John Sandilands


Interview with Ava Gardner

Date published: 1970s
Publisher: This article was published probably in the 1970s, possibly in Nova magazine.

John was considered one of the best profile writers of his time and had an uncanny ability to get right underneath the skin of his interviewees.  This interview with Ava Gardner was published in the days when magazines and newspapers ran long interviews and they enabled readers to ‘‘meet the stars’  Here is John’s take on Ava, considered one of the most beautiful and magnetic actresses of her day

She was staying in one of those tall, discreet blocks of luxury flats behind Park Lane that emerge briefly from the better class of evening newspaper sensation stories such as -Mayfair Gems Haul, Top-model Mystery, Financier Absconds. There the uniformed porters are like palace eunuchs, there are Judas holes on watch from every door and the hush of an expensive mortuary broods over all.

The lift arrived obsequiously and whispered upwards, there was muffled quiet in the corridor and the doorbell made a little rude sound, hastily stifled, like a butler breaking wind. A plump, coloured maid appeared and let me in in two cautious stages, not unkindly but with proper suspicion of a stranger from the outside world. My coat was removed and spirited away to be quarantined.

I stood in the hall alone for quite a long time, resisting the urge to peer through keyholes. There is something more than a little unreal about Ava Gardner asking you round to her apartment on a Saturday evening. Was she really here, so far from the settings of her legend? Wild, wilful Ava of the Spanish sun, Latin lovers on the Via Veneto, the paso doble on Madrid cafe tables? Notorious Ava of the nightclubs, broken glasses, spilt champagne and the smarting cheeks of unwise waiters ... ‘Excusa me, Mees Gardner ... ’ Smack! ‘Let’s get outta here, baby ... ’ Beautiful Ava, magnificent beneath a black mantilla at countless corridas, laughing with her head back, accepting ears and tail with proud grace then calmly claiming the matador as well. She made her first picture in 1941: Ava, aged eighteen, one of those absurdly glamorous young goddesses that Hollywood used to discover every year and bestow upon the world in a huge cellophane package tied with a pink ribbon bow. ‘Ava Gardner,’ says a Metro Goldwyn Mayer studio biography of the day, yellowing now and distinguished only by its age, ‘is the kind of girl who cannot help but create excitement and interest wherever she goes. The combination of beauty, brains and glamour has been hard to beat through the ages and this young lady has those qualities in abundant measure. ‘Ava ... prefers blouses, sweaters and skirts ... abhors slacks . . . likes sandals . . . around the house ... on grass ... loves to go barefoot .... likes to read, dance, travel ... is a light sleeper . ..plays recordings loud ... likes children, dogs and small animals ... ’ They used to put out stuff like that and millions of glossy photographs of gleaming teeth and shining hair and there would suddenly be a new film star causing queues at the Odeon and having her name linked romantically with the handsome young god the studio had unearthed for the same celluloid year. The kind of interest and excitement Ava created, however, was of a more sophisticated order. She was voted the girl with whom American lift operators would most like to be stuck at the top of the Empire State Building, but she just never did fit comfortably into the studio biography ordering of existence. She married Mickey Rooney-tiny Mickey Rooney, nearly a whole foot shorter than her regal five feet five-in 1942 and divorced him in 1943. She married Artie Shaw, the globally renowned clarinet player, in 1945 and divorced him in 1946, one of those spectacular American mental cruelty affairs in which she claimed he was a pseudo-intellectual who would learn whole pages of Dostoievski off by heart and recite them at the breakfast table. Then, in 1951, she married Frank Sinatra, who was known in the jargon of those far-off and extraordinary days as not only a crooner but World Heart-Throb Number One. The Sinatra liaison lasted for five years but it was always a stormy business with sunderings and reunions sounding round the earth. Eventually Ava made the irrevocable break with studio biography society by moving to Europe and to Spain, no less-fiery, colourful Spain, land of the flamenco, towering passions and proud, cruel men. Here she was overtaken by the kind of fate you would expect to befall a young lady of beauty, brains and glamour who had so arrogantly rejected the studio biog’s safe and antiseptic scheme of things. She made a picture in Spain called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman