The night before Ed Victor was due to have dinner with Ava Gardner for the first time, he told his father — who was in hospital awaiting an operation for colon cancer — about the meeting, thinking it might cheer him up. “Be careful,” warned the old man. “She might try to seduce you.”
Those were the last words Victor heard him say. “It’s a very tender memory for me,” smiles the 73-year-old Bronx-born literary agent. “There was my father warning his 46-year-old son that one of the most iconic actresses of both our lifetimes might ‘try to seduce me’.”
Seduce him, Gardner did — though, at 64, it was with her story and wit, not that once sinfully beautiful face and body. The year was 1987 and Gardner was semi-paralysed by a stroke and living alone in Kensington.
Victor, arguably the most famous literary agent in the world, had been called on to broker a deal for the Hollywood star’s memoirs, co-authored by the celebrated British journalist Peter Evans. (“I either write the book or sell the jewels,” Gardner had told Evans when she first contacted him about the project, “and I’m kind of sentimental about the jewels.”)
As a man with a client list that includes Nigella Lawson — one of his closest friends and about whom he is tight-lipped amid her marital trauma — Frederick Forsyth, Keith Richards and U2, Victor, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, has never been easily star-struck. Indeed, he’s a star himself, with his own table at the Wolseley restaurant, a cocktail named after him at the Ivy and the motto “Why stay in when you can go out?”
“But Ava was different,” he says. And on her behalf he embarked on a labour of love that will finally be published next week after nearly a quarter of a century, despite the deaths of both subject and author, and Victor having to finish writing the memoirs himself.
Certain words invariably crop up when describing Victor. Bullish is one; flamboyant another. His charmed life is divided between his Regent’s Park home and a 17th- century oak-beamed Long Island “barn’’ where he and his wife Carol spend four months of the year, kicking off the summer season with their famous July 4 party.
But spend time with the man they call the “Mr Big” of publishing — he is both my friend and agent — and you learn he is not above passion projects. He may sell Eric Clapton’s memoirs for a reported £2.6 million one day and have his client John Banville win the Booker Prize the next, but he also likes quirky endeavours such as the The Obvious Diet, which he wrote in 2001 after shedding 40lb from his 6ft 4in frame.
In Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, Victor managed to combine the literary gold he has always been able to spot with a nostalgic journey back into his own childhood and his student days at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire.
“As a young man, I always found her the sexiest of all the movie stars, even sexier than Marilyn,” he says. “And the lascivious nature of her life contributed to that sex goddess perception.” Yet on the night of their first meeting 26 years ago, instead of the Barefoot Contessa, in walked “a prematurely old woman”, the left side of her face “frozen in a rictus of sadness”.
It would have been a hard for any woman to bear, he says, but for one called “the world’s most beautiful animal”, it was unbearably sad.
“The stroke had really taken it out of her,” Victor sighs. “But there was a tension in the situation because she still behaved like a sex goddess. She was debauched, though, a big boozer who smoked three packs a day. And on every occasion that we met — except when I arranged for her to meet [Simon & Schuster executive] Dick Snyder — she wore velour tracksuits.
“But she could turn it on. The meeting with Snyder was a very big deal and she transformed herself into a movie star in this wonderful black dress and high heels, showing off the legs she was still proud of.
“Not only that but she was backlit,” he laughs. “She had hired a lighting man to make sure she looked her best and a butler to serve Cristal champagne. ‘I have to get a little pie-eyed to talk about myself, honey,’ she said. Ava knew that she had to perform and perform she did.”
Although Gardner’s default setting was flirtatious (“she really couldn’t help herself”), she could also be belligerent, foul-mouthed and pathologically late. “The lateness was a form of power play. Celebrities feel that they can be late with impunity because people will always be happy to see them.”
Victor, who once came second on Tatler’s list of London’s most frequently invited guests, behind Sir Elton John, loathes being late himself, “but I’ve dealt with stars for so long that I know how to suck it up when they are”. Gardner once turned up at 5pm for a lunch date, declared “I need a nap” and disappeared for the next five days.
As for the book, Evans was having a tough time with the ageing star, and the project was abandoned after she died, and for much of the 1990s, during which time Victor suffered leukaemia. But his resolve to have Gardner’s memoirs published never wavered.
Still, it wasn’t going to be easy. Evans describes how Gardner swung between bouts of introspectiveness and self-doubt to bursts of jaw-dropping candour over the years they worked on the book together.
She described how, as a 19-year-old on her first day on the MGM lot, she met first love Mickey Rooney, who told her, “I wanted to bed you the moment I saw you” — then cheated on her in the first week of their marriage.
She told Evans how Howard Hughes taught her to be a better lover, adding that she nearly killed him with a marble ashtray in a fit of rage once, but MGM hushed it up. She and third husband Frank Sinatra fought all the time (“It was madness, but he was good in the feathers”) before saying with a shrug: “But I fought with all my men. It was my way of life, my way of loving.”
After some of the more salacious reminiscences, Gardner would get worried that she had said too much. “Ava wasn’t ashamed of the life she had lived, but back in her day — and even in Hollywood today — you couldn’t be honest about who you were,” says Victor.
“Ava was always carefully planning how she would come across, which is ultimately why she fired Peter. She wasn’t sure she wanted all this stuff coming out while she was still alive. But when Frank Sinatra, who probably remained the love of her life, condemned Peter to her, that spelled the end of their relationship.”
Evans always believed that Sinatra had paid Gardner to suppress the book, but in the late 1990s he resurrected the memoirs. He never got to write “The End”, however. As he sat down to finish the book on August 31, 2012, he had a fatal heart attack, leaving Victor to finish the book himself.
“When she had fired Peter, Ava came out with this wonderful phrase: ‘Maybe one day when I’m pushing clouds around’. Well now they’re both pushing clouds around.”
Although the book and Gardner’s own admissions strip her down to a less mythical creature, Victor rejects notions that she was miserable during those final years.
“Ageing is not an easy process, especially when you’re sick. I know that there is a bullet with my name on it, but on the other side of illness there can be a better life, one you appreciate more. I think Ava chose to end up the way she was. She never seemed lonely to me. Alone, maybe, but not lonely. And right up until the end, even in those velour tracksuits, she comported herself like a movie star.”
Perhaps all the effort that went into keeping other people’s fantasies alive eventually became too much for her. “I’m tired of being Ava Gardner,” she announced to Evans one day. “And she was,” Victor maintains, “but I’ve learnt a lot about celebrity in my life and it’s a complicated thing.”
He then tells me about the day his wife and Candice Bergen, a family friend, sat outside a café in Paris, at the height of the actress’s fame. “People were coming up to Candy every five minutes and my wife asked her how on earth she dealt with it. ‘With a mixture of irritation and entitlement,’ came Candy’s reply. “Ava dealt with it exactly the same way.”