Ava Gardner

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Ava Gardner Pencil Portrait
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In 1990, Ava Gardner was living in London with her housekeeper. She had spent her twilight years making dates with whomever she pleased and according to neighbours, would take her pet corgi out the door for walks every day. She had been plagued with ill health in recent times, including 2 strokes and pneumonia yet was working on her autobiography. Her last words to her housekeeper were, “I’m so tired.” She died in her flat on January 25th 1990, at the age of sixty seven and was flown back to the United States, where she would be buried alongside her parents, in Smithfield.

It had been one hell of a life and perhaps at the core of her problems lay a character trait she recognised all too clearly in herself. Talking to a close friend she was moved to say :

“Deep down, I’m pretty superficial.”

The story of Ava Gardner highlights the singular fact that throughout the world many beautiful women find it difficult to find happiness in relationships. The men in their life are attracted to them because of their outer beauty yet this interest is prompted by different reasons depending on varying male characteristics. The common thread linking these men is that none are able to make their woman happy.

Ava came primarily into contact with rich and famous men who treated her as a trophy and yet despite the position they occupied in their chosen profession they also displayed the symptons characteristic in a non celebrity who does manage to land a good looking woman. Ava found herself dealing with their inferiority complexes and, unprepared as she was to hide her beauty, saw fit to handle the jealousy by pouring oil on the fire.

In her twilight years those fine cheekbones still gave her face a sculptural force but the stroke had partially paralysed her left side and froze half her face in a rictus of sadness. It would have been a hard blow to bear for any woman, but for an actress who had been hailed as ‘the world’s most beautiful animal’, it was a tragedy.

‘Getting old is tough enough,’ she told her would be biographer Peter Evans, with no sense of self-pity at all, ‘But life doesn’t stop because you’re no longer beautiful. You just have to make adjustments. Although I’d be lying to you if I told you that losing my looks is no big deal. It hurts, god damn it, it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.’

She was well aware of the life she had led and particularly the latter day prospect of less than reliable industry memories further sullying her tarnished reputation.

‘I know that a lot of men fantasise about me, but that’s how Hollywood gossip becomes Hollywood history. ‘Someday someone is going to say, “All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner are true.” And the truth about me, just like the truth about poor, maligned Marilyn [Monroe], will disappear like names on old tombstones.

‘I know I’m not exactly defending a spotless reputation. Hell, it’s way too late for that. Scratching one name off my dance-card won’t mean a row of beans in the final tally.’

Ava Gardner was seldom accused of great acting although her ‘on screen persona’ did have its admirers like Dirk Bogarde. She had seduced, and been seduced by, married and divorced, lived with and walked out on, some of the most famous names of the 20th century.

‘My vices and scandals are more interesting than anything anyone can make up,’ she told Evans when, in 1988, they embarked on the autobiography she had invited him to ghost for her. He knew that she was essentially a private person and it was a book she never wanted to write.

‘I’m broke, honey,’ she admitted when he asked her why she was finally prepared to tell her story. ‘I either write the book or sell the jewels and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.’

Ava was born on December 24, 1922, in a farmhouse with no running water or electricity, in Grabtown, south-east of Smithfield in Johnston County, North Carolina. The youngest of seven children, she was named Ava (after an aunt) Lavinia as it sounded pretty. Her mother, Mary Elizabeth Gardner, known as Molly, was of Scots descent and her father, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was a sharecropper of Irish and Tuscarora Indian descent.

Ava often admitted that she got her radiant skin and energy from her mother and her shyness, sense of privacy and green eyes from her father. He apparently always referred to her as ‘Daughter’, never Ava. He worked hard all his life but was never likely to amount to much financially. She described him as a bit of a dreamer who, like her, sometimes drank and smoked too much. He died of bronchitis when she was 13 and as she told her biographer, “I missed him more than I ever thought it was possible to miss anyone”.

America in the 1940s was the land of milk and honey. Like many a young aspiring wannabe, Ava had absorbed as if by osmosis, the myths she had been bombarded with, namely that happiness was an achievable state that existed just around the corner. Suitably fuelled by insatiable consumerism and the power of media advertising, she and millions like her, could be encouraged to think that this state of mind was within their grasp.

I have little interest in recounting the salacious details of her life. Read the books and magazines if you wish – they’re all in there. What appears apparent is that devoid of the most important male figure of her formative years she sought to escape any preordained drudgery indigenous to her background in favour of a profession for which she was patently unqualified. Chaperoned by her big sister, she caught the train to Hollywood and ‘put myself in play’. A sound test detected no star potential, and her almost incomprehensible Southern drawl seemed to assure a bleak future in Hollywood. Fortunately, at this time all the studios kept pools of talentless pretty girls under contract since they were useful for decorating studio functions, entertaining visiting VIPs, and for walk-on parts. In the summer of 1941, aged 18, she was signed to a seven-year contract starting at $50 a week. As Ava recalled,‘I spent most of my time in what they called Leg Art Alley, where photographers did nothing but take publicity stills for newspapers and magazines. It was part of the regular grooming programme and I didn’t like it one bit. ‘But it kept me looking busy, and they didn’t drop my option.’ Eventually she met and married Mickey Rooney and the dye was cast; the first of three legalised unions that barely lasted more than a year.

