Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fly Me to the Moon—A ghostwriter reviews "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations"

In the 1980s, legendary Hollywood beauty Ava Gardner hired ghostwriter Peter Evans to pen her memoirs. She was broke, aging, childless, living alone in London, in ill health, and very lonely. She told Evans that it was a choice between selling her book or selling her jewelry, and, as she said, “I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Known as an outspoken, independent, over-the-top playgirl, Gardner was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1940s and '50s, working with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and Burt Lancaster, among others. Her personal life was even more sensational. She’d been married to a bizarre trifecta of celebs (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra), had many torrid love affairs (she was especially fond of bullfighters), and then, in later life, sank into alcoholism and depression.

She was, in short, the perfect client for any ghostwriter—if he could get her to talk.

He did, especially in boozy late night gabfests on the phone. Then, after many months of hard work and interest from a major publisher, Gardner suddenly stopped calling. She fired Evans and canceled the project. (Man, we all know how that feels.) What apparently happened was that Sinatra paid her NOT to tell their story.

Twenty years went by, both Gardner and Sinatra went on to that big Silver Screen in the sky, and one day Evans pulled out his tapes and notes and decided to write his own version of Gardner's life. Only this time he put himself into the story, much in the same way that Charlie Kaufman inserted himself into his screenplay for Adaptation. That is, Evans became a character in Gardner's life, and part of the book became his struggle to get her story on paper.

Evans describes in exquisite detail how to work with and around a reluctant client, how to flatter without pandering, how to tread the fine line between friendship and a working relationship, and how to establish boundaries—including sexual ones—between oneself and a moody client. He details how ghosts have to maneuver between being a confidant, a shrink, a best friend, a detached observer, and, yes, a gossip monger. Of course, we ghosts want to present our subjects in the best light, but we sure do need those juicy details, not-so-flattering inner thoughts, and questionable motives to move the story along.

All through my reading of the book, I kept thinking it was like a primer for anyone who has ever attempted to ghostwrite someone else’s autobiography.

For me, the difficult part of ghostwriting is not the writing, it’s getting the material needed to tell the story. So reading about the ways Evans pulled it off was just one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much. The other, of course, was learning the intimate details of Gardner’s life, particularly what she had to say about Sinatra’s biggest asset—which, trust me, was not Ole’ Blue Eyes' vocal cords.


Linda Sunshine, a former NYC publishing executive, is the author of more than 50 books and a ghostwriter for many unrepentant clients. Currently, she is the only writer in LA who isn't working on a screenplay.

Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, is now available from Simon & Schuster.

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