Would you like to know what Ava Gardner had to say about her first husband, Mickey Rooney? Stay tuned.
Despite having passed away two years ago, Mickey Rooney walks the stage at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Education and Cultural Center in Stony Brook village. That bit of otherworldly magic is thanks to the artistry of St. George Productions, whose acting company members make the famous come alive again.
Rooney’s first wife was Ava Gardner, and I was interested to read Gardner’s autobiography after a brief stop at her museum in Smithfield, North Carolina recently. We were driving up Route 95, returning from a visit to Hilton Head, when one of our group suggested we see the museum. It was started near her hometown with seed money left by the actress. Now, I don’t know how many of you remember her or have seen her films, but she was right up there in stardom with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Grace Kelly, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor. Some of her leading men were Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Robert Taylor, Burt Lancaster — and Mickey.
She was a head taller than Mickey Rooney, and she met him on her first day on the MGM studio sets. He was dressed like the famous Brazilian dancer, Carmen Miranda, for his role in the movie, “Babes on Broadway,” with Judy Garland. He was two years older than Gardner and at that time, 1941, he was the most popular star in America. He had acted as Mickey McGuire, the character from the comic strip, Toonerville Trolley for seven years and then as Andy Hardy, the beloved teenager, for ten years after that. Rooney was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1939, and was earning $5,000 a week, plus bonuses. He knew how to act and he also knew what he wanted. He phoned Gardner every night for the first two weeks she was in Hollywood, until he finally got her to go out with him to dinner—as long as she could bring along her older sister.
Initially stunned by his shortness, Gardner describes Rooney as “charming, romantic and great fun.” She offered, “I had to say one thing for him: He sure had energy.”
“He was the original laugh-a-minute boy, and even the second or third time around, his stories, jokes, and gags were funny. There wasn’t a minute when he wasn’t onstage. He loved an audience, and I tried to be as good a one as I knew how.” They were engaged before her 19th birthday. They were both kids without the slightest idea of what marriage should be. Mickey woke up after their wedding night and left Ava to go off with his gang of buddies and play golf.
Mickey did endear himself when they visited her ill mother, shortly after they were married. “He entertained Mama, he hugged her, he made her laugh, he brought tears to her eyes. He did his impersonations, he did his songs and dances—it was a wonderful, wonderful occasion for Mama, who we all knew was slowly dying. Although I had loved Mickey from the start, that show he put on moved me beyond words.”
His normal lifestyle, which he continued after their marriage, according to Ava, was “boozing, broads, bookmakers, golfing and hangers-on, not to mention the heavy involvement of studio work and publicity.” She was most appalled by the philandering. They divorced two years later.
They stayed friends for the rest of their lives, dating from time to time after their divorce, until they both went on to other spouses. For Mickey, that was a beauty queen that he met in Birmingham, Alabama. He was married a total of eight times.
According to Mearene Jordan, Gardner’s helper, who wrote a chapter at the end of the book, “Mickey Rooney was a funny little guy—she got a big kick out of him. She saw him last year and she said, “Reenie, he’s still the biggest liar in the world. Poor Mickey, he cannot tell the truth, he never could. But he’s cute.”