Ava and Chasing the Iguana

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Left to Right: Nicole Worth (Charlotte), Stephen Carl (Shannon), Gwen Sullivan (Hannah), and Stephanie Kellogg (Maxine).

Well friends, the Ava Gardner Museum has been absolutely hopping! Top that off with the announcement that the Ava Gardner Trust will be honored with a historic Blue Plate at Ava’s Knightsbridge, London home in the fall during the English Heritage Foundation’s 150th celebration of the Blue Plates means that we are all abuzz here in preparation. It takes months, and in this case, even years to organize events like this.  We are hoping to release more information soon. I will be traveling to England in May in order to help firm up details and give them to you then. Of course, we will be visiting Ava’s home and some of her old haunts and sharing with you via our social media and our new Periscope app! Make sure to keep tuning in.


Richard Burton and Ava Gardner in “Night of the Iguana” (1964).

One of our big events just took place in February. The Ava Gardner Museum hosted auditions for the Neuse Little Theatre’s production of “The Night of the Iguana,” a play by Neuse Little Theater Night of the Iguana promoTennessee Williams which Ava brought to life on the silver screen in 1964. As this is Ava’s hometown, this was the first time the Theatre was bringing this sacred role to life. Those closest to Ava believe that the role of Maxine Faulk was effortless for Ava and that she was essentially portraying herself. It is the closest that you will ever see to who she truly was. Ava’s niece Mary Edna Grantham told me that everything from the way she laughed to the way she put her hand on her hip was pure Ava Gardner. Ava herself said, “John let me go back to my North Carolina accent, which meant that I got to say things like “cotton-pickin’” and call folks ‘honey,’ which, you can imagine, wasn’t exactly a strain….In one scene, when I was supposed to say, ‘In a pig’s eye you are,’ what came out was, ‘In a pig’s ass you are.’ Old habits die awfully hard.”[1]  Ava was challenged by the role despite being herself.  Working with John Huston, Ray Stark, and Tennessee Williams- all with different conceptualizations of how the story should be portrayed- made Ava blossom into a raw, earthy character which has earned her the praise of her career. Although the film was not one of the most memorable in Hollywood History, it did prove that Ava’s star was still on the ascent.  Upon reading positive reviews she dryly noted, “Hell, I suppose if you stick around long enough they have to say something nice about you.”[2] And I suppose she isn’t wrong!

Carl and Stephanie Neuse Little Theatre Night of the Iguana

Stephen Carl & Stephanie Kellogg have a little fun recreating the iconic shot!

The Neuse Little Theatre wanted to bring Ava’s most realistic role to life on-stage in Ava’s hometown, and to spearhead the project was director Tony Pender and title cast of Stephen Carl  as Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon,  Stephanie Kellogg as Maxine Faulk (Ava’s role), Gwen Sullivan as Hannah Jelks, Randy Jordan as Nonno Coffin, and  Nicole Worth as Charlotte Goodall.  The play ran from February 19 through February 27 and I was invited to speak to both the cast and the opening night crowd, for which I am very grateful.  I encouraged people to not try to imitate or perceive imitation of Ava or the other characters on-screen and they were inimitable, but rather to take the characters and make them their own- which they did wonderfully! Even one of Ava’s relatives went to see the show, but the cast was not aware till after.  The play was more sexually charged than the film but was carried out without a smutty air.  The actors were younger than the title characters and this changed the dynamic between them to a different degree. The set was beautifully designed and was reminiscent of coastal Mexico. You almost felt like you were there.  The play garnered positive to neutral reviews, citing that the production had potential to grow. You can read more about that here.

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Board Member Anita Liverman poses with the catered tropical display.

In order to celebrate, the Ava Gardner Museum held a Theatre members-only closing party following the final performance on the evening of Sunday, February 28. Caterer Donald Bailey provided tropical décor within the museum, outdone only by his unique fusion of

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Museum Director Deanna Brandenberger (left) and docent Abby Johnson (right).

tropical fare which was too delicious to describe! The cast enjoyed relaxing with their supporters and basking in the comfort of the museum after all their hard work.  Photos were taken and goodbyes were said. I think that the cast and crew did a wonderful job with a terribly complicated script and Ava would have been honored to have them in her hometown.

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Punch table at the reception. No rum-coco’s unfortunately.

We have recently reinstated our Campaign for a Museum Fire Suppression System and are seeking donations and sharing word-of-mouth in order to reach our goal. While we are picking up momentum, we are still far away from our target of $96,000. You can find out more about our endeavor by clicking here. Any amount helps!


Also, we are participating in Belk’s annual charity sale taking place on April 30. By purchasing a $5 ticket (of which the museum keeps 100% proceeds), you automatically get $5 off your next purchase as well as deep discounts, exclusive shopping, and a chance to win a gift card worth $5 to $1000 for the first 100 customers that day. Purchase your ticket here.

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AGM Board Secretary Melissa Godwin Overton, NLT Board Member Theressa Rose, and AGM Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger pose barefoot in tribute to Ava’s humble performance.

Thank you for your patience on the intermittent blogs as we strive to bring you more regular updates. Remember to download the Periscope app for a chance to interact with us LIVE!


Click here for an exclusive sneak peak inside the museum in the meantime!


~Deanna Brandenberger

AGM Executive Director/Estate Trustee



[1] Gardner, Ava. “Ava: My Story.” New York, NY: Bantam Books, 251.

[2] Gardner, 252.

The Writer & The Rose of Smithfield

Writer and Rose Doris and Ava

Doris Rollins Cannon (left), author of “Grabtown Girl” and local Hollywood actress Ava Gardner (right).


Roses. They seemed to have so much significance in the life of Johnston County native and Hollywood actress Ava Gardner. In 1929, Ava made her acting debut in the Brogden community’s production of A Rose Dream.  Ava got the part of a little girl named Rose “who wandered from home, became lost, and fell asleep under a tree.” The child experiences the wonders of Fairyland and eventually must return from whence she came when the Fairy Queen tells her, “A mortal child can never stay/In Fairyland but for a day.”[1]  

1-child ava with rose

Ava as “Little Rose” in her first performance of “A Rose Dream.”

