ava gardner colorThere are movie stars, and then there are goddesses. Reading an entry from Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans, published this month and excerpted in Vanity Fair,  I struggled to come up with a contemporary equivalent. (Julia Roberts? Don’t think so. Angelina Jolie? We’ll see. Suggestions welcome.)

Not that claiming a place in the Hollywood pantheon didn’t have its earthly downside.

Gardner played a big part in a childhood memory. The scenario reminiscent of an installment from Travels with My Aunt, my first trip to Europe came when I was 13, and the first stop was London. At the same time, I was rather precociously reading a biography of Frank Sinatra, captivated by the chapters detailing the legendary crooner’s almost-mythical romance with the woman once dubbed “the world’s most beautiful animal,” in a time before I was born.

So we’re having lunch at a restaurant in the London neighborhood of Knightsbridge, when my aunt Nena says, “Look who’s sitting over there… Ava Gardner.” I turned to see a frowsy-looking, middle-aged lady (Gardner was actually only 48 at the time), not even close to resembling the stunning siren I was enthralled by in the bio I was currently immersed in. I was so convinced my aunt was mistaken that she called a waiter over to confirm her intuition. (I asked her how she could possibly have figured out it was Gardner. “The eyes,” she said, perspicacious as always.)

ava gardner older years
Gardner in later years

The life of this feisty femme fatale (who died in 1990, aged 67) is ironically personified by the same song, “My Way,” so associated with her great love, Sinatra. Talk about a life fully lived…other husbands were Mickey Rooney and bandleader Artie Shaw, and her list of lovers ranged from Howard Hughes to an assortment of Spanish bullfighters, as well as a volcanic affair with actor George C. Scott. A rollicking relationship with Ernest Hemingway was a union of soulmate-like temperaments. (She starred in three adaptations of his works, most notably The Killers and The Sun Also Rises.) 

Gardner’s saucy and down-to-earth southern style (a favorite Ava quote: “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial”) was a side better known to her intimates. To the rest of the world, she was simply one of the most exquisitely sensual presences to ever grace a movie screen.

For me, she also remains a startling introduction to the poignant evanescence of beauty and fame, symbolized by an ordinary lunch where a woman who once had the world at her feet (and eventually one of cinema’s biggest legends) sat quietly unrecognizable.

Sometimes illusion really is everything.

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