The drunken night Ava Gardner confessed all to me: As Downton’s Elizabeth McGovern prepares to play her, MICHAEL THORNTON tells how the Hollywood legend revealed the truth about her bisexual affairs – and why her three husbands could never satisfy her
The name on the doorbell was Morgan, but that was to deter curious strangers. Morgan was the occupant’s Welsh corgi, which she adored, and which was her last companion in a life crowded with husbands, lovers, ex-lovers, hangers-on and social climbers.
The pillared portico of the converted Victorian house at 34 Ennismore Gardens, in a sedate London square, was the final refuge of one of the last icons of Hollywood’s golden age, Ava Gardner.
She called it ‘Fortress Gardner’ — there were iron grilles across every window of the second-floor flat — but it was also a cosy retreat and worlds away from Tinseltown, where she had once reigned supreme as a screen beauty.
It was here that she would hold court, entertaining the showbiz great and good, royalty and aristocrats — and even a woman she once met in the park, whom she brought back to choose a couture outfit from her wardrobe as a gift. And it was here that I came in December 1982 to conduct a series of in-depth newspaper interviews to mark the star’s 60th birthday.
It was an assignment that was never to prove easy. Ava was drinking heavily — so heavily that she seemed at times to be in a state of alcoholic stupor.
American actress Ava Gardner poses for a photograph a black lace basque and fishnet tights, Circa 1950’s
When she was dressed and made up for a party, she could still look a million dollars and she walked with a panther-like grace. But often she didn’t bother with appearances. When she opened the door one morning to a distinguished London doctor who was visiting her at my request, he mistook her for the housekeeper.
News that the Downton actress Elizabeth McGovern, 59, who has long had a fascination with Gardner, is to play her in the West End has brought to mind the many hours I spent with the star almost 40 years ago, as she told me about her tempestuous life.
And I do wonder if McGovern, whose turn as the chilly Countess of Grantham won her many admirers, can truly capture the passion, energy and sexual audacity that Gardner radiated in films such as Show Boat, Mogambo, The Night Of The Iguana and One Touch Of Venus, and still had in later years, when she was long past her prime?
As I walked into the antique-laden drawing room of Gardner’s flat on that cold winter’s day, I was immediately confronted by a framed photograph of her third and last husband, Frank Sinatra.
Ava Gardner (left) visiting Lana Turner (right) in 1952, on set of The Merry Widow
They were undoubtedly the loves of each other’s lives, but their six-year marriage was turbulent in the extreme and Sinatra was to accuse her publicly of a lesbian affair with another Hollywood sex goddess, Lana Turner.
Both women denied what Turner, in her 1982 memoirs, described as ‘a lot of sick rumours’ — yet the rumours persisted that one of the world’s most desirable women was secretly attracted to her own sex.
An exhaustive biography of Gardner by Lee Server, published 16 years after her death, delicately conceded her ‘continuing curiosity about the sexual demi-monde’ and records that ‘through the years [she] paid visits to gay bars, red-light zones and brothels all over the world’.
But at our first meeting, I learnt the truth.
Ava, who had the most graphic vocabulary of any actress I ever met — ‘like a sailor and a truck driver having a competition’, according to one reporter — took a slug from the glass of whisky she held and let loose with a volley of obscenities against those who perpetrated the rumours.
When she finally paused for breath, I said: ‘Well, why don’t you just sue them?’
‘Sue?’ she snorted. ‘Honey, are you kidding?’ She looked at me, clearly trying to decide whether she could trust me.
‘Listen, baby, this is really off the record, OK? I could never sue those sons of bitches because Lana would never support me. Too many people still around know what went on.’
Over the course of a drunken afternoon and evening, the story came tumbling out. She liked men and had been in love with all three of her husbands, but with none of them had she enjoyed satisfactory sexual relations.
She had indeed had a relationship with Lana Turner, and with several other high-profile female stars. So why the continued denials by both Turner and herself?
‘Honey, at MGM and all Hollywood studios in the Forties and Fifties, we had a morals clause in our contract. It could be terminated overnight by any behaviour that might bring the studio into disrepute. Today, no one would give a damn what two actresses got up to in private, but they sure as hell did then.’
All or Nothing at all with Frank Sinatra and his wife Ava Gardner (pictured together)
Gardner, born on Christmas Eve 1922 in Johnston County, North Carolina, was the seventh and youngest child of a poor tobacco farmer and his wife, who was of Scots-Irish descent.
