Ava's fit to kill
Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes, Sinatra – former lovers feel Gardner's wrath in extraordinary biography
Back in the mid-1950s, when a journalist asked Elizabeth Taylor what it felt like to be the most beautiful woman in the world, Taylor replied with fetching modesty "oh please – Ava Gardner is much more beautiful than me".
Gardner certainly was a spectacular-looking woman in her prime, so much so that she became one of the biggest movie stars of her day despite having severe limitations as an actress. Sometimes compared with a Greek statue, she was as stiff and lifeless as one in most of her 50-odd films.
But the camera loved her, and the posters for one of her better movies, The Barefoot Contessa, summed up her appeal by calling her the "the most beautiful animal in the world".
There was something compellingly feline about Gardner, and through the 1940s and 1950s she was chased after by every ladykiller in Hollywood, from Howard Hughes and Mickey Rooney to Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra.
But neither time nor the studio system was especially kind to Ava, and when her looks began to fade in the 1960s she was cast aside like so many other former femmes fatales. She moved to London and appeared in the odd disaster movie, but by the mid-1980s was so desperate for money that she considered the unthinkable – releasing a tell-all memoir.
That memoir, written over 30 years ago, was finally published a few weeks back, almost a year after the death of its author, Peter Evans, and 22 years after Ava's. And in Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, the jaded and disillusioned star makes some extraordinary statements about her life, career and most especially her lovers.
Jovial entertainer Mickey Rooney, for instance, emerges as an oversexed womaniser who "went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge".
He and Ava married in the early 1940s but were divorced within a year because of Mickey's constant affairs, and tellingly perhaps, Rooney would marry a further seven times.
Howard Hughes, who was her lover later in the 1940s, was generous in the extreme, but neurotic and a racist. "Howard wouldn't piss on a black man if he was on fire," was Gardner's assessment. She was "crazy" about Mitchum, but exhausted by her six-year marriage to Sinatra, which apparently involved "fighting all the time, boozing and fighting".
George C Scott beat her when he was drunk, and dashing bandleader Artie Shaw undermined her intelligence before leaving her for another woman. Ava seemed to have a divine talent for picking the wrong man, but her life was anything but dull and in Evans's book she leaves us in no doubt that she lived it to the full.
Gardner came from a dirt poor southern background, and only got discovered by accident. She was born, on Christmas Eve, 1922, into a family of cotton and tobacco small farmers. She was the youngest of seven children, and her father died from bronchitis when she was 15.
In 1941, Ava was training to become a secretary when she paid a visit to her elder sister Beatrice in New York. Beatrice's husband Larry Tarr was a professional photographer, and offered to take Ava's portrait. The results were so impressive that Larry hung Ava's picture in the window of his Fifth Avenue studio, and later sent it to MGM's New York office.
MGM talent scout Al Altman then asked Gardner to come in for a screen test, which involved walking towards the camera, walking away and arranging some flowers in a vase. Altman decided not to record her voice because he found her strong southern accent virtually impenetrable, and thought her test a disaster – until he ran the film.
She leapt off the screen, and Altman is said to have sent the following famous telegram to studio boss Louis B Mayer: "She can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk – she's terrific!"
Mayer snapped up the 19-year-old Gardner straight away, engaging the services of a speech coach to iron out that Carolina drawl. And though her early roles were mainly unmemorable walk-ons, she made a big splash in 1946 in Robert Siodmak's 1946 thriller The Killers.
She moved like a lamé panther in Siodmak's classic noir, playing a treacherous tramp called Kitty Collins, who ensnares Burt Lancaster's petty gangster and robs the takings of a bank job. She didn't do all that much but looked fantastic, and The Killers established Gardner as one of MGM's rising stars.
MGM immediately sought to capitalise on her growing popularity by casting her in a series of dumb melodramas and romantic comedies.
In films like The Hucksters (1947), One Touch of Venus (1948) and My Forbidden Past (1951), she was generally cast as a vampish femme fatale, a stereotype that seemed to best suit her. She was awkward in comedies, toxic in musicals, but had extraordinary screen presence and a natural, almost menacing grace that the best directors were able to take advantage of.
Ava eventually got to shine in films like Bhowani Junction and The Barefoot Contessa (see panel), and was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of a free-spirited foil to Clark Gable's big game hunter in John Ford's 1953 blockbuster Mogambo. But her treatment by MGM made her doubt her own abilities and become cynical about the film business.
As we know, things weren't going swimmingly in Gardner's private life either. She'd been only 19 when she married Rooney in 1942, and while he later boasted about their love life, Ava is said to have commented: "He may have enjoyed the sex, but goodness knows I didn't."
Her second marriage, to Shaw, wasn't any happier, but she and Sinatra do seem to have shared a genuine if combustible bond.
Sinatra fell in love with Gardner on their first date, when they drove through Palm Springs and "shot out street lights", according to Gardner, using a pair of revolvers Frank kept in his glove compartment. They married in 1951 but fought like cats and dogs, and Ava had two abortions during their marriage. "MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies," she later said. She and Frank divorced in 1957, but remained friends.
As the 1950s came to a close, Ava's smoking and heavy drinking began to take a toll on her looks, and she had to fight hard to land significant roles.
After her singularly unhappy relationship with the notoriously difficult George C Scott came to an end in 1967, she moved to London.
She continued to act, mainly in disaster movies like Earthquake and TV dramas, even soap operas like Knots Landing. But she was self-conscious about her faded looks, and in 1986 she had successive strokes that left her partially paralysed and bedridden.
In 1988 she invited journalist and film writer Peter Evans to ghost write her memoirs, but after a series of frank discussions apparently changed her mind. Sinatra wasn't over the moon about the idea of Ava's tell-all memoir, and Evans suspected the singer gave Gardner the money she would have earned from finishing the book.
Frank was on hand again in January of 1990 when Gardner became serious ill with pneumonia and emphysema, and offered to fly her back to California on a medically staffed jet. He never got the chance: Eva Gardner died at her London home on January 25. She was 67.
"You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey," she once told Peter Evans. "She made movies, she made out, she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam!"