Editor’s Note: Fergus Reid Buckley, the youngest brother of William F. Buckley Jr., and founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking, died this week. The following article is his remembrance of actress Ava Gardner.
I was deeply saddened by the death of Ava Gardner. At one time, I guess I was about as close to her as anyone outside her immediate family. I first met her (I believe it was in connection with the filming of 55 Days at Peking) while lunching at La Puerta de Hierro Country Club near Madrid. She was at the next table. With an absentminded flick of my Bic I lit her lipstick while simultaneously quenching the butt end of my cigarette in the wine glass of her companion. She stared at me out of those incandescent green eyes in disbelief. But my wife Betsy and I got to know her on another occasion. We discovered she had been brought up in North Carolina, whereupon our South Carolina connection led to a spirited conversation. We invited her to supper at Espalter a few days later, alone. She came, we spent a cordial three hours, remarkable mostly for Ava’s homeliness and total absence of affectation. The next day, she sent us a dozen red roses with a note, which I treasure in my memory: Thanks for one of the nicest evenings in my life. Ava.
Those eleven mixed drinks were lined up in front of her dinner plate. She slugged two or three of them down forthwith. It was puerile. It was pathetic. It made us all uncomfortable.
After supper (she was three sheets to the wind by this time), Ava invited us out to the Villa Rosa, speaking in a thick tone of voice I hadn’t until that evening heard (she used profanities and obscenities percussively when she was drinking, only less insistently when she was sober). Betsy asked Ava to share our taxi. She accepted, but there was a menacing air about her. She was spoiling for a fight. She grabbed the handle of the front door and yanked it open to get in. Manolo Prado said to her with perfect Latin courtesy, “No, Miss Gardner, I will get in front with the driver, you ride with the Buckleys.” She whipped around at him viciously, shouting, “You just don’t tell me what the f— I should do,” or some such thing. She was blazing mad. Manolo blanched. I was so angry I could not speak. He climbed into the back seat with us, appalled and mortified. Dead silence reigned the 15 minutes of the drive.
The Villa Rosa was a popular Flamenco roadhouse outside Madrid’s city limits, thus evading Franco’s order that nightclubs close at 2:30 A.M.—high evening, by Madrid’s standards. There one could hire guitarists, singers, and dancers who had terminated their gigs in town, repairing with them into rooms furnished with tables and chairs, and little else. I remember that we were lucky enough to book La Paquerra, who was a superb singer, and her personal guitarist. The five or six guests who had accepted Ava’s invitation gathered in one of the larger rooms. She ordered wine in a loud, abrasive voice. Waiters brought in jamdn serrano, chorizo, salchich6n, and chunks of goat’s cheese. The guitarist began strumming, La Paquerra cleared her husky throat, humming along. Two dancers began rapping their palms in sharp hard rhythms. Ava was meanwhile acting up, to the embarrassment of everyone. Nothing suited her. The wine was vinegar. The smoked ham was tough and stringy. And she wanted cognac, goddammit. I was amazed. I could not relate this virago to the simple and lovely person with whom we had spent an intimate evening just a short time before. What made the scene so inexcusable was that (in my opinion) she was deliberately trading both on her international celebrity and on Spanish courtesy. Waiters took her abuse with bowed heads, but I had had enough, and told Betsy I was going. She elected to stay (nothing would have pried Betsy from an all-night party), but I got up and walked out.
Ava came stumbling after me, catching up to me in a little patio outside the building. She demanded to know what was the matter with me–why the “f—” I was leaving, didn’t I like the party, didn’t I approve of the performers she’d hired?
I let her have it, telling her how disgusted I was with her. Instantly, she snapped out of her drunken high dudgeon. Before I knew what was happening, she was weeping in my arms, sobbing as though her heart would break and as though she would tear her lungs out whole. “I’m so sorry . . . I’m so ashamed . . . I hate myself . . . Why do I do this? Oh, that poor man! How horrible. Please forgive me. Ask him to forgive me . . . ”
I was by that time feeling foolish, and sorry for her. I comforted her for ten or 15 minutes until the tears and sobs abated. I kissed her on the forehead and told her she’d better get back to her party. Then I left.
