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The Woman Behind The Headlines—Ava Gardner

The folks down in Smithfield, North Carolina, still talk about the night Ava Gardner climbed the old water tower. It was on one of those occasions when their Ava, the famous movie star, had felt the urge to leave her worldly wanderings to return to her native land, an urge she gets with the regularity of a somewhat absent-minded homing pigeon.

It called for a celebration, of course, and such was indeed in progress in the community hall. North Carolina being a dry state, no liquid refreshments more potent than fruit punch were in evidence, though some of the celebrants were making suspicious forays into the dark recesses of the cellar. Be that as it may, a spirit of warmth and good cheer prevailed, with Ava, the honored guest, contributing her full share to the general hilarity.

As the evening wore on, the recollections of happy times past grew more and more mellow. “Ava,” one old codger quavered, “I can remember when you were just a little thing, and you used to climb the old water tower. Pretty much of a tomboy, you were.” He shook his head sadly, and a trace of a sentimental tear stole down his withered cheeks. “Guess you can’t do things like that no more, you bein’ such a grand lady and all.”

There was a gleam in Ava’s eye as she handed her punch cup to the nearest bystander. “Come on, pop,” she said. “I’ll show you.”

Without another word, off she marched, out of the hall and down the street, the rest of the company following in a gay, irregular procession. When she reached the water tower, looming high and awesome in the darkness, she didn’t hesitate a moment. Kicking off her dainty high-heeled slippers, she grasped the rungs with a firm hold and slowly and surely made her way up, up, up until her triumphant shout and a wave of her light scarf told the gaping onlookers she’d reached the top. Their girl had done it.

In a way, this is the story of Ava Gardner’s life. She’s a girl who has continually defied convention, dared to do things that others wouldn’t, behaved with warmth, humor and an utter lack of inhibition—and climbed to giddy heights.

Where has it brought Ava Gardner? Thirty-three now, she has gone through three unhappy marriages. She is more beautiful than ever, her star status remains unchanged—but she has shaken the dust of Hollywood off her feet, declaring “I can’t stand all the phonies there.” She has forsaken her native land in favor of Spain, where she lives in a small, secluded brick house on the outskirts of Madrid. She has also forsaken many former friends and acquaintances, her only close companions being her sister, Beatrice, and the Italian comedian, Walter Chiari.

“She’s the unhappiest woman in the world,” a man who has known her for many years remarked.

“She’s selfish,” said a woman acquaintance. “She’s so wrapped up in her own po that she never thinks of anyone else.”

“When she came back to Hollywood the last time. she looked right through me as if she’d never seen me before in her life—and I’ve known her for years!” another complained.

All this has resulted in a picture of Ava that has been painted by the press recently as a woman who has everything in the world—and nothing. A woman torn by inner strife, restless, endlessly searching for happiness she has never found, one moment miserable and self-pitying, the next madly pursuing pleasure to drown her sorrows.

There is no question but that Ava by her own words and actions, has contributed a great deal to this picture. In fact, she seems to take delight in it, as if it were some sort of grim, private joke. “So that’s what they think of me,” she says to herself, “So let them. Nobody understands me, mage. They never have, and they never will.

This is unfortunate, because it is unfair to one of the most vital and fascinating women in the world. Not that her vitality and fascination won’t survive this treatment. These are the qualities that have made her every move headline material, and they will certainly continue to do so. This is Ava’s private joke: She knows it.

But it’s high time that, in justice to Ava, the truth be told, the whys and wherefores of her complex character explained, and the pieces of the puzzle put in their proper place.

Ava Gardner is not a movie star by choice. Had it not been for one small incident, she’s said, “I’d probably have wound up as a secretary back in Smithfield.”

She’d taken business courses in high school and one year of college, and she’d come to New York to look for a job. She was staying with her sister Beatrice, whose husband, Larry Tarr, was a photographer. He used Ava as a model, and one of the pictures was put into a Fifth Avenue shop window. An M-G-M talent scout strolled by, and the picture caught his eye. He offered Ava a screen test. The test was successful. She signed an M-G-M contract and left for Hollywood. As simple as that.

