Before Marilyn Monroe or Farrah Fawcett, before Halle Berry or Angelina Jolie, there was Ava Gardner. Called “the most irresistible woman in Hollywood,” she reigned for decades as an American sex symbol, counting Howard Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Hemingway, and Clark Gable among her lovers. She dated bullfighters and millionaires, and she was too much for all of them. She called Aristotle Onassis a “horny little fuck” and mocked Marlon Brando’s erectile dysfunction. She stood up to Louis B. Mayer and Humphrey Bogart—some of Hollywood’s most powerful men—and got drunk with Winston Churchill. She was a firecracker.
She got her start by accident. In the spring of 1941, her sister’s husband displayed a picture of Gardner in the window of his Fifth Avenue store, and an office boy passing by called, pretending to be an MGM talent agent, to get Gardner’s phone number. The manager passed on the request to the owner, who sent pictures to MGM directly. Despite the confusion, the pictures caught the eye of an executive, who brought her to New York for an interview. She was offered a seven-year contract, and a long career followed. Before her death, she began writing a memoir with Peter Evans, but stopped the project when she learned that he had once been sued by Sinatra, her third husband. After her death in 1990, however, with permission from her estate, Evans began compiling the transcripts of the interviews alongside the chapters of her book he’d written, but he suffered a fatal heart attack before he could finish the book. What he left behind—many pages of notes of his back-and-forth with Gardner—has been published as Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, an unflinching portrait of a foulmouthed sex icon. Here are the best of Gardner’s recollections.
Gardner was close with her father—so close that a therapist accused her of having an Oedipus complex. She told Peter Evans that her father’s death made her believe that nothing so painful could ever happen to her again. “I remember telling him I wanted to be a good daughter. I wanted him to be proud of me. He said, ‘You’ve done fine, Daughter.’ I don’t think they were his last words, but they’re the last words I remember.”
Lana Turner got her smoking
It was the sight of the movie star Lana Turner holding a “beautiful gold cigarette case and lighter” that got Gardner started on smoking. Turner was Artie Shaw’s third wife, and Gardner was his fifth. Mickey Rooney got Turner pregnant when she was 17, and Gardner married him when she was 20. She told Gardner she “had great knockers.” “First Mick, then Artie. She beat me to both of them,” Gardner said. “And to Frank, too. Even so, I liked her … I thought she was so sophisticated.”
Blood on her honeymoon
Gardner’s first husband was Mickey Rooney. She asked him what he thought the first time he saw her, and he said, “I figured you were a new piece of pussy for one of the executives ... I wanted to fuck you the moment I saw you.” When Rooney introduced Gardner to his family and said they were going to be married, the first thing his mother said was, “Well, I guess he hasn’t been in your pants yet, has he?” He hadn’t. She made him wait until she was 19 to marry her, because that seemed to her like a decent age to lose one’s virginity. When she went on her honeymoon, she was “terribly shy” at first, but “caught on quickly” and “enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly.” The next morning she got her period and, too humiliated to tell her husband or the hotel staff, faked a headache while Rooney went golfing and scrubbed the blood from the sheets herself.
Mickey Rooney’s alleged pedophilia
Marriage didn’t keep Rooney faithful for long, and he returned to the little black book of starlets that he had kept before he began seeing Gardner. He once got so drunk that he began reading out the names of the girls in his book and their sexual skills in front of her. She kicked him out when she allegedly discovered he was sleeping with a 15-year-old girl, and divorced him even though she was warned it was a risky career move—he was the much bigger star. “If the sex hadn’t been so good, it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it lasted,” she said. “It’s a pity nobody believes in simple lust anymore.”
Howard Hughes was a smelly racist
Gardner started seeing the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes “about five minutes after I filed for divorce,” because “he had to be the first to grab the new girl in town.” But when he first called her on the phone, he mumbled so heavily that she thought she had a date with Howard Hawks, the director of Bringing Up Baby, and that it would do great things for her career. He was 17 years her senior and unaware of personal hygiene, and they fought brutally: she gave him a black eye; he dislocated her jaw; she almost killed him with an ashtray. And she could never forgive his racism—she said he “wouldn’t piss on a black man to put him out if he was on fire.” But she liked the way he reminded her of her father, and said he made love “like a horse whisperer.” She said she knew him “before he became that crazy basket case holed up in a Las Vegas hotel surrounded by fucking Mormons and as mad as a hatter.”
Artie Shaw was a bully
Gardner was the fifth of Artie Shaw’s eight wives, having married him 10 days after his divorce from his previous spouse. He didn’t beat her up, but she called him “another kind of bully” and said, “I was afraid of his mind.” She took an IQ test, because he had so convinced her of her stupidity, and discovered that she was actually smart. He was unnerved when he hired a grand master to tutor her in chess and, after a few months of lessons, she started beating Shaw. She lost respect for him when he gave up his friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare, but that was after he had left her for Kathleen Winsor. “I think he was full of shit,” she said.
Robert Mitchum gave her a joint
When she was working on the movie My Forbidden Past with Robert Mitchum, he offered her a joint. She recalled, “On the set, in front of reporters, he’d call to his makeup man: ‘Hey, bring me some of that good shit, man.’ He didn’t give a fuck.” One day Gardner went with Mitchum to an equipment van, and he taught her how to smoke. “You take a little air with it, deep, deep down, and you hold it and hold it,” but at first she “didn’t feel a goddam thing, nothing whatsoever”—not until the two stopped for martinis on the way home, and Gardner suddenly “felt as if I was sitting two feet above the stool.” In the end she preferred to drink.
Grace Kelly was a betting woman
Gardner once bet Grace Kelly $20 that Hyde Park in London was bigger than Monaco. “I had no idea whether it was or wasn’t,” Gardner said. “She got one of her palace flunkies to check it out—and I was right!” Kelly made good on the bet and sent Gardner $20, a Dom Pérignon magnum, and a pack of aspirins for the hangover. “She knew me too damn well.”
Sinatra was a “cocky god”
When Gardner first met Sinatra, both were married, but that didn’t stop him from telling her, “If I had seen you first, honey, I’d have married you myself.” She described him as a “cocky god.” “He reeked of sex,” she added. Later, when she met him at a party in Palm Springs, they got drunk together and drove through a town, shooting store windows and streetlights with two .38s Sinatra kept in his car. He moved in with her on Valentine’s Day 1950. Overdoses and threats of suicide would follow. Gardner’s star was rising, while his was on the decline. She confessed to having an affair with a bullfighter when Sinatra had fallen completely from the Billboard charts and been fired by MGM, and he never let her forget it.
Elizabeth Taylor is not beautiful
Faced with the prospect of a meeting with Richard E. Snyder, then the chairman and CEO of Simon & Schuster, in the process of selling the book, Gardner told Peter Evans, “I stopped auditioning a long time ago, honey.” She finally agreed to hold the meeting, but only under the condition that cinematographer Jack Cardiff rearrange the lamps in her drawing room to cast her face—changed by the stroke she suffered in 1986— in a more flattering light. At the dinner, she told Snyder, “Elizabeth Taylor is not beautiful, she is pretty—I was beautiful.”
After their work on the book had ended, Evans called Gardner and joked that he didn’t even know whether she was alive, because it had been so long since he’d heard from her. She promised him that she would send a sign when she died. On the day she died of pneumonia, a 200-year-old oak tree crashed through the roof of Evans’s writing room.