Ava Gardner Is Back and Beautiful at 59—But All She Wants Is Peace and Quiet

updated 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

The voice on the phone is seductively husky: "When you get here, push the bell that says Morgan." The building faces a leafy square just off London's Hyde Park. It is a converted 19th-century town house with an elegant staircase, massive mahogany doors and polished brass. The bell that says Morgan is for a choice balcony flat. The door opens to reveal tastefully appointed antiques and chinoiserie, a Corgi snapping at the air and the now mellowed actress who once kayoed boyfriend Howard Hughes with an ashtray, lit the torch in Frank Sinatra's songs and made bullfighters the chicest lovers since sheiks. "This is Morgan," purrs the clog's mistress, "and I am Ava Gardner."

Just turned 59, overweight, her salad days long wilted, Ava still exudes the radiance that has made her a star for 40 years and 50 or so movies. Fiercely press-shy, Ava disdains interviews. She has been known to throw things at photographers. Why the change of heart? Perhaps it's the Oscar talk for her role as Mabel Dodge Luhan, writer D.H. Lawrence's oversexed patron, in Priest of Love. The film is her first critical success after a series of clinkers (The Sentinel, The Kidnapping of the President). "Bullshit, nonsense," huffs Gardner of her Academy Award chances. As for Mabel, "She is a horrible lady, a user; I couldn't relate to her at all. Therefore I must be an actress."

As ever, Ava feigns little respect for acting and has even less for the life that surrounds it. She's famous, she says, "because if you show anything enough times it becomes popular." She did Priest "for the loot, honey—always for the loot." Ava is sensitive about her plump, ravaged appearance in previous films. "It's fine being stared at as a pretty girl, but not as a freak. When I tried to make myself ugly, they said, 'Oh, she's lost her looks,' " she rationalizes. "They weren't thinking of me as an actress. I wasn't allowed to be unattractive." Priest finds Ava looking her best in a decade. "I was born with good health and a strong body and spent years abusing them," she laments. "Now I spend a lot of time taking care. I go on tremendous health kicks—exercise, yogurt, no booze. Of course," she adds, brandishing a king-size Winston, "I smoke too much." She walks Morgan briskly six times a day and periodically checks into health farms. "Without shame," Ava allows, "I say that I happen to be an extremely beautiful woman at any age."

No doubt. Her femme fatale beauty and dangerous reputation attracted husbands Mickey Rooney (1942-43), Artie Shaw (1945-46) and Frank Sinatra (1951-53)—not to mention lovers from Hughes to Spain's great matador Luis Dominguín. Yet mementos are scarce in Ava's flat. "I don't like all that stuff hanging around," she says. "I don't have to be reminded every day." She makes warm references to Sinatra, as if he were a distant relative; a number of his LPs are in evidence. "We're still very good friends," she says. While she calls her three ex-husbands "all wonderful men," Ava says, "There was no way the marriages could have survived. Nor do I regret that they didn't." Further questions prompt a daunting "None of your [bleeping] business."

She's soon off on a five-minute stroll to Montpeliano's, a cozy Italian restaurant, for lunch with business consultant Jan Stael von Holstein and his designer wife, Franka. The wine flows freely over three hours, and conversation ranges from Franka's impending motherhood (Ava's the designated godmother) to neighborhood property prices (dear) and Ava's perspective on Reagan's Presidency ("No better than his acting"). Back home, Ava decides to walk Morgan—a replacement for her beloved Cara, another Corgi, who died last year. Ava nods to neighbors as she strolls, and to a companion praises England, Spain and Italy (her adopted countries) for permitting her anonymity. She visits the U.S. intermittently, keeping in touch with her three surviving sisters mostly by phone ("I don't write much").

Later, sitting by her drawing room fire with a glass of wine in hand, Ava reflects on her life as the youngest of a farmer's seven children. "I was a frightened little girl from Smithfield, North Carolina who was thrown into the Hollywood scene at 18." A studio representative spotted her photo (taken by her photographer brother-in-law) in a window. Suddenly she was an MGM hopeful, along with Elizabeth Taylor, and was asked to sign a seven-year contract. "I had no doubt I'd be a movie queen," says Ava. "The stupidity of youth, no doubt." Her joy soon dimmed: "We were told what to do, when to do it and how, and paid very little." Ava blames herself for part of her frustration. "Had I really cared, I could have been really good, but I didn't." She credits her youth and "solid upbringing" with helping her survive. "Yes, I was swept up, but I didn't have a nervous breakdown or go wild on booze. Years later I couldn't cope any longer. So I quit to remain sane."

Abruptly, Ava stands. Reminiscence is uncomfortable. "I'm not enjoying this," she announces. She's off again, this time to the flat of her actor friend Charles (Diamonds Are Forever) Gray, 53, across the street. Ava cooks for him occasionally (oxtail or Southern fried chicken), and he's devoted, but it's no romance. "It's difficult for her to meet someone she doesn't know or trust," Gray explains. "She's a shy, unassuming creature." For Ava, an evening out is ballet, theater or concert. "I don't go to movies," she says.

It is early evening and Ava is home again, reflecting on age. Approaching 60 is no trauma. "Turning 50, that was the tough one." What's precious now is privacy. Carmen, her Ecuadorian housekeeper, has Ava's dinner ready, as usual, on a tray by her portable TV in front of the fire—she wants to catch Charles Gray on the BBC's Troilus and Cressida. Home alone by the TV at 9 p.m. may not be the world's image of Ava Gardner, but she has few regrets. "My life's okay," she says with pride. "I wouldn't say this is the best part, but it's better than most people's. I'll just take the rest as it comes."

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