which involved a real, live bullfighter named Mario Cabre. Cabre was devilishly handsome and something of a poet, a potent publicity combination, and the poems he wrote to Ava started a vogue for coupling her name with swarthy, dashing Latins. They couldn’t all have been matadors, I suppose, for the bullfight had already begun its decline, but that was the impression. One becomes casual about detail when the material is so picturesque. Even the titles of her films added to the aura of daiquiris and d├ęcolletage, the red rose between white teeth, swirling Spanish skirts hoisted high. There was The Barefoot Contessa and The Naked Maja and The Sun Also Rises from a novel by E Hemingway. Still, today, it is difficult to disentangle Ava’s actual exploits from the stuff on cine-film. When the scene moved to Rome, Cinecitta and the Dolce Vita, she was there in a cloud of paparazzi, the exciting sounds of altercation mingling with the smashing of expensive lenses. When she came to London, still in those days a dreary amalgam of chaps with turn-ups and frigid women, light relief just cockney bus-conductors joshing chars, she imported a whiff of the wicked Continong. There was a night when she flamencoed at the Don Juan club until five in the morning and the management were obliged to suggest that she went home. So she took the musicians back to the Savoy with her and cha-cha’d in her suite with Esteban and his Latin-American band. Somewhere near, I knew, was Much Woman, a Film Star in the grand, heroic mould, but all I could see were blank doors and it was as quiet as the grave. I would have been grateful for a chat with the maid. Suddenly there was a waft of music, distantly, and a moment later Ava was there. The first thing you noticed was that she was painfully shy. Shy! She stood for a few seconds nervously, like a little girl, pursing her lips so that the dimples showed in her cheeks, then she put out her hand hesitantly and without dialogue. I shook it, feeling a need to bow slightly. I wondered if either of us would ever find the ability to speak again but Ava said, as if she had been rehearsing carefully, ‘Won’t you come in?’ and we set off in procession down a lot of chocolate-coloured carpet .. Ava’s heels were medium height, not chic, she was wearing a black suit, knee-length and oddly dated and a plain silk scarf was tucked in at the throat. Her hair, dark russet, not black, was in an untidy sweep across her forehead and I could see no make-up, although I expect it was there. She would have been a little dowdy if she had not been so incredibly handsome, so luscious, so marvellously magnetic, a peach-skinned knockout at forty-five. We reached the lounge and stopped again. The music turned out to be something soft and Latin-American on the bank of hi-fi in the corner and Ava did a couple of steps, professionally smooth, moving her hips and smiling downwards but it was not a success. She froze and we were saved by the coloured maid. Ava took ages to decide that she wanted a Martini but she couldn’t string it out forever. Wistfully, she watched the maid’s broad back disappearing out of the door and we took seats on either side of the cold fireplace. It was a cold room, expensively furnished in beiges and browns but without heart, a waiting room and we waited. ‘I read your magazine,’ said Ava finally, dimpling. ‘It seemed very nice.’ Did it? Her legs were excellent, her ankles slim and thoroughbred. She smiled across at me, the bright, miraculous Ava smile, but 1 was hopelessly stuck. She was so completely unexpected, so vulnerable. She made me feel like some brutal interrogator from the OGPU, just sitting there. I wished that I could take her on my knee and promise that I’d go away. How could I ever ask her about the big drinking, the Latin love-ins, the divorces and the scandals? ‘Could I possibly have met you somewhere before,’ said Ava, polite and elaborately puzzled. It was as bad as that, 1 mean. The maid came in with the drinks-a small Martini for Ava, about an Imperial pint of vodka and tonic for me- and Ava watched her moving about as though anxious to treasure every moment before we were alone again. ‘Are you going to go out, Renee, honey?’ she asked anxiously. ‘You know it’s Saturday evening?’ ‘She has her friend here,’ she explained to me. ‘I’ll stick around for a while,’ said Renee a bit glumly, glancing shrewdly at me in a sidelong way. She departed and Ava made an immense effort to shake off the shyness. She lit a cigarette and with that in one hand and a glass in the other-familiar props? - she seemed to gain a little confidence. She sat up very straight and wriggled her shoulders then leaned forward quite briskly with her dark brows in a line over her incredible, tilted, grey-green eyes.

