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GP 19 July 2006: Two Women Expatriates

Deeply Superficial.  Ava Garner is best known for one cunning witticism: “Deep down, I’m pretty superficial.”  She actually cracked quite a few, but we will get to that.  Ava’s on our screen at the moment because a dreadful biography, Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing, from a movie groupie named Lee Server, has lurched into the world in 2006, just in time for summer reading.  Five hundred and fifty one pages and counting, reviewed favorably in every place imaginable, it’s one of those baloney-packed affairs that you don’t have to pay too much attention to, good for those 100-degree days when you don’t want your brain to be challenged. 

Ava hailed from Grabtown in Johnson County, North Carolina, just miles from Smithfield, where her remains are buried.  She’s the most important thing that ever happened to either town or the county, so a museum has been put there to secure her memory.  Her chance visit to New York led to a career at MGM, largely in second-rate movies, but with a life spread across a wide canvas from Spain to Latin America and London in the company of larger than life figures such as John Huston and Robert Graves, and pint-size husbands Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.  We have always been startled by the acclaim she arouses, though certainly she had more allure than a mostly sexless sex symbol of her times, Marilyn Monroe.  What we did not realize ‘til now was that Ava had a fast, incisive tongue—drunk or sober. 

She provides interesting counterpoint to another summer read, Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae, an autobiography that carries Spark through her first novel, The Comforters in 1957.  Spark passed away in Italy in April 2006, which event invites a reprise on her life.  She, too, has a connection with the movies, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, her best known novel, having been made over into a flick, starring the ever gifted Maggie Smith. 

They both hailed from the provinces—Edinburgh for Spark and central North Carolina in Gardner’s case.  Spark was the intellectual, lecturing now and again at more than one academic venue, twirling a strand of hair as she thought her way through her talk.  Curiously, Gardner was more intellectually honest, cutting right to the point, able in an instant, for example, to find her own self superficial, never hiding behind artifice. 

Spark talks about setting the record straight, dueling with those who got the facts wrong about this or that, at odds with husbands, lovers, and others.  In her autobiography, she is busy telling you how others got her wrong, and how she got it right.  Her daily regime rather bitter; all her life was in her art.  One knows she was an immense talent, but suspects she had an unpleasant persona.  The swashbuckling Gardner really didn’t give a damn, partying, drinking, and lusting her way through life.  She put all her art into life, and will not be long remembered as an actress. 

Two Women.  Condemned by their personalities to wander the earth, just like the Ancient Mariner, they settled far from home: Gardner in Spain and London, Spark in Civitella della Chiana, Tuscany.  They had in common an uneasiness about life and some dreadful sorrows.  We can easily here be reminded of Sophia Loren’s Two Women, about a mother and daughter done in by the aftermath of war in Italy, hopelessly caught up in a predicament which they cannot navigate.  Gardner and Spark each did badly at love, Gardner attracted to rough types like Sinatra and Mitchum, Spark marrying a psychotic (i.e, from whom she picked up the name “Spark”) and taking up with other mentally flawed men along the way. 

But it is not their misery that deserves our attention now.  They were gifted, special women who never achieved for themselves and for us half of what might have been.  This is a question of special importance now.  Across the world the men in power are making a hash of things, having risen too easily to comfortable levels of incompetence where they can muck it up for the rest of us, which we touched on in “The Torquay Phenomenon.”  As we have said, the hope of the Moslem world is that women there can rise to power and rescue it from the Middle Ages.  But this applies as well to the rest of the world, and we must ask how women of promise can get to the head of the class and become our leaders. 

The Rivera Example.  Mariano Rivera, relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, has just saved their fat again with a victory over the Chicago White Sox, bringing them very close to the lead of the American League East.  This, his 400th save, puts him an elite club of 400-save relievers that only has 3 other members.  Rivera “praised God, as he often does, before he carefully folded the dugout card as a souvenir and excused himself.  ‘Guys, I’ve got to go to church,’ he said” (New York Times, July 17, 2006, p. D2). 

Rivera, perhaps, has a lesson to teach the ladies.  As one emerges from poverty and is thrust into the media-distorted world we live in today, one is likely to see an outsized image of oneself in the mirror that leads to ego troubles and all sorts of excesses.  To win 400 games and more, one must keep one’s head down and duck into the cathedral.  To do otherwise is to lose one’s way.  Spark unwittingly summed up this problem when she opined, “I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work.”  The din can become overwhelming.  Leadership demands that one not fall in love with one’s own myth.  We rather think fame got to be too much for each of them. 

Work Is Highly Overrated.  It’s summer in America now, time to read books, put one’s toe in the water, escape mortal pursuits.  Certainly Ava had this right: “I don’t understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty.  Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me.  Delightful, perfect.” 

Spark, who churned out 22 novels and was more of a drone, had intimations that the good life did not consist of relentless production.  In our favorite passage from Curriculum Vitae, she talks of her first real job: 

Soon after this I got a job at 106 Princes Street in the west end, in the office of the elderly owner of an exclusive women’s department store, William Small & Sons….  My sweet employer was William Small himself.  His office was really an enormous drawing-room with a grand piano, a luxurious carpet and lots of flowers….  His son, Gordon, a tall, handsome and agreeable man of thirty who now ran the business, would occasionally come in, play the piano for a while, and go out again. 

Spark and her career were, however, inseparable. 

As we said in “UnCanny Tom Canning,” Spark, at her best, knew that we may busy ourselves with trivia, but the truths of  life and death will not be denied.  What we take to be her finest novel, Memento Mori, is an ancient phrase instructing us to “remember you are a mortal.”  This sentiment, when deeply felt, can make mortals into leaders. 

P.S.  Marado, the Korean Peninsula’s most southern point, “was long famous … for its strong women and docile men” (New York Times, July 17, 2006, p. A4).  “The women, after all, held a grip on economic power.  They were the ones who earned the family living, diving into the sea for abalone and lucrative shellfish, which they sold on the main island, Cheju.”  Power has shifted with the establishment of a ferry, controlled by the men. 

“Like their sisters throughout coastal areas in East Asia, the sea women here spend their days diving into the sea with no breathing devices, simply holding their breath for minutes as they combed the sea bottom for shellfish.”  Perhaps Gardner and Spark were fish out of water. 

The Amazons, the Minoans, even the women of Sparta in ancient times set a precedent for communities where women had a grip on power, often evolving from their vital place in the economy. 

P.P.S.  Some extraordinary artists fell under Ava Gardner’s sway.  John Huston—director, author, actor, painter—put her to work time and again.  She and Robert Graves, the bard, waxed poetic about each other.  In 1958, he did “A Toast to Ava Gardner” for the New Yorker

P.P.P.S.  Making The Night of the Iguana, Huston gave everybody gold-plated derringers, “the kind of little pistols that card sharps used to wear up their sleeves.  Then I also gave each one five bullets with the names of the others members of the cast on them” (from Server’s Ava Gardner, p. 419).  Bemused Huston thought a stirred-up cast made better movies.  But, as well, the derringers speak of Hollywood, where mayhem is always possible, life is often confused with buffoonery, and where it’s just plain hard to get a grip on oneself.

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