The next day, Manolo told me that Ava had gone in and apologized to him profusely. She sent flowers to his hotel with a written apology. It’s fair to think that it was cheap of her to excuse her behavior by weeping in the arms of a flabbergasted young man; but her tears were genuine, and my heart was touched.
We saw Ava off and on during the next several months. She was always on her best behavior. She seemed genuinely affectionate. One early afternoon she telephoned, asking me to come to her apartment (directly overhanging the exiled Juan Peron’s; she watered her carnations whenever she heard him step out on his terrace, making sure the pots overflowed, and crying in a theatrically loud voice, “Now, quit p—ing, Spot. Quit p—ing on my flowers, you terrible dog!” The water, meanwhile, spilling onto the terrace below, splattering on the rail).
She had been contracted for a cameo role in John Huston’s The Bible. The script was a thing of beauty; simply wonderful. But she could not mouth the dialogue.
The part was important to her. Her tantrums had given her bad press and a rotten reputation in film circles. She was overweight and haggard. The liquor was telling. She hadn’t been given a part in a long time, and she needed the money. She was terrified she wouldn’t do well. So, she had moderated her drinking, was dieting and getting to bed early. I went over that brilliant screenplay with her line by line, but she was unable to handle its rhythms. It did me violence to do violence to the dialogue, but I had to recast it for her diction, trying somehow nevertheless to remain faithful to the original. It was past ten o’clock when I finally left her place.
I worked with her on the script two or three evenings a week, three or four hours each session. She would recite the lines, not yet from memory. I would criticize. We’d discuss the meaning of the text and her problems with it. I would edit, banging the keys of a portable typewriter that was set on her living-room coffee table. She’d fix me coffee. She’d fetch me a Coke, or a vodka and tonic. She invited me for supper now and then. One meal was Chinese. Ava was a marvelous cook. The only other person living in the apartment was a black woman who was a hot-headed feminist and bigoted civil-rights liberal (Ava carried the usual ideological baggage also). She was more than just a housekeeper for Ava; she was a companion and confidante. I forget her name. When Ava wasn’t rehearsing, she often chatted with the woman about housekeeping matters. Ava dressed generally in slacks or, later, when she had slimmed down, Levis, a baggy sweater, and slippers (when she wasn’t barefoot). I could actually see her regain her figure as the weeks went by. The pouches under her eyes softened, or seemed less bruised and baggy. Her skin (she wore no make-up at all) looked healthier. She was regaining her physical allure, which had gone sodden. She looked really wonderful toward the end of that month.
She made the movie. I’ve never seen it. She telephoned to say her performance had been a success. She sent me a little present, I don’t recall what now–some bibelot.
Precious to me are my memories of her simplicity and tender heart. At about this time, Mickey Rooney, her first husband, declared bankruptcy. He was several hundred thousand dollars in the hole. I recollect it was the black woman who recounted that upon hearing the news, Ava wrote out a check to him, leaving the amount blank. Remember: she was comfortably but not extravagantly well off; she was past her prime, at the tag-end of her career. She once waved a royalty check at me. I believe she said it was for $100. “Have you heard me sing?” she asked. I hadn’t. She sang a soupy and quite stupid torch song. Badly. “Isn’t that too f—ing awful!” she declared, laughing aloud. (I never quite got accustomed to her language.) “But you know something,” she then added mischievously, her green eyes flashing (she derived such pleasure from this), “I sang that dumb song in [I forget the movie] . . . and, do you know?–I get a royalty check for it every few months or so! Every time that movie is run in some corner of the world–Tangiers, Hong Kong, Shanghai, doesn’t matter–I get a check from the musicians’ union. For singing that song, can you believe it?”