The old Cinderella story, all over again. Complete with Prince Charming, who appeared the very first day she reported to the lot. Mickey Rooney wasn’t Ava’s idea of Prince Charming at the time—Clark Gable was—but when he spotted her and sprinted over to strike up a conversation and ask for a date, she soon found out that, with his gallantry and Irish wit, he lived up to the title. She was flattered, too—Mickey, as star of the Andy Hardy films, was one of the hottest personalities in Hollywood.

Such attention would have bolstered any girl’s ego, and Ava’s ego was in need of bolstering. She felt strange and insecure. People, she knew, made fun of her gaucherie, her heavy southern accent.

Mickey put her at ease, and made her laugh. A thorough pro who had been on the stage since the age of two, he dazzled her with his knowledge of show business. On his part, Mickey was charmed by her freshness and naiveté, a welcome change from the ambitious Hollywood starlets.

After a few months, said Ava, “We just kind of knew we’d be married.” The marriage lasted one year, and Ava was a divorcée at twenty.

Mickey’s mother said, before the wedding, “Ava’s a grand girl and I love her. But it won’t last three weeks.” She knew then what Ava had to learn from experience—that Mickey was, first and foremost, a performer, and everyone else his audience. The role of husband was one he didn’t know how to play, but it was the only one that Ava wanted.

Yet Ava, to this day, never speaks of Mickey with bitterness. “He’s such fun,” she says. “He was a wonderful person, in many ways.”

Of something else, she does not speak—a feeling of inferiority and inadequacy that Mickey had engendered in her. “I wised her up,” Mickey has said. He meant it kindly—showing the ropes of sophisticated Hollywood life to the greenhorn from North Carolina. But who wants to be made to feel like a greenhorn?

With husband No. 2, Artie Shaw, it became much worse. Artie was an intellectual. On their honeymoon, he brought huge stacks of books for Ava to read, on every conceivable subject, and spent hours lecturing her on her educational shortcomings. Hardly the fulfillment of Love’s Young Dream. Ava, however, pitched into the tomes courageously—and discovered that she liked it. He also introduced her to good music. But a continual diet of forced intellectual feeding was more than Ava could take. That marriage lasted a year, too.

She weighed 126 when she and Artie were wed. When they were divorced, in 1946, she weighted 106.

“Ava’s an incurable romantic,” a friend says. “Why, when Artie told her she was the only woman he’d ever loved, she really believed it! Of course, she knew about Lana Turner, and that there had been some other Mrs. Shaw—but she didn’t know until after they were married that she was the fifth—she simply never bothered to find out!”

No, when it came to love, Ava’s heart always ruled her head. But both heart and head had taken quite a beating in both her brief marriages. She came out of it sadder, but wiser.

For a long time, she was careful not to become deeply entangled in any romance. There was an interlude with Howard Duff, whose quiet, retiring nature was balm for a girl exposed to the flamboyant Rooney and pretentious Shaw. But although Howard was serious, Ava refused to be. She was afraid to become too deeply involved.

There was another Howard in her life, too—Howard Hughes, the fabulous tycoon whose name has been linked with a long list of Hollywood’s loveliest. The difference with Ava, she says, is that he always wanted to marry her. And since he did reappear in her life regularly between marriages, obviously Ava was more than a passing fancy. Why has Ava shied away from him? Who knows. Perhaps, after the Rooney-Shaw experiences, the prospect of marriage to this formidable man was more than Ava cared to face.

“I’ll never marry another actor,” said Ava. But that was before she met Frank Sinatra, at a New York theater party. And instantly succumbed to the Sinatra charm.

“That’s what always gets me,” she smiles. “That old charm. And Frank is the most charming man alive.”

