Ava Gardner: The troubled life of Hollywood’s original femme fatale

Three stormy marriages, heartbreak, ill health: Ava Gardner was famed as much for her off-screen antics as her film roles. Now Downton star Elizabeth McGovern is bringing her tale to the stage.

To be perfectly honest, I had only a vague idea of who Ava Gardner was when, about eight years ago, I chanced upon a book gathering dust on a bookshelf in my house. It was called Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. On its cover was a picture of a woman sprawled on a settee in a black bustier, diamond earrings, fishnet stockings and little else (see below). She appeared to be ‘resting’, with one long and graceful bare arm thrown akimbo (as you do). She was stunning.

Ava Gardner
The image that wowed Elizabeth. Image: Virgil Apger/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

In the 1940s and 50s, Ava was one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. She was a farmer’s daughter who hadn’t given acting a thought when she was spotted by a movie scout at the age of 18. She was no overnight success; it took four years of background roles for Ava to get her big break. In 1946, MGM loaned her to rival studio Universal to appear in The Killers. Playing a seductress opposite Burt Lancaster, also in a breakout role, she caught the eye of studio bosses and bigger roles began to come her way. The Hucksters, One Touch of Venus, Show Boat and Mogambo, for which she received her only Oscar nomination, all followed in an incredible career that lasted decades.

In the final years of her life, a journalist named Peter Evans was hired by Ava to ghostwrite her autobiography. At the time, she was living in London, her glory days behind her, counting out the time following a debilitating stroke and very much looking forward to her final curtain (she died in London in 1990, aged 67).

The Secret Conversations is not a biography. It is a transcript of the year Evans spent in Ava’s company, attempting to write a biography and, ultimately, failing. They were in her flat or on the phone all hours of the day and night, talking and developing what can only be described as an intimacy not unlike that of an exciting (and exhausting) illicit love affair.

Elizabeth McGovern as Ava Gardner
Elizabeth playing Ava in The Secret Conversations. Image: Stephen Chung/Alamy

For me, the book was gold dust. I knew I wanted to play Ava in that period of her life. It cried out to be a play about two lives that intersect at exactly the right time for them both as their mutual needs collide. And, by lifting the dialogue straight from the unretouched transcript, you’ve got a glorious character to start with: witty, foul-mouthed, humble, eloquent, compassionate, aggravating and lovable all at the same time.

For Ava, the need was to come to terms with her past – a hard-drinking and partying lifestyle that took her through three turbulent marriages. The first, to Mickey Rooney, was doomed to failure when even his mother warned Ava that he was a womaniser. ‘He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge,’ she once remarked. The irony of the fact that one of Hollywood’s greatest sex symbols was a virgin on her wedding night was not lost on Ava. ‘I caught on very quickly,’ she said.

Band leader Artie Shaw, Ava’s second husband, was domineering and controlling: ‘another kind of bully; he was always putting me down’. Today we’d probably call it ‘coercive control’ and Ava’s mental health was certainly undermined by him – at one point she felt so intellectually insecure around her new husband that she took an IQ test. ‘He had me convinced that I was completely stupid,’ she said. ‘I didn’t have an enormous IQ, but I did have a high one.’

Her third, and most famous, marriage was to Frank Sinatra and although characterised by deep affection it was also punctuated by drunken rows and dramatic public spats. The gossip columnists of the day loved Ava and Frank as much for their personal dramas as for their art. Ava had two abortions while she was with Frank, according to her memoirs. They married in 1951 and divorced six years later, but remained close for the rest of their lives.

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra
Ava with husband Frank Sinatra in 1951. Image: Bettmann Archive

Evans, meanwhile, needed to inhabit a world larger than his own. The writer couldn’t believe his luck when he was presented with the opportunity to chart the reflections of the ultimate Hollywood femme fatale. Within the four walls of Ava’s London flat, something magical happened.

The relationship between a ghost biographer and their subject also throws up so much to explore. Who is exploiting who, and to what end? Who gets to control the story? In my stage adaptation of the book, I’m very lucky to have a brilliant actor, Anatol Yusef, playing Evans. He also steps into the roles of other characters from Ava’s life. Along the way, we meet Frank Sinatra, Mickey Rooney, Howard Hughes and others who peopled the glorious, crooked, misogynistic, electrifying and beautiful era which was the Hollywood studio system of the 40s and 50s.

Ava was a woman ahead of her time, a feminist without ever claiming the word. She lived life on her own terms, took her knocks and kept on keeping on. She was a natural progressive, not by being political, intellectual or even well educated, but by being authentic. She embraced all races, all sexual orientations. She embraced other women. She suffered the foolishness of the powerful alpha males who dominated her world, but could see complexity, could see their side of things and could forgive them. She could even love them to the end.

Ava Gardner and corgi
Ava at 61 with her corgi Morgan, 1984. Image: Alamy

The legacy of Ava’s life makes me what I am and, in turn, my daughters. We inherit the experience of all the women who go before us. It’s important to look at their lives. Ava was a woman who refused to fit neatly into the social norms of the world she was born into. ‘I made movies, I made out, I made a mess of my life. But I never made jam,’ she famously said of her failure to find domestic bliss.

That’s Ava. She took the first step on the road we are now travelling. It may have been thrust upon her, but she rolled with the punches.

Come and see us tell her story!

Ava: The Secret Conversations is at London’s Riverside Studios theatre until 16 April.