She talked to me about her life in North Carolina, and about her family, whom she loved. Ava never wore shoes, she claimed, until she was 17, but that may have been hyperbole. She confessed to a paralyzing fear in public, which she had never got over. Her success she accounted as entirely fortuitous, undeserved. She had no good opinion at all of her acting ability, and I sometimes speculated whether she mistreated her body and reputation so brutally in some kind of reparation for this. We avoided politics, because she was so rabidly liberal, but she kidded me about Barry Goldwater and the campaign. I became a younger brother to her, I think. She trusted me entirely. Once when we were sitting on a sofa—I was working on the script, recasting and recasting the lines, while she looked over my shoulder—she nuzzled into my arms, kissed me on the lips (I was startled), and promptly went to sleep. I stayed there half paralyzed a long while for fear of waking her, feeling her chest heave in deep, even breathing. Finally I laid her to one side, managing not to wake her, and got up from the sofa. She went right on sleeping, snoring unmelodically while I tip-toed out of the apartment.
She never once mentioned the episode. But she hugged me hard thereafter whenever we first met. She asked me about clothes, what looked good on her, what did not. She talked private business with me, producers and directors she liked, film people she couldn’t abide. My belief is that before me she’d not had a male acquaintance who wanted nothing from her and had no designs on her. This amazed her, and stirred her affections powerfully.
I never knew a woman, let me add, who to the world was so sensual but who left me sensually speaking so indifferent. I truly loved Ava Gardner, but I was never infatuated by her looks. I did not admire—and I still fail to see the attraction of—that famous Roman profile. It’s as if her nose had been broken. Maybe it had. She was a tough lady. She could be wildly funny sometimes, more often than not unconsciously. I remember her anxious excitement when a close relative was expected for a visit. I recall this woman as an overgrown caricature of Ava, not in the least pretty, who used the same sharecropper daughter’s language. Ava was (this boggled me to contemplate) agitated about what impression this kinswoman might make on her Spanish friends, both titled and raffish. When the woman arrived, Ava said to her, “I want you to act like a lady. Understand? I live here. This is my city. I want you to act like a lady!” Those were her words, uttered with solemn sincerity. One could have gagged suppressing one’s laughter. This was Ava Gardner speaking, whose outrageously scandalous behavior with Luis Miguel Dominguin seven or eight years earlier had led Senor Fontan categorically to ban Hollywood henceforth and forever from his Ritz and Palace hotels, so that some years later so respectable a gentleman as Jimmy Stewart had to resort to a subterfuge to stay there.
The relative was taken to a bullfight the first or second afternoon of her stay. Her escort was Pepito Lerma, Duke of, and man about town. The evening of the bullfight Ava held a reception in her apartment. The kinswoman stumbled in looking dusty and exhausted, as one is after the fiesta. Someone asked her, “How did you enjoy the fight?” That set her off. In a shrill North Carolina country voice, she regaled all within hearing (the entire living room) with just how indeed she had enjoyed it. “Why,” she cried indignantly, “I never spent a more f—in’ awful afternoon in my f—in’ life. That poor f—in’ bull came charging out of that f—in’ tunnel, and right away a f—in’ faggot with a pair of barbs stuck the f—in’ animal in the f—in’ withers, and then a f—in’ fat man on a f—in’ horse that looked half dead rammed that poor bull in the f—in’ back with a f—in’ big pole that had a f—in’ big iron point on it thick as my f—in’ arm, and drove that pole into the f—in’ bull until . . . ”
Ava could stand this no longer. She went tearing across the room to the startled woman, shaking her by the shoulders and crying, “I told you a lady never repeats herself !”
Two more anecdotes, before memory closes on them. The only man Ava ever loved with undiminished passion was Frank Sinatra. (Isn’t that a disappointment!) They fought when they were together, but although they’d been divorced eight or ten years, she had never got over him. One Sunday afternoon I walked into her apartment and found her afire with excitement. Sinatra was flying to Europe! He had to go to Rome or Paris to make a movie, but he would stop over in Madrid. He wanted to see her. He wanted to have lunch with her! He was making a special stop–rearranging his schedule–just to see her.
She was in raptures. This was three weeks away. She’d gone back to hard drinking and rich eating after doing The Bible, and now she put herself on a crash diet. She went off liquor entirely. Oh, how the flesh melted away from her hips (she was shorter than one imagined and stocky, with broad shoulders and a wide pelvic structure–a peasant woman’s build). Now her skin took on tone, the liverish complexion whitened. Within two weeks she was looking terrific–as well as a 37-year-old woman who had abused her body for so long could look. She began to hum to herself, and seemed to dance with expectation.
