Friday, September 6, 2013

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations
by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner
Simon and Schuster
Hardcover, 304 pages
July 2013
ISBN 9781451627695

Barnes and Noble


In 1986, actress Ava Gardner suffered a stroke. Two years later she found herself in some financial difficulty and decided to write a memoir so she wouldn't have to "sell the jewels". Biographer Peter Evans was hired to help Gardner write the book after being personally recommended by Gardner's friends including fellow actor Dirk Bogarde. Evans knew that this project would be difficult but couldn't imagine what was in store for him. After months of late night phone calls, bizarre meetings and endless massaging of a fading beauty's ego, the book was called off. A more sanitized autobiography was published much later with the help of someone else. But Peter Evans never let go of the idea of publishing a book about Ava Gardner in her voice and with the permission of her estate put together Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.

Me reading this book is me keeping a very open mind. As some of you know, I do not like Ava Gardner. But many people do like her and are fooled dazzled by her manipulation charm. I set my differences aside because I thought this book sounded really interesting and I wanted to learn more about her.

The end result was that I quite enjoyed my experience reading this book and learning more about Ava Gardner as an actress and as a woman. This book defies any categorization. It's a sort of biography (Peter Evans' voice), autobiography (Ava Gardner's voice), transcript of conversations and a biography about a biography that never happened. The book is also a tribute to Peter Evans who passed away before he could finish it. Both voices are gone but we have this treasure to remember them by.

Because the initial project was cut short, we don't really have the full story of Ava Gardner's life but we do get quite a bit. Most of Gardner's conversations with Evans are about the romantic relationships she's had. We learn a lot about her first marriage to Mickey Rooney and to some extent her marriages to Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. All those marriages ended badly. She also had a long romance with Howard Hughes, but refused to marry him, affairs with Robert Mitchum and a bull fighter in Spain and was in an abusive relationship with actor George C. Scott. In her conversations with Evans, Gardner is very restrained but with Evans patience and a couple of drinks, she does open up to reveal some very personal information. She would often times panic later about what she had revealed and plead Evans not to include it. Evans was essentially in the middle of a tug-of-war. He had a publisher to answer to but he also needed to keep Gardner happy and on board with continuing the book. Evans struggle was a significant one and you get really get a sense of his dilemma.

Ava Gardner can come off very vain in this book. She was highly focused on her appearance and how people perceive her. But in many ways this is understandable. Here is an aging beauty who once had
an incredible power over men, driving many of them wild with desire, and doesn't want to let that power go. Who would?

My favorite part of the book was when Peter Evans recalls the time when he arranged a meeting with Ava Gardner and the publishers. The event was to take place at Gardner's home and she was very worried about her appearance. She was much older now and her stroke had left part of her face paralyzed. Gardner told Evans she would only do the meeting if cinematographer Jack Cardiff arranged the lighting so she could look her best. Cardiff came over, staged the lighting around the chair she would sit in and made everything work for her. Evans talked to Cardiff and this is what he said:
When she sits in that chair tomorrow, keep telling her how beautiful she looks. Keep on saying that. How beautiful she looks. Lay it on thick. She won't believe you, she's too smart to fall for blarney, but it's what she wants to hear. It's the tribute you must always pay to great beauties when they grow old. Remember, it's always the camera man who grows old, never the star. - Jack Cardiff (page 83)

This book is amazing and I highly suggest you read it. Did it change my opinion of Ava Gardner? No. But it did give me some insight into this iconic actress and made me understand her allure. I loved reading about her relationships with her mom and her sister Bappy. Evans included parts of the draft that he was working on before he had to cancel the project. Those were really interesting to read. I loved the story of how Mickey Rooney traveled with Gardner to see her mom and made a big fuss over her and made her mom so happy. I really enjoyed how Gardner was open about her mistakes and frank about her career. While she was concerned about what would go into her book, I felt that at heart she was a very honest and open person.

If there is an actress or actor you don't like, I suggest taking some time out to read a bit more about them. It might not change your opinion but it will definitely open your eyes.

This is my fifth review for my 2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. Just one more to go!

