She nearly killed Howard Hughes and sent Sinatra half- mad with desire: The memoirs of man-eater Ava Gardner

After telling all to PETER EVANS for her biography, Ava Gardner got cold feet and swore him to silence. Now he finally reveals the truth...

Flawless beauty: Ava Gardner had toyboys before Cher had toys

Flawless beauty: Ava Gardner had toyboys before Cher had toys

This month, Ava Gardner will have been dead 20 years. If you are of a certain age, you will remember her as a movie star of flawless beauty and a love goddess of infinite scandal. Once described as 'the most irresistible woman in Hollywood', she epitomised its golden years.

Although she had seldom been accused of great acting, she had seduced, and been seduced by, married and divorced, lived with and walked out on, some of the most famous names of the 20th century. She had toyboys before Cher had toys.

'My vices and scandals are more interesting than anything anyone can make up,' she told me when, in 1988, we embarked on the autobiography she invited me to ghost for her. I knew that she was essentially a private person and it was a book she never wanted to write.

'I'm broke, honey,' she admitted when I asked her why she was finally prepared to tell her story. 'I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I'm kinda sentimental about the jewels.'

In the end, our book never saw the light of day. But now, for the first time, I can reveal Ava's secrets.

She was 66 years old when we first met at her apartment in London. She wore nothing but an angry scowl and a bath towel. I later learned that she greeted me this way partly because she wanted to see how I would react to her state of dishabille - she never to her dying day lost her pride in her sexuality.

'I loathe it when people spread bedtime stories about me,' she said, explaining her foul temper. I was just in the tub when a friend called from LA. She said that Marlon Brando told her he'd once slept with me. That's a god damn lie.'

She went on to explain that she had called Brando about it straightaway. If he really believed they had ever been lovers, she told him angrily, his brain had gone soft.

Brando apologised, and said his brain wasn't the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. 'Isn't that punishment enough, Ava?' he had lisped.

Disarmed, and amused, by his frankness, she had - largely - forgiven him.

'I don't know about Jimmy Dean, Ingrid Bergman, Larry Olivier, Jackie Onassis, and the rest of the names Marlon's supposed to have carved on his bedpost, but my name's definitely not one of them, honey,' she told me. 

'I know that a lot of men fantasise about me, but that's how Hollywood gossip becomes Hollywood history.

'Someday someone is going to say, "All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner are true." And the truth about me, just like the truth about poor, maligned Marilyn [Monroe], will disappear like names on old tombstones.

'I know I'm not exactly defending a spotless reputation. Hell, it's way 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,' she said.

Although her fine cheekbones still gave her face a sculptural force, two years earlier she'd had a stroke. It partially paralysed her left side and froze half her face in a rictus of sadness.

It would have been a hard blow to bear for any woman, but for an actress who had been hailed as 'the world's most beautiful animal', it was a tragedy.

'As if getting old wasn't tough enough,' she told me, with no sense of self-pity at all.

'But life doesn't stop because you're no longer beautiful. You just have to make adjustments. Although I'd be lying to you if I told you that losing my looks is no big deal. It hurts, god damn it, it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.'

Reminder of mortality: Ava Gardner pictured before the devastating stroke she suffered in 1986

Reminder of mortality: Ava Gardner pictured before the devastating stroke she suffered in 1986

'The thing is, I survived, and I have to be grateful for that. You're just reminded of your mortality. You go on living, knowing that from now on death is always close at hand.

'It's been an interesting life; I've had a wonderful time, in parts. Certainly I'd be crazy to start squawking now.'

Ava was born on December 24, 1922, in a farmhouse - with no running water or electricity - in Grabtown, south-east of Smithfield in Johnston County, North Carolina.

The youngest of seven children, she was named Ava (after an aunt) Lavinia (because it sounded pretty).

Her mother, Mary Elizabeth Gardner, known as Molly, was of Scots descent; her father, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was a sharecropper of Irish and Tuscarora Indian descent.