In the London Review of Books (LRB, Vol 28, No 17, dated 17 September 2006), Michael Newton, a professor of Literature at University College, London, reviewed Ava Gardner’s biography by Lee Server (Ava Gardner, Bloomsbury, 551pp, 2006).

According to Server, she reportedly said to the Brazilian lyricist Vinicius de Moraes: ‘Yes I am very beautiful, but morally, I stink.’ The writer suggests that she was being too hard on herself. She pursued her pleasures, and broke a few hearts, but most of the men she had sex with were still boasting about it half a century later. Sexually, there seems to have been little that she did not try and as a result I suspect she struggled to ever determine in her mind who was truly important to her and what qualities would make them so. Conducting a relationship in the manner which she did with Sinatra was not about love in my book. She seemed to feed on his insecurities when his career was in freefall often referring to him during this period as the “sweetest thing” and yet despised his arrogant demeanour when he returned to pre-eminence in the music and movie business. There was undoubtedly a degree of jealousy involved for he excelled at what he did whilst her career rested on her looks. She travelled extensively, drank, hung out in brothels, danced with gypsies, took part in bull-fights, skinny-dipped, and got herself barred from most of the best hotels in Europe. Ava Gardner had a lot of fun.

From my perspective, she never had an emotionally fulfilling relationship, never experienced motherhood, (her marriage to Sinatra was punctuated by two abortions which she avoided discussing with him beforehand), was physically assaulted by at least one man, (the actor George C. Scott nearly killed her in the summer of 1965) and suffered acute ill health at an age when many people are focussed on an active retirement. Doesn’t sound like much fun to me.

Outspoken, caustic and often wickedly funny, Ava relished talking about the past, her highs and lows, her indiscretions, her mistakes. Nothing was spared until she saw it on the page and then thought better of any publishing deal. ‘My body’s failing every which way,’ she would tell close friends after periodically stumbling in her apartment. She walked with a cane and as a result of her heavy smoking had now developed pulmonary emphysema, the lung disease that had recently killed her one-time lover, the director John Huston. She didn’t see many people, but hated to be called a recluse. She was, in her own words, just winding down.

\Not So Hollywood Wedding Night: Ava Gardner & Mickey Rooney\


This article describes the Sinatra Gardner relationship and suggests that she was easily bored. It’s a common theme I find myself hearing and reading about more and more and if Ava were around today she would no doubt be embracing the current trend towards the silver divorcee. I’ve seen it suggested that many men are burned out by the time they reach 60 as they’ve spent a lifetime at work taking orders, ­toeing the line without ever developing the social support ­systems that sustain women. It is alleged that they have no idea how to conduct themselves in company outside the work environment. They feel tired, old, lonely and redundant just as women of the same age are, finally, coming into their own. Alas, because of this social disparity, increasing ­numbers of older women are deciding to divorce. They simply can’t stand the prospect of having this uncommunicative appendage in their lives any longer. The message appears clear that unless the male species develops a different outlook and starts joining in, we will soon be faced with swathes of ditched older men living alone with only the crossword for company, while women of the same age are having the ‘time of their lives’ whatever the hell that means.

People drift in and out of our lives, yet I believe only one truly important relationship comes to each of us. Unfortunately, for millions around the world only one party to the relationship is truly feeling that sentiment. 250,000 persons in the United Kingdom alone made a formal declaration of severance to their relationship in 2010. They will move onto other relationships, and the necessity for interaction with siblings from previous unions. They will introduce their new partner to friends and family, eulogise about their personality, whilst in reality knowing virtually nothing about the individual they are setting up home with beyond the selective potted history that has been presented to them. Six to twelve months later, they will be recounting the tortuous last few months of the failed relationship to a close friend in a bar who will advise them to dust themselves down, pick themselves up and start tapping away again on their laptop to any one of the indeterminate amount of dating websites I endure via ‘pop-ups’ whenever I am researching my commentaries. The cycle for some goes on and on. In Ava Gardner’s case, she at least recognised that she had never found a suitable father for any child she might conceive, and that she was too selfish by half to be enveloped by maternal instincts. We might applaud her at least for that, since she had financial independence and could have chosen the single parent option.

Most of all, she appears to have been singularly averse to self improvement preferring instead to take the easy option of relying on her looks. She starred opposite some of the very best actors of their day and yet was never motivated enough to attend drama classes or to learn from them. Ultimately, whilst most of these men may have enjoyed carnal delights with her and in some notable cases, been emotionally tormented, they all moved on with their lives and remained at the “top of their game”. With a handful of exceptions, On The Beach (1959) and _“The Night of the Iguana”_(1964), Gardner avoided career petrification by being relentlessly farmed out to junk movies.

