By Fred Muenz
In January, 1988, movie star Ava Gardner was living in England. Broke and alone, suffering from the effects of two strokes which left her partially paralyzed and bedridden, and ravaged by alcohol and cigarettes, she contacted British journalist Peter Evens and asked him to ghostwrite her memoirs. What followed was a book called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.
Born on December 24, 1922, near the small farming community of Grabtown, North Carolina, Ava Lavinia Gardner was the youngest of seven children born to Jonas and Mary Gardner, poor tobacco and cotton farmers. The family later moved to Newport News, VA., where Jonas died when Ava was 15-years-old. Mary then moved the family to Rock Ridge, NC., where she took a job running a boarding house. Ava finished high school in Rock Ridge, and began taking secretarial classes at a nearby college. In the summer of 1940, Ava visited her sister Beatrice and brother-in-law Larry Tarr, in New York. Larry, a professional photographer, offered to take Ava’s portrait. He was so pleased with the result that he hung the portrait in the window of his shop and also sent a copy to MGM’s New York talent office. MGM offered Ava a screen test, although they didn’t record her voice due to her thick southern drawl. Upon seeing the screen test, studio head Louis B. Mayer remarked “she can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific”, and offered the 18-year-old a contract. In 1941, accompanied by her sister Beatrice, she left for Hollywood. For the next five years, she was given speech and voice coaching to rid her of her “incomprehensible” Carolina drawl, while being cast in walk-on and bit parts in a succession of films. Finally, in 1946, she was cast in a leading role in the film noir hit THE KILLERS (1946). Now a bankable star, over the next few years she was cast in starring roles in some of the best films coming out of Hollywood, opposite some of the most popular leading men.
On her first day on the MGM lot, she had been approached by Mickey Rooney, who told her that he wanted to take her to bed from the first moment he saw her. She was warned that Rooney was the biggest wolf on the lot, and “would screw anything that moved”. Despite the warning from her new friend, Lana Turner, she was overwhelmed by Rooney’s attention, and married him in 1942. Rooney cheated on her almost from the beginning, even bringing women into their bed while Ava was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. The studio didn’t want the public to know that their beloved Andy Hardy was married, so the marriage and the 1943 divorce was kept out of the papers. Next came Howard Hughes, who was financially generous to her. Even with her southern background, however, she was repelled by Hughes’ overt racism.
Even so, Hughes came and went in her life over the next 20 years. In 1945, she married band leader Artie Shaw, who had left his wife for her. By this time, Ava was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and drinking heavily. One week after their first anniversary, he dumped her for another woman. In 1950, she met the “love of her life”, Frank Sinatra. Her best friend, Lana Turner, who had advised her to stay away from Mickey Rooney, and who had affairs with both Artie Shaw and Sinatra, begged her not to get involved with him, saying, “I’ve been there, don’t do it”. While dating Sinatra, she was also seeing Robert Mitchum. When she told Mitchum about seeing Sinatra, he left her, saying that Sinatra’s temper was so violent that one of them might wind up dead. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, and despite being blasted by the Hollywood gossip columnists and the Roman Catholic Church, the couple were married in 1951.
Their marriage was described as “fighting, boozing and more fighting”. Sinatra had gone broke and during the first two years of their marriage, Ava supported him. She used her influence with producer Harry Cohn to get Frank his Oscar winning role in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953). During their marriage, she had two pregnancies and abortions, since the studio contract punished stars who had babies. She and Sinatra divorced in 1957, but remained on friendly terms. That same year, she moved to Spain and a long series of lovers followed, including Earnest Hemingway, before finally relocating to England, where she would spend the rest of her life. Suffering from pneumonia and a chronic lung disease, she died in January, 1990, at age 67. She was buried in Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her siblings and parents.
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