A brunette and a blonde, born four years apart and raised in Depression era America: both found fame in post-war Hollywood, where their mythic beauty inspired directors, lovers and poets.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on Christmas Eve, 1922, youngest of seven children. Her father was a sharecropper in Grabtown, North Carolina. ‘Ours was a neighbourly and self-sufficient society,’ Ava recalled. A tomboy who loved to run barefoot, her early memories were idyllic. But the economic ravages of the 1930s eventually forced the Gardners to move away.
Her father died soon after, and her mother made ends meet by opening a boarding house. ‘I hated their eyes as they looked at me,’ Ava said of their (mostly male) lodgers. ‘They never touched me, but they tried to flirt, and even though I was only thirteen years old, I instinctively knew what was going on.’ Ava struggled to come to terms with her father’s death, and life in the city of Newport News, Virginia. ‘When you are thirteen, fourteen, fifteen,’ she wrote, ‘and you have to go to school every day in the same little green coat that Mama bought in a cheap sale, and the one skirt and the same sweater that you wash every night and smooth out to dry, you know you are poor.’
Norma Jeane Mortenson, born in 1926, spent her early life in foster care. In her 1954 memoir, My Story, she claimed that a boarder in one of her many homes had molested her. She was about seven years old when it occurred. When Norma Jeane entered high school, ‘I still wore the blue dress and the blouse the orphanage provided,’ she remembered. But as puberty dawned, Norma Jeane found herself the centre of attention. She would marry the ‘boy next door’, Jim Dougherty, in 1942, shortly after her sixteenth birthday. ’Maybe I looked like a woman,’ she said later, ‘but I was still a kid.’
Ava’s destiny changed forever during a trip to New York, visiting her eldest sister, Beatrice (known as ‘Bappie’), who was dating photographer Larry Tarr. His portrait of a fresh-faced Ava, hair tied in a bonnet, led to a screen test and, eventually, a contract with MGM. Norma Jeane’s life was also transformed by a photograph, taken by David Conover while she was working at a munitions plant in 1945. Within a year she had left her husband, bleached her hair blonde, and signed with Twentieth Century-Fox as ‘Marilyn Monroe’.
Both starlets would serve a long apprenticeship, posing for endless ‘cheesecake’ shots while waiting for their big break. Not long after her arrival, Ava was wooed by MGM’s hottest young star, Mickey Rooney. They married in 1942, but divorced a year later. Despite his wholesome image, Rooney was a renowned womaniser. Marilyn Monroe had a small role in one of his films, and knew him from the Hollywood party circuit. He later claimed they had an affair, his stories growing with each telling. Many years later, Ava told her maid, Mearene Jordan, ‘Reenie, he’s still the biggest liar in the world. Poor Mickey, he cannot tell the truth, he never could. But he’s cute.’
Ava was courted for many years by the eccentric businessman, Howard Hughes, who would also make a play for Marilyn. However, Hughes was ultimately rejected by both women (perhaps because neither was particularly impressed by his wealth and power, and they may have resented his controlling attitude towards women.)
In 1945, Ava married again, to bandleader Artie Shaw. It was to be another short-lived romance, as Shaw constantly criticised Ava for what he saw as her intellectual failings. ‘If I could ever be born again, an education is what I’d want,’ she reflected. ‘My life would have been so different if I’d had one. You don’t know what it’s like to be as young as I was then and know you’re uneducated, to be afraid to talk to people because you’re afraid even the questions you ask will be stupid.’
Two years later, Marilyn had a similarly unequal romance with another musician, Fred Karger. She described him as ‘my first love’. But he mocked her lack of education, telling her, ‘Your mind is inert. You never think about life.’ He also refused to marry her, saying that it wouldn’t be right for his daughter to be raised by ‘a woman like you’. Both women would study for a time at UCLA. Marilyn was a voracious reader all her life, and Ava later discovered that her IQ was considerably higher than her ex-husband might have thought.