Their courtship was anything but charming. It was noisy, it was tempestuous, it ranged over half the world. It brought heaps of censure upon Ava’s head. She was pictured as the villain who broke up Frankie’s home. Nobody noted that, in reality, Nancy and Frank had come to a parting of the ways long before.

At last, Frank settled the problem of divorce with Nancy—thereby signing away a third of his income—and the way was paved for the wedding. At that small but hectic ceremony in Philadelphia in 1951, Ava lost her footing, coming downstairs to join Frank. “I had a vision of the bride landing in a heap at the foot of the stairs,” she says. She regained her balance—but could it have been a portent of things to come?

She plunged into the role of wife with a will. This Was It, she thought. Eagerly, she took down Frank’s favorite recipes from Mama Sinatra. She jumped up in the morning and prepared huge breakfasts. Only to have Frank come in and growl, “Just coffee. I’m not hungry.” And the fighting began.

“When I lose my temper,” Ava says, “nobody can find it.” The same was true of Frank. But what really broke up the marriage was that ole debbil, jealousy. “I’m jealous, and possessive,” Ava admits. So is Frank.

There was a battle royal in New York, with Ava holed up in one hotel, and Frank in another. Mama Sinatra, who is much more fond of Ava than she was of Frank’s first wife, Nancy, stepped in to effect a brief truce. But it was the beginning of the end. They separated.

Why didn’t Ava divorce Frank at once? Through the years since, she has sometimes referred vaguely to “a property settlement.” This has given rise to stories that Ava was seeking hefty alimony since Frank’s return to enormous popularity and affluence, rumors that were revived again when she finally applied for the divorce in Mexico City recently. There is no truth in this. Proudly, Ava feels she is quite capable of taking care of herself. The question of a “property settlement” was a matter of principle. When Ava was wed to Frank, he was making very little money. She was the one who paid many of the bills. She felt she was entitled to some reimbursement. Although no one knows the real story, it can be assumed that since Ava’s return from Spain, she and Frank were able to reach an amicable agreement on this, which, because they have been so widely separated by distance, they have not been able to get together to settle before.

For Ava, the story of the alimony was another of the barbs that have caused her to withdraw into a protective cloak of silence and cynicism. Far from being a heartless creature who deliberately chooses to snub or ignore others, she is simply on the defensive. Outwardly, Ava pretends to care nothing about the criticism, the scandal magazine stories that are printed about her. Inwardly, she is deeply hurt.

So she carries a chip on her shoulder. That was the case, not long ago, when she went to Mexico to make “The Sun Also Rises.” Ava had her heart set on a part for her friend, Walter Chiari. Instead, she learned, the part had been given to attractive, young Bob Evans. Ava bristled, and, when she first met Bob on the set, treated him coldly. She knew from experience how these things happened. Wasn’t Evans the fellow who was a multimillionaire clothing manufacturer in New York? Somebody’d been impressed—he had “pull.” And this must be just a lark for him. Why take work from people who acted to make a living?

But when she worked with Bob, she thawed immediately. She saw that he was no playboy seeking a new thrill, but a person who was doing something he’d always wanted to do, something that meant a lot to him, and which he was dead serious about. Soon, the two of them had their heads together, yakking away like old pals. Later, on a brief stopover in New York, though she bypassed all the whoopte-do and saw no one else, she took time to have dinner with Bob.

“A lot of people don’t understand Ava,” says Bob Evans. “She’s really a warm, grand person.”

That’s the way the folks back home feel about her, too. Not long ago, Ava returned again to Smithfield, after an absence of five years—the longest time she’s ever been away. As she and Walter Chiari stepped out of their private plane, Ava, in huge dark glasses and a gay yellow shirtwaist dress, couldn’t contain her excitement. “Oh, it’s so wonderful to be back in North Carolina,” she cried, rushing into the arms of relatives who had turned out full force, and giving each one a big hug.

