Ave Ava
From the April 16, 1990, issue of NR


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?”


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