2013 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge  


  1. Great review! I, however, didn't like this book at all. I don't think it was worth publishing and I sort of feel that the author's family did it to make money. Harsh, I know.

    I never *loved* Gardner, but I *liked* her. This book completely changed my mind about her though and now I like her a little less. Same thing with Debbie Reynold's recent book -- I felt I was rubbed the wrong way and I came out of that one absolutely despising the star.

    1. Vanessa - Thanks so much for sharing your perspective!!! I work in publishing so creating books to make money is something I'm used to. Some books are for the art and some books are for the sales. However, I totally see your point. This book can be seen as exploitative and since both main parties are deceased, it's really the estates and the publisher that are benefiting from the sales. I've thought about this some but I'm a bit conflicted about the whole thing.

      And the more as time goes by, the more I dislike that Debbie Reynolds book. That book definitely had an agenda and I still like the movie star Reynolds but I'm starting to like the real life person a lot less.

  2. Hi Raquel,

    I enjoyed your review, especially as I know you don't care for Ava Gardner -- good for you for giving a book on her a shot! It was thus interesting to read the positives you found about Gardner such as her honesty.

    As you probably know, I've always really enjoyed Gardner while recognizing, that like many stars, she was, er, a character, and certain aspects of her life were quite messed up. It's sad that's the case with so many Golden Age actors! Though her romantic relationships were a disaster zone, it's nice that she seems to have had loving and enduring relationships with family and close friends like Gregory Peck.

    I've got Lee Server's book on Ava -- if I don't read it soon perhaps I'll put it on a reading list for Summer 2014, LOL.

    BTW, what a great anecdote -- if sad -- about Jack Cardiff. :)

    Thanks again to you for the inspiration to read so many books this summer, it's a lot more than I usually manage in a few weeks' time!

    Best wishes,

    1. Laura - Thanks for stopping by! I want to read that Lee Server book now. I enjoyed his biography on Robert Mitchum so I'd be interested to see what he writes about Ava Gardner.

      Now that Vanessa reminded me of the Debbie Reynolds book, I remembered that Gardner and Reynolds were friends and Gardner helped out Carrie Fisher during a particularly difficult time. There were several friends mentioned in the book. It seemed like Gardner really treasured her friendships.

      So glad you took this summer reading challenge with me. :-)

  3. Hi Raquel, I just finished reading this book too and I agree with everything you said. It's an unusual book quite unlike any other: part autobiography, party biography, part portrait, part how-to-ghostwrite, part peek behind the Hollywood curtain to see what an iconic figure like Gardner is really like after everybody else has gone home. Great reading - whether it's summer or not!

    1. Martin - Thank you so much for your comment. The fact that the book was unlike any other and also the fact that we really get to see who Gardner was as a real person made this book a great read.

  4. I wanted to join the conversation about the Peter Evans book, as a board member of the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, NC, we had mixed feelings on the publishing of the book, which was approved by the Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate. But like the old saying, the "horse is out of the barn" it's out there now. Ava certainly didn't not intend for her conversations to be taped or ever published and I am sure if she had know she would have gotten the tapes turned over to her. The museum board on the other hand thought the book reflects on Ava's toughness which she definitely learned in the hard business of Hollywood, her loyalty and love she had for her family, and the reality of her failed marriages in that she found tender moments or something to laugh about in them all. She was an incredible woman even if we wish the "salty" language was not in the book -- even Ava was surprised that she sounded that way!

    For those that read the book and want to know more, we hope they will visit the museum in her hometown dedicated to sharing her life and career with those that grew up with the Golden Age of Hollywood stars and new generations that are discovering them. Check out our website, and maybe share info on our upcoming Ava Gardner Festival, October 4-6 with your readers.

    Great conversations!

    1. I really appreciate you stopping by and leaving this comment. And I love that you pointed out that Ava was surprised with her own salty language. That is something I noticed in the book. She would be very vocal and open then be a bit shocked later when something was read to her/or when she read the draft.

      I admire the fact that you guys have a museum, website and festival devoted to her. That's amazing!

  5. Great commentary, Raquel. I agree with your views although I do like Gardner. I'm interested to know why you don't. We MUST talk! :)

    I'm really glad I read this.



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