Was this the cold, unhappy Ava? No—this was the real Ava, the girl who shows herself only to what she calls “real” people. “He’s a real person” is Ava’s highest compliment. By this, she means a person who is simple and human, not a phony, or someone seeking to use her for his own advantage. Unfortunately, in her world of stardom there aren’t many who qualify —and Ava’s protective suspicion has shut out those who do. So she looks for them in out-of-the-way places—a small night club or drive-in, where, unrecognized, she can strike up happy conversations with strangers. A child on the street—children don’t know or care that she is a star. And she has a weakness for children.

“Ava Takes Chiari To Meet The Home Folks” the papers proclaimed. Actually, the reason for Ava’s visit to Smithfield was the celebration for her brother Melvin and his bride-to-be, Rose Darby. A niece, Edna Mae Grimes, was also about to be wed.

“Everybody’s getting married except me,” said Ava gaily.

“We are just companions,” dark, handsome Chiari.

Always taking into consideration the Italian’s potent charm—a weapon that Ava has always been unable to resist—it’s doubtful that they will reach the altar, although Ava has made it no secret that she would like to marry again.

Is this because Ava is so moody and mixed-up that she doesn’t know what she wants? No. It is because her experiences with men have made her too wise.

Because her marriage to Mickey Rooney made her feel inferior, her marriage to Artie Shaw, inadequate, and her marriage to Frank, a failure as a woman, it is generally believed that she is now carrying a heavy load of self-condemnation, a feeling of worthlessness that she can never overcome. This is* far from the truth. Bitter as these experiences were, from each of her husbands Ava learned much, and she is the first to admit it. Besides Hollywood know-how, Mickey taught her that a woman cannot expect an immature boy to behave with the responsibility of a man. Artie Shaw—whom she admires more than any of her husbands because she believes him to be completely honest—gave her a gift worth more than all the mink and diamonds in the world—the key to knowledge. Few realize that Ava has acquired a culture and sophistication that many a Harvard graduate might envy. Because of her background and lack of formal schooling, she’s selfconscious about it and belittles it, but it is true—on and it has added immeasurably to her present wisdom. And from Frankie . . . from Frank she learned about herself. Her own weakness, and her own strength. 

So here is Ava, a woman developed in maturity and knowledge far beyond the average. A woman who enjoy the company of men, but can be easily bored by them, and can spot their weaknesses at a glance. Her former flames, bullfighters Mario Cabre and Luis Dominguin, she calls “Boys. Fun—but boys.”

That Chiari feels this detached, critical evaluation was evident when he appeared on Steve Allen’s TV show. He was performing with easy competence, until he realized Ava was watching him. Then, although he carried the show off very well, he became quite nervous.

It will be difficult for Ava to find the kind of man with whom she wants to spend the rest of her life—and she will not settle for less. But in the meantime, she is far from unhappy. Chiari is charming and amusing, the ever-faithful sister Beatrice takes care of all the worrisome details of business and living, and is her trusted confidante. In Spain, there is all the warmth and color and excitement she loves. And most of all, “Real people. In Europe, they have respect for actresses. They don’t treat you like a curiosity. They leave you alone.” This, and the little house with no telephones, plenty of good food, the bullfights and flamencos—this is what Ava wants. And in her circumstances, who can argue with her choice?

When Ava boarded the plane to go back to Spain—permanently, she says—she discovered that five pieces of her baggage were missing. As the flustered Beatrice investigated and the embarrassed Chiari stood by, Ava raved and ranted, making the air blue.

“There she goes again,” an onlooker remarked. “What a pitiful sight that girl is.”

Another incident. Another headline.

Ava didn’t care. People wouldn’t understand, anyway. They didn’t know what it was like to be hounded by reporters every minute, to have to smile for the photographers when you didn’t feel like it, to put up with stares and rude remarks. She’d stood it all, even the too-personal questions about her private life. Who could blame her if she took it out in one grand, defiant explosion against five missing pieces of luggage? They couldn’t spread rumors and hurt her in return.




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    9 Temmuz 2023

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