Ava Gardner: The Gal From Grabtown

Tenn in Conversation
New Orleans

You want a friend? You can't do better than Ava Gardner. Good Lord, do not ask her a question--any question--unless you want the unvarnished, peppery truth. She will level you with honesty, kindness, appreciation, open and pure love. If you deserve it, of course. Do not get on her bad side. It takes a lot to get there, but don't get there. In the name of God--or anything.

She knew she was lucky. She grew up in an impoverished little place called Grabtown. Could I make this up? Grabtown. 'I'm the gal from Grabtown,' she would say, and laugh. God was good to her though: She was astonishingly beautiful. I could never help but simply stare at her. I think she hated that--not just from me, but anyone. So she would make a face or start cussing. She was formidably salty.

Ava Gardner hugging Paul Newman on the set of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972.

She wanted to remind people all the time that she was a real person, not an art object or some dumb and pretty girl. She had a great mind, and she understood books and plays and art to an extent some so-called smarter people never could. Her insecurities were great, though, and when she called me for help, it was almost always because she thought she was dumb about something. She never was. She knew the score on everyone and everything. It's very intoxicating when someone is so beautiful and yet so maternal. Elizabeth [Taylor] is very similar: Gorgeous, but hungry to hug you, feed you, get you through the crisis. Ava got me through some hairy crises, let me tell you. Huge-hearted woman.

Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr on the set of The Night of the Iguana, 1964.

Her ego was centered, it seemed to me, around her friendships. 'I'm a damn good friend,' she always said. She took no great pride in her film work, even though it stands up beautifully: She was never bad or boring. With the right directors--Huston and Mankiewicz, particularly--she was wonderful, a star. I never saw her taking particular or special care of her skin or hair or her diet: She lived fully and happily. She shared beautifully. She submitted to the people on a set to make her appropriate, but she didn't care about off-set hours. She didn't need to: She was always stunning. And sweet. And direct. I think these things, these people, happen because of a gorgeous confluence of events and genes. Thank God for them. I hope they make a few more.

When I think of her, I think of a sort of poem or koan: Laughter through tears. Sex and sweetness. Hugs and second helpings. A steady shoulder. My beautiful, ballsy friend.
When she left the business--stopped working--she retired to one of the most beautiful and comfortable homes in London you could ever imagine: creamy and warm. Packed with books and pets and friends. I complimented her on the beautiful home she had created. 'This is the real me,' she said. 'I finally got what I wanted.' What she got was comfort and a small circle of friends and peace.

©2013 by James Grissom


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