Ava Gardner packed a lot of living — and loving — into her 67 years, and Lee Server seems hell bent on chronicling every dalliance in excruciating detail. Relying heavily on fading memories of secondary players, the scribe paints a melancholy portrait of a sensual star undone by her passions. This bloated bio begs the question: When did Gardner have time to make any movies?
Gardner’s life began simply enough in North Carolina, where the modest looker dreamed of nothing more than becoming a secretary and settling down. Her older sister Bappie, however, had other notions, and helped pave the way for her discovery by MGM, which hired her as a $50 a week contract player in 1941, when she was all of 18.
Before long, Mickey Rooney spied the still virginal beauty on the lot and ardently wooed her until she acquiesced to a hush-hush marriage arranged by the studio. And that, Server informs us in graphic detail, unlocked Gardner’s animal passion.
“Rooney was the happy beneficiary of his wife’s recently uncaged sensuality,” Server observes before moving on to share Rooney’s vivid description of his wife’s nether regions.
After that short-lived union, Gardner quickly moved on to Artie Shaw, husband No. 2, Howard Hughes, Robert Mitchum and assorted flings before falling hard for then-married Frank Sinatra. The tempestuous pair battled and made up countless times, unable to live together for any sustained period. From that storied liaison, the eyes glaze over at the parade of matadors, young hunks and production lackeys in and out of her boudoir.
Among the most jaw-dropping objects of her desire recounted here: Fidel Castro, who set her up with an aide instead, and a besotted George C. Scott, who reportedly got rough when under the influence.
Gardner was no slouch drinker either, able to match legendary tipplers like Richard Burton on the set of “The Night of the Iguana.” Her drinking got so bad fellow carouser Mitchum avoided meeting her in Madrid, an associate recalls in one of the book’s most amusing, and bittersweet, anecdotes.
“We were just chatting about Madrid and about working there,” Server quotes a Gardner pal. “I saw Ava come into the hotel then, and I said to him, ‘Oh, there’s Ava. Let me go get her.’ And Mitchum jumped up and said, ‘Ava Gardner! No, no — don’t tell her I’m here! If I get together with Ava I’m done for …’ And he sort of backed away and ducked behind a palm tree and ran off. He seemed very afraid of her bad influence.”
Server clearly did a prodigious amount of research for this tale, interviewing many pals and confidants who knew Gardner at various stages in her life. Their recollections ground anecdotes, but one wishes the author had been more discriminating toward this information. He engages in the journo sin of “notebook dumping” — typing in interviews verbatim, instead of presenting only the most pertinent snippets. These overlong anecdotes slow down the narrative at best, but cast suspicion on their veracity at worst. Some stories appear to rely completely on gossip, without first-hand knowledge.
The Castro tale, for example, hinges in part on accounts by his 19-year-old translator-mistress, who believed “Gardner was after him.”
It’s a shame Server wasn’t more judicious telling Gardner’s colorful tale. Her romance with Sinatra alone was one for the ages, but even that affair is obscured by extraneous details.
“She was funny and fun and exciting. But exhausting,” the wife of a Gardner escort recalls. “Who had the energy?”
The same could be said about this book.