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Ava Gardner: The World's Most Beautiful Animal

Above: Studio publicity still of Ava Gardner for the film The Killers (1946). Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

By Olivia O’Connor, Dramaturg for Ava: The Secret Conversations

“If I were a great intellectual, I’d sit and read and study, but I’m not. I’m just a very ordinary woman. I don’t want to paint. I don’t want to write. I want to go out and play tennis, I want to swim. I’m purely a physical piece of machinery. Or I was.”

—Ava Gardner, 1988. Quoted in Ava: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

Dubbed “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal” in the marketing materials for 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner was a golden age star whose fame was inextricably linked to the allure of her body.

Gardner appeared in more than five dozen films and earned critical acclaim for several roles (including an Academy Award–nominated turn in 1953’s Mogambo), but at both the height of her fame and in the decades since, admiration for her acting career has often been eclipsed by fascination with her romantic and sexual life. Married to three high-profile men and linked to dozens of others (from Hollywood co-stars to eccentric billionaires to Spanish bullfighters), Gardner was a magnet for desire—as well as a target for private jealousy and public judgement.

She was first “scouted” in 1941, on the strength of a portrait posted in the window of her brother-in-law Larry Tarr’s Fifth Avenue photography studio. The office boy who spotted the photo had no star-making power; he asked for Gardner’s telephone number hoping to land a date. Tarr didn’t provide the number but did take the interest seriously, sending photos of Gardner directly to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s New York office. Gardner was granted an interview and an MGM screen test shortly after. The executive who ordered the screen test, Marvin Schenck, believed in the power of Gardner’s beauty, if little else; he sent her reel on to Hollywood without the accompanying voice recording, worried that Gardner’s thick North Carolina accent would dissuade the studio from signing her. His gambit paid off, and Gardner was offered the seven-year, $50/week contract that would launch her career.

By the time we meet Gardner in the 1988 interviews that inspired Ava: The Secret Conversations, she is decades removed from her legendary love affairs, and her world-famous body has begun to betray her. Her looks have faded, a stroke in 1986 has left her partially paralyzed and with poor eyesight, and a lifetime of smoking has put her at risk of developing emphysema. And yet even at this juncture, with her own mortality looming, Gardner is vital.

In Ava: The Secret Conversations, we are granted access to that vitality: to Gardner not only as a beautiful object, but as a flesh-and-blood woman with voracious appetites for alcohol, sex, and laughter—the visceral joys of life at any age.

Ava, Mickey, Artie, & Frank: The Highlights

1941: Gardner arrives in Hollywood with her sister Beatrice “Bappie” Gardner and begins her MGM contract. She meets Mickey Rooney on the MGM lot on her first day. Star of the popular Andy Hardy films and frequent costar of Judy Garland, Rooney was one of the most profitable talents at MGM—and, as Gardner would later realize, “the biggest wolf on the lot.” He asks Gardner out to dinner several times before she accepts—and then asks her to marry him at the end of every date until she says yes.

JANUARY 10, 1942: A couple of weeks after Gardner turns 19, she and Rooney marry in a small ceremony in Ballard, California. Their marriage is rocky, young, and fun; they spend more time in nightclubs than at home. It is the first marriage for both; Rooney goes on to marry another seven times.

1943: Ava meets Frank Sinatra for the first time, while still married to Rooney. Sinatra reportedly says, “Hey, why didn’t I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself.”

1941–1945: Gardner appears in some two dozen films at MGM, mostly in nonspeaking and bit parts.

MAY 21, 1943: Gardner and Rooney divorce, largely due to Rooney’s brazen infidelity. Gardner’s mother, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Gardner, dies on the same day their divorce is finalized.

1944: Gardner meets clarinetist, composer, and band leader Artie Shaw. The two hit it off immediately and spend many of their early months together on the road, touring with Shaw’s band. Though immensely successful, Shaw eventually came to resent his fame. In 1954, he stopped performing and embarked on a career as a writer and intellectual.

OCTOBER 17, 1945: Gardner and Shaw marry at Shaw’s Beverly Hills home. It is Shaw’s fifth marriage (he’ll go on to marry another three times) and Gardner’s second. Shaw is a formidable—borderline bullying—partner. He takes a Pygmalion-like approach to his relationship with Gardner, giving her reading assignments, sending her to his analyst, and even hiring a Russian grand master to teach her chess.

