Peter Evans was a well-known journalist whom Ava Gardner selected as a ghost writer for a book about her life. Gardner, whose recent strokes had left her unable to work as an actress any longer, needed money, and she hoped the book would bring in that money so she wouldn’t have to sell her jewels.
But this isn’t so much a biography as it is a book about ghost-writing a book with Ava Gardner, who was, to say the least, an interesting, demanding, endearing and difficult woman. We do learn much about Gardner’s life and the many men in it. She was a poor but stunningly beautiful girl from rural North Carolina. At eighteen, on the strength of a photograph sent to a Hollywood talent scout, she got a stage test and then suddenly a ticket to Hollywood, where she would be just another young and aspiring starlet until she met Mickey Rooney. Rooney was at the height of his fame at the time, making big money for himself and MGM with his Andy Hardy series. Despite his movieland image, Rooney was not what people ordinarily thought of as an All-American boy. He was a heavy gambler, drinker and womanizer. And when he fell for the young Ava Gardner, he fell hard and almost immediately he proposed. She put him off for a while, but eventually relented. She was a virgin when they married, but very soon discovered how much she liked sex. Rooney liked it too, and they spent a lot time, as Gardner said, “in the feathers.” But Rooney’s libido was, like Gardner’s, pretty much insatiable and Gardner couldn’t handle his many infidelities, so after about a year of marriage, they were divorced.
That marriage more or less set the pattern for her love life. She married the band leader, Artie Shaw, and that marriage lasted about a year. Shaw turned out to be psychologically abusive, but not physically. Later she married Frank Sinatra, but she had flings with many different men, including Howard Hughes and George C. Scott, who would get drunk and beat her savagely but remember nothing of it the following morning.
Sinatra is ultimately the person responsible for the form the book takes. He hated journalists, and in particular he hated Peter Evans. When he discovered that Gardner was doing a book with Evans, he offered to pay her to cancel the book with Evans, which she did, though Evans got permission from Gardner’s estate after her death to use much of the material he had gathered.
The most compelling moments are Evans’s accounts of the many interviews and late night conversations he had with Gardner, who suffered from insomnia and often called him in the middle of the night to talk about her life. These are the passages that raise this book above a mere Hollywood star, kiss-and-tell book. Gardner was never much of an actress, but she was incredibly beautiful and complex, an intelligent woman in the body of a nymph, and Evans recognizes her complexity and intelligence and to his credit he renders it for us in a vigorous and powerful prose.
Unfortunately for Evans, he died unexpectedly just after this book was published.