Authors: Mearene Jordan
Many books have been written about the fascinating public and private life of
Ava Gardner, one of the most famous and beautiful film stars of all time—but
none can compare to
Living with Miss G,
by Mearene “Rene” Jordan, who was
by Gardner’s side for most of the last 40 years of her life.
While some biographers had to rely on second-hand knowledge and
newspaper and magazine articles that were often unreliable or deliberately
inaccurate, Jordan (whose nickname is pronounced “Reenie”) was on the scene
for countless real-life Gardner episodes that rivaled any fiction.
The underlying dynamic of
Living with Miss G
is that Jordan is black; she
was Gardner’s maid, and the two had a bond of sisterhood unheard of in the
upper echelons of the film industry, and rarely anywhere else.
In an era when the “N” word was used harshly, freely and frequently and
movie stars were often treated like property of the studios, the two women
protected and comforted each other as sisters, had spats like sisters, and were
blessed to have each other to lean on as they traveled the diverse and rocky
paths of their lives.
Those paths began nearly 900 miles apart, Jordan’s in a poor section of St.
Louis, Missouri, and Gardner’s in a small farm community near Smithfield,
North Carolina, and even the most tuned-in gypsy fortune-teller would have
been hard-pressed to predict that their paths would cross.
On the other hand, it appeared that fate had conspired to create their
sisterhood from the get-go. The two had a lot in common. Jordan was born near
the beginning of 1922, on January 16, and Gardner put an exclamation point on
that year by arriving on Christmas Eve. Both had loving and devoted parents
who worked hard to support seven children. Jordan’s father was employed by
the American Car Foundry in St. Louis, and her mother earned money by housecleaning. Jordan had five sisters and one brother, and Gardner had four sisters
and one brother (another brother died as a child).
During the Great Depression years Jordan often went hungry, and at age 11
she knocked on doors in St. Louis and earned 25 to 35 cents by shampooing and
ironing or curling women’s hair.
Around the same age, Gardner worked in tobacco fields, and her parents
learned the local school board could no longer pay them to live in and maintain
the boarding house for teachers at the local elementary school. Gardner’s mother
was the boarding house cook. So the future movie star had to leave her many
relatives and friends in her beloved native community and adjust to life in
Newport News, Virginia, in a boarding house for shipyard workers.
In 1946 Gardner’s true-life Hollywood fairy tale, complete with wicked
witches and ogres, was well under way, and just beginning for the brilliant
young woman she hired as her maid. Forty-four years later the final chapter
closed with Ava’s untimely death. Now at age 90 Rene Jordan shares some of
that story, pulling no punches. Her book is expertly written, with many heartwarming, heart-rending, amazing, amusing, surprising—and yes, sometimes
shocking—stories that are made public for the first time. The book also puts to
rest some of the falsehoods and rumors that plagued Ava Gardner until the day
The star once told Thomas J. Lassiter, editor of
The Smithfield Herald
don’t care what you write about me, as long as it is the truth.”
From her final resting place in Smithfield’s Sunset Memorial Park, and
beyond, one can imagine that one of the most famous film stars of all time is
smiling, and saying in that soft, smoky voice of hers, “Thank you, my beloved
sister Rene, for writing the truth.”
Doris Rollins Cannon,
Grabtown Girl:Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her
Enduring Ties to Home
It was 1946, I was twenty-four years old, and I sure did need a job. Not any
old job would do because when you are that age and black, you can hear
Mama’s voice from the past ringing loud and clear in your memory. “Now you
hear me, Mearene Jordan, when you get a job, it’s got to be a real job,
understand me? A real job.” I understood all right. None of those teetering-onthe-brink of you-know-what jobs. No night club or hat-check girl stuff—a real
So good thing for my sister, Tressie. She had arranged for me to get an
interview with Ava Gardner, and although I’d left school at sixteen, this was my
first try for a real good job. Tressie had been working as a daily in Artie Shaw’s
Bedford Drive house, and she had seen what went on between Artie and Miss G,
and she didn’t like it. She said to Miss G when it was plain that they were
breaking up, “Now when you get a little place of your own, you will need
someone to help you, someone you can trust. You can trust my kid sister, Rene.
When you want her, you just ring her up.”
At the moment, Tressie and I were living in a rooming house back in East
L.A., but she was going back to Chicago where her husband was a bellhop on
the Super Chief running between Chicago and L.A. I’d seen Miss G when I
visited Tressie while she was working on Bedford Drive, but I’d never spoken to
her, and I was nervous to do so. But when the rooming house landlady told me
there was a phone call for me, I hurried to take it.
“Rene, this is Ava Gardner. I’ve just found this cute little apartment; just
one bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom. Would you like to come and
see it, and we’ll talk about money and that sort of stuff, and see how we get on?”
