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.