Ava’s life would eventually go on to ironically imitate art. She would go to the Fairyland of Hollywood and frolic and then realize it was time to leave. She would do this many times in her life, reinventing herself with each cycle from Spain to London and eventually, home to Smithfield.  Ava’s affinity for roses as a child became a symbol of not just love, but loyalty. In her childhood best friend Clara’s autograph book she once scribbled:



                                Roses may wither

                                Stems may die

                                Friends may forsake you

                                But never will I.[2]


I really want you to think about that for a moment, because it says everything about Ava’s fundamental character that you need to know. I want you to flash forward to Ava post-1968, in her London apartment in Knightsbridge. I want you to imagine her bedroom and in it a bureau of drawers on top of which sits a withering vase of yellow roses that should have been thrown out long ago. I want you to visualize a time lapse for the next few weeks and months till you see a hint of Christmas lights and decorations emanating from another room. Christmas Eve was also the day that Frank Sinatra’s “Angel” would be getting her yearly birthday bouquet of yellow roses to replace the ones that she kept on her dresser for an entire year before that. Roses withering, stems dying, friends flitting in Ava rose and mirrorand out during the fleeting months, and the constant reliability of the love of her life gesturing through the delivery of flowers, the thing that she would never be to him: she would never be forsaken. Their lives may have taken them in completely different directions, they may have been in relationships or even married to someone else, but the profound connection that they shared would last until her death.



You wouldn’t really know the symbolism it all represented – you wouldn’t really know the intricacies of what helped make Ava Gardner the woman, not just the movie star- if it hadn’t been for another woman’s recordkeeping. Doris Rollins Cannon, a journalist and newspaper editor of The Smithfield Herald, in Ava’s hometown (please keep in mind that Grabtown/Brogden is a rural community affiliated with the town). Ever since Ava has been a source of admiration in her public life, there have been people trying to cash in on her name and fame, making money off unauthorized enterprises (even if what they create are outright lies), and trying to immortalize their name in a vain attempt at touting “expertise” about an Ava Gardner they never knew nor even researched properly.  Ava herself found this extremely distasteful and would be sickened that it is still continuing even to this day. While writing her own autobiography Ava once told Peter Evans “I’m just not happy about having strangers digging around in my panties drawer, honey.”[3]  Ava felt that the only true representations of herself would be the ones that were down-to-earth and in her experience, she needed to have some agency in keeping them that way.  She had been absolutely distressed whenever tabloids printed about her and evading the paparazzi became something that literally made her flee entire continents.


       What is so maddening about these things is that they take an acorn, a little kernel of            truth, and build an oak tree of lies. It hurts every time it happens. You never get used        to it. Never. And it hurts to have to swallow it without answering. But it’s best not to.

                                                                                   ~Ava Gardner[4]


Ava’s distrust is something that was never really ameliorated. Peter Evans chronicled his on-and-off again assignment with her in detail. Her reticence was not only to protect herself but more importantly, those of whom she loved, like Frank Sinatra, who she would never betray.  Still, she knew that curiosity would get the better of many people and they would come up with stories on their own if she didn’t set the record straight.


 I know a lot of men fantasize about me; that’s how Hollywood gossip becomes                   Hollywood history. Someday someone is going to say, ‘All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner are true,’ and the truth about me, just like the truth about poor, maligned Marilyn [Monroe] will disappear like names on old tombstones. I know I’m not defending a spotless reputation. Hell, it’s too late for that….It’s just that I’d like to keep the books straight while I’m still around and sufficiently sober and compos mentis to do it,’ she said.[5]



Ava at the premiere of “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954).

Even Peter Evans respected her wishes in not publishing the project after she called it off.  His family and publisher sought post-mortem collaboration with the Ava Gardner Trust years in the making in order to finally release the book which became a bestseller! So it boggles the mind how some people can show such disrespect and disregard for a woman, her family and her estate that she loved, and even go further to publicly denigrate it. Yet it happens and it just speaks to their nefarious motives and the type of people they are.  How can you do proper research on the real Ava Gardner without doing investigating and speaking with those closest to her? How do you make a legitimate book?  These were questions that Doris Cannon tackled before she even decided to go ahead with her own project that would eventually be published in 2001, Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. It would become one of the pivotal works on Ava’s background and personal life before and after Hollywood.


Most of the material in [the] book came from interviews with Ava’s family and friends, including many who have died since sharing their memories….A number of books have been written about Ava Gardner….so why another? The answer is that previous books, including her 1990 autobiography, largely focused on her years as a celebrated actress, her many romances, and her marriages to three famous men.  The aim of Grabtown Girl  is to tell who Ava Gardner was at root level – a girl who was strengthened by and remained true to her rural North Carolina heritage.[6]


With an altruistic purpose, the permission of Ava’s estate, family and those closest to her, as well as Ava’s own permission (a trust that was so hard to gain), Doris could move forward with a clear conscience and purpose; the hallmark of a legitimate and objective researcher. Doris summed it up in Ava’s own words when a local newspaper journalist Tom Lassiter asked if she would mind if they wrote a story on her, Ava said, “Listen, I don’t care what you write, as long as you tell the truth.”[7]


Doris first met Ava in the spring of 1978, following her appearance at Rock Ridge Reunion


Ava’s nervousness is apparent during her appearance at the Rock Ridge Reunion day with NC Governor Jim Hunt in 1978.

Day to which she was invited by North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt. Doris and Ava met at Ava’s brother Jack’s house in Smithfield where Ava was found barefoot and without makeup but was still beautiful and welcoming.  Doris noted that she did not want to talk about her career or Hollywood but was more interested in expressing who she was beyond the façade that everyone claimed to know.  She loved to talk about being home in Johnston County and how she felt at peace among the birds and pine trees under the North Carolina sky.[8]  You will know this is the real Ava if you talk to any person who ever met her. She was not the leering screen goddess unless she wanted to be, and yet people ascribe only that glamor to her. Why? She was so much more!


