Old Hollywood Book Club

The Wild Life and Many Loves of Ava Gardner

Lee Server’s Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing is stacked with juicy anecdotes about the classic Hollywood screen siren, from a dalliance with Fidel Castro to her blunt assessment of Frank Sinatra’s manhood.
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From the Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.

Born in North Carolina, the often barefoot and always brash movie star Ava Gardner was, in the words of second husband Artie Shaw, “the most beautiful creature you ever saw.” She was also, according to costar Deborah Kerr, “funny and rich and warm and human.” But Gardner also had a wandering spirit, with a reckless streak and an insatiable appetite for booze and boys that would often lead to the most glamorous sort of disaster.

In the engrossing Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing, biographer Lee Server documents a life filled with lust, love, and late-night shenanigans. There was her long entanglement with a snooping Howard Hughes, as well as flings with bullfighters, Robert Taylor, Mel Tormé, David Niven, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, an abusive George C. Scott, and an unsuccessful attempt to lure Robert Stack into a foursome (he suddenly got a stomachache).

And then there was her beloved Francis—Gardner’s third husband, Frank Sinatra. Their fights were legendary (Sinatra once threw a douche bag filled with water at her and pal Lana Turner), and their make-ups loud. When asked why she stayed with the 119-pound Sinatra, Gardner once replied “Well, I’ll tell you—nineteen pounds is cock.”

This straightforward, sassy broad would challenge and terrify both men and women her entire life—including supposed tough guy Robert Mitchum, her former flame and costar. Years after their on-set affair, Server writes, a friend would tell Mitchum that Gardner was arriving shortly. “Ava Gardner! No, no—don’t tell her I’m here!” Mitchum apparently replied. “If I get together with Ava, I’m done for.”

After reading Server’s book, it’s easy to understand why.

Meeting Mr. Right

On her first day at MGM as a tongue-tied 18-year-old, Gardner was given a tour of the sprawling Culver City lot by studio PR man Milton Weiss. Weiss took her to the set of the musical Babes on Broadway, where an exuberant man performed “Mama, Yo Quiero” dressed as Brazilian star Carmen Miranda. “He was wearing at this time a spangled bra and skirt, a fruited turban, had rouged cheeks, and his lips bore a thick coating of red lipstick,” Server writes. “A famously short young man, he stood now on high platform heels favored by Miss Miranda.”

Weiss had to whisper to a dumbstruck Gardner that this performer was none other than superstar Mickey Rooney, at 20 years old already a hard-living, wised-up “wolf, junior grade.” Even in the midst of performing, Rooney noticed the befuddled beauty and made a beeline for her in his clomping high heels. “Everything in me stopped,” he would write in his memoir I.E. “My heart. My breathing. My thinking.”

Within months, they were married. “Don’t let the little guy fool you,” Gardner later told movie star Ann Miller, per Server. “He knew every trick in the book.”

Love at First Shot

The legendary love story of Gardner and her inamorato Frank Sinatra began with a bang. According to Server, in the fall of 1949, the very married and very drunk Sinatra convinced an equally inebriated Gardner to leave a Palm Springs party hosted by studio head Darryl Zanuck with him. They sped into the night, until they reached the quiet town of Indio. After a sloppy make-out session, Sinatra brought out two guns and began to shoot out streetlights. A titillated Ava joined suit and shot out the window of a hardware store.

The night ended with the pair brought into the station by armed cops, who were then paid off by the studio. When Gardner finally got home, she found her sister Bappie eating breakfast. “Ava,” Server writes, “told her she had been out with Frank Sinatra and they had had a wonderful time.”

The Princess and the Goddess

Gardner first met patrician Grace Kelly, the future Princess of Monaco, on the sultry, sexually-charged Kenyan set of Mogambo, in 1952. The outwardly uptight Kelly was initially appalled by Gardner and tag-along Sinatra’s antics in the tent that cast and crew shared, telling one friend, “Ava is such a mess it’s unbelievable.” But Gardner’s free-spirited sense of fun soon won over Kelly, who also began a passionate affair with hard-drinking leading man Clark Gable. Soon, Kelly was trying to keep up with her costars—though according to Server, “after a few drinks she usually ended up turning pink and running into the bushes to vomit.”

