The most beautiful woman in the world is sat just across the table and she’s smiling at me. For an hour or so I have been putty in her hands as she tells me tales of Hollywood. The stars, the glamour, the gossip and of course the tantrums. She knows it all. She is part of the legend.
I lap it up with boyish enthusiasm and ask a thousand questions. Patiently she answers until my well runs dry. As we pause an impish smile breaks across her face. “Do you like ice cream,” she asks. My day keeps getting better.
We move to the freezer and with a theatrical flourish the beauty pulls open the door to reveal a treasure trove of a dozen flavours.
Two minutes later I am eating ice cream with Ava Gardner.
Ava was a Hollywood superstar, the most beautiful woman of her time, a silver screen siren. Sadly she passed away in London in 1990. But a part of her lives on. That part is Rosemary Mankiewicz. Her story is remarkable and her home is testament to an extraordinary life.
On a wall are two framed letters, both handwritten. They are thank you notes to her father from the Duke of York, later King George VI (recently given the Hollywood treatment as the stammering monarch in The King’s Speech). Rosemary’s father was the Duke’s chaplain in the navy during the First World War.
The royal connection opened doors for the young Rosemary and she was invited to parties with the Duke’s daughters, Margaret and Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth. “It was great fun,” recalls Rosemary, “They were lovely and it was just a wonderful time.”
As a teenager Rosemary dreamt of the stage and studied at the Central School of Speech and Drama. This, of course, was no ordinary school. “It was actually based inside the Royal Albert Hall,” she tells me. “Quite something really.”
But after three years she quit. “My sister married an Italian count and moved to Rome so I packed it in and went and stayed with them.”
It sounds a brave move, I say.
“I was young and it was exciting, “she explains.”And of course, it was Rome. It felt too much like fun to worry about leaving the school.
She quickly mastered Italian and soon crossed paths with the cinema. Rosemary was offered work helping Italian actors with their English for a film being shot in the country. And the star of the film? Errol Flynn. Some introduction to the movies.
However, the picture ran into financial problems and production stopped. While Rosemary was kicking her heels another offer of work came along. It would change her life. The film was the Barefoot Contessa, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz – her future husband.
Its star was Ava Gardner. Wildly unpredictable, enigmatic and above all stunningly attractive. “She was fun and we got on very well together. But she could be extremely difficult and would drive poor old Joe nuts,” said Rosemary.
“One day they were filming a scene in which Ava drives her car into the square in Portofino. But she’d gone missing again so they decided they would use me instead. I had the same curly hair and some other similarities. In those days you could get away with it.”
And so Rosemary doubled for the most beautiful woman in the world.
I wondered whether the film trailer might be on YouTube, everything else is. To her great delight we find several versions of it.
In one a booming, manly voice, accompanied by giant blood-red text, introduces Ava as the “Most Beautiful Animal in the World”.
Rosemary looks at me, smiles broadly and says,”You couldn’t get away with saying that now, could you?”
I agree, but I suspect Rosemary is amused at the idea of having been a “beautiful animal”. She doesn’t lack a sense of humour.
A little later she asks me if I’d like to see the toilet. Now, this is not normally the kind of offer to get my juices flowing but this time I’m desperately keen.
The walls are covered in photos. Rosemary features in a number, others are of her husband either working or out on the town with the Hollywood greats he wrote for and directed. There’s Marlon Brando, Humphrey Bogart, Michael Caine, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They are the stuff of legends and they formed the backdrop to a large part of Rosemary’s life. But she plays it down. “People get the impression that these people are constantly having dinner at your home. It’s not as glamorous as you think.”
But she did know many of them and I ask for her thoughts on Taylor and Burton.
“Elizabeth was lovely but Richard would screw anything that moved,” she tells me.
It’s five star Hollywood gossip from yesteryear and I cannot resist asking the obvious question. “Did he ever try it on with you?”
After a little reticence she says, “Yes he did but I just pushed him away. He couldn’t help himself.”
Many stories later we depart the loo and head to a sitting room. There are original movies posters and other pieces of wonderful film paraphernalia. Above the fire-place is a mantelpiece. Upon it is the jaw-dropping sight of four Oscars.
I pick one up. It is very heavy. I am briefly lost in a fantasy where I’m clutching the award and delivering my acceptance speech before an admiring movie industry.
Rosemary can read me like a book. “I’ll count them before you leave,” she says. I suspect she’s joking but Rosemary can certainly act. She appeared on stage and the silver screen in her own right.
She shows me a black and white photo of herself in her role as a mermaid. But she didn’t really pursue it. Any regrets, I ask her. None, she tells me. “The first reviews weren’t great. And then I married Joe. Life was wonderful.”