1946: Gardner appears in Whistle Stop, a United Artists’ picture for which she is “loaned out” by MGM. In the film, she kisses costar George Raft with an open mouth: a mistake on her part and a violation of the Hays Code, which forbade “lustful kissing.” It slips by the censors, but not director John Huston; he tells Ava it was the scene that got her her role in The Killers.

1946: Gardner appears as Kitty Collins in The Killers, an adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway story that is often described as her breakout film. (She appeared in two other Hemingway adaptations: 1952’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and 1957’s The Sun Also Rises.)

OCTOBER 25, 1946: Gardner and Shaw divorce. They had been married for one year and one week.

1947: Gardner appears in The Hucksters, in her first role opposite Clark Gable (others: 1952’s Lone Star and 1953’s Mogambo).

1948: Gardner appears in One Touch of Venus, in which she plays a statue of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, come to life.

1949: Gardner appears in The Great Sinner, opposite Gregory Peck. Gardner and Peck remained friends for life (and appeared in 1952’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro and 1959’s On the Beach together). After Gardner’s death, her longtime housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas (and her beloved corgi, Morgan), moved from London to live with the Peck family in California.

1949: Gardner and Frank Sinatra begin seeing each other, while Sinatra is still married to Nancy (Barbato) Sinatra. On the night they begin their affair, Gardner and Sinatra leave a house party in Palm Springs and drive to Indio, CA. Drunk, giddy, and enamored with one another, they pull a .38 from the car’s glove compartment and start shooting out the town’s streetlights and shop windows. They are arrested but—after a call (and possibly a payout) from Frank’s publicist—walk away scot-free.

FEBRUARY 14, 1950: Frank and Nancy Sinatra officially announce their separation; Frank moves in with Gardner.

1951: Gardner appears in Show Boat.

1951: Gardner appears in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. The film’s shoots in the UK and Spain take Gardner outside of the US for the first time. A few years later, Gardner starts living abroad full-time; in Madrid beginning in 1955 and in London beginning in 1968.

NOVEMBER 7, 1951: With Sinatra’s divorce finalized, he and Gardner marry in Philadelphia. Though press coverage of the marriage is splashy, Sinatra’s star is on the wane; he is suffering from a vocal injury and is basically broke. In a 1954 interview, he recalled, “There was a very dark period in my career, about 1951… very frankly, and there’s no secret about it, I could hardly get myself a job in those days.”

AVA & FRANK Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra in London on December 9, 1951. They had been married on November 7. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

1953: Gardner appears in John Ford’s Mogambo. Sinatra appears in From Here to Eternity. Both performances are nominated for an Academy Award; Sinatra wins in his category.

OCTOBER 29, 1953: Gardner and Sinatra announce plans to divorce, but don’t complete the filing. Their globetrotting marriage has been notoriously tempestuous, perhaps because of their similarities (Gardner’s sister Bappie described Ava as “Frank in drag.”).

1954: Ava appears in Joe Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa, opposite Humphrey Bogart. Many audiences read the film to be based on Gardner herself—and her relationship with producer, aviator, and TWA owner Howard Hughes—though its plot more closely aligns with the story of fellow golden age star Rita Hayworth.

1956: Gardner appears in Bhowani Junction.

1957: After years of on-again, off-again partnership, Gardner and Sinatra divorce. They remain friends until Gardner’s death (of pneumonia) in 1990.

1958: Gardner leaves her contract at MGM after 17 years. She is now officially an independent actress.

Ava: The Secret Conversations

APR 4 – May 7, 2023
Written by Elizabeth McGovern
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Based on the Book The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans & Ava Gardner
Produced in Association with Karl Sydow
Produced with the Support of the Ava Gardner Trust
Featuring Aaron Costa Ganis, Ryan W. Garcia & Elizabeth McGovern

“I either write the book or sell the jewels. I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.” So says legendary Hollywood icon Ava Gardner (Elizabeth McGovern, Once Upon a Time in America, Downton Abbey) to her ghost writer Peter Evans as they begin work on her tell-all biography that will shock Tinseltown. But as Peter attempts to glean the juicy details about her life story, her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, and her turbulent relationship to Howard Hughes, an altogether different and unexpected journey unfolds in this theatrical glimpse into the private life of Hollywood's original femme fatale.


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