She had enjoyed an impoverished but happy childhood before blossoming into a startlingly attractive adolescent. Local boys soon came calling — but few ever dated her more than once. They found her insecure, uncommunicative and paralysed by shyness.
‘I always thought there was something odd about me,’ she mused. ‘I was 17 and on my first visit to New York when I realised I could have feelings for another woman, even one I didn’t know.’
That lightning bolt moment occurred when she was taken to see a Broadway musical starring 23-year-old Betty Grable, who was soon to become the pin-up queen of World War II.
‘I couldn’t take my eyes off this gorgeous creature and I began to realise, with some embarrassment, that I found her physically attractive,’ Ava said.
‘She had a very sexual way of delivering her lines, with that pouting little mouth that made every word look like a kiss to the audience.
‘Betty was camp, but sexually as straight as they come. Years later, I tried to tell [her] about the effect she’d had on me at 17. She just rolled her eyes and fell about laughing.’
It was photos of Ava at 18, taken by her brother-in-law and displayed in his photography studio, that caught the eye of a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talent scout.
She was given a screen test and, while her Southern accent was hard to understand, when her face came up on the screen, every man in the room took notice.
The infamous MGM chief Louis B. Mayer is said to have declared: ‘She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific. Sign her!’
Gardner was signed to a seven-year contract starting at $50 a week, and heavily coached in acting, elocution and poise.
Gardner fan: Elizabeth McGovern in the Downton Abbey film
On her first day at MGM, she encountered the studio’s diminutive box-office star, 20-year-old Mickey Rooney. Her first sight of him was in drag, with a spangled bra and skirt, a fruited turban, heavily rouged cheeks, lips coated in red lipstick, and high platform heels. They were married six months later but it lasted just 16 months and ended in bitterness and recrimination.
Ava, a virgin when they married, told me: ‘Like both my other two husbands, Mickey was an only child, used to having his own way. I got talked into marrying him.’
Rooney later rhapsodised about her performance in bed. Ava, reminded of this, snorted: ‘Well, honey, he may have enjoyed the sex but I sure as hell didn’t.’
After their divorce came a bizarre episode with the billionaire Howard Hughes, who offered her any sum she could name, an Aladdin’s cave of fabulous jewellery and movie stardom if she would marry him.
‘I just never liked Howard,’ she said. ‘Apart from the fact that he smelt like a sewer, he so irritated me that I once knocked him unconscious with a paperweight.’
Her second marriage, in 1945, to bandleader Artie Shaw, was even more disastrous than her first. At the age of 34, Shaw, who had dumped Betty Grable and the teenage Judy Garland, had already had four previous wives, including Lana Turner. He had a sadistic Svengali complex and soon took to belittling Gardner in front of their friends. When, one evening, Ava slipped off her shoes and tucked her bare feet under her on the chair, Shaw stared at her coldly and said: ‘Do you think you’re still in a tobacco field?’
It was then that Ava began to drink and have therapy.
Ava Gardner was twice-divorced by 23 years old, she then married Frank Sinatra
When she left Shaw after a year of marriage, she went to stay with an agent, Minna Wallis, who made no secret of her admiration for Ava.
‘She was just crazy about me,’ Gardner admitted in our interview. ‘But at least she wasn’t trying to get me pregnant.’
By then, Ava was a rising star. It was a role as the seductress who double-crosses Burt Lancaster in The Killers (1946) that got her noticed, followed by a role as Clark Gable’s old flame in The Hucksters.
Two years later she and Frank Sinatra got together, having first met on the MGM lot in the early 1940s. She was a twice-divorced 23-year-old and he was an American icon — and married with three children.
Their relationship was so explosive that on Valentine’s Day 1950, Sinatra’s wife of 12 years, Nancy, announced: ‘My married life with Frank has become most unhappy and almost unbearable. We have therefore separated.’
‘And that,’ Ava told me, ‘was when the s*** really hit the fan.’
There was a huge backlash against Sinatra from fans and soon he was without a film or recording contract. Ava escaped by flying to London to begin work on a film — and it was in the lobby of Claridge’s hotel that she met the next beauty to figure in her life.
British cinema’s reigning sex symbol Christine Norden’s 39in bust had prompted some of her male admirers to rewrite the words of a well-known hymn to ‘Onward Christine’s Shoulders’. But although she was to marry five times, Norden made no secret of her bisexuality.
