Even the most fervent Ava Gardner fans would have trouble claiming she could act. She lacked focus, timing, subtlety, inwardness and other basic thespian talents. An affectation of headstrong sassiness was her main strength. But she was undoubtedly a star. That Hispanic beauty, those dark eyes, that generous mouth, her air of being generally on-for-it with the boys – it was a dazzling package, alternately goddess and tomboy. And you could tell that in real life she was close to her film persona. When in Mogambo, John Ford’s African adventure movie of 1953, she tells Clark Gable, ‘Look, Buster, don’t get over-stimulated with me,’ you just know it’s a line she’d used on countless pushy suitors.
Imagine, then, the delight of Peter Evans, veteran Daily Express columnist and showbiz biographer, when Ava Gardner rang him out of the blue in January 1988 and asked him to ghost her memoirs. She’d had a stroke two years earlier that had effectively ended her career; now 66, having previously refused to contemplate an autobiography, she’d finally decided to give it a try. She’d checked Evans’s bona fides with moral arbiters such as Dirk Bogarde (‘Dirk said you deal from a clean deck and you’re not a faggot’) and liked the sound of him. Evans in turn checked out her reputation for reliability and was told by all, ‘Ava will eat you alive!’ Thus began one of the most frustrating projects in the history of the ghosted memoir.
Week after week he would visit her flat in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge, uncork one or two bottles of wine and hear her download details of her early life, her marriages to Mickey Rooney, the bandleader Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, and her entry to Hollywood society as a 19-year-old virginal sex-bomb. Almost every night, she would ring up Evans at 3 or 4am and retract what she’d said, full of mistrust about the book and concern about the secrets she was disclosing, including her paternal grandfather’s lunacy and the family tendency to depression and drink.
When she was 18, we learn, her photographer brother-in-law displayed a picture of her in a flowery dress and straw hat in the window of his Manhattan shop. It caught the eye of an office boy working for a subsidiary of MGM. An invitation to New York followed, then a screen test – and in weeks she’d signed a seven-year Hollywood contract.
We learn that Ava was a virgin when she married Rooney, but made up enthusiastically for lost time. She and Rooney spent the single year of their marriage going to the Cocoanut Grove and other hot clubs, or at the Friday-night LA fights, in company with George Raft and Betty Grable. But when she discovered another girl had shed a hairpin in the marital bed (and used Ava’s douche bag while Ava was in hospital recovering from an inflamed appendix), the marriage was over. Enter Howard Hughes – rich, racist and relentless.
These nuggets of Hollywood tittle-tattle have to be quarried out of a narrative that’s always stopping and starting. Ava’s 3am calls get more and more predictable; Evans’s reassurances are repetitive. The whole project teeters on the edge of cancellation: ‘I’m happier not remembering, baby,’ she tells him. ‘Why can’t we settle for what I pretend to remember? You can make it up can’t you?’ She swings between being horrified by mortality and old age and gleefully embracing them, urging Evans to begin the book with vignettes of her post-stroke life – the falls in the park, the incontinence diapers and so on.
There’s a poignant scene in which Evans’s agent, Ed Victor, and Ava’s prospective publisher, Dick Snyder of Simon & Schuster, arrange to meet the star at her flat. The day before, Gardner panics that she looks ‘as if I’ve been in a fucking train wreck’. What is to be done? Evans telephones Jack Cardiff, the world’s finest cinematographer, to come over and arrange the lamps in her drawing room, with a key light positioned to put the stroke-frozen side of her face in shadow. The guests are understandably bowled over.
The book is a tragic portrait of a feisty screen goddess in decline, permanently tipsy, chain-smoking, fretful and capricious; but Evans manages to make her come alive in the language he records. Sometimes she sounds like Ethel Merman, with her repertoire of ‘goddams’ and ‘fahcrissakes’, but the authentic slang of the 1940s sassy dame comes through when talking about sex: ‘The powder-room scuttlebutt was that he was no great shakes in the sack’ and ‘You don’t pay much attention to what other people tell you when a guy’s good in the feathers.’ She faces mortality by telling Evans, ‘Pretty damn soon there’s going to be no corn in Egypt, baby.’
Although the book never got written (for reasons we discover at the end), Evans’s chronicle of his time as Ava’s amanuensis has some lovely moments, like when Ava, after a heavy night out, was walking with friends through the streets of Kensington. London was then teeming with burger bars bearing Stateside names. Some young tourists approached them and asked if they knew the whereabouts of the Great American Disaster. ‘You’re looking at her, kid,’ said Ava.