I said, “Sure Miss G.” I invented the name on the spur of the moment and
used it until the day she died. We fixed a meeting for the next evening after she
got home from the MGM studios.
It was on very timid feet that I approached the house and pressed the
doorbell. Almost on the rebound–boom!–it opened. There stood Miss G–slender
as a bamboo pole, but with visible curves, hair caught up in a red bandana, oval
face, cleft in chin, green eyes sparkling, and a wonderful, warm smile. “You
Rene?” she asked.
She took my hand and sort of led me in. It sure was no film star’s
apartment, just an itty-bitty place, but she was proud of it, flipping me around
and saying, “Now here’s the bedroom, isn’t that pretty? And the dining room
with this couch which you could sleep on if worse came to worse…and this neat
little dining area set back here so we can eat candlelight dinners. What about
that, huh?” She laughed with such joy that I had to laugh with her. It was the
very first place of her own that Miss G had ever had. “Red Skelton, you know
the comedian, owns the whole block, and my business manager thinks it’s too
expensive. What do you think?” she asked.
I said, “I think it’s great.” And compared to my rather crummy single room
back in a boarding house in East L.A., it certainly was.
I looked around to see where she’d gone. She’d slipped out into the tiny
kitchen and reappeared with a tray holding a bottle of gin, another of vermouth,
some lemon, a jug containing ice, and two wide-brimmed, thin-stemmed martini
glasses. She set the tray down, laughed again, so pleased and happy that anyone
would think I was her dearest friend instead of a rather nervous black girl who
was applying for the job as maid. Miss G asked if I knew how to make a martini.
“Not really - gin and something,” I replied.
“Vermouth - a few drops. Just show the bottle to the gin. It’s got to be bone
dry.” She wiped both rims with lemon. She sloshed gin into the jug full of ice,
added the few drops, and stirred the mixture around with her fingers. “Never
touch it with metal, Rene.” She poured two glasses, added a sliver of lemon. We
sipped. Miss G asked if I could make those, and I replied that I sure could try.
“Good, you’ve got the job. I can’t pay you much to start with. All I get is
forty dollars a week from my business manager. That’s twenty for food and
living expenses, and twenty for the bits and pieces a girl needs. I’ll try and twist
his arm and get twenty for you. Will that be all right?”
I remembered what Tressie had said when she first told me of her plan. She
said for me to go down there and help that child. She needs a friend. She’s
breaking her heart over that Artie Shaw, and he isn’t worth it; she needs help
real quick. At that moment, I couldn’t think of any way Miss G needed helping
at all, but I said, “Sure.”
I liked Miss G from that very first moment. I suppose that when my older
sister said for me to go down there and look after that girl, I took that
responsibility seriously. For the rest of her life I took it seriously, and she did the
same for me.
To begin with I was simply a “daily” who came in early to get her up, give
her breakfast, and then clean the apartment. Often I’d go off to baby-sit or do
somebody else’s chores and get back to Miss G’s place before she returned from
the studio around six, to get a snack ready for her. In those first few weeks, if
need be, my twenty dollars practically all went to paying for the food we ate.
Gin was only $2.00 a bottle, and we weren’t hard on the vermouth, as we liked
the martinis bone dry.
Almost from the start, I became aware of Miss G’s shyness and loneliness.
She didn’t want me to leave and used little excuses to keep me there. “Rene, you
can’t be in any hurry to get back to that old rooming house in East L.A.” she’d
say. By this time, Tressie had packed up and gone back to Chicago to be with
her husband. “Let’s knock back a couple of martinis and split a hamburger,” or
“Let’s have a couple of drinks and I’ll drive us down to Olvera and find a jazz
club” were often Miss G’s way of keeping me with her.
I didn’t protest. I was as lonely as she was. Sure she’d had two husbands,
and they had run her around a lot, but now she was on her own and bewildered
and hurt. I guess to a certain extent, she was drawn to me because she’d relied
on black children and black adults all through her growing up years. Bappie,
Miss G’s oldest sister, told me that when Miss G was three or four years old,
she’d often disappear for hours at a time, but they always knew where to find
her. They’d track her down to the row of black workers’ cottages – one family
with six small kids – and there would be Ava, one little white face surrounded
by six little black faces, all eating biscuits the size of doorsteps and having a
Sex was a sort of dirty word with Miss G’s mama, a woman of strict
Baptist principles, who did not, or could not bring herself to explain the facts of
life to her daughters. When Miss G had her first period, and believed she was
bleeding to death, it was not to her mama she rushed, but to the old, fat, warmhearted black lady who worked in the Gardner household. She was the one who
comforted her and explained exactly what was happening.