Over the years, Doris became instrumental in collaborating with Dr. Tom and Lorraine Banks who had the largest collection of Ava’s memorabilia known at that time. Tom’s personal connection with Ava is the well-known story of a capture and kiss during his boyhood that he never forgot. In 1979, Doris helped him bring his collection to Smithfield for a limited exhibition which was successful. She convinced them to settle it permanently in Johnston County and it found homes in the Brogden Teacherage and two downtown locations before finally opening in its permanent location in 2000.[9]  Doris’ involvement facilitated a need for tribute and a cultural asset to a county which is often overshadowed by its agricultural reputation.  It is very clear that preserving Ava’s legacy was always her goal, even before Ava’s passing. This is something we will revisit at a later time.

Copy of First Ava Advocates 1978-Thom-n-Anne Duncan-Tom Banks-Doris Cannon

The first Ava Advocates (left to right): Anne & Thom Duncan, Dr. Tom Banks, and Doris Rollins Cannon (1978).


Today marks the 26th anniversary of Ava’s interment at Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield. Doris Cannon wrote and read the eulogy that is oft-repeated on this blog, where Ava’s words of wisdom were to have more kindness in the world, starting with ourselves. On August 18, 2015, we lost the woman, the writer, the first Ava advocate who worked so tirelessly for the cause that we all carry on.  It was a tremendous loss for us in the Ava community, at the museum, and personally.  I will never forget the first time that I met Doris. Suffering from the effects of cancer and heart failure, when she could muster the strength despite that, she showed up at the museum a few weeks after I started working, introduced herself and gave me a big hug saying, “You are just as beautiful as everyone says you are.” Isn’t that the most wonderful way to meet someone? I weep now to think about how she emanated kindness and instilled a kindred connection with everyone here at the museum and in the community. Almost a year later, after I underwent a serious illness and operation, she called because she hadn’t heard from me, but she knew I was going in for surgery and she wanted to make sure I had gotten a card she sent me before I went. Two months later, she would be on her own deathbed, but here she was, worrying about a young lady she had known and worked with for just a year. A beautiful soul and a tremendous loss in more than just a historic capacity.



Doris Rollins Cannon (left) with Ava’s niece Mary Edna Grantham (right) in the library of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Speaking at both of the Ava Gardner historical marker dedication ceremonies in November, I emphasized how much we owe to Doris Rollins Cannon. There would be no Ava Gardner Museum, there would be no social media, and there would be no interaction and carrying on of Ava’s mission and memory to the degree that we have today, without the work of this woman and the friends who assisted her on the way (Ms. Eunice Norton sadly preceding her in passing in September of 2014).  So tomorrow, when I visit Ava’s grave, there will be two yellow roses placed on the footstone, because 26 years ago, Ms. Doris Cannon stood eulogizing with the intention that something as special as Ava’s success, a hometown girl “who made good,” should be remembered.


Those who knew, loved, and admired her most can hope that in her quiet reveries, she could still remember the sound of applause as the curtains swished to a close on her first-grade performance in the operetta at Brogden School.  They can hope that, in the still of a wintry London night, the sound of that applause rose ever higher and louder and traveled around the world, as Ava…like Little Rose, ended her mortal journey through Fairyland- and came home to stay.


And we can hope that for Doris Rollins Cannon as well. May they both rest in peace. You can read more about Ms. Cannon here. You can purchase her book through the museum by clicking here.


Ava Gardner airplane roses airport


Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more blogs throughout another exciting year!


~Deanna Brandenberger

AGM Executive Director

Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate


[1] Cannon, Doris Rollins. Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. (Asheboro, NC:  Down Home Press, 2001), 35-36.

[2] Cannon, 37.

[3] Gardner and Evans, Ava and Peter. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. (Simon & Schuster: New York, NY: 2013), 84.

[4] Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1990), 200.

[5] Gardner and Evans, 19-20.

[6] Cannon, 3-7.

[7] Cannon, 118.

[8] Cannon, 123-124.

[9] Cannon, 135.

“To Lavinia, Who Is Truly My Beloved.” ~Frank Sinatra

Ava and Frank Cake

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra share a little December birthday cake in Germany, 1951.

Today would have been his 100th birthday. She called him Francis. You know him as Frank Sinatra, the most famous voice in history. Their love was a burning passion that was tempered with the firestorm of the cruel media. During a time when Frank’s star was in a rut, Ava’s was on the rise. During the time when they both rose professionally, they crashed personally. Ava once said that when things were good, they were magical and when they were bad, they were the worst. So how did two tempestuous personalities create one of the longest-lasting love stories during the Golden Age of Hollywood?

Ava and Frank first met in 1941 when Ava was still married to Mickey Rooney. Recent biographical rags would have you believe that Frank picked her out of a magazine (sorry Mr. “Biographer-to-the-Stars,” but you’ve got your plotlines confused; that was actually Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth). Ava was blown away when he told her “Hey, why didn’t I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself.” Ava, still the shrinking violet of the Hollywood machine, didn’t know how to process the situation. “That caught me off guard. I guess I smiled back uncertainly, but I don’t think I said a word. Because in those early days, I was always feeling out of my depth. Even to meet Frank Sinatra was

Ava Frank Sinatra Mickey Rooney table talking

Ava is first introduced to Frank Sinatra while married to Mickey Rooney in 1941.

exciting enough. To have him say a thing like that left me dumbfounded.”1 Following Ava’s divorce from both Mickey and Artie, and Frank’s own separation from Nancy Barbato Sinatra, Frank pursued Ava in social settings to which she always politely declined. Frank would go on to date other actresses like Marilyn Maxwell and Ava’s own personal friend, movie superstar Lana Turner. Yet she and Frank always seemed to cross paths and she finally accepted an invitation for a date but never went further until 1949 as she felt it was rushed and wrong. Ava was cautious of embarking on a tenuous romance with a not-yet-divorced, separated, married man. She was also conscious of her proclivity for falling for musicians. Her devastating marriage and divorce from Artie Shaw was proof enough of that. Frank’s allure attracted many women, a whole generation of bobbysoxers included, that proved he had his options open as well. “That is not to say that I did not think, even then [turning him down], that Frank was one of the greatest singers of this century. He had a thing in his voice I’ve only heard in two other people – Judy Garland and Maria Callas. A quality that makes me want to cry for happiness, like a beautiful sunset or a boys’ choir singing Christmas carols.”2


Frank Sinatra and wife Ava Gardner take the stage in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1951 to sing “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered.”

