In conversation with Charlie Riccardelli
John (“Jack”) Brady is a writer, editor, author and biographer. His dual biography of Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra—Frank & Ava in Love and War—was published by St. Martin’s Press in October 2015, which is Frank’s centennial.
Brady is the author of five books, including the investigative biography Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater (Addison Wesley/Perseus). Christopher Buckley called the book "A riveting account of the most unlikely Republican in the history of American politics."
He has also written The Craft of Interviewing (Random House), widely used in journalism programs; and Craft of the Screenwriter (Simon and Schuster), used in screen writing classes.
He was editor-in-chief at Writer’s Digest and Boston magazine, and founding editor of The Artist’s Magazine. His byline has appeared in New York magazine, New Times, Esquire, American Film, The Sunday New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine and numerous other publications.
He has taught journalism at Boston University, Emerson College, the Scripps School of Journalism (Ohio University) and was Hearst Visiting Professor at the University of Missouri Journalism School.
He has edited and conducted hundreds of interviews during his publishing career, including the Playboy interview with television host Jerry Springer. His interview with author Evan Connell appeared in the March 2011 issue of The Writer magazine.
He is working on a book about Marilyn Monroe.
Charlie Riccardelli: Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s romance remains a popular topic nearly 60 years after their divorce. Why does their tumultuous relationship continue to fascinate people?
John Brady: Initially, I think the fascination was like watching an accident—so much of the relationship was played out in public on an international stage. Now the fascination is, what were they thinking? Going backstage with the story and into their private lives – and straightening out a lot of the rumors and misinformation that has accrued over the decades – is where I come in with my dual biography. I viewed my job as getting the story right in terms of both information, and insight.
CR: Both Sinatra and Gardner have been written about frequently over their years. Was it important for you to find an original take on these figures? How do you think you’ve contributed to the continuing discussion of their lives?
JB: I think that my book goes deeper into the relationship, and brings new sources and fresh insight to the narrative. In addition to reading all of the usual books and biographies – those writers ran a marathon; I ran the 220 (with hurdles)—I conducted interviews with many Sinatra colleagues, and I found a number of little-known sources, memoirs, and documents from Ava’s side that enriched the story.
CR: You frame their romance against other celebrity relationships of the day, like the May-December marriage of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall or the Ingrid Bergman/Roberto Rossellini affair. How do these relationships help us contextualize Gardner and Sinatra’s relationship?
JB: The Bergman/Rossellini affair preceded the Sinatra/Gardner scandal by just a few months, and the public shaming of Ingrid greatly affected her value as a movie star. The press coverage and the scolding Hollywood columnists also served as a warning to Frank and Ava – who pushed on, defiantly. In the meantime, Bogie and Bacall were being characterized as an admirable Hollywood couple, all married up and raising a family, when in fact there was much that was wrong and hypocritical with the relationship. He had his mistress, and she had her indiscretions, including Sinatra, who was supposedly Bogart’s best friend. While Bogie lay dying, Lauren and Frank began their affair, and he failed to attend his best friend’s funeral out of pure embarrassment. Sinatra and Bacall both had plenty to be ashamed about when it was finally over. I chronicled this in my book because I felt it showed the essential hypocrisy that Hollywood marriages are often based upon – and this one was very close to home for Frank and Ava. I read the transcript for an interview Lauren Bacall did with Larry King (aired May 6, 2005) in which she disses Frank (who dumped her) and extols Humphrey Bogart as possibly the greatest husband in the history of Hollywood. That’s entertainment.
CR: Sinatra and Gardner’s relationship comes at an interesting crossroad in their career, with Sinatra at a career low point while Gardner had become one of MGM’s brightest stars. Given Gardner’s history of relationships with powerful men, why do you think she found herself drawn to someone whose career was falling apart?
JB: I think that Frank appealed to Ava’s mothering instinct at the time. I don’t want to get too Oedipal, but this scrawny guy was like a child in some ways. He needed her, and she responded to that need. She didn’t mind paying the bills. From Frank’s side, he needed her in order to achieve a certain measure of success while other parts of his life were in disarray. It kept him emotionally afloat. Once he was safely on land and his career took off again…he would never need anything or anyone again. He became a different man, and a different kind of performer. Ava was a life lesson for Frank – ultimately, the most important woman in his life, both personally and professionally. I think that he loved her more than she loved him. By the time he realized what he had lost, she had moved on.
CR: In Frank & Ava, I found some of the most fascinating and heartbreaking sections to be those that discussed Gardner and Sinatra’s struggles to find love after their divorce. Their respective relationships with George C. Scott and Barbara Marx struck me in particular because both Sinatra and Gardner seem to have lost the desire to fight for love and themselves. What changed in them after the divorce?
JB: Frank and Ava both had self-destruct tendencies, which they acted out in their roller-coaster affair and tumultuous marriage. Once they parted ways, there may have been a vacuum for each that they filled with other destructive relationships. Alcohol had a lot to do with both Frank and Ava’s behavior as well. Neither could hold as much liquor as they would have others believe. George C. Scott was a dangerous drunk that Ava should have avoided – but her own drinking blurred everything.
