Ava Gardner: Twilight of the Goddess

In one of her last interviews, Ava Gardner, the siren who stole Frank Sinatra, spurned Howard Hughes, and ate matadors alive, talks about how it all began and where it all ended.


The last time I saw Ava Gardner was in the winter of 1988, after she'd had a stroke and come from her home in London to Los Angeles for therapy. She had just turned 66, and with the left side of her body, from her face to her feet, still numb, she didn't care to make an effort to glamourize herself. She was able to walk through the Westwood Marquis, where she was staying, without anyone recognizing her or asking her for an autograph.

On this particular night, she'd asked me to take her to her sister's home in the Hollywood Hills. She wanted to do her laundry and had her dirty clothes in a plastic bag which I carried down for her. As I walked ahead to my car, I turned to see her standing between the elevator and the entrance to the dining room, where a young newlywed couple was posing for pictures.

"Excuse me... ma'am," I heard the photographer say to Ava. "Would you mind moving just a bit? You're in the picture."

Ava looked at the young man with the camera, then at the smiling couple next to her. She hesitated for just a moment--perhaps reflecting for that second on a thousand other moments before ten thousand other cameras. And then she smiled ever so slightly before stepping out of the picture.

At one time, Ava Gardner was probably the most photographed woman in the world. In the '40s and '50s she was often called the world's most beautiful woman. MGM had made her, along with Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, one of the sexy pin-up girls young men lusted after. But if virtual invisibility seems a harsh fate for a glamour queen of Gardner's stature--and the decline most definitely had to have stung--she, more than some of the others of her kind, was protected by a lifelong distaste for much of what she represented.

Ava had always resented the cheesecake commodity part of her career. "I really had very little to contribute," she told me of her early years in the business, "so I played a lot of hatcheck girls, and did mob scenes, extra scenes, dancing scenes, just to have the experience of being on a set. I spent years at that. If the studio wanted a photograph to advertise a film they'd say, 'Who is it that has a good pair of legs and a good pair of breasts and is pretty and not working?' And it was always Ava because she was never working. So I spent a lot of time doing publicity stunts. Sitting with skis on a sand dune down at the beach, posing on a block of ice, crap like that. So there are ten million photographs of me. There was no terrible, great ambition to be a big star. It sort of just gradually happened without my doing very much about it."

Of course Ava didn't have to do very much. Her beauty was so real and so original that her name alone could conjure up wild flamenco nights and abandoned sensuality. We knew her as the woman who drove the richest, most powerful, most talented men in the world to outlandish behavior. Mickey Rooney fell head-over-heels in love when he first laid eyes on her. Howard Hughes was tormented that she refused his proposals and was driven to violence with her. Band leader Artie Shaw tried to make her over in his image. Frank Sinatra crooned melancholy songs of heartbreak when she left him. Howard Duff loved her, Robert Walker belted her, matador Luis Miguel Dominguin followed her to America, Robert Graves wrote stories about her, Hemingway approved her as the film heroine of some of his greatest novels, and George C. Scott went so out of his mind over her that he had to be given injections and locked up while on location for The Bible.

And she didn't provoke these responses because she was nice to everyone. She could be imperious with men she disagreed with politically, like John Wayne, or just didn't care for, like Kirk Douglas. She wasn't afraid to speak her mind about these things either. "I can't stand that man," she said of Paul Newman right off the bat when I first visited her in 1986. "He's one of my unfavorite actors. He's an egomaniac and so false. He's 'on' all the time."

It was summertime in London that day I met her. She was standing at the top of her stairs with Morgan, her corgi, barking by her side, and she was wearing a white blouse, a pink floral patterned skirt, and a disarming smile. "Come in, I'm upstairs," she said. "Close the door, because there are often cameramen with long lenses hiding in the trees across the way. They're always snapping my picture and publishing the ugliest ones. But I've learned to ignore them. I ignore everything."

I was there because I was writing a book about John Huston and his family, and Ava figured into the story. "You know I never contribute to any book about people I've known," she said as we settled on chairs in her living room, "like Grace Kelly. But with you, when John said, 'If you don't mind,' I said yes."

Huston had cowritten Ava's first really noticeable movie, The Killers (1946), and had directed her in The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Bible (1966), and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972). She had appeared in 58 films between 1942 and 1980 and had worked with directors of the caliber of George Cukor (_Bhowani Junction_), Stanley Kramer (_On the Beach_), Mervyn LeRoy (_East Side, West Side_), John Ford (_Mogambo_), Joseph Mankiewicz (_The Barefoot Contessa_), and John Frankenheimer (_Seven Days in May_), but Huston was by far her favorite director, and one of the people she most admired, right up there with Hemingway and Robert Graves. Huston's endorsement went a long way with Ava, and she talked freely not only of him, but of things that had little or nothing to do with my book at all.

I knew from talking with Huston and with Ray Stark that Ava was press-shy. And I'd read what her On the Beach director, Stanley Kramer, had once observed. "Ava Gardner has a fixation about the press," he'd said. "She hates them, and she blames them for everything bad that has ever happened to her." Kramer claimed that when he finally persuaded Ava to hold a press conference in Melbourne, "she was terrified. She began to shake as soon as they started asking personal questions."

I could see for myself that Ava hated microphones and tape recorders. It was one of many aspects of the glamour business she couldn't bear. In general, her attitude towards Hollywood, including acting, was one of deep ambivalence. She just didn't seem to care enough to take her work as seriously as, say, Elizabeth Taylor. I knew that more often than not, she had to be coaxed into playing some part, and when I asked her why, she took a long drag on her cigarette and said matter-of-factly, "Look, I never wanted to do anything, as far as motion pictures were concerned." Then why did she? "It's a good living," she shrugged, as if that was answer enough.

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