In the summer of 1949, Frank and Ava met again in Palm Springs and rekindled their attraction once Ava confirmed with him that he and Nancy were indeed separated. “The kids, however, were something else; he was committed to them forever. I was to learn that that kind of deep loyalty – not faithfulness, but loyalty – was a critical part of his nature.”3 Ava’s affection for his children was something she would come to demonstrate openheartedly, without agenda, but because Ava loved children in general, and Mr. Sinatra’s children especially because they were his. Frank Sinatra, Jr. recounted how his sister Nancy was delighted to learn how to do makeup from an iconic movie star. He himself had his first memory of meeting Ava as a little boy at a Palm Springs airport in 1952, after she was


Ava with husband Frank Sinatra at the London Airport in 1952 on their way to film “Mogambo.” This is the same year that Frank Sinatra, Jr. first met Ava as a young boy at a Palm Springs airport.

already the wife of his father. He remembers her as being kind to him, but not much more until years later.

Ava’s romance with Sinatra heated up once she knew she was free to give into her passion for him. “Love is a wordless communion between two people….oh God, it was magic. We became lovers forever – eternally. Big words, I know. But I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love. And God almighty, things did happen.”4 Things like the morality clause being called out in Ava’s movie contracts, petitions to denounce Ava’s career and even prosecute her for indecency. Things like separation owing to careers and people inserting themselves between the lovers. Things like Frank and Ava’s own jealousy about each other. “As if all this press attention, the idea the world had that it was entitled to know all about every minute of our lives, wasn’t enough to put strains on our love….Both Frank and I were high-strung people, possessive and jealous and liable to explode fast. When I lose my temper, honey, you can’t find it anyplace. I’ve just got to let off steam, and he’s the same way.”5 Ava assured her fans in her autobiography that they never fought about professional differences (matter-of-factly, her star was higher than his during their marriage). “Accusations and counteraccusations, that’s what our quarrels were all about.”6

Ava and Frank Pandora and Flying Dutchman premiere Los Angeles 1952

Signs of trouble: 10 Jan 1952, Los Angeles, California, USA — Frank Sinatra with Ava Gardner at the Premiere of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis


Frank Sinatra, Jr. also confirms that Frank and Ava’s troubles were all because they were the same type of temperament and personality. He likened their love to magnets that inevitably repel each other. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other, it was that they were too much like each other. Also to blame was the merciless nature of the press. “Maligning. Anything you read about her, you will find that.” According to him, Ava could never do right under the scrutiny of stardom and everything she did was magnified in the public eye. She was never given a chance to be happy by the outside world because she was “not criticized, she was absolutely maligned.”7 This is something that Frank Sinatra, Jr. could himself relate to, and ironically, it is one of the things that they would later commiserate with each other about.

Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra Jr. son Tahoe Daily Tribune singing

Frank Sinatra Jr. (left) and Frank Sinatra (right) sing side-by-side before the kidnapping incident that unfairly scarred Frank Jr.’s reputation. Frank Sinatra, Jr. is currently leading his multimedia concert performance in tribute of his father, “Sinatra Sings Sinatra.” Photo (c) Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Eventually, the breakdown of their marriage occurred with Ava bearing the brunt of the blame for breaking Sinatra’s heart and really teaching him what it was to sing the blues. The notoriety of this rumor persists to this day, despite the fact that Ava and Sinatra rekindled their passion many times during the years and remained friends until Ava’s death. The fact was that they could not stay married to each other, a shackling as Ava once referred to it which didn’t allow them to be free, to be who they needed to be in order to succeed with each other. “I remember exactly when I made the decision to seek a divorce….I was deeply hurt. I knew then that we had reached a crossroads. Not because we had fallen out of love, but because our love had so battered and bruised us that we couldn’t stand it anymore. When you have to face up to the fact that marriage to the man you love is really over, that’s very tough, sheer agony.”8

Their separation and subsequent divorce might be credited with what allowed them to maintain a friendship. Ava also discovered something critical about herself and decided to break the pattern. “I think the main reason my marriages failed is that I always loved too well but never wisely. I’m terribly possessive about the people I love and I probably smother them with love. I’m jealous of every minute they spend away from me. I want to be with them, to see them, to be able to touch them. Then, and only then, am I happy. For instance, when I couldn’t get Frank on the telephone immediately, I wanted to kill myself. It was stupid, I suppose, but it was me.”9 Ava went on to say how Frank always stayed in touch with her no matter how far apart or how busy their lives got. In fact, speaking with Ava’s nephew Mel Pearce (Myra’s son) recently, I was treated to a story about how Ava and Myra were on vacation in Acapulco in the 1970s when a naval ship that Mel was stationed on in the Indian Ocean had an explosion on board, killing many sailors. Receiving the word in Mexico and not knowing the fate of her nephew, Ava called Sinatra in a panic. Frank told her to hang tight and he would see what he could find out. He then promptly called Spiro Agnew, Vice President of the United States at the time, who had a list of casualties in his hand and confirmed that Mel was not among those listed. Frank then called up Ava to set her and Myra’s worries to rest. Frank and Ava’s marriage was long over at that point, yet he would still drop everything to help her or her family. What a guy!


Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra remained very close friends till Ava died in 1990. Here they are, comfortable in Ava’s London home in the late 1960s.

