he was; he was Howard Hughes.”

Howard Hughes, in 1943, was one of the world’s most intriguing and diversified figures in America. He inherited his wealth from his father, who had invented a way to drill for petroleum in inaccessible places. When he was eleven he built a radio transmitter; at twelve, a motorized bicycle. His great interest was in aviation. In 1932 he founded Hughes Aircraft and in 1939 took over TWA. He loved to fly, and set two airspeed records before setting a third by flying around the world in 91 hours. In 1939 he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for advancing the science of aviation.  His second passion was the movies and he produced a number of films beginning in 1927, including The Front Page, Hell’s Angels and Scarface. For The Outlaw he designed a special bra for leading lady Jane Russell. His third great passion was Women.

“I didn’t know anything about him,” Ava said. “I didn’t know about his reputation or his great wealth or his thing about airplanes and jetting around the world.  I just knew that as soon as I got divorced from Mickey, Howard entered my life and I couldn’t get rid of him for the next fifteen years, no matter who I was with or who I married. He was Johnny-on-the-Spot, appearing after every one of my marriages or every broken love affair—and sometimes he had arranged to have them broken. He kept on and on and on, wanting to marry me, promising me anything in the world. But I never loved him. It just never clicked. He could be charming, sweet, and kind to me, but he could also be cruel to other people.

“I got to know him very well. We were both Capricorns, about fifteen years apart. He was a Christmas Eve child, too.  He was extremely shy to the point of a sickness and that caused all that reclusive routine. We were very similar about that.  He simply didn’t want a lot of other people around. He was frightened to go out.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be seen—he was terrified. But he loved to dance and he loved music. We would go to places after hours and Howard would take the place over and keep the orchestra. He was not much of a drinker—he drank tall rum drinks—and he didn’t smoke. But he loved to dance. We went to San Francisco one time and had a good time until the shit hit the fan. The shit was always hitting the fan!”

Hughes was also an extremely jealous man and Ava experienced his jealousy in such a cruel way that she was, at first, afraid to even discuss it, almost as if, so many years later, the ghost of Howard Hughes (he died in 1976) might come to silence her.  But the story was too ripe not to tell.

“This happened when I had moved with Bappie to my house in Nichols Canyon. It was during the war and Howard had gone to Washington because he had some high secret information to pass on.  He had been to the White House, meeting with all the top brass. When he returned, he flew into Burbank airport and Johnny Meyers picked him up. I was supposed to go with Johnny but I didn’t because I had a date with Mickey. Even though we were divorced, I still saw him on occasion. Howard asked Johnny where I was and he just said that I couldn’t make it. He told Johnny to drive to my house, convinced he would find me in bed with another guy. Bappie was there, and Charlie Guest, who worked for Hughes and was dating my sister. I was asleep upstairs when Howard entered my room. I was livid, absolutely furious at this intrusion, and started screaming, ‘How dare you?’ He backed away and said, ‘We’ll discuss this downstairs.’  I put a robe on and went down. Howard was angry that I hadn’t gone to the airport. I told him I hadn’t wanted to go. He asked where I had been. I said, ‘None of your business. But if you want to know, I went out with Mickey.’ That put him in a rage like I had never seen before. Howard was a gentle man, but he lost control completely. All of a sudden, BOOM!  I was knocked across my face and fell into this chair. He jumped at me and started to pound on my face until it was a mess. This was the first time anybody had ever hit me. When he finally stopped and went to leave, I looked for some weapon to attack him. There was a bronze bell on the bar with a very long handle. I picked it up and walked towards the living room as he was going out and yelled at him. ‘Howard!’ I screamed, because he was very deaf and I knew he couldn’t hear. As he turned I let go with this bell and 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. It was my maid who saved his life. She walked in just as I was about to bring down that chair on Howard’s head, and she started clapping her hands and calling me by my first name, ‘Ava! Ava! Ava!’  She had always called me Miss Gardner, so it startled me. I looked at her and she shouted, ‘Stop it!’ and I put down the chair. If she hadn’t come in, I’m sure I would have continued. Thank God I didn’t because I’d probably still be in jail.”

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