Their Names Up in Lights
Ava’s first few years at MGM were uneventful, as she was largely eclipsed by the studio’s reigning pin-up, Lana Turner. Her name appeared on a marquee for the first time when she starred in the now-forgotten Ghosts on the Loose. ‘I’ve got to say it was a thrill,’ she recalled. ‘Then it wore off, and I’ve never had that feeling again. Ever.’
Her big break came in 1946, when she played the vampish Kitty Collins in Robert Siodmak’s classic ‘film noir’, The Killers. It was based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway, and her co-star was a newcomer to the screen, Burt Lancaster. ‘She became at once the principal sex symbol for the movies’ new dark age,’ wrote biographer Lee Server. ‘Audiences responded to her style, an impudent, provocative blend of sweater girl and spider woman…’
Monroe also savoured her own marquee moment in the low-budget musical, Ladies of the Chorus (1948.) She was overlooked by MGM, who had their own sexy blonde – Lana Turner – but was signed to a seven-year contract by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1951. A year later, Marilyn won the lead in Niagara, as a ‘femme fatale’ not unlike Gardner in The Killers. However, by then America had entered a more staid phase, and most of her subsequent roles were comedic.
From the outset, Ava rebelled against MGM’s strict regime. She was a party girl who liked to play the field. ‘Booze was an essential part of the social scene,’ she admitted, though in later years her drinking would spiral out of control. One of her rumoured lovers was a young John F. Kennedy, later – and notoriously – linked to Monroe.
Despite her wilful exterior, Ava lacked confidence in her acting skills. She felt unsupported by MGM, who seemed more interested in promoting her physical attributes. When the veteran stage actor, Charles Laughton, coached her on the set of The Bribe (1949), she remarked, ‘He was the only one in all my film years who took the time and went out of his way to try and make an actress out of me.’
Keenly aware of her lack of formal training, Marilyn took classes at the Actor’s Lab and with the actor Michael Chekhov. As early as 1948, she hired a personal coach, Natasha Lytess. Much to the annoyance of her directors, she insisted that Lytess advise her on the set. Monroe also worked with Charles Laughton, in O. Henry’s Full House (1952), and told journalist W.J. Weatherby, ‘I was overawed at first, but he was very nice to me. He accepted me as an equal.’
In the paranoid, ‘red-baiting’ atmosphere of post-war Hollywood, Ava was too outspoken for her own good. ‘The atmosphere at Metro was stifling, killing,’ Ava recalled. ‘When I appeared for Henry Wallace (a Progressive Party candidate)when he ran for president, Mr Mayer called me in and told me I had to stop.’ And in 1950, when director Joseph L. Mankiewicz found Marilyn reading the autobiography of radical journalist Lincoln Steffens on the set of All About Eve, he told her off. Needless to say, she took no notice.
When Love Goes Wrong
‘Some women fall for writers, some for sailors, some for fighters,’ Ava wrote. ‘I’ve always loved musicians. I’m absolutely intoxicated with them. All I have to do is stand in front of a bandstand and I’m in love with the whole band.’ In 1949, Frank Sinatra was unhappily married, with three young children. His career was in a slump. When the news of his affair with Ava broke in 1950, the couple were condemned by Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and the Catholic Legion of Decency.
However, there were happier moments. Before their wedding, Ava insisted on meeting Frank’s parents and helped to heal a family rift. ‘It was all so welcoming,’ she recalled, ‘a great warm Italian household with no holding back.’ Marilyn also grew close to her lovers’ families, staying in touch long after her romances ended.
Frank and Ava married a year later, but their relationship was always stormy. They both drank heavily, and fought constantly. At one point, Sinatra attempted suicide. Ava’s jealousy was ignited in early 1954 when Frank considered making a film with Marilyn Monroe. Ava divorced Frank in 1957, but they remained close for the rest of her life. Ironically, the end of their marriage coincided with a revival in Sinatra’s career. His arranger, Nelson Riddle, is reported to have said, ‘It was Ava who taught him how to sing a torch song.’
