“Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations” (Simon and Schuster) is an account of the eventually aborted collaboration between Gardner and Peter Evans in 1988 when the movie star was in dire financial straits a few years before she died.
Evans had written a biography of Aristotle Onassis that the film goddess admired (he would also go on to write the rather shocking “Nemesis” about the marriage of Onassis and Jacqueline Kennedy).
Gardner said she faced a choice of writing a memoir or selling her jewels and that she didn’t want to part with the latter.
Although the actress doesn’t mean much to today’s younger generation — she was never lucky enough to appear in a top tier classic like “Casablanca” or “Gone With the Wind” — she was one of the most talked-about stars of the 1940s and 1950s both for her stunning beauty and her stormy marriages to Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw.
A tell-all by Gardner in the late 1980s was still a very potent publishing concept, so Evans and the star expected an advance of somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000.
The star warned Evans that she had mixed feelings about doing a book: “Do I want to go through the crap and mayhem of my life a second time just for a book, honey? The first time, you have no choice. Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are f—–g up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face.”
“I’m not saying my own looks don’t give the game away. Nothing I can do about that anymore. A nip and a tuck ain’t gonna do it. The thing is: do I have to put myself through the mangle again?”
One of the most entertaining aspects of “The Secret Conversations” is the way Evans fills us in on the whole process of ghost-writing a celebrity bio — what it was like getting anxious phone calls from the star at 3 a.m. and the advice he got from famous mutual friends such as John Huston, Dirk Bogarde and screenwriter Peter Viertel.
Huston told the writer that Gardner insisted on being stroked before she agreed to any project: “I knew damned well that she was going to do (‘Night of the Iguana’); she did, too — she just wanted to be courted.”
When Evans thanked Dirk Bogarde for putting in a good word with Gardner, the actor replied, “Don’t thank me. She will eat you alive; you know that, don’t you? I haven’t the faintest idea whether I’ve done either of you any favors putting you together. Maybe it’s a book she should never write, maybe she should remain an enigma.”
The magic of “The Secret Conversations” is that Gardner lets her hair down on a wide range of topics — from her dislike of Humphrey Bogart to what various famous men were like “in the feathers” — but because Evans shares her moody, tempestous behavior with us, she is still an enigma when we put the book down.
Perhaps because Evans set aside his notes for three decades, and wrote the book in the months just before he died last year, “The Secret Conversations” is an unusually thoughtful examination of the mix of fact and fantasy in the life of any great star.