Miss G solved our lodging situation when MGM gave her a yearly raise in
pay, and we found a larger apartment in Westwood. We had two bedrooms, a
lounge, kitchen, and bathroom, and I was installed. We were a team. I’ve got to
state here, having already mentioned the royal “we” and the protective
bodyguard status I assumed later, that in these first days of our relationship, the
situation was completely reversed. Ava was my bodyguard.
I’ll never forget that first jazz joint she took me to in downtown L.A. She
was known there and in a lot of other places too because Artie Shaw was rated
as a species of saint in those quarters. We slipped in and sat in the back. The
décor was a sort of black – you couldn’t see much – and I hoped nobody could
see me as I knew what would happen. The spotlights were on the band which
was belting away so loud that it was like sitting in a tunnel with a train going
through. Then the big, tough, tuxedoed waiter spotted me and started to beam in,
and I thought, “Uh-oh!” He had one of those don’t-tangle-with-me faces that
looked as if it had been stomped on by a horse, and he started in with the
dialogue. No, when he approached us, he let his eyes talk: “Leave now or get
He gave my white side-kick a glance, saw it was female, and hesitated,
especially as it was giving him a real hard look with a nasty glint from those
green eyes. Then he recognized her as part of the Artie Shaw entourage and
realized that he’d made a sizable mistake. “Oh–er–sorry, Miss Gardner.” His
face creased into an apologetic smile that made it look as if it had been stomped
on by two horses.
“We would like two large dry martinis…now,” said Miss G, her voice as
cold as an ice cube.
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, and he was gone.
“Rene, honey,” said Miss G in a level voice, “If they throw you out,
they’re gonna have to throw me out, too, and I have a feeling they don’t want to
do that.” She had made her point. In the future, we were at peril quite a few
times, but nobody threw us out. Nobody wanted to throw Miss Ava Gardner out
Two minutes later, Horseface came back with the martinis. He’d worked us
all out by now and took great care not to spill my martini down my dress. He
said, “How’s Mr. Shaw these days? I haven’t seen him around for some time.”
Miss G was now tapping her fingers on the table in time with the rhythm.
“Don’t know and don’t care,” she replied sharply. “Just keep the martinis
“Yes, Ma’am,” came his quick reply.
However, I knew Miss G was lying. I knew she was breaking her heart
over Artie Shaw. I knew she was looking at the bandleader and seeing instead
Artie’s tall figure, the handsome sunburned face, the dark, sleeked-back hair,
broad smile, clarinet poised to swing into the next number, and the crowd
applauding and beginning to chant: “Artie–Begin The Beguine…Begin The
Beguine”–the enchanting melody that Artie had made his own and taken to the
top of the charts. I knew what would happen when we got home.
I suppose we left that jazz joint when it closed at around 1:00 a.m. If you
were in the movie business you went to bed pretty early…unless you were Miss
When we got home, as usual Miss G said, “Rene, honey, why don’t we
have one for the road?” I’d fix the drinks and start watching her very carefully
because I could read her almost like a thermometer and would know which way
she was going to go.
So often the tears would start to pour down her cheeks, and her head would
fall, and she’d sob and sob. I would sit next to her and cradle her head in my
arms, and she would weep out, what to her was a never ending disaster. She was
no good, useless as a wife–nobody wanted her. Two marriages had failed. Why,
why, why? I knew that at that time, she was really only talking about Artie
Why had he thrown her out? She had tried so hard to please him. She’d
read all the books he gave her, she had learned about music, she’d taken
extension courses at the University of California, Los Angles (UCLA), and
made good grades in literature and economics. She had even taken up chess,
taught by a Russian master Artie had found for her, and she had beaten Artie in
the only game they ever played. That was probably a mistake as Artie hated
losing. Oh, God, she had tried so hard to become an intellectual and make Artie
and his friends like her. Why didn’t she have a real home and a real husband?
Why wasn’t she happy like her mother and father had been?
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri in January of 1922, and it was cold and
miserable. Miss G was born in Grabtown, just a small collection of houses,
about eight miles from Smithfield, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve, 1922.
Smithfield was only a little town then (still is), and it was snowing. Miss G
didn’t mind the snow, but she was furious about Christmas Eve, saying “It
meant I only got one present instead of two. I can still see those smiling auntie’s
faces. ‘We put them both together dear.’” However, Miss G and I both had
happy childhoods because we both had good solid mamas and papas who took
the business of raising a family seriously.
But I knew her father had died when she was fifteen, and her mother when
she was twenty, and I knew that in those first few months of our
acquaintanceship, her depression led to her almost becoming suicidal. I was so
worried that when she was out, I’d search the place for hidden sleeping pills and
even razor blades.
