The Robert Graves story I really wanted to read was ‘She Landed Yesterday’. Worth the price of his Complete Short Stories alone, it stays with you. After finishing it late last night, I was feeling somewhat unnerved and started working my way through the other short stories in the collection. I came across ‘A Toast to Ava Gardner’, originally published in The New Yorker.
Ava, Graves, Mallorca
Ava was a close friend of a woman called Betty Sicre, an acquaintance of the Graves’s. Robert and Beryl met Ava for the first time at Betty’s house and she enchanted them. Graves writes in ‘A Toast to Ava Gardner’ that Betty ‘suggested that Ava should take a short holiday from the exhausting social life of Madrid to visit soporific and truly rural Majorca. There she could catch up on sleep, study Spanish grammar, swim daily, and consult me about how to finish her random education with a crash course in English poetry.’
Inevitably, Ava’s poetic education was derailed by the flamenco bars of Palma. She didn’t need any beauty sleep.
If you don’t know who Ava Gardner is…
Ava arrived in Hollywood aged 19. Her film career took off in 1951 with Showboat, followed by an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952. In The Barefoot Contessa (1954), often called her ‘signature film’, she played a gypsy from the Madrid slums who becomes a film star but is murdered by her jealous husband.
In her time, Ava was married to actor Mickey Rooney, jazz bandleader Artie Shaw and, lastly, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was the great love of Ava’s life. Graves’s daughter Lucia, who translated Ava’s posthumously published memoir into Spanish, told Peter Bogdanovich that ‘whenever she visited Ava’s London apartment, Gardner was always playing Sinatra records’.
In Spain, Ava’s friendship with Hemingway led, in 1954, to an affair with Luis Miguel Dominguín, considered by some aficionados to be the finest bullfighter of the 20th century. Dominguin believed Ava the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Bogdanovich, a great admirer of Graves who visited Deia several times, attempted to capture Ava’s allure in a review of Lee Server’s biography Ava Gardner for The New York Times. At the memorial for Graves which took place in London in January 1986, Bogdanovich met Ava for the first time. He suggests Graves was captivated by her ‘luminous beauty – which no camera could capture – but also by her intelligence, easy charm, kindness and steadfast individuality’.
In her introduction to the Collected Stories, Lucia quotes Graves as claiming that ‘Pure fiction is beyond my imaginative range’. The stories are mostly true, ‘though occasional names and references have been altered’. Reading ‘A Toast to Ava Gardner’, I found this easy to believe.
The backstory is a feud between Anibal and Wilfredo, two partners in a large furniture factory on the outskirts of Palma. Wilfredo is a friend of the Graves family. After their building is damaged by fire, the men find themselves working for the bank that paid for rebuilding and restocking. Now mere employees, Anibal and Wilfred loathe each other.
In an attempt to restore harmony, the bank appoints a certain Don Hilario Tortugas y Postres, a retired colonel, as an arbitrator between the two men. (Tortugas y Postres is an ancient, illustrious aristocratic name in Mallorca.) Without giving too much away, the arrival of Ava Gardner in Mallorca brings an end to the feud and makes Don Hilario a very happy man.
This mundane story is really a vehicle for Graves to record his impressions of Ava, while making us wait for her to appear. He admits that ‘it fascinated us to bask for a while in the spotlight of her glory’ but takes pains to distance himself from the men and women who go gaga in Ava’s presence. In his own way, though, he’s obviously knocked out.
At 33, Ava was too mature – not to mention strong-willed and worldly-wise – to be Muse material. But it wouldn’t have been hard for Graves to adopt her as a goddess. He pays tribute to Ava through poetry. In their first poetry lesson, he says ‘Poems are like people…There are not too many authentic ones around.’ Ava, of course, is authentic. Later, Graves marks a page in his Collected Poems for her because ‘I thought she might perhaps like to take it personally’. The lines, from ‘The Portrait’ are:
She speaks always in her own voice
Even to strangers
She is wild and innocent, pledged to love
Through all disaster…
‘That was Ava to the life’ Graves writes.
According to Lucia, Bogdanovich writes, Ava wanted her memoir to be called ‘In Her Own Voice’. Sadly, it was published as Ava: My Story. Except in Spain, where Lucia, who translated the book into Spanish, ‘made good on Ava’s wish’.
In Robert Graves: Life on the Edge, Miranda Seymour writes that, at Graves’s memorial service, ‘the photographers turned from the family to focus on the face of a woman who had become as much of a hermit as Greta Garbo. For the sake of the man in whom her trust, unusually, had proved well-placed, Gardner was willing to face them.’
David Templeton, the Deia artist and singer with Pa Amb Oli band wasn’t at Graves’s funeral but, he told me, Phil Shepherd, another artist, was. Apparently, Phil, who’d had a few drinks, grabbed Ava’s legendary upper thigh and said ‘Hello, you’re very pleased to meet me aren’t you?’
The response of Ava, who liked a drink herself, was sadly not recorded.
David himself has very fond memories of the bed in which Ava used to sleep when she stayed at the Graves’s rented Palma apartment. (The apartment is mentioned in the short story ‘A Bicycle in Majorca’.) We’ll draw a discreet veil over these.
For the Graves family, as much as anyone else who met her, I’m sure Ava was some kind of goddess made flesh. I believe I remember Juan, Robert’s son, telling me of Ava’s first visit in 1955. Fifty or so years later his eyes lit up when he described his first vision of her. ‘The taxi door opened. Out came a heel, followed by a long leg sheathed in a black stocking, followed by a hand holding a glass of whisky and a cigarette, followed by an arm in a fur coat, followed by Ava.’ Juan shook his head. ‘Oh man, she was something else.
The illustration of Ava and Robert is done in coffee by Paul Cemmick. Thanks again, Paul.