Walking around the extraordinary exhibition of Picasso Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, I was surprised, amused and charmed by several caricatures Picasso drew for Jaume Sabartés, primarily those featuring movie stars such as Esther Williams and Lana Turner (see below). Picasso had met Sabartés in 1899 and they remained close friends until his death. In 1935 Sabartés moved to Paris, became Picasso’s full-time secretary and was later the driving force in founding the Museu Picasso in Barcelona, which opened in 1963, a considerable feat of political tact given Picasso’s Communist credentials and the Falangist Franco regime then ruling Spain.
In Picasso Portraits (London: National Portrait Gallery, 2016), Elizabeth Cowling tells us ‘Picasso presented Sabartés with dozens of portrait-caricatures. While poking fun at his appearance, they also referred ironically to aspects of his personality and tasks he had performed on Picasso’s behalf, and were thus in-jokes that only they or their intimates could fully appreciate’ (p.193).
Sabartés by Picasso in 1901, 1902, 1900 and 1939.
Williams and Turner were two of the biggest stars of the early 50s, both at MGM, both in different ways signs created, consumed and exchanged on the basis of their meanings. Turner was probably most explicitly associated with sex, and in its most transgressive and scandalous aspects. Williams was a picture of wholesomeness yet arguably no one’s body was on more public display throughout the heyday of her swimming movies, the late forties and early 50s. Both were clearly presented as objects of desire. Here Esther Williams is seen in a still from Charles Walters’ Dangerous When Wet (1953). The Lana Turner picture on the left seems simply to be an archetypal cheesecake publicity photo of the era, not associated with any particular film. As Cowling notes, both caricatures were drawn on pin-ups of movie stars distributed in issues of Ciné-Révélation, which claimed to be ‘Le plus grand hébdomadaire du cinéma’ (The greatest weekly devoted to the cinema).
The caricatures are sweet and endearing: a podgy, be-spectacled elderly Sabatér needing a staircase to reach the amazon swimmer, or innocently nuzzling Lana Turner. The desire, sexual but innocent, out of reach, inescapable, unhidden. Was it the cinema that gave rise to these desires or was it simply that it was pictures of beautiful half-dressed women? Cowling offers a hint. Picasso lived near Cannnes and ‘The association of Cannes with the movie industry provides the immediate context for the series: in the 1950s Picasso had superstar status himself and being seen with him was considered excellent publicity by rising stars such as Brigitte Bardot. But hoarding pin-ups from movie magazines of the 1950s was no different from collecting photos and postcards of entertainers and celebrities, as Picasso had begun doing before the First World War’ (p.195).
That they are pictures of entertainers and celebrities makes the desire more permissible, entertainers are on public display, and more innocent — they’re safely out of reach. These lovely works are to me an example of the extent to which cinema had invaded the Western popular imagination in general and that of the art world in particular. They are also an example of Picasso’s greatness.Take the Esther Williams image. He’s succumbing to it as an image of desire but also pointing out its lacks in relationto his own erotic imagination. It’s like an embodyment of Marcuse’s critique of the way the culture industry tames sexuality and renders it one dimensional but re-endowed with a dialectical. He both admires its products and renders them unruly, puts the hair back into Esther’s armpits and her crotch. It’s fab.
It’s interesting to note that the shapes, structures and impulses of these works — minor ones in Picasso’s catalogue, mere doodles to a friend — are the same as would constitute major works of great mid-twentieth century pop artists such as Ray Johnson and Edouardo Polozzi (see below). Something to pursue in a later note.
Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations reads the way a gulp of smoke must feel like to a nicotine addict: a sensuous rush of sheer delight. Gardner sashays out of the pages of the book and into our consciousness like the Ava of our dreams: as cool and ravishing as her Kitty Collins in The Killers, a ‘sister under the mink’ to Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat; but with the weary sadness, good conscience, conflicted morality and dashed dreams usually attributed to the male heroes of noir. Peter Evans’ achievement is to give us the impression that we are hearing her at night — with a drink in one hand and a cig in the other — just before bed or in bed when she couldn’t sleep; as unguarded as she ever was to the closest of her friends who didn’t quite make the inner circle with whom she shared her heart: her sister and her maid.
