Ava Gardner wanted to write a book. Published after the death of both writer and subject, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, a rocky collaboration between journalist Peter Evans and legendary Hollywood starlet Gardner, is a deep look into how a creative enterprise can fail. It’s a book-length post-mortem not only of its two principal subjects but also of a book that was never published, the one that the two spent months working on together. The Secret Conversations has three different settings: Ava Gardner’s rapid rise through the classic Hollywood MGM system, her tensions between Evans and Gardner, and Evans’ own investigations into her stories. In conducting separate analyses of each section, a recipe for failure becomes clear in all three.
You can start with the intentions, if you want. Whenever she is asked why she wants to write a book, Gardner gives a line that’s both direct and evasive: “I’m broke, and I either write the book or sell the jewels, and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” It’s a funny line, and certainly great books, from Dostoevsky onward, fulfill financial obligations. But there’s not even an inkling of what will be written or included in the book. Part of this might come from her career: Gardner was used to stories coming to her, not coming up with them. But still, when Evans starts trying to lay down the basics of any memoir — childhood stories — Gardner reacts with bitter surprise. It delays the book by months, just trying to get to square one.
This is a shame, because Gardner’s story is a fascinating one. Born into a poor North Carolinian family, the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 scattered her family, moving her family to New York and Virginia. Gardner described her arrival in pictures as “a bad B-movie.” A relative in New York put a picture of her in the latest fashion in a storefront as an advertisement. A MGM exec walked by and took notice, and the next thing Gardner knew, she was screen-testing and moving away from her family to Los Angeles.
Thrown into a world she didn’t know, she quickly married one of the period’s peak stars, Mickey Rooney, at 19, and divorced him a year later. She moved through the ever-changing minefield of studio system Hollywood, working through hard-liners like Louis B. Mayer and Irish-mob affiliated studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix to make films like The Night of the Iguana and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. While talking with Evans, she’s quick to dish on classic Hollywood gossip, from how Frank Sinatra (her third husband) was in bed to what Lana Turner really wanted out of men. Abuse is never far from the surface, be it emotional bullying from her second husband, band leader Artie Shaw, or the physical abuse she was victim to during her affair with George C. Scott.
She’s deeply hesitant to tell her story the way Evans wants her to, though. Some of this is Evans’ fault: he dismisses out of hand her idea of starting the book with her then-recent stroke, an unexpected act that would surely surprise the reader. Evans refuses, much to her indignation. He goes to her friends, most of whom are men and all of whom warn him that she will “devour” him. Gardner’s one female friend tells him that she is actively undermining the book and Evans, whom she is convinced will destroy Gardner’s reputation. Evans moves forward regardless, and Gardner is mostly game. She moves from being reluctant to an open book in moments, and constantly wonders if she should take back what she is saying.
In the end, this, and her lack of true motive for the book, prove to be its undoing. In Conversations’ epilogue, Ed Victor — friend to both writer and subject — concludes that Sinatra heard about the book, and “probably asked her how much money she expected to make from the book and offered to pay her that amount not to write it.”
It was no major loss for Gardner, who was only in it for the money. But something worthwhile could have been created out of the tensions that electrify each page of The Secret Conversations, and looking at the corpse makes the reader wonder what might have been.
By David Grossman. This post originally appeared in the We Work Magazine. Republished with permission.