“Although no one believes me, I have always been a country girl and still have a country girl’s values.” –Ava Gardner
Ava Gardner is one of classic Hollywood’s most storied bombshells. Born Ava Lavinia Gardner on December 24, 1922, to Mary “Molly” Elizabeth and Jonas Bailey Gardner, she was the youngest of seven children. Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, and her parents worked as tobacco sharecroppers. Her mother also worked as a cook and housekeeper at the Brogden Teacherage, which offered the family room and board–a clear benefit to the family when the Gardners would lose their property.
While growing up, Gardner’s family was poor. Gardner was raised in the Baptist faith, later becoming an atheist in her adult years. When the teachers’ school closed, the family relocated to Newport News, Virginia, where Molly managed a boarding house. At this time, Jonas fell ill and passed away from bronchitis when Gardner was a teenager.
Following her father’s death, the family moved once again, this time to Rock Ridge, close to Wilson, North Carolina. There, Gardner attended high school, graduating in 1939. After graduation, Gardner went on to take secretarial courses at Atlantic Christian College.
During a fateful visit to her sister, Beatrice, now living in New York City, Gardner was photographed by Beatrice’s husband, photographer Larry Tarr. While the photograph was initially meant to be a gift to Gardner’s mother, the final product was also displayed in the window of his Fifth Ave. studio, where it was spotted by Loews Theatres’ legal clerk, Barnard Duhan. Per his suggestion and a failed attempt to secure Gardner’s phone number, Tarr sent Gardner’s information to MGM. Soon enough, Gardner was interviewed by the head of MGM’s New York talent office and was also filmed simply walking and arranging flowers in a vase. An initial attempt to record her voice was quickly ceased, as Garder’s heavy Southern accent was deemed difficult to understand.
Nonetheless, Gardner’s short screen test pleased the most important person at MGM: Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio. Gardner was offered a contract and left her secretarial courses for Hollywood by 1941, with her sister traveling alongside her. As a top priority, Gardner was given a diction coach and voice teacher.
While in Los Angeles, Gardner crossed paths with Mickey Rooney, who was smitten with her. After turning down his advances on several occasions, Gardner and Rooney ultimately married in 1942. The marriage ended in 1943.
Her screen debut in a walk-on role would occur in We Were Dancing (1942). After carrying out numerous bit parts, she was finally given screen credit in Ghosts on the Loose (1943). Gardner’s breakthrough role would be as a femme fatale in The Killers (1946).
Gardner’s second marriage was to bandleader Artie Shaw in 1945, divorcing in 1946. She would also be pursued by aviator Howard Hughes.
However, it was her relationship with and marriage to Frank Sinatra that was Hollywood legend. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, for Gardner, with the press constantly covering their romance. Moreover, the story was a hot topic of discussion for Hollywood’s gossip columnists. Though the marriage was tumultuous, Gardner considered Sinatra to be the love of her life. Gardner became pregnant twice during their time together, but due to penalty clauses in her MGM contract pertaining to pregnancy, both pregnancies were aborted. Gardner and Sinatra divorced in 1957, but as was the case for Gardner in all three of her marriages, she remained good friends with each of her former husbands.
The next decade proved to offer many more successful opportunities for Gardner. She delighted audiences with roles in The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and many more. Show Boat would offer her a robust musical role, though Gardner’s singing voice was ultimately dubbed for the film. Mogambo would also hold special significance to Gardner: in her youth, she would see a screening of Red Dust (1932), starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Years later, she would star in the remake of the film alongside Gable himself. Additionally, Gardner had developed a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway, starring in films inspired by his work: The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Sun Also Rises (1957).
In the years to come, Gardner also appeared in The Angel Wore Red (1960), 55 Days at Peking (1963), and played out her final lead role in The Night of the Iguana (1964). Garder continued acting with performances in Seven Days in May (1964) and The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966).
