It was either write a book or sell the jewels in order to make ends meet, and Ava Gardner chose to write a book.
But she couldn’t do it on her own. She hired Peter Evans to listen to stories of her life, and to ghostwrite the book for her.
In a series of lengthy interviews — some in person, some at odd hours over the phone — Peter got to know Ava, from the tough times faced by her family during the depression, to her three Hollywood marriages, to the stroke that practically ended her career.
Though the two formed a friendship and Ava gave approval of much of the copy that Peter showed her, the book was never published during either of their lifetimes. They had a falling out when Ava found out that Peter had previously been sued (along with the BBC) by her ex-husband, Frank Sinatra. Their interviews ceased, and just as he was about to finally finish the book in 2012 (years after Ava’s death), Peter passed away of a heart attack.
After Peter’s death, the book was finally published in 2013 as Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. I was lucky enough to win a copy of the 2014 paperback edition from a Twitter giveaway by Aurora of the fabulous blog Once Upon a Screen, and finally got around to reading it last month.
The Secret Conversations is a book that blends Peter Evans’ own experiences with Ava with more traditional biographical information that you’d expect from a Hollywood memoir. Each chapter contains accounts of Peter’s conversations with Ava and his impressions of her, along with direct quotes from these interviews, and passages written from Ava’s perspective.
The result is a very interesting read. It’s a peek behind the curtain of the memoir-writing process, with a ghostwriter involved (which is a common occurrence with entertainment biz books). It’s a story of a woman’s rise to fame. It’s a story of a woman’s life and loves. It’s an analysis of her public image, and how that image had an impact on her. With so many fascinating elements and stories being told, The Secret Conversations is difficult to put down.
I’ve seen two criticisms of this book on Goodreads and in my other research of it. One is that it’s repetitive, and the second is that Peter Evans inserts himself too much into the story. There is some repetition to Ava’s storytelling, and Evans is a major part of the book… but I disagree with the opinion that these things negatively impact the quality of the book.
The repetition comes on account of the fact that Ava was a repetitive storyteller, which Evans lets the reader know every early on in the book – “She tends to repeat stories that she’s comfortable with,” he tells Ed Victor (p. 79). The fact that this was her way of storytelling, and Evans preserves it, allows the reader to know Ava a bit better.
I also appreciated the fact that Evans didn’t remove himself from the story, for the same reason. We get to know Ava through the way she acts in the interviews, the way she interacts with another person. We don’t get the clean, ghostwritten, chronological chronological version of her time in Hollywood. We see how much it hurt her to think that after her strokes she would never work again, and we see how reluctant she was to have her story told in print. As a result, the book’s portrayal of Ava feels very personal and very honest, where Hollywood biographies can often feel cold and detached.
This book allowed me to learn more about Ava’s life, of which I knew very little (aside from the Sinatra marriage) prior to reading. I also left the book feeling like I had a greater understanding of Ava the human being, not just Ava the classic film star. The Secret Conversations is a good read, and I would recommend it for any fan of Ava, as well as any fan of classic Hollywood in general.