New books on John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Shirley Jones

Posted Sunday, Jul. 28, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
John Wayne: The Genuine Article By Michael Goldman Insight Editions, $50 Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations By Peter Evans and Ava Gardner Simon & Schuster, $26 Shirley Jones: A Memoir By Shirley Jones with Wendy Leigh Gallery Books, $27

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In this age of pseudo-celebrities, in which overexposed individuals become famous only for being famous, which is to say they’re famous for no real reason at all, it’s easy to forget what true stardom is.

One could pool the minuscule talent that exists in every contemporary reality TV star and still not match the magic that Hollywood legends such as John Wayne, Ava Gardner and Shirley Jones possessed.

Do you want a reminder of what real star power used to be, before the definition of fame got watered down to the point that it became meaningless? If so, we recommend that you consider reading recently published books that chronicle the lives of Wayne, Gardner and Jones.

“John Wayne: The Genuine Article,” by Michael Goldman

John Wayne, aka Marion Mitchell Morrison, but who answered to the name Duke, never got around to finishing his memoirs. He begrudgingly started writing an autobiography in the early 1970s with journalist Wayne Warga, but ultimately cooled to the project because he felt his story wasn’t over yet.

Wayne, still looking ahead, still confident there were many great adventures to come, wanted to wait before taking time to reflect on his amazing film career. The story “needs a better ending,” he said.

It’s a shame he didn’t finish, because passages he did write, unpublished until Goldman made use of them in John Wayne: The Genuine Article, suggest that it would have been a terrific feel-good book.

Wayne, who died in 1979, wrote, “I remember the pleasant and humorous things, not the tragedies. I thank God the human mind has little memory for pain and I thank God I have virtually none at all. There is pain in this book and I have known tragedy. There is also anger. But most of all, there is celebration.”

Thankfully, Goldman’s book captures that celebratory tone. In fact, it’s practically a valentine to Wayne, which is to be expected because the author worked closely with the actor’s children and John Wayne Enterprises, the sole and exclusive steward for the John Wayne brand.

In some cases, authorized biographies such as this have no teeth. But in this instance, the involvement of John Wayne Enterprises works beautifully because the book is bursting to overflowing with rare photos and reproductions of personal documents (such as Wayne’s driver’s license and passport, a six-page excerpt of his Oscar-winning True Grit script and letters from presidents and fellow film stars).

The book might seem a bit pricey initially ($50), but not once the reader starts poring through the great story of a life well-lived and the treasure trove of collectible extras.

“Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations,” by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner

Gardner, an Oscar nominee for her performance in 1953’s Mogambo, was one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars during the 1940s and ’50s, but her fortunes had taken a turn for the worse by the late 1980s. She had suffered a stroke, wasn’t working, was drinking excessively and was in dire financial straits.

The answer to her money woes was to collaborate with journalist Peter Evans on a tell-all in which she spilled her secrets about life with first husband Mickey Rooney, third husband Frank Sinatra and others.

“I either write the book or sell the jewels,” Gardner said. “I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Then she had misgivings and the book was never published. Evans, who once was sued by Sinatra over an article he had written, suspected that Old Blue Eyes had paid Gardner off to abandon the project.

But long after Gardner’s death in 1990, Evans turned his interviews — many of them conducted by phone during the wee hours when the actress was plastered, lonely and at a self-pitying low — into a sad and dissatisfying hybrid of ghost-written autobiography and document of his own rocky relationship with her.

Problem is, who cares about a ghost writer’s struggles to coax anecdotes out of an erratic interview subject who was lukewarm about the book and in it only for the promise of a big payday? Also, we’ll have to take Evans’ word for it that Gardner made a pass at him and that he rejected her.

“Shirley Jones: A Memoir,” by Shirley Jones with Wendy Leigh

Jones, an Oscar winner for her performance in 1960’s Elmer Gantry, is quick to emphasize in her remarkably candid autobiography that she’s not the person many fans believe her to be.

She’s not the “innocent, blonde, blue-eyed ingenue of Oklahoma! and Carousel and The Music Man,” and she never was. Nor is she as “breezy and uncomplicated” as the beloved TV mom she portrayed on The Partridge Family. Then she tells a story that scrubs away any remnants of a squeaky-clean image.

Jones not only identifies the men who made passes at her (including Warren Beatty and her Broadway mentor, Richard Rodgers, whom she let down easy by saying, “You are very kind, Mr. Rodgers, and I will always think of you as a grandfather”), but she also remembers one man who didn’t hit on her when she totally expected it (Sinatra, who was over the moon in love with Ava Gardner at the time).

But most provocative are the stories that Jones tells about first husband, Jack Cassidy, who was narcissistic, bipolar, bisexual and unfaithful. She was deeply in love with Cassidy, but his self-destructive tendencies ruined his career and their marriage.

If anything, she’s probably guilty of oversharing details about her sex life, then and today (in her late 70s!), but in doing so she accomplishes the objective of redefining herself in the eyes of her fans. 

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