I think it was a Saturday that Sinatra was expected to arrive. Ava and I spoke several times that week over the telephone. She could not contain her excitement. On some pretext, I called late in the afternoon of the great day. The telephone rang, but there was no answer. I called again that evening or the next afternoon, I can’t remember. (Meanwhile, rumors were flying about town. The reunion had been a disaster!) This time the black woman answered the persistent ring. Could I speak with Ava? No. She was shut up in her room, sleeping. She’d given orders not to be disturbed. Well, when was she expected to be up? The black woman couldn’t say, but she did tell me, “Ava’s in a bad way. I don’t remember ever seeing her so bad.”
I drove to the apartment, which was all the way across town in the newer, northwest barrios. The black woman let me in. She was not a pleasant person, and I never exactly cottoned on to her, but her face was tragic. Ava was still locked in the bedroom. “What happened?” The morning of Sinatra’s arrival, Ava had gone to the hair-dresser. She wanted to look lovely for him. Something had gone wrong there—she’d been forced to wait, or she couldn’t find a taxi (she never drove). She got back to her apartment late, wild with anxiety. She had reason to be. Sinatra had telephoned. He was at the airport, waiting. Where the hell was Ava? (His plane, in fact, had got in a half an hour early.) She telephoned him at the airport. At once, they flared at each other. Within seconds they were trading insults and objurgations. Ava called him a f—ing bastard. She never wanted to f—ing see or f—ing talk to him again, and she slammed down the receiver. Then she wept. She wept a long, long time, and then went to the bar, took out a bottle of Scotch, and began slugging it down. This was the black woman’s story.
We were all deeply saddened. Within a month Ava was looking haggard and awful again. She left Madrid and took up residence in London. I did not see her for several months. Election night I kept vigil with BBC, in London. We were on the air from about 9 P.M. London time until 6 or 6:30 the next morning. At 9 or 9:30 I was at Heathrow. First-class passage back to Madrid, courtesy of BBC. When I boarded, I encountered Ava and her black companion. Ava and I greeted each other with hugs and kisses. She was looking chic, I seem to remember, in a black-and-white outfit with a black-and-white hat, or scarf. We arranged to sit next to each other. She ribbed me about the election, Johnson’s landslide victory. We were about twenty minutes in passage when the pilot announced that the starboard outboard engine of the Viscount had ceased operating, God save the Queen. We looked out our porthole and verified the fact, God save the mark. Assurances. Cocktails compliments of the captain. Rule Britannia. Ava shrugged her shoulders, plunging a hand into a rucksack or basket she had stowed under her seat, pulling out a bottle (memory dithers between bourbon and vodka—I believe it was not Scotch). “Ask me, this calls for a little serious drinking,” she muttered, offering me a slug.
We chatted. Gallows humor. She squeezed my arm in hers. The Viscount made a wide swing back toward that sceptered isle, that gem in the wine-dark sea. About ten minutes along, the port outboard engine quit also. Ava was steadily drinking from the bottle. We limped into Heathrow without further calamity—to be greeted by swarms of photographers. I don’t think they knew at the time that Ava Gardner was on the flight, but they spotted her quickly enough. She was stumbling-down drunk and in an ugly mood. I buttonholed a BOAC official. Begged him urgently for a private office. He was decent enough; he at once ushered us into a crew’s lounge that had a lock on the door. There was a cot. I shoved Ava and her companion into the room, slamming the door behind them. I stood guard outside it until our resumed flight to Madrid was announced, about an hour later. Ava was not going to make it, I knew. I left without a word, the photographers having given up.
I never saw, spoke to, or heard from her again. But she carved out a big corner in my heart. I grieve for her sad life. I pray to God that He show mercy to her, because she was at bottom such a sweet, affectionate, loyal, and loving woman.
–F. Reid Buckley was founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking. This article originally appeared in the April 16, 1990, issue of National Review.