Recommended viewing

The Killers (1946)

Epitomising the vamp that is dangerous and trouble to know, Gardner breezes through ‘The Killers’ in what may well be her best picture if only for being least encumbered by the need to act. Burt Lancaster, the sap we’ve all met and known, can’t just ‘fuck and dump’ her but has to fall in love thus encountering one of life’s maxims that the more beautiful the woman, the more unreliable she will be. Embracing exultant sex and putting nothing, even security in life beyond its pleasure, she becomes the living embodiment of man’s cerebral duality – deification and misogynism.

On the beach (1959)

Set in 1964 the film is Stanley Kramer’s post-apocalyptic drama about australian residents in the months following World War III. The conflict has devastated the northern hemisphere, polluting the atmosphere with nuclear fallout and killing all life. While the bombs were confined to the northern hemisphere, air currents are slowly carrying the fallout south. The only areas still habitable are in the far southern hemisphere, like Australia.

There are lingering hopes of continuing life in San Diego and the last American nuclear submarine, USS Sawfish, under Royal Australian Navy command, is ordered to sail north from Melbourne to try to make contact with the signal sender. The captain, Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), leaves behind his good friend, the alcoholic Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner), despite his feelings of guilt about the deaths of his wife and children in Connecticut. Towers refuses to admit they are dead and continues to behave accordingly.

The Gardner character is both delusional and in denial whilst the object of her focused concentration combines compassion and incredulity in her presence. Walking the streets of Melbourne at night, Moira turns to Dwight: “You know I think I’ve discovered why you fascinate me. Shall I tell you? He nods in her direction before she continues, a smile progressively breaking out across her face whilst he maintains an all pervading sense of stoicism. “Because you take me for granted. I know women aren’t supposed to like that sort of thing but somehow I do. I’ve been treated in every other way, like a child and sometimes like, well, like things I’ve probably deserved, but I’ve never been pushed around in such a nice way and treated something like a wife. I suppose what I mean is like an American wife”. Dwight interjects “Moira, this isn’t going to do us any good”. “ No” she implores, “hear me out. I was hurt at first when I realised you were mixing me up with Sharon and then I realised that it was one of the nicest things that could happen to me. I wouldn’t really mind if you could forget actually who I am – I don’t like myself very much anyway – wouldn’t you like to try?”

He turns towards her, clasping both her arms in his hands, stares into her eyes, those limpid pools so full of fear and answers in earnest “No”.

Nevertheless Dwight wants to stay with Moira, albeit on his terms, but his remaining crew want to head for home and die in the United States. In the end, Commander Towers chooses not to stay but rather to lead his crew back to the States. Moira watches from the shore as the Sawfish submerges beneath the waves, alone with her last remaining thoughts and suicide pill.

Ava was only thirty seven yet looked older as her drinking began to take hold. Nevertheless, her near autobiographical characterisation offers the merest hint of an untapped acting talent.

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

The earthy widow Maxine Faulk (Ava Gardner), is the proprietress of a rundown hotel at the edge of a Mexican cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean where the defrocked Rev. Shannon, his tour group of ladies from a West Texas women’s college, the self-described New England spinster Hannah Jelkes and her ninety-seven-year-old grandfather, Jonathan Coffin (“the world’s oldest living and practicing poet”), a family of grotesque Nazi vacationers, and an iguana tied by its throat to the veranda, all find themselves assembled for a rainy and turbulent night.


Ava Gardner’s autobiography recalls a watering hole at every turn; director John Huston and Burton had insisted there be a bar at both the bottom and top of the hill during shooting and her competitive instinct was roused by the presence of Elizabeth Taylor, newly engaged to the welsh renegade.

Ava is the ‘hot-to-go girl’ with an eye for defrocked Welsh priests and turns in an impressive entry for her CV. Add in the wanton teen girls, sapphic spinsters flitting about the Mexican beach cut off from civilization and Burton on the edge of insanity and there’s a diverting movie to be viewed.


‘The Night of the Iguana’ has been colourised but stick to the original monochrome version for the characterisations are colourful enough; whilst the process is not as involved as the industry would have us believe, much of the tension inherent in movies of a certain genre can be lost.

Recommended reading

Ava Gardner : “Love Is Nothing” (Lee Server)

At the ripe old age of 32, having collected three ex-husbands-Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner waxed introspectively: “I still believe the most important thing in life is to be loved.”

Whether she ever knew how to reciprocate is open to conjuncture as the reader negotiates a life that was hardly sweet for the gorgeous star of ‘Show Boat’ and ‘The Barefoot Contessa’; her steamy affair and marriage to Sinatra ranking among the most notorious of Hollywood love stories. Gardner’s career, hard drinking and screen-worthy love affairs are all chronicled in Server’s page-turner prose, doing justice to one of cinema’s most beautiful faces.

Frankly the book exhausted me. Maybe it would have helped matters if she’d taken up flower arranging for a while. She’d certainly have lived longer for at no point is there ever any suggestion of her “taking stock”, pausing a while, drawing breath and refining her perspective on herself and others.



Perhaps ultimately, despite her great beauty, men viewed Ava as one of those unfortunate chocolate selections we all occasionally make – ignoring the box guide can lead to the deepest of instantaneous regrets despite the decorative coating.