‘Christine was a hot broad,’ Ava said. ‘She looked amazing and we ended up in bed, then flew to Paris to visit a lesbian nightclub.’
The dalliance did not affect her feelings for Sinatra and they married in 1951. The battles soon began. There were blazing arguments, often fuelled by alcohol — she was drinking heavily now — and Sinatra made several suicide attempts, some of them faked.
Once, Sinatra phoned to say he was going to kill himself and fired a gun into a pillow, leaving Gardner distraught.
In 1952, the secrets in the Sinatra marriage exploded into public view at Frascati’s, a Beverly Hills restaurant where Hollywood’s A-listers wined, dined and let their hair down. It was packed with famous faces but the clink of champagne glasses was stilled and studio gossip hushed when Sinatra stormed in red-faced, his blue eyes blazing with fury.
He lurched up to a table at which his by-then estranged wife sat with the blonde Lana Turner and another actress. For a moment, Sinatra surveyed the trio of beauties in silence while Gardner — the woman whose wild allure MGM famously promoted by describing her as ‘the world’s most beautiful animal’ — stared icily back.
Flinging one arm out towards the women, Sinatra then yelled: ‘Lesbians! You’re a bunch of goddamned lesbians! All of you! Lesbians! Lesbians! Lesbians!’
Within hours, the incident was global news.
The feuding between Frank and Ava now turned even uglier and more violent. Once Sinatra burst into their house in Palm Springs to find Ava and Lana both topless. A third actress jumped out of a window into bushes.
Ava and Frank began screaming at each other and smashing furniture. Sinatra yelled: ‘Get the hell out of my house.’ Ava yelled back: ‘Fine! But I’m taking everything that belongs to me!’
She began tearing paintings off the walls, books and records from shelves. Neighbours called the police and officers arrived as Sinatra was trying to physically evict his wife, while Ava clung to the doorway with both hands.
What eventually spelled the end for the marriage was probably Ava’s decision to abort two pregnancies by Sinatra. Her ex-husbands claimed that Gardner had a terror of becoming pregnant and would never have sex without using a contraceptive diaphragm.
In 1955, Gardner, weary of Hollywood and now separated from Sinatra, went to live in Spain. There, through her friendship with the novelist Ernest Hemingway, she became an aficionada of the bullring and of bullfighters.
‘It was a sort of madness, honey,’ she explained to me, ’caused by too many sol y sombras’ (a lethal alcoholic cocktail).
Soon after her divorce was finalised in July 1957, she was thrown from a horse while visiting the ranch of a friend of Hemingway’s in Andalucia, damaging the right side of her face.
She feared she would never be able to film again. Surgery followed but a very small raised area remained, marring the once-perfect symmetry of her beauty.
When we met, she took my hand and ran it over her right cheek. ‘Can you feel it?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I honestly can’t. I can’t see it either.’
‘Well the camera can see it, honey,’ she insisted.
She and Sinatra stayed in contact after their divorce but it remained a spiky relationship.
In 1966, when Sinatra, then 50, married 21-year-old Mia Farrow, who was famed for her androgynous look, Ava wisecracked that she always knew ‘Frank would end up in bed with a boy’.
Two years later, tired of Hollywood, Ava moved to London. She now slept alone and her friends were almost all homosexual, her principal ‘walker’ being the alcoholic gay actor Charles Gray, who played Blofeld in the Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever.
Three years after our last meeting, Ava suffered a stroke. Sinatra, who had never entirely got over his passion for her, wrote a cheque for $50,000 towards her medical expenses. Ava was unimpressed — she thought it should have been for much more.
Her health continued to decline and on January 25, 1990, when her housekeeper, Carmen Vargas, came to her canopied bed to collect her breakfast tray, Ava looked up at her and smiled.
‘Carmen,’ she whispered, ‘I’m tired.’ Those were her last words. She was 67.
After her death was announced, Sinatra’s daughter Tina found him slumped in his room, his face wet with tears, unable to raise his voice above a whisper.
‘Whatever ‘it’ is, whether you’re born with it or catch it from a public drinking cup, she’s got it,’ said Humphrey Bogart of her famous portrayal of a nightclub dancer in the 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa.
The ‘it’ that made Ava Gardner a huge star inflamed not only the men in her life but the women, too. For Elizabeth McGovern, she’s a tough act to follow.
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