'Love Is Nothing'

By Lee Server
Illustrated. 551 pp. St. Martin's Press. $29.95




















Ava Gardner in Lee Server's Biography: Hollywood Star as Wild Spirit

The New York Times, 4/17/06

When a smitten great-grandson of Charles Darwin pronounced Ava Gardner "the highest specimen of the human species," he summed up the consensus about this voluptuous movie queen. With remarkable unanimity, those who met Gardner were apt to second that emotion.

"She was a sexy gal," said George Sidney, who filmed her for an MGM screen test in 1941. "Man, she was a hot number," Miles Davis said many years later. Others thought of her as "a goddess," "an enigma," "a very, very wild spirit" and "one of those people who broke the rules all the time." As for the much-vaunted party stamina of a woman who never met a drink or a bullfighter she didn't like: "She could go all night, y'know. She was a wild country girl and liked to let her hair down and fling off her shoes and have a good time."

Her latest biographer, Lee Server, is no slouch when it comes to admiring Gardner. His book's introduction calls her "a carnal, dangerous angel in the chiaroscuro dreamscape of film noir."

But Mr. Server, whose last book was a Robert Mitchum biography that lived up to its terrific title ("Robert Mitchum: 'Baby, I Don't Care' "), can also keep his cool. He is well suited to writing about sultry, iconic movie mavericks like these two. He's not a voyeur or a bore. And as the author of a book about film noir, he understands cinematic idiom. Mr. Server refers to amnesia as "noir's version of the common cold."

"Ava Gardner: 'Love Is Nothing' " is a seductive book that avoids the pitfalls that come with its territory. First of all, there is the problem of the star's memoir. Ms. Gardner's autobiography was published posthumously and worked on by several writers, sometimes sounding that way. Mr. Server makes use of this account without particularly trusting it, and with a nod to the apocryphal nature of so many Gardner stories. And when the facts are unobtainable, he's willing to print the legend, or so it seems — stories like "Later on she took the entire band with her when the club closed."

He also enlivens his book's bibiliography with a long string of newspaper and magazine headlines that capture the tenor of Gardner's paper trail. Among them: "Ava, 'Nervous,' Tossed Out of Brazil Hotel"; "Nothing Between Us, Says Ava"; "Sinatra Departs, Ava Blows Kisses to Bullfighter." Gardner lived so much of her life in this kind of spotlight that the tabloid coverage became part of her story. (This book would have benefited from better photographs to capture what all that fuss was about.)

"There is one extant press photo of the couple on their honeymoon that does not show them running, snarling, cringing, cowering," Mr. Server writes about Gardner's gale-force stormy marriage (her third) to Frank Sinatra. "Of course, it was taken from a distance, and from the rear." Speaking of the rear, this book's subtitle, "Love Is Nothing," is only a partial, sanitized quotation from Gardner. She called love "nothing but a pain" and specified where the pain was.

Her story begins in Grabtown, the rural North Carolina burg that became famous as her birthplace. But it doesn't take long for Mr. Server to take Gardner to Hollywood, into an MGM contract and a marriage to Mickey Rooney. Rooney, who called his honeymoon with Gardner "a sexual symphony," was one of many men whose memoirs bragged of bedroom exploits with this gorgeous creature. She liked to kiss and tell, too. "We never fought in bed," she supposedly said about Sinatra. "The fight would start on the way to the bidet."

After Rooney she was pursued by Howard Hughes. "Hughes made Mickey seem like a boy who had just gotten paid from his paper route," Mr. Server writes. Then she married Artie Shaw, the renowned musician and ladykiller. But domesticity did not suit the woman whose escapades in Rome would become an inspiration for Federico Fellini. "To Ava Gardner, the first half of 'La Dolce Vita' must have looked like home movies," Mr. Server writes, emphasizing her link to Anita Ekberg's spectacularly wanton character in that film.

She would later roam the world from film set to film set, embodying the exotic and untamable in films like "Mogambo," "The Barefoot Contessa," "Bhowani Junction" and "The Naked Maja." Mr. Server's writing about these films is informed rather than inspired. But the author takes his cue from Gardner: she herself could be dismissive about her work and distracted from it. She reached a point (by the time of "The Night of the Iguana" in 1964) where she could not be relied upon after lunchtime.
In other ways, too, her chronic drinking took its toll. "She had gone from famous to infamous to notorious and was now regarded as something of a menace to polite society," the swimming star Esther Williams wrote about Gardner's behavior in the early 1960's.

By avoiding every known latter-day health tip (at one point her diet staples included Hershey bars, gum, marshmallows, popcorn and Jack Daniels) and hurtling through life with no constraints, Gardner somehow preserved herself into her 60's. She died in 1990 at 67, and even reading about this brings a sense of loss. If her death is made palpable at the end of Mr. Server's book, that's understandable. He has spent 500 pages successfully bringing her to life.


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By BRYAN MAY Customer Reviewer

"The Curse of Vilma Valentine" is, among other things, a comic hoot. At times it makes you laugh out loud. At times the wit sneaks up on you. The voices that tell Vilma's story are great. You start off with Groucho Marx, followed in short order by persons as varied as Yakima Canutt, William Faulkner, John Wayne, Marion Davies, and George Balanchine.

Those characters totally invented (or so I assume) by the author are just as well done. I particularly liked Betty DaTodi with her dry delivery in the Eve Arden/Thelma Ritter role, Clydette White with her preserved-in-amber petulance, and Renee LaMarque with her edge of nastiness.

The newspaper headlines, articles, and columns (including the conflicting opinions and prejudices of Hedda and Louella) are wonderfully done. I get a sense of something serious under the surface: stardom and its discontents, the fickleness of public infatuation, the entertainment media as a fun-house mirror of actual events, the fluidity of identity, the need for stability. But don't let any of that scare you off. Just read and enjoy.

And if you have any love for movies of the '30s and '40s, when you read the filmographies you'll be dying for the next Vilma Valentine Film Festival.