She told me: 'I got my great skin and energy from Mama, and my shyness, my sense of privacy and green eyes from Daddy. He always called me Daughter, never Ava. He worked hard all his life, but you knew he was never going to be a rich man.

'He was a gentle man, a bit of a dreamer. Like me, he sometimes drank too much, and smoked too much. He died of bronchitis when I was 13. I missed him more than I ever thought it was possible to miss anyone.'

Ava was 18, and heading for a career as a shorthand-typist, when her sister Beatrice, nicknamed Bappie, invited her to New York for the Thanksgiving holiday.

By this time, Ava had grown into a striking, natural beauty. Bappie's husband, Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, was stunned by her looks. 'You oughta be in pictures,' he told her prophetically.

He displayed one of his portraits of her in the window of his Fifth Avenue photographic shop, which was noticed by an office boy from Loew's Inc, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, named Barney Duhan.

Hoping to finagle a date with the shop-window beauty, Duhan called the store and, posing as an MGM talent scout, asked for Ava's telephone number.

The manager refused to give it to him but passed on his query to Larry Tarr, who, believing it to be a serious inquiry, promptly sent Ava's pictures to MGM's New York office.

'I owe Mickey something - through him I discovered that I enjoyed sex'

Her pictures eventually reached the desk of a genuine executive, who sent for Ava and - impressed by her looks but unable to understand 'more than a couple of words of what I said: my accent was pure Tobacco Road South, honey' - shrewdly ordered a silent screen test to send to Hollywood. 

'I had less than no experience, I didn't know anything about anything, but part of me always knew that one day I'd be a movie queen.

'Anyway, I certainly didn't have a hell of a lot to lose. What was the alternative - a secretary's job in Sleepy Hollow [North Carolina]? When they told me that MGM was where Clark Gable worked, my mind was made up,' she reflected.

Chaperoned by her big sister, she caught the train to Hollywood and 'put myself in play'.

A sound test detected no star potential, and her almost incomprehensible Southern drawl seemed to assure a bleak future in Hollywood.

Fortunately, at this time all the studios kept pools of talentless pretty girls under contract - useful for decorating studio functions, entertaining visiting VIPs, and for walk-on parts. In the summer of 1941, aged 18, she was signed to a seven-year contract starting at $50 a week.

'I spent most of my time in what they called Leg Art Alley, where photographers did nothing but take publicity stills for newspapers and magazines. It was part of the regular grooming programme and I didn't like it one bit.

'But it kept me looking busy, and they didn't drop my option.'

Determined to lose her Southern drawl - 'I didn't know I had an accent until I got to Hollywood and people laughed at the way I spoke' - she grabbed all the voice lessons she could get. 

First love: Ava with Mickey Rooney on their wedding day in 1942

First love: Ava with Mickey Rooney on their wedding day in 1942

It was the beginning of what she called 'the long epiphany of the rest of my life' - the transformation of the shy Southern hillbilly into one of the most notorious and glamorous movie sirens Hollywood created.

The first star she met at MGM was Mickey Rooney. In character for a movie and dressed in a Brazilian drag costume, his mouth smeared with lipstick, he looked ludicrous. But it didn't stop him from asking Ava for a date.

He was the biggest star on the MGM lot - more famous than Spencer Tracy, bigger than Clark Gable, and six inches shorter than Ava - and Ava was impressed, and smart enough to turn him down. She called it Rule Number One of the Southern Lady Conventions: a lady must be courted - and a gentleman must be patient.

But Rooney was also persistent, and smitten, and began proposing to her on a regular basis. Eventually, she gave in - with one proviso: 'Not until I'm 19, honey.'

Rooney settled for that. 'Well, I guess he ain't been able to get into your pants yet,' his mother told Ava when they first broke the news to her.

Ma Rooney knew her son well; Ava was still a virgin when they married on January 10, 1942.

One year and five days later, amid a debris of public brawls and rumours of Ava's intemperate conjugal demands - 'I owe Mickey something: through him I discovered that I enjoyed sex,' she told me - they were divorced.