‘Why,’ she said, ‘do they ‘tell so many lies about me?’ Who? ‘Well, everybody that comes to see me, everybody that writes about me? Why do they keep putting out this stuff about me dancing all cafe tables without my panties?’ I’d never heard that, actually. ‘Well, they write about how I get drunk but, look, 1 don’t even like this stuff.’ She stared down at her glass. ‘I don’t like the taste of it, I like the effect but I don’t like the taste of it. That’s why I have so many different kinds of drinks, that’s why I change them around all the time you know’?

About her, among the other enigmas, there is an impression of a fantastic sense of humour that she would share with people she chose and I looked at her carefully to see if she was joking. She wasn’t. Worse, she seemed pretty upset and so far I’d hardly said a word.

‘I’m supposed to have slept with everybody, that’s another thing,’ she said. ‘There have been guys that I’ve loved and I’ve had affairs with them but that’s not the same, is it? I don’t like what they’ve said about me for one very good reason and that is that it’s not true, that it’s LIES.’ Her low voice trembled a little, she had kicked off her shoes so that they lay heart-brokenly on the rug and now she tucked her glorious ankles up on to the seat and hugged her glass, utterly defenceless. There were actually tears in her grey-green eyes.

‘I ought to be hardened to it . .I ought to laugh about it, but I do care because it hurts me. It hurts me even after all this time.’ It hurt me, too, terribly, to see her so sad. I said, though I didn’t, that I thought I could understand. ‘You understand nothing,’ said Ava with infinite resignation. ‘You’ll find when you get home that you have a dull story and you’ll invent things. What did I read somewhere - that I pushed somebody who came to see me off a terrace, a photographer or somebody. Isn’t it awful that I care so much about what people think of me. But I do care. I care very much and that’s what’s so wrong.’

1 said, trying to comfort, that it couldn’t be altogether awful to be beautiful, famous and free to live exactly as she pleased. Why, there were millions of people very grateful to her for seeming to lead an existence so patently red-blooded, vibrant and life-size. I needn’t have bothered. ‘The worst of all,’ Ava said, wearily pushing the hair back from her forehead, ‘is when people write to me, as they do, to say, “Maybe that’s what you are but in spite of it all I still love you.” I appreciate what they’re trying to say but oh ... ’ The low, lovely voice trailed away.

It seemed to me that perhaps her noted regard for Spanish bullfighters had led a lot of people to get things all wrong. Matadors are so - well - colourful, aren’t they ?

‘Bullfighters,’ Ava said, sighing. ‘Oh Gahd.’ She stared at me very hard, like a great exotic cat with those tilted eyes. She put her feet back in her shoes and sat forward again to deal with this nonsense here and now. ‘Bullfighting I like, okay?  I have one bullfighter who is a good chum and that’s Luis Dominguin. I saw him fight once-once, right ?-some time after he was married and had a family.

‘Cordobes I have met. Vaguely. I had lunch with Belmonte once in Seville.’ She lit another in her succession of cigarettes looking down at the carpet, frowning, getting it absolutely straight, okay? ‘Let’s see, who else do I know? ... about all I can tell you about bullfighting I had from Hemingway, you know? I went to a bullfight once with Papa and he was very nice and very kind but he didn’t tell me too much about what was going on and he’s not the kind of guy that you’d ask.’ She shook her head, wiping smoke from her eyes. ‘Bullfighters, sure, but it wasn’t to do with sex or anything like that, Luis was so kind to me when I was ill down in Spain a few years ago. I had these kidney stones and he came to see me in hospital. A real nice guy.’

She was relieved to have that out of the way.

She dimpled, much happier now and took her shoes off again. There was one tremendously spectacular affair with a handsome Italian comedian called Walter Chiari - and Italian comedians are colourful somehow - when a Paris Match photographer sat up a tree for three weeks to get a picture of them together in a bedroom. And succeeded. There didn’t seem much point in going into it though.

I had finished my vodka and Renee came back exactly on cue and examined me out of the corner of her eye as though gauging its effect. She went out with the glasses, wordlessly, and Ava said, ‘Oh, she’s sweet, so sweet.’ When Renee came back Ava said, ‘Aren’t you going to bingo, honey?’ She smiled reassuringly. ‘This guy isn’t going to do anything terrible to me.’ ‘I’ll stick around for a while,’ said Renee. She had left me with another monstrous vodka and tonic though Ava, again, had just a small Martini.