‘Our love was deep and true,’ she explained, ‘even though the fact that we couldn’t live with each other any more than we couldn’t live without each other sometimes made it hard to understand.’
One Touch of Venus
In 1951, Ava was controversially cast as the ‘mulatto’, Julie LaVerne, in the epic musical, Show Boat . After training for months, Ava was disappointed to learn that her voice would be dubbed. ‘Now, I can sing,’ she commented. ‘I do not expect to be taken for Maria Callas, Ella Fitzgerald, or Lena Horne, but I can carry a tune well enough for the likes of Artie Shaw to feel safe offering to put me in front of his orchestra.’
Ava and Marilyn were raised during the Golden Age of Hollywood, when movies offered an escape from hard times. In later life, they would both star alongside one of the greatest stars of that era, Clark Gable. Ava appeared with him in The Hucksters (1947), Lone Star (1953), and Mogambo (1953), a remake of Gable’s 1932 hit, Red Dust. Directed by John Ford, Mogambo was filmed in Africa, and earned Ava an Oscar nomination in a role originated by the original ‘blonde bombshell’, Jean Harlow (often compared to Marilyn Monroe.)
By the late 1950s, Marilyn and Ava had worked with some of Hollywood’s most prestigious directors. The Barefoot Contessa (1954) was inspired by the life of another screen goddess – Rita Hayworth. But Ava was Joe Mankiewicz’s first choice for the lead. ‘Getting along with Joe Mankiewicz was problematical at times,’ she remembered. ‘I respected him enormously, but though he was clearly the cerebral type, I don’t think he ever really understood me or my insecurity about my work.’ Nonetheless, Ava had a powerful ally in cameraman Jack Cardiff, who had previously photographed her in the whimsical English fantasy, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). (Cardiff would subsequently work his magic on Marilyn in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). She gave him a signed photo of herself, writing, ‘Dear Jack, if only I could be the way you have created me.’)
Ava’s most demanding film was, perhaps, Bhowani Junction (1956). Filmed in Pakistan, it explored the turmoil of Britain’s recent withdrawal from colonial rule. Ava played an Anglo-Indian nurse, and enacted a grueling rape scene. ‘No film scene had ever affected me so deeply before,’ she admitted, ‘had left me with such a nightmare sense of terror, and no scene would ever do again.’ She credited her performance to George Cukor’s direction. ‘I liked George enormously,’ she said. ‘He was attentive to detail, he really cared, and he knew how to pull the kind of performance he wanted out of me.’ Cukor was famed as a ‘woman’s director’, and he made two films with Marilyn Monroe: a forgettable musical, Let’s Make Love (1960), and the ill-fated Something’s Got to Give. While Cukor praised Monroe’s ‘unerring touch with comedy,’ he admitted to having ‘no real communication with her at all.’
Kiss Hollywood Goodbye
In December 1954, Marilyn Monroe left Hollywood for a less regimented life in New York. A year later, Ava Gardner moved to Spain. ‘If I hadn’t cared for Hollywood in its heyday,’ she remarked, ‘it certainly had less attractions for me now that things seemed to be falling apart.’ With her MGM contract at an end, Ava was a free agent. She starred with Gregory Peck in the apocalyptic drama, On The Beach (1959.) She struck up a friendship with novelist Ernest Hemingway, having appeared in three adaptations of his work; The Killers, The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Sun Also Rises (1957). ‘Of all the parts I’ve played, Cynthia was probably the first one I understood and felt comfortable with, the first role I truly wanted to play,’ Ava said of her character in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. ‘This girl wasn’t a tramp or a bitch or a real smart cookie. She was a good average girl with normal impulses…’
Though briefly considered for Ava’s role in The Sun Also Rises, Marilyn disliked Hemingway’s macho persona. ‘People tell me he loves shooting animals and killing fish,’ she said to W.J. Weatherby. ‘I think a writer – an artist – should set an example. He shouldn’t add to all the killing in the world. He should add to the love.’ It seems unlikely that Marilyn would have shared Ava’s fascination with bullfighting (and bullfighters.) Her deep sensitivity to nature inspired husband Arthur Miller to write The Misfits. Directed by John Huston, it would be the last film she completed. Encouraged by Miller’s friend, Norman Rosten, Marilyn began writing poems and fragments of prose. She also got to know the poet Carl Sandburg, whose biography of Abraham Lincoln she had long admired.