Frank’s generosity, already touching in its sincerity, is often exaggerated by people that seem to think it needs more than it already has associated with it. The rumor that Frank took care of Ava financially in her final years is widespread with all its inaccuracies. The fact is that while Frank supported Ava emotionally, Ava was financially independent at the time of her death. As the trustee of her estate, I can confirm this unequivocally. The fact is that when Ava suffered her stroke in 1986, Frank wanted her to get a second opinion at a hospital in California. Knowing Ava’s stubborn nature (much like his own), he knew she would not go on her own and thus insisted on flying her out to California and paying for the doctor and associated tests. Ava’s gratitude was endless. Isn’t that enough to the story? Why do people go on to exaggerate? Also widespread in its error is the rumor that Frank paid for her funeral, or that he attended the funeral, neither of which are true. This is because Ava didn’t allow any celebrities at her funeral to provide for the privacy and respect for her family to grieve. Frank did send a floral display with a simple note: “With my love, Francis.” He included the yellow roses he sent to her every year on her birthday- which she would keep on a mantle till the next year he sent another bouquet to replace them. To me, that is hauntingly romantic on its own and speaks volumes of their mutual affection. No exaggeration needed.

For a woman that has been vilified in the media and in popular memory for the better part of the last century, our wish for Frank’s 100th birthday is that she can be remembered as a valuable part of his life as he himself saw her; that she inspired many a torch song, there is no doubt. But they both hurt each other, they both loved each other, and in the end, the love was stronger than the hurt, than the tabloids or rubbish biographies, or even public opinion. When you find a note among Ava’s private possessions 25 years after her death, a note that she kept all her life, that was torn out of a book leaf and reads, “To Lavinia, who is truly my beloved. FS” signed in the shape of a musical clef, you begin to understand the understated romance that was between them all the days of their lives despite the wave of opposition they never stopped facing. When you hear the

Frank Sinatra note to Ava Lavinia truly my beloved

Private scribble on a book leaf that Frank wrote to Ava found among her personal collection. It is currently on display at the Ava Gardner Museum.

rare demo recording of the 78rpm vinyl of “You’re My Thrill” sung by Frank for Ava and kept in her personal collection, you can feel the epitome of their love manifested through the music, though very few people in the world have ever heard that particular recording. (A copy was given to Frank Sinatra, Jr. at Ava’s marker dedication as a token of our thanks).

On November 18, 2015, Ava’s one-time stepson Frank Sinatra, Jr. dedicated her North Carolina Highway Historical Marker at the Carolina Theatre of Durham following his inspiring performance of “Sinatra Sings Sinatra,” a spectacular tribute to his father: the man and the music. In his speech, he explained that Ava was “maligned at every turn of the…screw” and expressed his disappointment that as Sinatra’s wife, as a woman who was in love with a man she was married to, she was not allowed to be left alone. When you hear how Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Ava spent an evening in Spain in 1964 gaining an understanding of each other as public “villains” and expressing the pain that fame can bring with it, maybe we can start to understand our roles as fan and tabloid patrons, a little more in the misery that comes as a cost of stardom.10 Do we have the right to be indignant about the heartbreak they supposedly caused each other? Is it even our business? Ava said that after years of mudslinging she should be able to weather it, but she never could. It hurt her every…single…time. It hurt Frank too. And it spilled into the next generation with Frank Sinatra, Jr. and the trials he went through to overcome his kidnapping and create a career for himself while the tabloids were happier perpetuating the myth of an elaborate hoax instead of celebrating the talent of a great voice from the son of a great musician. How different everyone’s lives might have been if we just practiced what Ava preached: to have a little more kindness in this world. She said that it starts with ourselves. I believe that she is right in this, that we see negativity in ourselves and therefore we look for something worse in others to pacify our own guilt. It goes back to that old adage “misery loves company.” Rather shouldn’t we try to embrace the fragility of their human nature, of their imperfection, and of their love in spite of it? You would think that would be more appealing to the salacious perpetuation of ugliness which has been the broken record of the past 59 years.


Photo and autograph from Ava’s private collection, currently housed at the Ava Gardner Museum.


This year the Ava Gardner Museum has created a unique Triumvirate Tribute Exhibit dedicated to Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, Ava Gardner’s 25th anniversary of passing, and Omar Sharif. Each section displays intimate glimpses into the lives of these three individuals and Ava’s special relationship with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra, as well as her friend and costar Omar Sharif, who sadly passed away this year. Please join us at the museum to celebrate and enjoy the lives of these wonderful stars.

We have attached the video of the dedication and of Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s touching memory of Ava below, in tribute to both Frank and Ava during the month of both their birthdays, and in special thanks to Frank Sinatra, Jr. for divulging such a personal and heartfelt experience, in hopes of

Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra, Jr. in a promotional shot for his show “Sinatra Sings Sinatra” 2015 (c) Frank Sinatra, Jr.

setting straight the truth about the love that was shared, and the lives that were lived (a transcription of the video will follow soon). We think that is something both Frank and Ava would want. Happy 100th birthday Frank! Today we choose to remember the love and friendship you shared with a woman who might have been more worthy than the world was ever allowed to see.



Thank you for reading and stay tuned for our next blog.

Coming soon: Carmen Vargas, the Gardner Family, and the Smithfield marker unveiling ceremony.

Don’t forget to subscribe!

~Deanna Brandenberger

AGM Executive Director

Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate

  1. Gardner, 122.
  2. Gardner, 123.
  3. Gardner, 125.
  4. Gardner, 125.
  5. Gardner, 127.
  6. Gardner, 127.
  7. Sinatra, Jr., Frank. Ava Gardner Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony Speech. Durham, North Carolina. November 18, 2015.
  8. Gardner, 191.
  9. Gardner, 192.
  10. Sinatra, Jr., Frank. Ava Gardner Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony Speech. Durham, North Carolina. November 18, 2015.



2nd June 1944:  Actress Ava Gardner (1922 - 1990) reclining on a bed to write a letter.  (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

2nd June 1944: Actress Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990) reclining on a bed to write a letter. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Ava Gardner once said, “I don’t care what they write about me, as long as it’s the truth.”  Before her passing, and ever since, Ava has been the target of much tabloid fodder and dime-store biographies. People who are out to scavenge her bones because she isn’t around to defend herself or respond to inaccuracies take advantage in order to line their own pockets. They constantly go around her estate, family members, and friends in order to accomplish some quick vanity publishing and production and some nefarious characters even go so far as to masquerade as unbiased and misrepresent their true intentions: ultimately to put Ava into a box that they have already drawn. Most aren’t interested in an objective look at the woman that Ava was, only in perpetuating the rumor mill which dogged her while she was alive. She even moved to Spain in 1957 to get away from the press after her divorce from Frank Sinatra.

