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.