We had dealt smartly with sex and drink and those scurrilous stories that had bedevilled Ava for more than two decades of making motion pictures. It was a relief to be able to turn instead to her film career, but at the mention of acting Ava was suddenly sad again. She had just made a picture in Paris called Mayerling, which is a costume drama about that old true story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria and his love for an unsuitable princess which led to their joint suicide.

Ava plays the Empress Elizabeth, the Crown Prince’s mother, which might understandably be a cause of mild sorrow to an actress who was once called ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Anima!” But Ava’s malaise about the movie business went, it was plain, rather deeper. She had not made a picture for more than three years before Mayerling and that scarcely suggested a burning ambition to get on in the business.

‘Listen,” she said, ‘I’ve tried so many times to give it up. I’ve Quit often and stayed away completely. I’m not an actress, I’m not a film star, I’m not a personality of the motion-picture industry and I never will be. I mean I’m not even a good actress for one thing. If I’m going to be an actress I ought to work at it, oughtn’t I, and that’s something I’ve never done. It’s something to look terrific, which is why I got a contract as a little girl of eighteen, all those years ago, but I’ve added nothing, done nothing in my work that was great and meaningful and wonderful. I made my first picture in 1941, you know that? All those years and. I’ve done not one thing that was worth while. Isn’t that a shame that I’ve wasted so much time?’

She threw her head back so that I could see the length of her beautiful throat then looked back, swallowing hard and trying to smile.

She won an Oscar nomination for her role in Mogambo. Didn’t that indicate that things were not quite as bad as they seemed? She turned the corners of her wide, lovely mouth down.

‘When I go on to a film set I must do what I must do, or try to anyway, but it’s what making movies creates outside that is so much worse. All the time, wherever I go, I’m supposed to be this great movie actress, this film star’ -she threw her arms up and out and turned her head over her shoulder to indicate the sort of thing- ‘and that’s not me at all. When I’m not making pictures my life is very good and very important. It would seem very dull to you but to me it’s important. Just being a film star is a very great bore.’

She paused there, as if dimly aware that might sound a bit much when it was written down all wrong like all the other stuff she told people. ‘I mean, of course, if it’s a bore it’s my fault because I’ve done nothing to make it good and I’ve done nothing to make it good because ultimately I don’t believe that the life has anything good to offer. I don’t believe I have anything to offer, come to that. I’ve never done anything worth while except maybe cook a good dinner once in a while or be a good chum to somebody.’ She smiled, far too brightly, the big, film-poster smile, not for real.

1 was well through the bucket of vodka and I couldn’t bear the thought of her eyes clouding over again. I would have to go across and cuddle her and make everything all right and then Renee would come in.

I asked, instead, why she had chosen the Empress Elizabeth as a passport back to all this grief and futility. It was wonderful casting, of course. The Empress was a startlingly beautiful woman who kicked over the traces pretty thoroughly by the standards of the Hapsburg Empire back there in the late 1800s. She travelled around all the time, which was uncommon for an Empress in those days and she too had her unconventional pastimes, though in her case they were things like hunting, riding and mountain climbing. ‘In her later years her dislike of publicity increased,’ says her entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, but she remained wildly popular with the peasantry, even when she withdrew for years at a time to the palace she built on the island of Corfu.

None of this, evidently, had been lost on Ava. ‘Elizabeth was not prepared for her life and I was no more prepared to be an actress or a movie star than she was ready to be an Empress. I understand this woman so much. She was far too shy, too sensitive, to do a good job. She ran sometimes and hid. She was frightened as I’ve been frightened. She didn’t fit.’

Ava was liking the train of thought quite a bit and the hint of tragedy in her face, the big cheekbones and the fine jaw-line were all working overtime the way they do on the screen when she is going well. ‘You know, I think what really decided me was when I found out that the Empress was a Sunday child, like me, and our birth-dates were the same, December 24, Christmas Eve.’ Destiny was looking out of her eyes but she remembered that this movie thing was all nonsense and she shook herself again. ‘No,’ she said, reassuring herself, not me, ‘I’m not that superstitious or funny. One of the best reasons for making movies is that they give you money.’