The other day I was going through the archives and found two things I thought were interesting yet disturbing:

  • A press clipping of Ava disheveled and sipping soup from a spoon. The photo shot was taken through a window and at a very unflattering angle when Ava was ill and not at her best. The press utilized this opportunity to form the headline: AVA GARDNER DINES ALONE! How horrified she must have been!
  • A letter Ava personally wrote to fans that must have seen the article (or one similar to it) and wrote out of concern for Ava’s perceived loneliness. Ava felt strongly enough that she addressed the form letters herself. While she felt gratitude for the fans’ sympathy, she also expressed disappointment of her portrayal in the news. Ava stated, “Thank you for your letter. It was very kind of you to write to someone you have never met. I think it only fair to tell you however that Weekend did not interview me for that article, did not express my views in it and did not quote the sources of their information. It was done without my consent. I wanted you to know that I am not unhappy, not lonely or alone and living a peaceful and contented life in good health. I wish you the same.”

So here we are a little more than 25 years after Ava’s death, and people are still doing this to her; without conscience for her memory, her suffering during the time she was here, or the family and estate she left behind. At the museum, we sell four books that we recommend for a comprehensive view of Ava’s life: Ava’s autobiography, Ava’s conversations with Peter Evans, Mearene Jordan’s autobiography on her life with Ava, and one of our museum founder’s biography on Ava and her North Carolina roots. You will find these books cited throughout the blog. They are well-founded or researched and have the approval of our museum. We seek neither to defame Ava nor to laud her as perfection. We seek merely to have her represented honestly, as she requested while she was alive.

A few weeks ago, we asked Ava’s fans what they would ask her if they only could. We had some fantastic requests and where possible, we have allowed Ava to answer them herself, from her written words.  In other cases, family members, friends, and experts affiliated with her estate (myself included) have filled in where possible. We would love to have follow-up questions if you have any, and thank you for letting Ava’s own voice be heard.

Was Ava born from natural birth? (Irineide Silveira, Brazil)

Yes, Ava was born by natural birth. Back in the 1920s in rural North Carolina, C-sections were very rare and would risk infection. Ava was also the seventh child her mother gave birth to, although her mother was 39 at the time Ava arrived which could have led to complications during pregnancy and delivery. Dr. Ralph S. Stevens delivered Ava at around 10p.m. on Christmas Eve; Ava let out a “robust wail- and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief.” (Doris Cannon, Grabtown Girl, 21).Grabtown Girl

Was Ava always a free-spirited person? (Barb Bealer-Shipman)

“[Ava] had a rambunctious and adventurous spirit from the beginning. One warm day she climbed to the second floor of the house and wandered into a room where a tall window had been left open. She crawled through the window and onto the porch roof, where she was spotted toddling around by James Capps…. He coaxed her back to the window with a promise that her mother would give her a bowl of peaches and cream. It would not be the last time that one of the Capps family would come to Ava’s rescue” (Cannon, 22-23).

Is it true Ava was not a very neat person? (Shehnaz Khan)

Talking with Ava’s niece Mary Edna Grantham the other day, we discussed Ava’s whirlwind lifestyle and traveling habits. Ava was constantly itinerant and rarely stayed in a place for more than a few days. The movie industry taught her to constantly be moving and Ava’s nature was such that she continued the habit even when she was on vacation. Mary Edna recalled that whenever it was time to pack up and go somewhere, Ava’s sister Bappie and her friend Rene would be bustling about with Ava helping as well. There was just so much to pack. Mary Edna also mentioned that Bappie and Rene had a way of rolling Ava’s clothing so that it would rarely need ironing once they arrived at their destination. So while Ava may have been a whirlwind, I don’t believe you could call her disorganized or a messy person, especially with the diligent assistance of Bappie and Rene. And of course, she always looked flawless in her clothing; no doubt aided by the lack of wrinkles from the rolling technique.

Ava with her suitcases on set of

Ava with her suitcases on set of “Mogambo” in Africa, 1953. Wardrobe by Edith Head.


Who was her favorite designer? (Ruth Dobson-Torres)

Some of Ava’s designers included top names like Guccio Gucci, Christian Dior, Edith Head, Howard Greer, Ferragamo and even high-end stores like Bergdorf-Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue created custom clothing for Ava, and even occasionally her dog.  We believe her favorite designers to be The Fontana Sisters though. They were responsible for her wardrobe on films such as “The Barefoot Contessa” and  “The Sun Also Rises.”  Ava often acquired the wardrobe from her films as her measurements were quite unique, and heck, it was free! There are perks to being a movie star, even a contracted one. She often traveled with over 20 suitcases of clothes and was once billed by an airline for 661 pounds of luggage. One of my favorite stories is that Ava showed up to her sister Inez’s house and stood outside the screen door while Inez’s husband inquired how long she was planning to stay at that time and how much luggage she had with her. According to her niece Mary Edna, she said, “Now Johnnie, don’t you worry! I’ve got all these cases here but I’ll only stay for a few days and I won’t open all of them, just one! I promise!” With that reassurance, he granted her admittance. Even a movie star is humble when family is involved!

A Fontana Sisters sketch of Ava's dress for

A Fontana Sisters sketch of Ava’s dress for “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954).


What were Ava’s measurements? (Serch Marron, Paraguay).

Ava would be women’s size 0 in the U.S. or sometimes a size 2.  She was 5 feet 6.5 inches tall, wore a size 6 shoe (U.S.). Her waist fluctuated between 18 and 20 inches. Ava also had broad shoulders which only helped accentuate her hourglass measurements. At the time of her death, Ava was estimated to be a size 10 due to the detrimental effects from her stroke four years earlier which forced her to live a more sedentary lifestyle in addition to the effects of medications used combat constant her illness with pneumonia and bronchitis. One lounge jumpsuit from Harrods in our collection bears a size 14 tag which would have allowed her to move comfortably and without restriction.


What was the name of each of her dogs? (Fabrice Lévêque)

Although Howard Hughes once gave Ava a German Shepherd which could fetch its own dinner from the refrigerator, Ava’s true love of dogs was realized when she got her corgis.