While living in Spain, Ava befriended Robert Graves (author of The White Goddess.) He wrote several poems in her honour, which delighted her more than any Hollywood statuette.
After her marriage to Miller ended, Marilyn had an on-off romance with Ava’s ex-husband, Frank Sinatra. Her final years were dogged by severe depression and addiction to sleeping pills. She died of an overdose in 1962, aged just 36.
Two years later, Ava starred in the first of three films made with John Huston, The Night of the Iguana. In 1966, she played Sarah, wife of Abraham, in The Bible: In the Beginning. She was briefly involved with her co-star, George C. Scott, and later claimed that he beat her up.
By 1968, Ava had moved to London. Her later roles included a cameo as actress Lily Langtry in Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and a disaster movie, Earthquake (1973.) She continued working in television until 1986.
On January 25, 1990, Ava Gardner died of pneumonia. She was 67, and had been suffering from emphysema and an auto-immune disease (possibly Lupus.) Her body was flown from England to North Carolina, where she was buried next to her brothers and their parents. The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.
An Eternal Muse
When a new play by Arthur Miller, After the Fall, opened on Broadway in 1964, many were outraged by its depiction of a troubled star, seemingly based on Marilyn – including the novelist, James Baldwin, who asked Ava to join him in picketing the theatre.
Ava has been portrayed as a character in several movies and television series – notably by Marcia Gay Harden in TV’s Sinatra (1992), and Kate Beckinsale in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes bio-pic, The Aviator (2004).
At first glance, Ava seemed more self-assured than Marilyn ever was. Unlike Marilyn, she had enjoyed a stable, loving upbringing. But she too had known poverty, and suffered from nagging self-doubt. Both were lauded for their beauty, but their talents were undervalued. Each tried to escape – Marilyn through drugs, and Ava with alcohol. As cinematic icons, they are light and dark – different sides of the same spectrum.
“I know a lot of men fantasise about me; that’s how Hollywood gossip becomes Hollywood history,” she told the British journalist Peter Evans. “Someday someone is going to say, ‘All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner,’ and the truth about me, just like poor, maligned Marilyn, will disappear like names on old tombstones. I know I’m not defending a spotless reputation. Hell, it’s too late for that. Scratching one name off my dance card won’t mean a row of beans in the final tally. It’s just that I like to keep the books straight while I’m still around and sufficiently sober and compos mentis to do it.”
It isn’t clear if Ava and Marilyn ever met, or what they thought of each other. However, the author Joyce Carol Oates imagined a meeting between the two screen sirens in her 2000 novel, Blonde. Their opposing qualities of innocence and cynicism are amplified in the febrile atmosphere of Oates’ fiction. In a chapter entitled ‘Rat Beauty’ (contrasting Ava with MM, whose childhood nickname was ‘Mouse’), Oates creates a monologue in Gardner’s voice:
“Monroe wanted to be an artist. She was one of the few I’d ever met who took all that crap seriously. That’s what killed her, not the other. She wanted to be acknowledged as a great actress and yet she wanted to be like a child and obviously you can’t have both.
You have to choose which you want the most.
Me, I chose neither.”
My Story by Marilyn Monroe, 1954.
Conversations With Marilyn by W.J. Weatherby, 1976.
Ava – My Story by Ava Gardner, 1990.
Marilyn: Her Life in Her Own Words by George Barris, 1996.
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, 2000.
Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server, 2006.