"I HAVE TO tell you, honey, I'm at the lowest ebb of my life right now, and it's worse every day. It's been nearly a couple of years since I had those strokes. I'm a whole lot nearer to dying than to living. I feel that. There's almost no corn left in Egypt, baby."
That was screen goddess Ava Gardner, in one of the last conversations she had with Peter Evans, the writer who was helping put together Ava's autobiography. That book never happened. Ava pulled out, ostensibly because Evans had once had a legal run-in with Frank Sinatra, Ava's famously irascible ex-husband.
Peter Evans died in August 2012, just as he was finally completing "The Secret Conversations." (He'd put the book aside for years.) It isn't Ava's entire life, by any means, but it is a lively, profane and often poignant semi-memoir, which contains not only her thoughts on Frank S., Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Howard Hughes, but her most intimate revelations. These came out during late-night phone calls to Evans. Calls prompted by loneliness and a few glasses of wine too many. Evans' friend Ed Victor went ahead and published the book, in stores now.
THE TALES Ava tells of her husbands are not much different than what we already know -- from several biographies, and the book she eventually did put her name to, "My Story." This was with the help of another author. (Ironically, that memoir was published after her death, in 1990.) The freshness in the Evans work is that she seems to be far more candid; it's all told in her "voice." (More revealing than anything she said about her husbands were things such as her anger at ever being referred to as "dirt poor." She apparently considered it a slander aimed at her family, her father, in particular.)
EQUALLY fascinating is her on-again, off-again feelings about doing the book at all. She seemed to delight in putting Evans through the wringer, and it took all his skill to stay afloat and to get Ava to stay on track. She wanted to do the book for the money, and took considerable care preparing to meet with the publishers. (She asked the famed cinematographer Jack Cardiff to come to her London home and "light her" -- using well placed lamps and tinted bulbs -- as to diminish the effects of the stroke. She looked great, and wowed her small audience.) But somehow, Evans felt, her heart wasn't in it. She was at battle with the need for cash, a chance to get her story "right" and her demand for privacy and propriety. (She cursed like a sailor, but felt it made her look like a "tramp" in print. And she was hesitant to admit she continued a sexual relationship with Mickey Rooney after their divorce. When she declared her affair with a famous bullfighter was "one night only," Evans said, "Really?" Ava replied, "For the book it's one night only!") Despite her infamous playgirl image, Ava gave few interviews, and rarely revealed anything more than of passing interest. She was generally complaining about the intrusions and machinations of the press and the paparazzi. The latter delighted in catching this ravishing creature at times and from angles that were not so ravishing. And she always dismissed her long career.
BUT WHAT strikes me most is Ava's melancholy, her frequently stated desire to die, and her bitterness at how her strokes had affected her life, looks and career. (Up to her illness, she had worked regularly and, though mature and un-lifted, was still recognizably the fabulous Ava.)
Several years ago, after reading Lee Server's excellent biography on Ava, I felt that she either committed suicide or -- at the very least -- allowed herself to die, having simply given up. I mentioned this in my review of the book, and was met with some resistance from fans, who wrote in complaining. Ava was such a life force, and not outwardly tragic or vulnerable. But she was, underneath. She was almost as fragile a personality as Marilyn, really. However, Ava "acted out" with an almost masculine bravado that masked her insecurities. This was exacerbated by her disastrously heavy drinking.
Now that I have read "The Secret Conversations," I am convinced that Ava welcomed death, by design or desire. (She died at home, and the cause was cited as pneumonia. Perhaps all the fight was out of Ava, and she simply gave in to the illness, knowing the result? ) But that doesn't alter her life, which was often satisfyingly glamorous, excitingly tumultuous and even at times emotionally fulfilling. Or her work, often underrated by her peers and most especially by herself. (Her smoky subtlety and sincerity elevated even pretentious, overwrought entries such as "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" and "The Barefoot Contessa." Later, she was brilliant and real in films like "Mogambo," "On the Beach" and "Night of the Iguana.")
And as for what she told Peter Evans? Well, he questioned her one day on a contradictory statement. Ava replied in a tone that brooked no contradiction: "It's my f---ing life. I'll remember it the way I want to remember it!"
Evans accepted that, and laughed. It was, after all, classic Ava. (All human beings are mysteries. And movie queens, most of all.)
A FEW years ago, I sat down with Tara Reid, the promising but seemingly troubled blonde actress of "American Pie" fame. Reid was charming but broke down in tears several times during our chat. She insisted the tales of her wild ways and substance abuse were greatly exaggerated. She felt victimized by the press. I wasn't sure what to believe -- she is an actress, after all -- but I dutifully wrote up my sympathetic story. Unfortunately, after that, Tara continued to careen. I shrugged. She was quite an actress, I concluded.
However, more recently, Miss Reid seems to have calmed down. I caught her in the deliberately hilarious, now infamous "Sharknado" TV movie recently. She looked good and, like everybody else in the cast, seemed to be having self-mocking fun.
I understand there will a sequel to the film, and that Tara is ready to battle whatever comes flying out of the sky or sea or the woods. (Will the next be "Bearacane?" -- actually, it's supposed to be sharks again!)
I liked Tara Reid, and I am pleased that the airborne sharks have possibly revived her career. Maybe she was sincere when she wept.
After all, that poor young guy Cory Monteith from "Glee" was obviously sincere when he willingly went to rehab and promised all his friends and family he'd try to stay clean and sober. He couldn't and now he's dead at 31. One hopes these shocking occurrences make some impact -- that something positive comes out of the tragedy.
Glancing at photos of him is heartbreaking. He doesn't even look 31, and seems to be the epitome of the fresh-faced boy next door.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)