When my wife and I came to live permanently in London in 1973, we took teaching positions at the American Community School (ACS). We were in separate divisions of the same institution, she as principal in the small elementary school in Hampstead, and myself as the science head of the high school branch, which was located in Knightsbridge. I often would tell the story with much glee of how I would shop for pencils for my students in Harrods, perhaps the most glamorous department store in the world.
One day as I was walking along the main street of Knightsbridge (famously called simply, Knightsbridge), I noticed a woman who was walking right next to me and instantly recognised her as one of the great enigmatic figures of the cinema world, the former Hollywood star Ava Gardner. She was walking along in bright sunlight holding a small dog in her arms. And she was certainly not dressed as a Hollywood star, in fact, she had her hair tucked under a scarf and if I remember correctly, pinned up in curlers !
Not surprisingly, I began to doubt slightly my rather remarkable ability to recognise celebrities by merely facial characteristics such as eyes and mouth. I have written about this ability in previous posts, most notably in the case of the French writer Jean Genet who I identified from a postage stamp-sized photo of him on the back of a paperback book I had purchased years before.
I continued to walk nonchalantly along the sidewalk and noticed that this glamorous woman was also heading for Harrods, as I was. I followed her into the department store, wondering if my ability to recognise celebrities was still sharp. I noticed that she was heading for the pharmacy department and followed a few steps behind, making myself as invisible as I could. While she walked up to the counter to engage the attendant, I waited until I heard the ensuing conversation. Indeed, she was known to the person behind the counter and was addressed as Miss Gardner, confirming my identification. She apparently was asking if the prescription for her dog was ready to be picked up. It was. After receiving the small parcel, she continued to wander through the shop for a bit and then walked out the front door back onto the street.
I was building up my nerve to say hello and finally addressed her with a cheerful Good Morning, Miss Gardner. She immediately stopped in the street and gave me a big smile, surprised that anyone had recognised her. She said something like . . . How did you recognise me in this getup?
I remember this particular conversation very well because with her large sunglasses, bandana around her head and dog in her arms, she seemed a parody of a Hollywood star. It appeared that she was not irritated by my intrusion, asking me again how I recognised her and where I was from, hearing my American accent. I told her that I didn’t quite know where this strange ability to recognise certain people came from and that I was from the great state of New Jersey. She smiled and continued walking in a rather relaxed manner, not at all trying to escape me or my probing questions.
Although I don’t recall all that was said in the two or three minutes that we walked along the street, I do remember that I asked her if she was still in touch with one of my heroes in the entertainment world, Frank Sinatra, her former husband. She responded with most outrageous and surprising remark I think I’ve ever heard . . .
Oh yes ! . . . that crazy fucker sends me a dozen roses every year on my birthday.
To say that I was shocked by her colourful language doesn’t quite sum up my reaction. I don’t recall what else was said during that short time but I do know that it was a thrill for me to meet her strolling along the street in the city which I now took to be my home.
Probably the most well-known femme fatale in the modern age, I will always remember what Ernest Hemingway told his assistants after she took a nude swim in his pool in Cuba . . .
Don’t ever change the water in that pool . . .
Later, I was to discover that she had been living in a flat near ACS and Harrods for several years and was very happy there.
She wrote of her life in London in her autobiography . . .
I’ve always loved London. So it rains sometimes. It rains everywhere sometimes. And I happen to like the rain. More important, the British leave you alone. They take three or four photographs when you arrive and then they forget you exist. It’s a very civilized town. I do have a lot of friends in London… really good friends, so I’m far from lonely. We have dinner at our homes or, if we go out, it’s to places where we won’t be disturbed….Actually, my apartment in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge suits me so well I hate to leave it, even for a park bench.
After a lifetime of smoking, Ava suffered from emphysema and an unidentified autoimmune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words were reportedly “I’m so tired.” She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home in Ennismore Gardens where she had lived since 1968.
I have always been excited by the opportunity I have had to live my adult life in the vibrant city of London. As a fan of theatre and movies and blessed with an ability to recognise faces in a crowd, meeting Ava Gardner in the street is an example of what I mean. From the time my wife and I first arrived in 1964, I have . . .
- picked Cornel Wilde (remember him ?) out of a crowd in a street market in Islington N1;
- received a letter from Laurence Olivier thanking me for a poem I wrote praising his portrayal of Othello; (now in National Theatre Archive SE1);
- had several lively conversations with my neighbour in West Hampstead NW6, Emma Thompson;
- hosted Stephen Hawking for lunch in our villa in Tuscany after writing a book on his life and work. Later, I introduced him to 6000 science fans at a book launch at the Albert Hall;
- had tea with John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Harold Pinter in the National Theatre canteen SE1;
- met Paul McCartney in the street in St. Johns Wood NW8 (amazing how relaxed and friendly he was considering what happened to his song-writing partner John Lennon in New York). Sadly, I forgot to give Sir Paul the phone number of my musician son Michael;
It’s most likely I would not have met all these celebs if we had stayed in New Jersey, certainly not the Barefoot Contessa, Ava Gardner !