Nina Khan lived next door to Ava Gardner’s secretary, Jack Fixa, in Bayswater in London in the late 1960s and 1970s. Through Jack she met Ava. The below blog consists of her memories of both Jack and Ava.
John Charles Fixa (known as Jack) was born on 12 July 1922 in Omaha, Nebraska. His parents were immigrants from Czechoslovakia. Jack served his country in the US Marines during World War II, was wounded on his head by shrapnel, and fortunately survived surgery in which a metal plate was inserted into his skull. After the war, Jack moved to Los Angeles, where he mixed with the show business set, including Ava Gardner. He worked for her as a secretary for a short time, and he, as other employees did, referred to her as "Miss G."
Ava dancing with Jack Fixa. This photo was taken by Rene Jordan, Ava's long-time friend and personal assistant.
Later, into the 1960s, Jack moved to Spain, like many American ex-servicemen. He again became employed by Ava, who had moved to Madrid in the mid-1950s, handling her business correspondence and film commitments. He even found some extra work in US movie productions, stepping back into military style uniform for the films The Blue Max (1966) and Patton (1970). He would also do some photographic modeling – he was a handsome man!
The time came, around 1968/9, that Ava decided to leave Spain and move to London, England, where she had visited and enjoyed since the early 1950s. She was seeking a quieter life, away from the press, where her privacy would be respected. She asked Jack to continue working for her, so he moved to London too. She also brought her maid and companion Rene Jordan and dog Cara. In the early 70s, she moved to her final home at 34 Ennismore Gardens, Knightsbridge, SW7. Jack was only a part-time employee, as Ava could often be abroad working in films or visiting family in the US. Miss G preferred her staff to be available to "live in," but Jack preferred to "live out." Jack found "digs" in nearby Bayswater, which suited everyone.
By chance, Jack took a room in the same building as me, which housed eight tenants, and we became good friends. I found him quite dashing and full of charm. He was the same age as Ava, about 47. I was in my early 20s and quite shy and gauche when it came to sophisticated people. Jack was determined to educate me on art, music, and especially the history of the movies, which we both loved. He also taught me to cook, as he loved food and made a great Mexican chili.
Jack Fixa. Photo taken by Ava Gardner in her home in Madrid in the mid-1960s when Jack started working for her there.
At first Jack said he “worked in an office,” but after a time, he confided that he worked for Ava Gardner, the American movie star. I certainly knew who she was, having seen some of her movies, and I was impressed. He asked that I keep it to myself, as she was a very private person and "wanted to be left alone in London,” and I respected his confidence.
Jack loved London but found it expensive as his earnings were not high in comparison to the cost of living in Spain. He and Miss G both enjoyed the theatre, ballet, and opera. Occasionally Jack was required to escort Ava to events, which he obliged, getting to experience the privileges reserved for an international movie star. With Ava, he met various famous artists from the stage and screen, and he performed his duties well. He loved the lifestyle, but at times the late nights were taxing on him. Calls could be difficult and at odd hours. Jack would have to “hop to it,” having to get into business attire and go back over to Ava’s place to work. It certainly was not a 9 to 5 job.
They did some touristy things too. Once Jack and Miss G journeyed on a red London bus from Park Lane across to Bayswater. It was a lovely day, and they sat up top in front to see the sights. She loved it, saying “I have been visiting London for years and have never been on a London bus!” She wore a hat and dark glasses, lest she be recognised. Nobody bothered with a couple of American tourists, and it was fun! Jack had to collect some business papers for Ava from his small room, so they went to his place on Hereford Road. I worked full time at Liberty’s Department Store, Regent St. and was away all day. Also, I had a larger brighter room than Jack’s, so he took Miss G to my room to go through the papers. Bedsits are fairly basic, the bed the best place to be comfortable to sit. Miss G reclined on my bed, and Jack took the one chair. With business matters done, Jack put her into a cab to send her safely home. The bus ride was a novelty, but not an everyday mode of transport for movie stars! Later that day, Jack told me of her visit to our house and the day out sightseeing. Thank goodness I kept a clean and tidy house, to be told a movie star had been playing "Goldilocks" on my bed, and I didn’t get to see it! But, things were looking up!