Ava and her corgi Rags.

Ava and her corgi Rags.

Their names were Rags, Rags II, Cara and Morgan (her last). Ava also had dogs as a child, two of whose names were Boots and Prince. We are not quite sure of the breed though a lab and a border collie appear in some family photos.

How  did Ava keep her youthful slim figure all her life? (Camille Baggott, Franklin, NC)

Dear Camille, if you have read our Ava Gardner cookbook, you might very well ask that question! Ava loved Southern fare and ate heartily. While in Hollywood and Spain, Mearene Jordan constantly cooked Spanish omelets and fried chicken late at night for Ava; and in Russia, Rene made nothing but fried chicken for Ava and Elizabeth Taylor owing to the stringent food lines in the USSR at that time (Mearene Jordan, Living With Miss G, 235). As we are gearing up to re-release the cookbook again, I asked Ava’s niece Mary Edna about Ava’s diet. She explained that while Ava did splurge when she was home, when she moved to California her diet consisted of a lot of salads. Ava also smoked over 60 cigarettes a day and imbibed in the evenings which may explain why she had fewer food calories than we all might expect. Mary Edna also imparted an anecdotal tale of her, her brother and a few other family members picking Ava up at the Raleigh-Durham airport on a trip home from London. Ava was in traveling clothes and not suited to go to a fine dining establishment. Nevertheless, they took her to the Angus Barn (a famed Raleigh restaurant). When it came time for Ava to order, she simply asked for a single onion slice, about ¼ inch thick, drizzled with thousand island dressing. Now that’s a diet I hadn’t heard of before…but I love onions, so it might be worth a try! What about you?


Ava's Discovery (1939) by Larry Tarr, the photo which made her famous.

Ava’s Discovery (1939) by Larry Tarr, the photo which made her famous.

Did you ever really want to be an actress? How did you become one? (Carol Vetrano)

“When people ask me about how I got into the damn picture business in the first place, I just have to smile. Because the truth is, if my sister Bappie hadn’t decided on the spur of the moment to drop into Tarr’s photographic studio on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixty-third Street in New York City, I probably would’ve ended up happy as a clam plugging away behind a typewriter somewhere in North Carolina for the rest of my days” (Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, 27).

There is also letter from 1936 that Ava wrote to her childhood friend Clara (Ava would have been 13 at the time). She expressed her longing to become an actress but wasn’t sure how she could ever bring it about (Cannon, 42-43). Ava also used to go with her mother to watch films at the Victory Theater (later rebuilt as The Howell Theater, which is now the longest running historic movie house in North Carolina) located in Downtown Smithfield. Their favorite actor was Clark Gable. In Ava’s memoir, she reminisced about seeing “Red Dust” in 1932. Little did she know that she would star in the remake opposite Clark Gable in 1953, renamed “Mogambo.” This is proof that there is stardust right here in Smithfield.

If you were not an actress, what career would you have chosen? (Cathey Watkins)

“I had to do something and I didn’t know how to do anything else [aside from acting]. I once thought about becoming a nurse, but I knew I’d vomit every time a patient vomited and I wouldn’t be much use. I could have been a secretary again, brushed up on my Atlantic Christian College dictation speed of a hundred and twenty words per minute. But I knew that would make me really crazy.  The truth is that the only time I’m happy is when I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty. Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me. Delightful, perfect” (Gardner, 189).


What was your favorite movie role you were in and why? (Tressa Lett Jones, Gloria Mayo, and Life Policy Payout)

“As far as my career as an actress went, Mogambo was probably as close to a pinnacle as anything I’ve done. I did get nominated for an Academy Award for best actress…” (Gardner, 188).

Many of Ava’s roles were sources of disappointment for her.  Ava did not consider herself a strong actress and the roles in which she considered herself to be one were roles where she could act naturally and effortlessly. While “Bhowani Junction” was one of her more serious roles, “The Night of the Iguana” is often heralded as her most honest performance because she didn’t have to act. The character of Maxine Faulk was a raw version of Ava’s glamorous self, of casual North Carolinian hospitality and gumption. Ava’s relationship with her costars was delightful despite the less than ideal conditions. And Ava once said,

“Dear John [Huston]. I have only one rule in acting- trust the director and give him heart and soul. And the director I trusted most of all was John Huston. Working with him gave me the only real joy I’ve ever had in movies.” (Gardner, 251)

This film would be the first she would make for John and she also cites this as the beginning of their friendship which lasted till his death (this of course excludes the diving board incident at his house years before). For this reason, I believe that “The Night of the Iguana” was not only her favorite, but also her best film.


Ava starring as Maxine Fault in

Ava starring as Maxine Faulk in “Night of The Iguana” (1963).

How was it being “one of the boys” in a time when women were expected to be soft and girlie? (Jaxx Dexter, Buzzards Bay, MA).

“Whatever the final shape of the film, it didn’t affect my feelings for George Cukor, or his for me. In fact it was George who said the nicest thing that’s ever been said about me. ‘Ava,’ he told an interviewer, ‘is a gentleman.’ A gentleman. I like that.” (Gardner, 218)


Did you have any insecurities? (Michela Luise)

“If you sense a little ambivalence in my thoughts about my ability as an actress, you’re right. On one level, all I wanted to be was an actress, and I often felt that if only I could act, everything about my life and career would have been different. But I was never an actress- none of us kids at Metro were. We were just good to look at. Making things worse was that I really didn’t have the correct emotional makeup for acting. If I’d had more drive, more interest, maybe I could have done better, but I disliked the exhibitionist aspects of the business and the work was terribly frightening to me” (Gardner, 188).

Mickey or Frank? (Bob Harvey)

“The first time I met Frank Sinatra, I was still married to Mickey Rooney. We were out at some Sunset Strip club, probably Mocambo, and Frank was there.  He knew Mickey pretty well- who didn’t- and he stepped across to meet the new wife.  And being Frank he did the big grin and said, ‘Hey, why didn’t I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself.’ That caught me off guard. I guess I smiled back uncertainly, but I don’t think I said a word.  Because in those early days, I was always feeling out of my depth.  Even to meet Frank Sinatra was exciting enough.  To have him say a thing like that left me dumbfounded” (Gardner, 122).