The two beauties took a madcap trip to Rome, Kelly now suffering a severe case of hero worship. Gardner apparently insisted they visit a brothel, and an intrigued Kelly went along. “By the end of the tour,” Server writes, “the demure Grace Kelly had even found a boyfriend at one place and had dragged him into the backseat of the taxi for some heavy necking.”

Gardner and Kelly would remain friends for the rest of their lives. The princess would even attempt to set up her friend with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who she claimed was a very “forceful lover.” Gardner was decidedly grossed out by Onassis, though; per Server, she “whispered to Grace that not even a good whipping could make her change her mind, and slipped away.”

Kicking it with Castro

A political junkie, Gardner was a liberal Democrat—a woman her ex-husband Rooney would eventually brand a “red.” During a trip to Cuba in 1959, a meeting was arranged between a curious Gardner and Fidel Castro, who was at that point still considered a magnetic liberator by members of the American left. According to Server, the two met at the Havana Hilton and got along like a house on fire:

Castro greeted her with extravagant Latin gallantry. He took her on a tour of his headquarters, high up in a former VIP suite, now transformed into disheveled office space he shared with his brother Raul and Che Guevara. They sat on the balcony overlooking the whole city, drank Cuba libres, and Castro told her about the revolution and his dream of a prosperous and equitable future for his nation.

Ava was impressed, and Castro’s mistress and translator Marita Lorenz was on high alert. According to Lorenz, per Server, after their meeting Gardner began to woo Castro, and the two women had a showdown in the lobby of the Hilton. A drunk Gardner accused Lorenz, whom she called a “little bitch,” of hiding Castro. She then followed her into an elevator and slapped her in the face. A bodyguard drew a gun and Castro decided to rid himself of the turbulent temptress. “He had fixed up Ava Gardner with an aide,” Lorenz explained, “who was to satisfy her in a suite at the National Hotel, compliments of Cuba.”

Feud with A Fascist

While residing in Madrid, Gardner discovered she had a new fan living below her. He was none other than exiled Argentinian dictator Juan Perón, who had been offered asylum by fellow despot Francisco Franco. According to Server, although she abhorred Perón’s politics, Gardner initially made nice with the star-struck strongman and his wife, Isabel. The new Mrs. Perón, whom Ava remembered as one “dumb broad,” was a former radio actress who dabbled in the occult and supported her husband’s long-standing wish to bring his sainted first wife Eva’s embalmed body to live with them.

For a while, all was well; the two women would sit eating homemade empanadas in Perón’s kitchen, while Isabel peppered Gardner with questions about her favorite actor, Charlton Heston (Gardner’s reply? “He wears a wig.”) But soon, the Peróns grew tired of Gardner’s all-night flamenco parties—so Ava unleashed her corgis on the Peróns’ yipping poodles. The couple complained, and Franco’s guards appeared with orders to arrest Gardner. Luckily, she was hosting a group of American pilots at the time, and, wishing to avoid an international incident, the guards left.

Gardner would get her revenge, though. Whenever the eccentric Perón would make speeches on his balcony to imaginary Argentinian subjects, she and her maid would go on her balcony and heckle him mercilessly in Spanish.

A Cast of Characters

What would you expect from a set that had two working bars? In 1964, director John Huston assembled an all-star cast to film Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. A drunk Richard Burton arrived with a drunk Elizabeth Taylor, a drunk Tennessee Williams made appearances with his horny poodle—and then there was Gardner, along with Sue Lyon and Deborah Kerr.

According to a gleeful Huston, per Server, everyone was “expecting at least one murder.” As a welcome gift, “I gave them all gold-plated derringers,” Huston claimed, “the kind of little pistols that the card sharps used to wear up their sleeves. Then I also gave each one five bullets with the names of the other members of the cast on them.”

Surprisingly, everyone wound up having a highly copacetic time. While Taylor was initially worried about Gardner wooing Burton, she soon warned off her kindred sexpot by hanging around on set wearing next to nothing. Little got done after noon, with Burton and Gardner often too wasted to function.

“He didn’t give a shit,” Huston’s assistant remembered of the director’s response to his dissolute cast, per Server. “He never bothered them. He’d never say anything about that. He might be as drunk as they were.” Besides, who wanted to work when there were pristine beaches to lie on, and for Gardner, water-skiing expeditions and local young men eager to party. As writer Budd Schulberg recalled to Gardner’s biographer, “you couldn’t believe they were making a movie.”

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