By B.B. Singer
Niagara Gazette — Maybe unique people like Ava Gardner always emanate from unpromising circumstances. As with most generalizations, that’s not entirely true. Take Hollywood nepotism: it’s become a plague, but certain luminaries such as Michael Douglas, Liza Minnelli or Angelina Jolie deserve recognition for what they’ve done as their own people. Many others who used parental connections on the way up inspire less.
This “who do you know?” nepotism certainly didn’t spring Gardner to stardom — as many know, she came from an extremely poor, humiliating farm background in North Carolina. But she had two loving, if worn-down parents, and Irish-Scottish beauty and verve, and that verve fills the latest, most intriguing book on or by her, Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” (2013), initially scuttled by Sinatra, but finally emerging long after her 1990 death and just after Evans’.
The book is marvelously vulnerable, as a stroke-afflicted, booze-swilling, but still incredible Gardner weaves from past to present and back in her London flat near the end of the ‘80s, constantly doubting the utility of a projected, co-written memoir, and wanting over and over to trash it. Yet thanks to Evans’ patience with one of Hollywood’s great femme fatales, what a gem finally appeared! The conversational interplay of the two — Yank-Brit sparks flying all the way — is what makes the book, as does its non-linear, almost jazzy quality, befitting a former spouse of Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.
But most significant is the fact that neither walking-on-eggshells Evans nor chain-smoking, imbibing, up and down Ava were ever quite sure — it’s the book on the way to a book which works well here, via consistently compelling riffing about both her storied past and late ‘80s sunset. Needing much reassurance, even spoiling, Ava was hardly more of an enfant terrible than the great Artie or Frank, not to mention first husband Mickey Rooney, a gambling, drinking, peppery whirligig, who squired this gorgeous 18-year-old new to Hollywood around (to Chasen’s, Ciro’s et al.), and thence, in her case reluctantly, to the altar.
But it takes pages and pages of Evans’ fascinating cajoling to get anything from her on that initial husband subject. Gardner had already had journalists exaggerate and invent in this domain many times before. Her choice of powerful, mercurial spouses — Sinatra lasting longest (cum plentiful splits) at seven and a half years — was on record.
More affecting is what she says here about her dying father in the late ‘30s, her mother ground down by lifelong poverty going not long after, and black people she knew well as a child. Those sweet recollections keep getting followed by shifts into a parlous, chaotic present — the aging star trying hard to recover what she can via physical therapy, but really, fingernailing the last shards of a life, no longer drop-dead gorgeous, but still full of wisdom and pride, like a fine autumn nearing its close.
Do such memories mean anything? In Gardner’s case they emphatically do, given her quality and Evans’ job as a sympathetic facilitator, even when he and wife received numerous calls from the former screen goddess at decidedly ungodly hours! Yes, the memories matter; otherwise, along with serious money and health problems, they would have just roiled inside her to the last — as regret here, regret there, people, in her view, often meaning more once gone. Of course the memoir craze has gotten somewhat out of control — Americans going increasingly to the scales and weighing pasts, instead of inventing in the present. But this one stands out ...
Naturally you get some detail that’s appeared elsewhere — Artie Shaw, Ava’s second hubbie, procuring a master to teach her chess, then yanking that pursuit from her once she beat him! Or criticizing her for reading purported junk like Kathleen Winsor’s “Forever Amber,” then later marrying that author! Plus the sad pathos of Nancy Sinatra, Sr. going to the wall in the late ‘40s for marriage and kids, but still losing out (except in a richly remunerative divorce) to Ava, who had tried hard to steer clear. Sinatra’s searing jealousy ensued, but also his DiMaggio-like loyalty — calling a sick, hurting Gardner Christmas eves and on her birthday long after they were done.
Maybe she should have had her marriages in Niagara Falls? But I guess stirring milieus don’t change personality ...
B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.B.B. Singer has taught at several colleges in the area, including Niagara University.