It was a strange thing though. I’d get her to sleep, and in the morning she’d
wake up looking beautiful. No hangover, never mentioning the despair of those
midnight hours, and she’d roar off towards the studio with a smile on her face
and the car radio blaring.
One evening, Miss G got home from the studio and was having dinner. As
usual, she was going through her steak and baked potato as if she had just
discovered food. We were flush with funds at the start of the month. She caught
my amused look, paused with her fork on the way to her mouth, and said,
“Rene, from the time I was a kid and Mama started us off with a breakfast of
bacon, eggs, grits and toast, and all the goodies, I’ve eaten like a horse.” I
replied that I knew her Mama was one hell of a cook, and that no matter what
Miss G ate, she never put on any weight. Miss G completed the journey with the
fork and went on, “Yep, Mama was one of the great cooks of the district. Get
yourself the right parents and you have a lifetime without indigestion. What did
you eat when you were a kid, Rene?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
Miss G frowned and said, “Come on, Rene.”
I replied, “Very often, nothing.” Miss G put down her fork and looked at
me very hard, and I knew we were at the start of one of our heart-to-heart talks
about the past, because we both did have lots of things in our pasts.
“Nothing?” repeated Miss G. “And you were one of six sisters?”
“That’s right. You want to hear the story?”
Miss G giggled, “You know nothing is going to stop you.”
“My Pa was a steel riveter working for the American Car Foundry in St.
Louis. He was a big guy, a bit proud and standoffish. The depression was on. He
was in his late thirties, and no one messed with James Mack Jordan. We lived in
one of the poorest parts of the city, a row of little apartments; rabbit hutches
really with two rooms, one behind, one in front.”
“But six girls,” protested Miss G forcibly, “How did you sleep?”
“We had two mattresses in our room with three girls to each mattress, head
Miss G screwed up her forehead in disbelief and asked about lavatories and
that sort of thing. I replied that they were in the alleyway behind the apartments
and called “thunder boxes.” I explained that in the twenties and thirties, it was
normal living in the black quarters of St. Louis.
Miss G put her knife and fork carefully together. She had finished eating.
“Did you have bad feelings about the whites?”
“Not at all. As a child growing up in a black neighborhood, you didn’t
even think that way. The whites belonged to a different sort of world. St. Louis
has always been a black city - black schools, black churches, black everything.
We went to a park, Forest Park, where we played, but we knew there were
certain areas that were off limits and that only white folks could go there. It
never bothered us and we had plenty of room,” I explained.
“You had a happy childhood?” asked Miss G, her voice filled with
“Sure, I had a happy childhood even when Pa was only working a day here
and a day there. During the depression, you took it all for granted. When he
wasn’t working, we weren’t eating.
He was a family man with his own set of values. No smoking or drinking
in the family, and no dirty words.”
Miss G pushed her plate away and hooted with laughter. “It was just the
same as my family. My Pa was sort of quiet, introspective, withdrawn, but
Mama never stopped talking, never stopped ‘doing.’ She had her own big garden
behind the house growing all sorts of veggies. There were chickens, a cow, and
my father kept his mule which he used to work the tobacco fields.” As an
afterthought, she said, “Did your Mama cook very much?”
“Ma wasn’t a great cook. Pa did most of the cooking. If we had a decent
meal, he cooked it.”
“What would you call a decent meal?” asked Miss G.
“Something that wasn’t burned half up. Mostly it was oatmeal or rice
before going to school. We didn’t come home for lunch because there wasn’t
any. Whatever you did you did on a bowl of oatmeal. We drank coffee because
Ma was addicted to coffee. Ma didn’t waste money on milk. You went from the
breast to the coffee pot. The only milk we had was canned Pet milk. She would
buy a can of Pet milk and thin it with water. The last one to get oatmeal would
get more water than milk, but she’d put more sugar in that. I can tell you, Miss
G, the real advantage of being poor is that you don’t get that cholesterol stuff,
and you don’t have heart attacks because there ain’t anything to attack.” Miss G
roared with laughter and then asked if I went to school.
I explained that we went early at eight o’clock. It was an all-black school,
and I started at six years old. When you went to school at six, you already knew
your alphabet, could count to a hundred, and could read Coca-Cola off the
billboards. You got a good head start from your parents. Now they send kids to
school early for a Head Start! We finished school at 3:30 and went home. Food
depended on what sort of day Pa had. When he didn’t work at the Car Foundry,
he’d go around to the Coal Depot. He couldn’t get hired there, but they let him
pick up the coal that fell off the trucks. He would get a basket and then go sell it.
Maybe he would have fifty cents or a dollar and sometimes as much as 75 cents,
and that paid for food.