The book tells two stories: Evans’ attempt to get a book out of Ava; and Ava’s own struggle to tell her story honestly but without revealing much or compromising anybody. As she tells Evans, ‘I’m broke baby. I either write the book or sell the jewels. And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels’ (p.20). .
Part of the joy of the book is in hearing forties lingo from one of its savviest practitioners. “I’m a gal who likes to buy her own drinks’, she says, evoking a lost world of smoke and nightclubs with live bands, dashing millionaires and glamorous b-girls hovering by to hoover in some of that cash whilst underlining that she wasn’t one of them (p.12). Sinatra doesn’t drink, he ‘kisses the bottle’ (p.224). Ava doesn’t offer refreshments, she offers ‘Tea – or something else? I’m a something else kind of woman myself ’ (p.21). She makes it clear she’s only doing the book because she’s had a stroke, can no longer act, and, ‘if our book don’t replenish the larder, honey, dying’s going to be my only hope’ (p.22).
We get the bare outlines of her biography. She sums up her upbringing in the Depression with, ‘If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm, that’s what I say’ with the last clause summoning up all those smart career girls of ‘30s films who were at the bottom of the economic ladder but knew their views were as informed and accurate as anybody’s: a sharp cookie with a hard past, a democrat’s outlook, and a moralist’s code of honour, however particular. They had a right to their say. And so does Ava, even if she doesn’t say as much as we want to hear.
Her career, making the cover of Time when it really meant something, all are lightly touched on, maybe because she saw herself as someone who had nothing to offer movies but her looks. In a way, it’s a pity that the book overvalues who she knew and who she slept with over what she did as any cinephile will appreciate how much her presence in movies meant for so long. But that’s been covered in other books and can be covered better still by future scholars. This is another kind of book.
What the conversations recounted here focus on is a particular definition of life: ‘Lana Turner says that life is what happens to you while the crow’s-feet are fucking up your looks. Lana has a name and a story for every goddamn wrinkle in her face’ (p. 9). Luckily, Ava’s not afraid of telling us how she got at least some of her wrinkles; and most of the people she talks about come out looking better than they usually do in this type of book.
Of Mickey Rooney, her first husband, she remembers his energy, his sunny disposition and his ability to bounce back: ‘He always believed he had a sure thing for tomorrow… His relationship with his bookies was built on eternal optimism. He had a kind of cartoon resilience (p.160)’. She liked him enough to keep having sex with him even after they separated, ‘After all, we were still married and the sex was legal – and still pretty good, thank God’ (p.169). But ‘it’s a lonely business fucking someone you no longer love. Especially a husband,’ (p. 160). Nonetheless, after their divorce, she told him ‘You were the perfect first husband, Mick Rooney’ (p.245).
She then had an affair with Howard Hughes, one which lasted off and on for about twenty years. ‘It was a strange relationship. I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex – or to stop me from hitting him’ (p.252). She almost killed him once, ‘I hit him with an ashtray. I think it was onyx. Anyway, it was heavy. I practically had him laid out on a slab. We fought all the time but I nearly put a lily in his hand that night.’ (p. 235).
Her second husband was Artie Shaw, one of the most successful bandleaders of his day, a lefty who fought for Billy Holiday to sing with his band and a musician extraordinaire. He was also a bit of a bully. ‘He was always putting me down…(but) I owe Artie plenty. He made me get an education. We must say that in the book. Give the guy credit where credit’s due’ (p. 203). She was crazy about him; his intelligence, his success and most of all his music. ‘Artie played the clarinet the way Frank sang. They both knew how to bend a note, stretch a phrase. The could do that stuff better than anyone alive’ (p. 208). He was the only one of her husbands who left her: ‘He didn’t waste any time doing it either – that marriage had lasted just about a year when he called the cab on me’ (p. 245). The marriages to Mickey and Artie were easy come, easy go. ‘I called them my ‘starter husbands’! You only had to sneeze and you’d have missed both of them’ (p.31).
