There’s so much media chatter about the sad state of the movie business that I’ve decided to focus on the sad state of the memoir business.
One of the hottest summer reads is a showbiz bio that the subject tried to suppress and her ghostwriter never finished. It is steeped in lurid stories about deceased stars who would die if they read them. The memoir, titled “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,” gives us insight into some lively social issues of its time: Why Ava tried to kill Howard Hughes with an onyx ashtray; why she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate”; and why she described Mickey Rooney (her first husband) as both a midget and a great lover. The book reports in depth about whether Frank Sinatra, besides being manic and nasty, was well endowed (it remains ambiguous).
The memoir, based on Gardner’s middle-of-the-night rants, effectively reminds us of the salty jargon of that glitzy era. Sex was defined as “being good in the feathers,” death was “pushing around the clouds” and Ava’s summary of her own life was, “She made movies, she made out and she made a fucking mess of her life, but she never made jam.”
Gardner started and stopped composing her book several times, finally pursuing it because she was broke and didn’t want to sell the jewelry that Sinatra and other famous lovers had given her. Her on-again, off-again ghost, Peter Evans, died before completing the book (Gardner herself died in 1990). The memoir was finally pulled together by Ed Victor, Evans’ resourceful agent.
With all its flaws, “Secret Conversations” will help restore the mythology surrounding Gardner as a hard-living, sharecropper’s daughter who co-starred with Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster during the ’40s and ’50s. Her films ranged from “Show Boat” to “The Barefoot Contessa” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” She not only worked with great directors but also consorted with them (including John Huston).
She was a virgin when Rooney, then MGM’s hottest star, proposed to her. She was bewildered when Hughes wanted to date her immediately after her divorce, until she realized that he dated every divorced star in Hollywood. Hughes was good company, she found, except for the fact that he was partially deaf and rarely spoke. When he did, his comments were sometimes racist.
Though her book is oddly disconnected, it vividly reflects the manners and mores of Hollywood in its “Golden Era.” The contract players were constantly feuding with their studio bosses and with one another. “Elizabeth Taylor is not beautiful, she is pretty,” Gardner would say. “I was beautiful.” The egos of her fellow stars were cosmic. “Never forget, you’re walking in the shadow of giants,” Rooney advised her when he took her to dinner with George Raft and Betty Grable.
Gardner was grateful for the protectiveness of MGM and the venerated Louis B. Mayer, and when she got her first big payday of $200,000 for “Barefoot Contessa,” she delighted in the fact that Bogart was envious.
“That figure stuck in Bogie’s gullet,” she recalls, “but it pissed both of us off that the greedy bastards at MGM grabbed most of it.”
With all its flaws, Gardner’s book is more explicit than perhaps any other superstar memoir, because writing a memoir to her was akin to “digging around in my panties drawer.”
Are her stories true? Clearly she was drinking heavily and was desperate to piece together a publishable book to get her fee. Her recollections are often hilarious, but her final days are poignant. When Gardner read a rough draft of her memoir, she asked her ghostwriter to excise the explicit sexual scenes comparing the performances of her lovers. Her ghost protested. “Readers love that stuff,” he told her.
“Fuck the readers,” Gardner shouted. She lost the argument.