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.