This is a book about a book that never became a book.
Late one Sunday evening in January 1988, Peter Evans, a British journalist with extensive film industry connections, received a telephone call from a woman claiming to be the legendary actress Ava Gardner. She asked him to ghost her memoirs.
As he relates the story in “Ava Gardner,” Evans believed at first that the call was a hoax:
“ ‘Sounds great, Ava,’ I played along. ‘Does Frank approve? I don’t want to upset Frank.’ There was a small silence, then a brief husky laugh.’’
She issued an expletive-laced dismissal of Evans’ concerns “with a faint but still unmistakably Southern drawl.”
The “Frank” in question was, of course, Frank Sinatra, Gardner’s third husband. (The two, though divorced, were still friendly.) And the woman on the phone was indeed the 65-year-old Gardner.
Evans’s initial concern about the project’s precariousness turned out to be prescient. Gardner, who said she needed to publish her memoirs for money, kept expressing doubts about her own seemingly irrepressible candor. But in the end, it was Sinatra’s condemnation of the endeavor — and his dislike of Evans, whom he had once sued — that caused Gardner to withdraw. (She would eventually publish another ghosted memoir, “Ava: My Story.”)
But not before Evans, who for some reason had never told Gardner of his legal kerfuffle with Sinatra, had gotten some 40,000 words of conversations on tape. In 2009, long after the actress’s 1990 death, Evans proposed to his agent, Ed Victor, that he write a book about “his adventures with Ava,” incorporating both her periodic late-night phone calls and their more formal interviews.
Gardner’s estate signed off on the project, and Evans completed all but the final chapter before he, too, died last year, as Victor explains in an epilogue.
Rather than a straightforward autobiography or memoir, “Ava Gardner” turns out to be an episodic account of a journalist’s frustrations in dealing with an actress in the thrall of booze, insomnia, and late-life regrets.
The book’s strengths include the longtime MGM star’s candor about her rural North Carolina childhood and three marriages and an unvarnished sense of her personality. Even after a stroke left her partially paralyzed in her 60s, Gardner is alternately seductive, entitled, and charming. But she is also conscious of the effects of age and infirmity.
Because Evans employs his interactions with Gardner as the main narrative thread, “Ava Gardner” also has some annoying weaknesses: a disjointed quality, considerable repetition and the omission of key parts of Gardner’s life story.
We hear repeatedly that Gardner had fabulous sex with the diminutive Mickey Rooney, her first husband, even after she discovered him cheating on her with other women. We learn that the band leader Artie Shaw, husband number two, bullied her intellectually, and that George C. Scott, a later lover, beat her black and blue. She also maintained a longstanding romance with the wealthy aviation czar and recluse Howard Hughes, but denies that she ever loved him. (None of this is actually news.)
There is much less detail about her stormy relationship with Sinatra, who is said never to have gotten over her and who still called her every year for Christmas and her birthday. She talks surprisingly little about her career, including her starring roles in films such as “The Killers,” “Mogambo,” and “The Barefoot Contessa” (though she does express her dislike of “Contessa” costar Humphrey Bogart). Nor does Gardner detail her many love affairs, apart from mentioning a matador or two and her romance with her married “My Forbidden Past’’ costar, Robert Mitchum.
“Ava Gardner” is a mish-mash of presumably verbatim conversations, draft book chapters, and Evans’s own reactions to Gardner and the project. He opines frequently about his difficulty in getting the actress to offer a chronological account of her life. She is prone to ramble, especially when she is inebriated, which is most of the time.
He also rehashes her many attempts to get him to alter her salty language. Gardner had the right of approval, and Evans showed her draft chapters for comment. But he also tried to slip in material that she may have wanted to keep private, hoping (ultimately in vain) that the lure of book sales would persuade her to retain the juicy parts. The screenwriter Peter Viertel, a longtime Gardner friend, warned Evans early on: “Ava isn’t going to condone a truly honest biography.”
There’s enough gossip in “Ava Gardner,” presented with enough skill, to keep readers turning pages. But one can’t help regretting the demise of the original book, in which Evans’s voice presumably would have disappeared, and Gardner herself would have stepped more fully into the spotlight.