The parallel lives of Papa and Ava Gardner
va Gardner was a screen-grabbing femme fatale, a tempestuous man-eater and, to most who met her, the most beautiful woman in the world. Described by her ex-husbands, former lovers and film directors as (among other things) a tiger, a panther and a caged wolf, her sensuality was raw and primal. Ernest Hemingway was, as we all know, Papa Bear.
Time has been only half kind to Gardner, who would have celebrated her 90th birthday this past Christmas Eve. Though her beauty remains undeniable, hers is the type of glamour that fades in and out of style. So it is with Hemingway, whose stories stand and fall and stand again to the scrutiny of critics and historians. His mythical super-macho legacy, however, seems more powerful today than ever.
This article began as a reflection on Gardner’s affair with the Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, but more poignant was her relationship with Hemingway. Author of three books that were turned into movies in which Gardner played the heroine, Papa seems at once a father figure and a mirror of Gardner’s own larger-than-life existence. Here were two people who could not outrun their demons, kindred spirits who marked time in epic love affairs, disastrous marriages and booze-fueled battles. First Mickey Rooney, then Artie Shaw, then Frank Sinatra. First Hadley Richardson, then Pauline Pfeiffer, then Martha Gellhorn. Even their looks became synonymous with something bigger than they were. Hemingway may not have been a screen idol, but he was certainly the poster boy for American brawn, and Gardner had the most stunning, the most erotically charged face of the mid-20th century.
Their paths crossed briefly. The acquaintance marked the beginning of the second stage of Gardner’s life—the moment when she turned her back on Hollywood and its dealings and when she became, like Hemingway, an expat seeking to redefine herself. They became friends. Living in Madrid, he taught her of the bullfighting tradition; she became an aficionada. She played his greatest heroine, Lady Brett Ashley, in the film adaptation of his greatest novel, The Sun Also Rises.
The finer points: Ava Gardner at the bullfights
There is a picture of the two of them with Gardner’s boyfriend, Dominguín, pulled from the pages of her definitive biography by Lee Server. Taken in El Escorial, Spain, in 1954, the photo shows Hemingway waving a muleta (the pole to which a red cloth is attached during a bullfight) in the foreground while the lovers look on. He is in true Papa mode—the grizzled white beard, the beret, the full command of the moment. Dominguín watches the cape, but Ava’s eyes are on Ernest. You cannot see much of her, only a short, curly hairstyle that seems matronly for a woman who was never a matron. But she looks feminine and young and in awe of the man in front of her. She smiles; she has none of that feline danger about her gaze that emanates from movie posters. She looks, for once, like the wholesome girl from North Carolina and not the vixen that the world said she was.
emingway and Gardner both struggled privately with crippling fears of inferiority, and both felt a drive to overcompensate. The two pursued and personified a hedonistic, jet-setting bella vida, but after all the wine was drunk and the lovers had gone back to their families, little was left but his fiction and her beauty that no longer bloomed. They could never escape their own long shadows.
Gardner and the toreador Dominguín parted ways two years later. Their volatile relationship failed to develop into something more stable, and Dominguín, longing for a wife and children, left her to marry Italian film star Lucia Bosè. Of the affair, Gardner later said, “It was a sort of madness, honey.” Hemingway won the Nobel Prize in Literature soon after, but he was growing increasingly despondent after so many near-brushes with death from airplane and hunting accidents. He took his own life in 1960, staring down the barrel of a 12-gauge Boss shotgun.
“A sort of madness”: Ava Gardner and celebrated matador Luis Miguel Dominguín
Gardner believed in love. She had little faith in her ability as an actress or a star; at each casting, it was said that she always thought they had the wrong girl. She could love well, however, no matter how formidable the object of her affection. Yet as each of her men worked his way through her heart, he also wore her down a little bit, until like Lady Brett Ashley, Gardner learned to cover her old wounds and aching heart with a sort of brash independence that held men at bay. Love in the abstract or the past tense became her ideal.
Hemingway could not have known when he invented Lady Ashley that he would someday meet her real-life image, and Gardner, I don’t think, actively pursued a life fashioned after art. But for a few years, literature and film and love and real life all intersected in the friendship between a writer and a movie star, the Papa Bear and the fierce wolf in a cage.
CARY RANDOLPH FULLER is the women’s fashion editor at Ralph Lauren.