CR: You worked for Sinatra’s recording company during the 1970s. Do you have any interactions or memories of Sinatra from that time?
JB: It was strictly a working relationship, nothing buddy-buddy. I came to respect his artistry as a singer and an interpreter of the American songbook. In the recording studio I watched him do one song eighteen times before he declared it was a “take”; another song, he did just twice to get it right. I did my job as a Sinatra specialist in the Warner/Reprise creative department, doing liner notes for an album, a house biography, writing stories for the Warner Bros. weekly house organ (called Circular), and writing ads for the Vegas papers when Frank was performing there – and for which Frank sent me a note inviting me to Caesars, where he was appearing with Ella and the Count Basie Orchestra. A grand time was had. Then he was on the road doing his comeback tour, which culminated as “The Main Event” in Madison Square Garden that year (1974). I saw him in concert many times over the years, and I had a number I could call for excellent tickets, but nothing up close and personal. It was a gig, and I moved on to magazine editing, writing books, and teaching at a couple of journalism schools.
CR: How cooperative, if at all, were the Gardner and Sinatra families with your research?
JB: I spoke with one of Ava’s nieces – the sole Gardner survivor who actually met Ava – but there was no family to talk to in North Carolina. I spoke with an area journalist who covered Ava’s funeral there, and with the woman who designed the wreath that Frank ordered for Ava’s gravesite. There is an Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, which has some interesting artifacts. But Ava left Smithfield when she was 17, and rarely looked back. Her real finishing school was MGM in Culver City/Hollywood, where she became the personality the world came to know. In 1954, she departed for Europe and was an expatriate the rest of her life. I spoke with Lawrence Grobel, a fine writer and interviewer, who interacted with Ava and drove her around Los Angeles near the end of her life, when she was recovering from a stroke. Ava wanted Larry to assist with her memoirs, and she was speaking quite candidly with Grobel. He was busy working on his biography of the Hustons, so he had to turn Ava down; but he later did a small remembrance volume – Conversations With Ava Gardner – and ended up being a character in my book. Ava’s longtime maid and traveling companion, Reenie Jordan, wrote a memoir that was published by the Ava Gardner Museum – and it proved to be rich in recollections for my files. Alas, I just missed talking with Reenie – she died (at 92) in California the summer I started researching Frank & Ava. Regarding the Sinatra family, Sinatra Enterprises plays a very tight hand. When I tried to secure permission to reprint an album cover – Everything Happens to Me – that features a portrait of Frank that Ava commissioned, I was told no. They only assist projects that they own and control. Fortunately, I had done numerous interviews with many of Frank’s musical colleagues – Bill Miller, Billy May, Al Viola, et alia—in the year following his death, when I first thought of doing a book about him. So I had a stash of original material, along with other materials from the world of Sinatra collectors and observers who interacted with Frank over the years.
CR: Sinatra, Gardner, and a previous subject of yours, Lee Atwater, were all people with distinct public images – some of that created by publicity departments and some self-mythologizing. When researching, do you find it difficult to separate the myth from reality?
JB: I think it is the duality of a subject’s personality that I find compelling in working on a biography. I would rather work on a biography of Sinatra, say, than Perry Como, who was (I am told) a happily married family man, sweet to the end. Before I begin the writing process, I do a huge amount of research – or homework, you might say – reading and viewing or listening to all materials available and taking notes, building a bibliography, a list of sources to call on. This gradually creates a deep feel for the subject; you kind of know how the person operates – and how the supporting cast of characters interacts. Then I construct a timeline for the story, and an outline that can change as the project moves along. Characters can change as well—you get to know them better and better through this process. We all (to paraphrase T.S. Eliot) put on a face to meet the faces that we meet each day. My subjects – Atwater, Sinatra, Gardner – put on faces for a living, and very successfully so. I view my task as biographer to explore all sides of the personality, for better and for worse; and to protect the reader from not only the barbs of my subjects’ enemies, but also from the adoration of their friends.
CR: In a Booknotes interview you did for your biography on Lee Atwater, you discussed the extensive editing process, having condensed that book from well over one thousand pages to less than 400. In telling someone’s story, how do you make such radical cuts without sacrificing important content?
JB: Good editing is nearly always trimming, tightening, condensing – starting with a mountain of coal, then compressing it into artificial diamonds. I believe it was Faulkner who said, “In writing you must kill all your darlings.” In biography, I would add, don’t kill your darlings – put them in the Notes section at the back of the book. Don’t slow down the narrative train. My editor at Thomas Dunne commented on how interesting he found my Notes for Frank & Ava – indeed, some important content can be found there, but it would have slowed the story down—like how Shirley Jones misremembered Frank’s abrupt departure from the set of Carousel, saying he left in response to Ava’s call (when in fact they had split two years earlier), and how Ava made her famous martinis. Cheers!