Although Ava's looks made her a byword for Hollywood glamour, her career was still going nowhere. In 1945, she married the virtuoso clarinettist and male chauvinist Artie Shaw. 'Artie was an intellectual, I was smart but I had no education at all - we were made for each other,' she told me.

Determined to educate her, Shaw ordered her to read more books - 'you can't listen to Frank Sinatra records all the time,' he told her; he hated Sinatra's voice.

She bought the bestseller of the day, but when he found her reading Forever Amber, Shaw was furious. 'I won't have a wife of mine reading that rubbish,' he said, hurling the bodice-ripping novel right across the room.

One year after they wed, Ava and Artie were divorced. Ironically, Artie's next wife was Kathleen Winsor, who had written Forever Amber; Ava went on to marry her third and last husband, Frank Sinatra. 

Artie Shaw (died 12/2004), musician and bandleader is pictured with his fifth wife, Ava Gardner.
HOWARD HUGHES. American reclusive millionaire businessman

Volatile relationships: Ava with second husband Artie Shaw, and right, Howard Hughes, who she felled with an ashtray during a fight in Louis B. Mayer's office

She talked honestly, and sometimes painfully, about her hard-drinking, her affairs with millionaires and matadors, the guys she met in bars, and the scandals that her old boss, Hollywood's boss of bosses, Louis B. Mayer, had hushed up - including the night Howard Hughes dislocated her jaw and she felled him with a marble ashtray.

She thought she had killed him. 'There was blood on the walls, on the furniture, real blood in the Bloody Marys,' she said.

'Mr Mayer sent in his henchmen to clean up the place and get me out of there fast. He feared it might become a murder scene.

I don't think he cared too much about me, but he didn't want any scandal attached to his studio.'

Hughes recovered and asked Gardner to marry him. But the mix was too volatile.

She said: 'Our chemistry was the stuff that causes hydrogen bombs to explode. Til death do us part would have been a whole lot sooner than later if we'd tied the knot.

'Howard was a control freak, and I was too independent to take his crap. He was out of his mind most of the time, even then, and he got crazier through the years.'

Although she made zero impact in any of the dozen second-feature movies she made at MGM, an outside studio borrowed her to play George Raft's sultry squeeze in a minor noir thriller, Whistle Stop.

'That was my first leading role. George Raft was old enough to be my father [he was 43]. He took some handling, but I adored him.'

Her way: Ava Gardner with third husband Frank Sinatra

Her way: Ava Gardner with third husband Frank Sinatra

Her performance landed her the role of Burt Lancaster's double-crossing girlfriend in The Killers.

'Whatever it is, whether you're born with it, or catch it from a public drinking cup, she has got it,' Humphrey Bogart said when he saw the performance and recognised the quality that makes a star.

Director Joseph Mankiewicz lifted the line straight from Bogart to describe Ava in The Barefoot Contessa, the story of a gipsy dancer discovered by a film director, played by Bogart, and turned into a Hollywood legend.

As for her marriage to Frank Sinatra, well, that lasted less than six years but, in a sadomasochistic way, the romance never ended.

Outspoken, caustic and often wickedly funny, Ava relished talking about the past, her highs and lows, her indiscretions, her mistakes. Nothing was spared - until she saw it on the page.

'Jesus Christ, Peter, we can't publish this,' she would say when I gave her pages to read.

'But Ava, it's your life,' I'd plead. 'Exactly, honey,' she'd say. And eventually that was the end of the book she wanted me to write.

We remained friends until the day she died. 'My body's failing every which way,' she told me after stumbling in her apartment.

She walked with a cane; once a heavy smoker, she had pulmonary emphysema, the lung disease that had recently killed her one-time lover, the director John Huston.

She didn't see many people, but hated to be called a recluse. 'I'm just winding down, honey. It's been a long haul from Grabtown. I'm just taking a little time out. I'm entitled to that,' she told me shortly before she died in January, 1990.

I miss her a lot. Who doesn't?