Her taste for matadors, millionaires, and wholly inappropriate men had become notorious. She believed that sexual freedom was a woman’s perogative. Her affairs had brought her final husband, Frank Sinatra, to the brink of suicide, taken her lover Howard Hughes beyond the edge of madness, and provoked George C. Scott to bouts of near-homicidal rage.
That quote from the introduction of Peter Evans’ fascinating biography Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations gives readers an idea of the subject of this book, but not of the unique voices that tell it. This is a story that goes back and forth in time, to various points in Gardner’s life and then back to the present day when she’s sharing her memories at all hours of the day and night. Portions are told in Gardner’s actual voice — from her recorded conversations and from things that she wrote to Evans. In other portions, Evans pulls back the curtain and tells us about the bewildering challenges of dealing with a tempermental woman who might on any given day kiss him on the lips, yell at him, or call him up while she was drunk.
Listening to Gardner tell her stories is one of the best parts of this book, whether she’s talking about how Mickey Rooney was a lousy husband, how difficult it was to work with Humphrey Bogart, or how Frank Sinatra was “good in the feathers.” [On a related note, can we bring that expression back, even though most of us don’t sleep on feather beds anymore?]
One of the main reasons why people read books like this is for the juicy gossip, and the hope that in a book called “The Secret Conversations” we’ll get access to some actual secrets. There are varying levels of honesty here, as Evans himself noticed the difference between the conversations they had during the day and the conversations they had when she called him late at night after she’d been drinking. He also noticed when she told him several things that contradicted each other, and it’s still unclear if that had to do with her faulty memory or if she was changing her stories to make herself look better.
Then there was the issue that Gardner would tell Evans things about her life but later tell him that he couldn’t print them. And THEN there was the issue that she ended up backing out of the project.
Time passed, she died, he finished writing the book, and then HE died. Now this book exists as part of both of their legacies.
I’ve been fascinated by Orson Welles for a long time. As a kid, I knew him as that imposing guy with that amazing voice in The Muppet Movie and for his narration work in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and the Nostradamus documentary The Man Who Saw Tomorrow. It wasn’t until I grew older that I started becoming familiar with just a few of his other radio and film projects — The Shadow, War of the Worlds, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady From Shanghai, Jane Eyre. I also saw films that touched on Orson Welles the person, like RKO 281 and Me and Orson Welles (p.s. – if you think Zac Efron was put on this earth just to be cute and fluffy, you should see that film because he’s REALLY good in it!) And plus … should I even mention Pinky and the Brain? Or how about that appearance in Ed Wood? And yes, I know all about the frozen peas.
Okay, so I find him fascinating, but my knowledge of his work is still just the tip of the iceberg. I do have a copy of F is For Fake on hold from the library, and I just watched Monsieur Verdoux today. More on that in a moment.
So, anyway, when I saw that a new book called My Lunches With Orson was based on recorded conversations he had in an informal setting, I knew that I wanted to read it. The book is edited and introduced by Peter Biskind, but most of the content is the conversations between Orson Welles and director and friend Henry Jaglom. Jaglom recorded their conversations, and Welles knew that he was being recorded. The main reason to read this book is to hear Welles’ world-weary voice as he shares his thoughts on actors and the TV/film industry:
- I believe that intelligence is a handicap in an actor
- [On Woody Allen] That particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge.
- [On Joan Rivers] In her terrible way, she’s very talented.
- Larry [Olivier] is very — I mean, seriously — stupid.
- [On gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper] You don’t know the power those two cows had in this town! People opened the paper, ignoring Hitler and everything else, and turned right to Louella and Hedda.
Over the course of this book, I learned that Welles was not a fan of many celebrities including Laurence Olivier, Wolfgang Puck, Pauline Kael, Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Reagan, John Landis, and John Houseman. And since this is a book based on conversations recorded at a restaurant, the recorder also picked up other people who stopped by the table, like Richard Burton, Jack Lemmon, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Welles was nice to some of them and rude to others, and those interactions let us see another side of him, as well.
Anyway, it’s because of this book that I just watched the Charlie Chaplin film Monsieur Verdoux, because Welles discussed how he wrote the screenplay but Chaplin rewrote some parts of it and then only gave Welles a “based on an idea by” credit. FWIW, it’s very different from any other Chaplin film I’ve seen, and it’s worth watching both for that reason and because it’s an unusual antihero kind of film.
It’s also because of this book that I’m going to re-watch the Orson Welles movies I’ve seen before, I’ll start watching the ones I’ve never seen, and I need to track down (but haven’t found yet) the 1985 TV movie Malice in Wonderland about Hedda Harper and Louella Parsons!
But let me address the topic I brought up about the Ava Gardner book — do we learn a lot, and is what we learn honest and accurate? Well, here’s the thing. I think that a lot of the revelations and opinions shared here were real, or at least that the people who were talking believed them to be real. For example, the world thought that Carole Lombard’s plane crashed into a mountain, but Welles thought that her plane was shot down by Nazi agents. I’m not saying that he’s right, but that he believed it, and it’s an insight into his character that he DID believe that.
There are also some lies in the book, both white lies and out-and-out falsehoods. Jaglom admits in modern day that he tried to paint a rosier picture when talking to Welles about his career prospects. For example, he would say that a prospective deal was almost locked up when there was still a lot of work to be done. I consider those to be white lies to protect his friend’s feelings, although they might have done more harm than good in the long run.
But then there’s the conversation where Jaglom mentions someone to Welles, and says that this man claims to be Welles’ son. Welles replies that it can’t be true, because while Welles and his mother were friends, they never had sex. Well, it’s 2013 and I have the power of google at my fingertips, and I can confirm that Michael Lindsay-Hogg IS, in fact, his son. So even though this was an intimate conversation between two friends over lunch, Welles still chose to conceal the truth.
So I guess what I’m saying is that while both of these books are very good reads, no matter how private a conversation is, while the content may be fascinating it isn’t always going to be 100% true.