I had finally finished the vodka and once more Renee entered exactly on cue and swapped it for another, so big this time that it must have been the father of the other two. While she was out of the room Ava said, ‘She won’t go out now. Her friend is here but they won’t go out. This is a girl she met while I was making Bhowani Junction, a hairdresser, you know, and they are still friends.’ Bhowani Junction was made in 1955. I wondered how long Renee had been around. ‘She came to me in 1946,’ Ava said, ‘and she has been with me off and on ever since.’ Renee, returning, was given the fondest possible smile and when she left Ava said: ‘How can this woman protect and love me so much? She’s as close as my sister, closer even .. .’ She was talking to herself again.

‘If 1 can fed happy and protected and secure everything can be all right but, you see, they never leave you alone. Gahd, the last time 1 was in Rome,’ she said, ‘I went there to have a dress made for my Godchild’s graduation. I went there on the spur of the moment, false names and everything, just Renee and me, and it was so great for three or four days. Just to walk in the park and see the little puppet shows and to drive around and watch the fountains and go buy my clothes for a very special occasion.’ She was back with the full dramatic bit and you could tell something nasty was coming the way you can when people are talking happily in Peyton Place.

‘Wonderful,’ I said and she nodded busily because she wanted to get to the denouement. ‘Then the paparazzi caught up with me. 1 was trapped in a hotel and 1 had to stay there until they could smuggle me away.’ We were both stunned at the awfulness of it but Ava recovered much more quickly. She suddenly laughed, a wonderful, throaty gurgle that transformed her into a young beauty. ‘Oh, a sad story,’ she said, ‘except that it’s not all that sad and not the least bit important to anybody except me.’ She seemed. to be so many different people, Ava, even allowing for the slight double-vision that the current vodka was inducing in me. 1 was getting into a mood to offer helpful advice and it seemed to me that what Ava ought to do was to settle down in one place instead of tearing around the world all the time. Like that she could probably find security.

‘If 1 was married and had several children I’d stay in one spot,’ she said, ‘but I’m not and 1 haven’t and 1 can’t find anyone place that’s exactly right for me. There are so many wonderful locations to stay in and to see and 1 can’t give them all up, not yet anyway.

‘I moved from Spain four months ago, 1 think for good this time, but I’m still not sure where I want to be. Maybe I’d live here in London but I have this little pooch who means a lot to me and I can’t have him with me right away so I can’t stay.’ She paused. ‘Maybe,’ she said pensively, as though wife for a successful man, not too old, not too young, experienced certainly but never to excess. 

She had drunk, I judge, the exact amount of martini that is pricelessly valuable, the amount that brings a glow that suppresses an irresistible sparkle .. What an incomparable hostess!

‘I think,’ 1 said, enunciating more carefully than 1 had intended, ‘that you should get married again.’ Ava sat up and her eyes flashed, then softened, then went reflective and then, finally, smiled.

‘You know,’ she said, ‘I think that is the only thing 1 was really made for. 1 was a pretty good wife, in spite of three divorces. 1 have great love and great affection for every man I’ve been married to. My husbands are all good chums even though things didn’t last.’

I dug around later and it seemed to be true. Mickey Rooney, flat broke after six wives, told all to the papers about their stupidity and avariciousness but never once mentioned Ava. Artie Shaw sends her records and she sometimes visits Frank Sinatra.

‘My life is so goddam unimportant,’ Ava was saying. ‘It’s been such a very big waste, but I’ve found out one thing. It’s better to keep one man warm all your lifetime. That’s satisfying. That’s worth while.’

1 felt great, a saintly figure with the gift of setting tangled lives to rights. 1 sat forward eagerly and was going to find out from Ava exactly where things went wrong and we were going, to see that they never happened like that again.

Before setting out on this new and ambitious programme though I needed a drink, and when I looked for my glass 1 saw that it was empty. Renee came in as promptly as ever, but this time she was planted squarely on the carpet and there was something unmistakably terminal about her manner. ‘It’s getting late,’ she said, ‘and Miss Ava’s had a pretty long day. Do you think there’s anything else you want to ask her?’

As if this were a magic incantation, my mind went blank immediately and I was out in the street seconds later. Lurching down Park Lane, revived a little by the air, I had just enough sense to wonder if Renee used some mechanical device for measuring her drinks so exactly. A brilliant scheme, as effective as an electrified fence for the protection of Miss Ava. But it could explain, I suppose, how the world was always being given such a garbled impression of the lady.



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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>