I specialised in the selling of woolens, silks and cotton fabrics at Liberty’s and was also good at sewing clothes, which I did at home. While working at my counter one day, a soft husky and familiar voice enquired “Can you help me?” I looked up and immediately recognised the person as Ava Gardner. I was quite shocked, but I locked into service mode, being reserved as usual: “Madame, how may I help you?” She wanted some fine white wool "challis" fabric for a blouse. It was hard to take my eyes off her, also I noticed her companion Rene waiting just a few steps away, looking at the store display. Nobody recognised Miss G while she sat quietly selecting from the stock I showed her. I could see she knew good quality textiles. As I measured and cut the cloth, I noted how tiny her hands and feet were, dainty fingernails, almost childlike. She was simply dressed in a skirt and sweater, with a suede waistcoat, in brown tones and of lovely quality. She was wearing barely any make-up and her spectacles. Her hair was curly and soft, fine textured and pale auburn in colour with a few greys too, in a bob cut. She was still very much a beautiful woman. When she paid her cheque, I ventured to introduce myself, saying that I was a friend of Jack Fixa. Well, she brightened up with a big smile saying “Oooooh, Jack!” and spoke well of him. We chatted for a bit about Jack, but I was conscious not to draw attention from other staff or customers. We shook hands, said good-bye, and she drifted away, with Rene in tow, toting the fabric as quietly and unobtrusive as they had appeared. Well, it had certainly made my day, meeting a real-life movie star! It was a moment to remember for the rest of my life!
Jack Fixa with Nina Khan (author) in London in 1982. They are seated in front of an Alberto Vargas pinup illustration of Ava Gardner.
In the early 70s, Jack decided he didn’t like the English winter. He was homesick for Spain and missed his friends. Before leaving England, I made him a parting gift for Miss G. It was a loose-fitting, full-length hostess gown in a printed jersey fabric of pale mixed colours in a geometric pattern, very modern in the Emilio Pucci Italian style. I took a guess at the size and length for Miss G’s 5'6” frame. Jack was very impressed with my work and, touched by my gesture, gladly presented it to Miss G. She was absolutely delighted. He came home with a piece of long cord, which she had and asked if I could make it into a belt to tie over the gown. I was glad to and later dropped it off at her house. In time, Jack returned to Madrid and remained there until the 1990s.
I would occasionally visit Jack in Madrid for the summer holiday, and sometimes he would come back to London for a few weeks. He’d visit the theatres, especially around August, when everyone flees the city for cooler climates. If Miss G was in town at the same time, Jack would get in touch with her and arrange an afternoon visit for tea. He took me a few times during the 70s. Each time he would tell me, “Now don’t gussie-up! We’re not going to visit a movie star on parade. It is Ava’s private home, so no cameras and don’t talk too much. It’s just tea.” I obeyed and this was all before the modern must have “selfies” on fancy phones. We were in England where society rules applied, even in the home of an American movie star.
Nina Khan with some of her Ava Gardner memorabilia collection, including a reproduction she made herself of Ava's green plaid costume from Show Boat. Khan made the costume near to Ava's measurements and using similar fabric. Also included is a painting by the Australian artist Sarah Lyn-Lewis.
When we arrived at Ennismore Gardens, Ava’s new maid and companion, Carmen Vargas, a lovely lady, received us. We waited by the door, Miss G appeared smiling, and said “Shoes off!!” The carpets had just been cleaned. Thank goodness there were no holes in our stockings! Miss G was simply dressed in a comfortable top and jeans and no make-up at all. Carmen served us tea in lovely china, while Jack and Ava talked, catching up on what they had each been doing, mostly about their family visits. I don’t know why, but Miss G thought I was southern, from the US. I told her I was from the southern hemisphere, Australia. She laughed heartily and said, ““Oh, Australia! I remember Australia.” I hoped they were good memories! She had made On the Beach in 1959 around Melbourne, Victoria, with Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire, and Anthony Perkins. It was a big event at the time for Australia, and people were agog over Ava. The making of the film still comes up in the papers occasionally today.
On one visit, Miss G was away in the states filming Earthquake (1974). Babysitting Ava’s dog was her eldest sister Beatrice, called “Bappie” among the family. She was as bright as a button and glad to see Jack again. She told us about Ava’s work on the movie and how frightening and nervous she found the special effects on set. Bappie said that her sister was making this movie “just for the loot!”
Our last visit, around 1976, was when Miss G was preparing to go to Russia to appear in The Blue Bird, co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and directed by George Cukor. She told us about the beautiful costumes being created for her role as Luxury, explaining with gestures the length of sleeves and the way the skirt was to be draped. She added, “I will get to wear my crown!” I wondered what she meant, and Jack explained that Ava had a beautiful “kokoshnic style” headpiece which she’d worn in publicity photos for Tam-Lin. Edith Head, costume designer for The Blue Bird, would be adding more jewels to Ava’s stunning Russian headpiece, which had originally been created for ballet folk dancing.
The crown Ava wore in The Blue Bird. It is part of Nina Khan's private collection of Ava Gardner memorabilia.
Morgan, Ava’s new corgi joined us, and after our tea, Miss G took us on a tour through her apartment. It had recently been redecorated, and it was indeed stunning. I particularly admired the glamorous blue and ivory floral wallpaper and matching, custom furnishing fabric used in her bedrooms. I commented on a pair of blue and white china dovecots. "Indoors?", I asked. "No birds in them," she assured me. She had exquisite taste in everything!