She didn’t sleep with everyone she had a crush on. Of John Huston, she remembers, ‘‘I fell for him at once…But he made a pass at me first. I was twenty-four, I had divorced Mickey Rooney after only a year, I’d had an affair with Howard Hughes, and I was in a mad marriage to Artie Shaw. I couldn’t blame him for thinking I’d be a pushover. He chased me around the bushes. I was as stewed as he was but I didn’t sleep with him …I don’t think many women said no to Johnny. He was a spoiled son of a bitch’ (p. 55).
But Huston is remembered with fondness, as is Robert Mitchum: ‘I was crazy about him. I know he was pretty gone on me, too. But the truth was – it still is—he was committed to his wife, Dorothy. She was a saint. She was devoted to him. I once proposed to him, kind of kidding on the square. He said, “It’s okay with me, baby. But you’ll have to clear it with Dorothy first”’ (226).
She’s got a soft spot for pirates, rascals, outsiders – those who get it on, get high and give authority the finger. She remembers Onassis as ‘a primitive with a yacht…For some ladies that’s an irresistible combination’ (p. 12) but ‘If he hadn’t had a dollar he could have snapped a lady’s garter anytime he liked’. She has affection even for ‘Mr. Limp Dick Brando’ (p.20), who got her mad for lying about sleeping with her. “I told him that if he really believed I’d ever jumped into the feathers with him, his brain had gone soft. He apologized. He said that his brain wasn’t the only part of his anatomy that had gone soft lately. He said, ‘Ithn’t that punithment enouth baby?’ she lisped, mocking Brando’s speech impediment. ‘That’s a funny line, isn’t it? How can you stay pissed with a guy who comes up with a line like that?’
Not everyone comes off well in the book. On George Raft ‘I had to slap him down a few times to keep him in line’ (p. 207). On Peter Lawford, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, ‘There was a lot of Iago in Peter,’ (p. 168). As to George C. Scott, ‘When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying – he’d beat the shit out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done. I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing,’ (p. 202).
The book comes to an end when she starts to speak about Sinatra. She remembers her first meeting with him, ‘‘I was with Mickey in the studio commissary. We had just gotten married. Frank came over to our table – Jesus, he was like a god in those days, if gods can be sexy. A cocky god, he reeked of sex’ (p. 223). But even though she can’t act any more because she’s had a stroke, and even though the book is needed to make up the income she can no longer get from her acting, she can’t bring herself to say much more about Sinatra. And thus the book starts its end; thus why it was never published during the lifetimes of Gardner, Sinatra or indeed Peter Evans.She’d promised. ‘Bad’ girls sometimes have the best principles.
There’s a wonderful anecdote near the beginning where Ava asks Evans, who’d previously written a book on Aristotle Onassis, ‘‘Did Ari ever tell you his views on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata – about the morality of broads who bargain with their pussies? He might have said ‘cunts’ I don’t remember. He probably said ‘cunts’,” (p.9). Ava was never one to go in for that kind of bargaining. She took what she wanted and paid the price: ‘‘The fucking you get for the fucking you got’ (p. 145).
In the end, and in her own words: ‘You can sum up my life in a sentence, honey: She made movies, she made out, and she made a fucking mess of her life. But she never made jam’ (p.2).
A slim volume but one that packs in more phrases you’ll like to remember than much weightier tomes. A quick read but an essential one for all those interested in Ava, in noir films, in Classic Hollywood, in movies. Best experienced when listening to Sinatra’s Only the Lonely LP.