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You'll Want To Hang Up On These 'Secret Conversations'

Jul 2, 2013
Originally published on July 20, 2013 5:34 pm

A country girl from Grabtown, N.C., Ava Gardner arrived in Hollywood in 1941 knowing she couldn't act but, gorgeous as she was, she never had to let that slow her down. Her beauty — which reportedly intimidated Elizabeth Taylor — won her not just film roles and studio-paid acting lessons, but the attentions of all-American boy Mickey Rooney, whom she married and divorced before she turned 21. She had a similarly brief union with bandleader Artie Shaw — she called those two her "starter husbands" — before a tempestuous, headline-making marriage to Frank Sinatra. At four years in duration, that one qualified as a virtual marathon.

Then there were the movies: One Touch of Venus, The Night of the Iguana, Show Boat, The Killers, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Barefoot Contessa, Mogambo, On the Beach, The Sun Also Rises and a few dozen others in a career that spanned four decades before it was cut short by a debilitating stroke that left part of her face slack. All of which qualifies as a mother lode of promising material for the late journalist Peter Evans to mine in his posthumously published and, sadly, dead-on-arrival Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.

"Secret" because after agreeing to co-write her memoirs with Evans in 1988, and giving him hours of interviews, she got cold feet, stopped collaborating, and — wisely, based on the result — withdrew permission to publish, a deal theoretically sealed by her death in 1990, at the age of 67.

Or not.

Two decades later, Evans got permission from Gardner's estate to incorporate material from those interviews into a book about his abortive tenure as her co-writer. Not a book about her life, mind you, but a book about the working relationship they had on the book that never got published. And that relationship is what this exasperating volume dwells on at exhausting length: the drunken, profanity-laced 3 a.m. phone calls, Gardner's doubts about whether her life was interesting, the bargaining over whether this tell-all would tell anything that might conceivably be controversial, the missed appointments, the discussions about what to wear for an audience with the agent who's shopping the book to publishers, and so on at length.

And because Evans died before finishing the book, interspersed with all that filler are the few chapters he'd finished about her Hollywood days — not much about the films she made, but occasional passages about her marriages and a dalliance with Howard Hughes, albeit nothing half so revealing as an average page in Lee Server's gracefully written 2006 biography, Ava Gardner: "Love Is Nothing," which is as exhaustively annotated as it is thoughtful.

Evans' prose tends more toward the blunt and his approach more toward the tabloid. How blunt? He begins one chapter by announcing that "The size of Frank Sinatra's penis had been on my mind for weeks" (apparently because of a quote he'd read in Kitty Kelley's His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra). Gardner never enlightens him on that particular topic, though that doesn't keep him from musing on it for another 60 pages or so as he completes his none-too-generous portrait of a woman "who could always make me laugh," but whom he chooses to paint as an ailing, cranky, vain, annoying, profane and fiercely stubborn has-been.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Now, how's this for another summer reading option? A new Hollywood biography about a 1940s screen siren who was better known for her beauty and her marriages than for her acting ability recently hit the bookstores. Is "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations" a good read? We asked our movie critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Country girl Ava Gardner arrived in Hollywood in 1941 aware that she couldn't act but gorgeous enough to think that that didn't need to slow her down. In the book, we're told that her beauty, which reportedly intimidated Elizabeth Taylor, won her not just film roles but a wedding ring from Mickey Rooney - who she divorced before she turned 21 - also from bandleader Artie Shaw - she called those two her starter husbands - before a headline-making marriage to Frank Sinatra that lasted four entire years - for her a virtual marathon. Then there were the movies. She appeared on safari in "Mogambo"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MOGAMBO")

AVA GARDNER: (as Eloise Kelly) Well, bless your big, bony knees.

MONDELLO: ...in the tropics in "Night of the Iguana"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NIGHT OF THE IGUANA")

GARDNER: (as Maxine Faulk) Honey, you just lie down the hammock, and I'll fix you a nice rum Coke.

RICHARD BURTON: (as Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon) No, no, no.

MONDELLO: ...in a role created specially for her in "Snows of Kilimanjaro"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO")

GARDNER: (as Cynthia Green) I'll bet I'm the only person in the whole darn place who's only trying to be happy.

MONDELLO: ...as a sexpot dancer in "Barefoot Contessa"...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA")

GARDNER: (as Maria Vargas) Half in the dirt and half out. In many ways, it's been beyond my dreams.

MONDELLO: ...and in a few dozen other pictures in a four-decade career that was cut short by a debilitating stroke. All in all, a mother load of promising material for journalist Peter Evans to mine in his posthumously published and, sadly, dead-on-arrival "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations." Secret because after doing months of interviews, Gardner got cold feet about the book and, wisely, based on the result, withdrew permission to publish, a deal theoretically sealed by her death in 1990 at the age of 67 - or not.

Two decades later, Evans got permission from the star's estate to use the interviews in a book, not about her life, but about her fraught relationship with him on the memoir that never got published, an exasperating tale of drunken 3 a.m. phone calls, missed appointments and discussions about what to wear for an audience with a book agent. And because Evans died before he finished the book, interspersed with all that filler are the few chapters he'd completed about her Hollywood days - almost nothing about her films, and some not-terribly-revealing details about her marriages.

The book's prose is blunt, and its interests tawdry. Evans wonders for chapters on end how he's going to get Gardner to talk about whether Sinatra was well-endowed. She never enlightens him, and I suppose you could say he pays her back by painting a none-too-generous portrait of the Ava Gardner that he says could always make me laugh but who he chooses to depict as a cranky, vain, annoying, profane and fiercely stubborn has-been. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.