When we were leaving, she commented on my grey woolen coat, which was my own work. Though it was too big for her, she tried it on and liked it. She loved clothes and suggested I make her something. Numbers were exchanged, but over time our paths were not aligned. Miss G had her clothes made at Franka in London. Occasionally, their designer would come into Liberty to buy fabrics for her, to be made by the couture house. Their wonderful work can be seen on Ava’s character in The Cassandra Crossing (1976). Miss G got to keep her costumes in modern pictures, thanks to a useful clause in her contracts.
I didn’t see Miss G again, though I kept up with articles of news in the London newspapers. In January 1988 there was a headline: “Ava back home soon.” She was ill and in hospital in Los Angeles receiving treatment. I was certainly saddened to read this and sent a get well note to her address, hopefully to be forwarded to her. In May, I received a printed card in the post, thanking everyone who had been so kind to wish her well and expressing how touched she was and that she would be home soon. I was heartened by the reply, obviously organised by an aide or friend. She was a very gracious lady that I was privileged to meet.
Envelope from the thank you card Nina Khan received in response to a get well note she sent to Ava in 1988.
I returned to Australia to live in 1989, after 23 years in London. When the shock of Miss G’s passing came out in the news on 25th January, 1990, Jack and I shared our moment of sadness on the telephone, me in Australia and him in Madrid. Poor Miss G in London, alone, but for dear Carmen and corgi Morgan. Of course, there were many very dear close friends on hand to help her.
Jack returned to the US from Madrid in the 1990s, making his final home in Palm Springs. He came to visit me in Australia in the late 90s, and we had a lovely time. I was glad to repay his kindnesses to me, a friend of 30 years. He certainly was influential in my cultural education, and London was the best experience for me. The few encounters with Miss G were highlights that I remember well and would not have missed for the world. He had some health issues too, sadly passing away in 2002 at age 79 in Palm Springs. I miss him.
EPILOGUE: When Jack passed away I thought my “Ava Gardner” episode was over and that my memories of London would now be just memories. It couldn’t have been further from the truth, for in time, it would be an even more important part of my life and purse strings!
Jack had quite a few signed photographs from Ava, all of which he looked after carefully, knowing they would be valuable. He had many other “show biz” autographs from important entertainers and musicians, opera, and ballet stars too. I thought perhaps he may have left me one or two photos of Ava, but it was not to be. I expect the logistics for him in the US and me in Australia, probably would have been inconvenient for his executor anyway. I put my slight disappointment to bed and was happily grateful for our 30-year friendship and the valuable insights he had instilled in me over the years.
A shadow box Nina Khan has created with Ava Gardner photos and ephemera. It includes a book of matches that Jack Fixa used to carry in case Ava needed a light, a newspaper clipping about Ava's health troubles late in her life and the thank you card from Ava to those who sent get well wishes in 1988.
In the 2000’s, along came the new gadget of the millennium, the Internet! Around 2009, I got a computer and dived into the new online world opening up to me. I had heard about eBay, where people could buy and sell things. I was interested in movies, old ones especially, and, of course, I looked for Ava Gardner listings, finding new DVD re-releases of her movies, photographs, and other things. I began to buy. I came across “Ava Gardner Estate” from a seller in the US and had the winning bid on a black leather Gucci handbag. WOW for me! I could not believe that I now owned something that had belonged to Miss G. And, so it went on, I bought, bid, won, and spent on all things Ava; photos, lobby cards, posters, decorative objects, costume jewelry, and more. I was heartbroken when I was outbid on something I really wanted, but I put it behind me and went on.
Nina Khan's collection of items that once belonged to Ava Gardner.
I was beginning to acquire a collection of Ava Gardner Estate items. What was I doing, where was I going to keep them safely, what was the purpose of it all? It just built up, until I had over 300+ photos and all the bits and pieces I now hold in custodianship. By 2012, I landed my biggest purchase. The centrepiece of the seller’s whole collection was Miss G’s The Blue Bird jeweled headpiece, the same one she discussed with me and Jack. In fact, it is the only piece I have which has actually featured in a movie. All the other items I have are personal effects. I finally have a stunning centrepiece, the most expensive and spectacular, it gives the collection validity and possibly worthy enough to be exhibited in the future. Of course, I will have to seek and confirm permission from the owners of the "Ava Gardner" name and image, before anything can be shown to the public.
I sometimes think to myself, how surprised Jack would be if he could see what items I have, some that he had mentioned to me in the 1970s. I hope he would be pleased that I have taken on this responsibility. Even more curious, I wonder what would Miss G say, that the quiet, sweet person who came to tea with Jack had this collection.
Now into my seventh decade, I am making my “all about Ava” story possibly my final project. Later, will we hear over the clatter of tea cups, “Who was Nina Khan?” And, the response will be, “Oh, she was that lady who bought all of those beautiful photographs of Ava Gardner and pretty things we went to see and loved. You remember her!” And, that’s what I want folks to do… remember.
All photos courtesy of Nina Khan.