By 1968, Gardner moved to London, in order to pursue an elective hysterectomy. Gardner was concerned about potentially having to face uterine cancer, which had already been the cause of death for her mother. During this period, Gardner appeared in Mayerling (1968). Her career then led her to work in disaster films, with roles in Earthquake (1974) and City on Fire (1979), among others. By the 1980s, Gardner almost exclusively worked on television, with appearances in The Long, Hot Summer and Knots Landing.
Off-screen, Gardner also supported civil rights for African-Americans, arguing for racial equality and desegregation. As a young girl in North Carolina, she spent time with African-American children, sitting with them in segregated portions of movie theaters. Gardner became a member of the NAACP in 1968.
In 1986, Gardner suffered from a stroke in addition to other health issues and years of smoking. As her health issues accumulated, Sinatra grew increasingly concerned and offered to pay for her to visit a specialist in the United States. Sadly, Gardner passed away on January 25, 1990, at her London home. She was 67 years old.
Gardner is at rest in Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield, North Carolina, near her siblings and parents.
Today, there are numerous tributes to Gardner and her legacy in her hometown and beyond. One of the finest tributes to Gardner is the Ava Gardner Museum, located in her hometown, featuring an extensive collection from Gardner’s on- and off-screen life. The collection showcases personal effects, family heirlooms, movie costumes, and more, in addition to exciting exhibits, programs, and podcasts that celebrate the life of Gardner. With Gardner’s centennial coming up at the end of the year, there are many fine events and tributes to Gardner ahead.
Among my favorite items in the collection are the various fashions and accessories Gardner wore in films and in her leisure.
Of course, the collection extends far beyond costumes! The exhibits here also rotate.
The Ava Gardner Museum is located at 325 E. Market St., Smithfield, North Carolina.
Moreover, the Ava Gardner Festival is scheduled for October 7-9th of this year, featuring the unveiling of new exhibits, a musical tribute to Gardner, films, and heritage tours. The dedication of the Ava Gardner Mural and Rose Garden will occur during the festival.
The Ava Gardner Heritage Trail, sponsored by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation, also includes a comprehensive listing of places of relevance pertaining to Gardner’s life as well as well-researched descriptions relating to the significance and history of each.
Gardner’s birthplace stands at 740 Avenue Rd., Smithfield, North Carolina.
The former Brogden eacherage is now a private residence, standing at 7209 Brogden Rd., Smithfield, North Carolina.
While Rock Ridge High School no longer stands, there is a school on the site. There is a also a historical marker nearby, honoring Gardner. This is located at 6605 Rock Ridge School Rd., Wilson, North Carolina.
Atlantic Christian College is now Barton College, located at 700 Vance St. NE, Wilson, North Carolina.
During her childhood, Gardner would attend screenings at the Howell Theatre, which is where she first saw Red Dust. It is located at 141 S. Third St., Smithfield, North Carolina.
Gardner and Rooney paid a visit to Gardner’s mother shortly after their wedding. They gathered at the home of Gardner’s aunt, Inez. The home stands at 2725 Fairview Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina.
This Enterprise Rent-A-Car is the site of the former In & Out Grill, which was once owned by Gardner’s brother, Jack. The offered inside and outside service to customers. On occasion, Gardner herself could be seen flipping burgers. This building stands at 831 N. Brigthleaf Blvd., Smithfield, North Carolina.
Gardner’s gravesite is located at the intersection of Highway 210 and Highway 70, Siithfield, North Carolina. There are signs pointing to her grave.
Gardner’s handprints are located in the forecourt of TCL Chinese Theatre at 6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, California.
Gardner has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, honoring her work in motion pictures. It is located at 1560 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.
Beyond the United States, there is is a memorial to Gardner in 34 Ennismore Gardens, London, England, where she lived.
There is also a statue of Gardner at the site of where Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) was filmed. The statue stands at Passeig del Mar, 12, 17320 Tossa de Mar, Girona, Spain.