The answer is clearly, always Frank.

Did you love Frank as much as he loved you?(Esperanza Hope)

“Love is a wordless communion between two people. [One night Frank and I] went back to that little yellow house in Nichols Canyon and made love. And, oh, God, it was magic. We became lovers forever- eternally. Big words, I know. But I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love. And God almighty, things did happen” (Gardner, 125).

Although Ava and Frank loved each other deeply, they could not control their jealousy of one another and their careers often took them in opposite directions.

“I remember exactly when I made the decision to seek a divorce….I was deeply hurt. I knew then that we had reached a crossroads. Not because we had fallen out of love, but because our love had so battered and bruised us that we couldn’t stand it anymore. When you have to face up to the fact that marriage to the man you love is really over, that’s very tough, sheer agony” (Gardner, 191).

Despite their divorce, Ava and Frank would reconcile as lovers and friends many times throughout their lives, and by many accounts (including her own), they considered each other the love of their lives.

An Eternal Love- Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

An Eternal Love- Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

Why didn’t you have children in any of your marriages? (Grace Land)

“[Mickey Rooney and I] were babies, just children, and our lives were run by a lot of other people. We hadn’t had a chance” (Gardner, 59).

“I decided I wanted [Artie Shaw’s] baby. But he was very wise. He was protecting me- and I’m sure he was thinking of himself, too- he said this is not the time to have a child. I don’t think in my heart I genuinely wanted a baby at all” (Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, 205).

“I had the strongest feelings about bringing a child into the world. I felt that unless you were prepared to devote practically all your time to your child in its early years it was unfair to the baby. If a child is unwanted- and somehow they know that- it is handicapped from the time it is born. Not to mention the fact that MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies. If I had one, my salary would be cut off.  So how would I make a living? Frank was absolutely broke and would probably continue to be (or so I thought) for a long time. My future movies were going to take me all over the world. I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on….But it was my decision, not his….as long as I live I’ll never forget waking up after the operation and seeing Frank sitting next to the bed with tears in his eyes. But I think I was right. I still think I was right” (Gardner, 184-187).


Did Ava introduce Frank to Barbara in his later years? (Justin Marouf)

Ava was not responsible for introducing Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx. Ava and Barbara likely met at some point as Barbara frequently traveled with Frank. However, they hated each other immensely, mostly because Frank carried a torch for Ava and up till his wedding day to Barbara, was waiting for Ava to give him the word that they could try again.  There are rumors that Barbara’s jealousy was so fierce that she smashed a statue of Ava that Frank owned. There is only one other copy in the world today. If Ava or her sister Bappie ever need to get in touch with Frank, Ava’ s niece told me the other day that Bappie had a way around Barbara: Bappie had an “in” with Frank’s assistant/secretary and would go around Barbara to speak with Frank that way.

While working with the great Clark Gable, how much was Frank’s ticket to New York for the audition to “From Here to Eternity” and how long was his trip before he came back to tell her that he got the part? (Justin Marouf)

This is something that Ava never went into much detail on, as money was not something that was generally talked about, especially when it came to her relationship with Frank. Since they spoke every day, and frequently even after their divorce, it is likely Ava knew immediately after Frank learned he got the part of Maggio. As far as the ticket cost, a look at fares during that era might give you an idea how much that ticket was worth.

Can you tell us more about your relationship with Frank? (Stefanie Soar)

At the museum, we recommend four different books that we feel are a comprehensive look at Ava’s life, including her time with Frank. Ava was notoriously protective of Frank and usually chose her words about him carefully. For the most intimate looks at their relationship, I personally recommend Mearene Jordan’s book, Living With Miss G which Living With Miss Gdocuments her decades-long friendship and assistantship with Ava, including some of the most private moments possible and Ava’s personal commentary on Frank.


I would love to see pictures of her and her equally fabulous Facel Vega automobiles (Rich Morlock, Mid-Hudson Valley, New York).

The Facel Vega was purchased directly from the factory in 1958 shortly after filming “On The Beach” and was one of a limited number that year. It recently sold at auction for a sum we understandably couldn’t match at the museum, but you can find out more about the auction hereDuring her time in Europe, Ava was also well known for driving a Mercury Coupe.

Ava with her Facel Vega car.

Ava with her Facel Vega car.


Ava worked with Omar Sharif on the movie Mayerling (1968). Any word on what she thought of him and the movie? (Thomas Greenwood)

Ava’s friend Rene Jordan discusses the escapades she and Ava had with Omar and his black valet in Paris and also stresses her admiration for the film:

“[Omar] Sharif immediately captivated us with his sense of humor, his charm, his immense knowledge about practically everything, and the fact that he was completely on Miss G’s wave length. Both of their philosophies coincided in the belief that acting in the movies was only a way of making a living. Sharif got really sentimental in that atmosphere, but he was always the perfect gentleman. No hanky-panky….Miss G pulled off her role well and, as I’ve already mentioned, with a bit of help from Sydney Guilaroff and me. I loved the film. All the main characters were splendid, and the film rose to a climax which was moving and tragic” (Jordan, 223-225).


Why did you choose London to rest in your final years? What was it about that city that made you decide to stay indefinitely? (Kari Elizabeth Hobbs)

“Since that first visit on my way to Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 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. If I choose to walk down the street or go across the park with my dog, nobody bothers me.  When people do recognize me, they smile and nod their heads, which is a hell of a lot different from the treatment I’ve been used to….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.” (Gardner, 275-277).


London, England, 1969, American actress Ava Gardner is pictured walking her pet dog while on location filming the movie

London, England, 1969, American actress Ava Gardner is pictured walking her pet dog while on location filming the movie “Tam Lin” (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

What’s the one thing in your life you would have done differently? (Brian Danus)

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d live it exactly the same way. Maybe a few changes here and there, but nothing special. Because the truth is, honey, I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve had a hell of a good time” (Gardner, 279).

We are willing to bet that one of the “few changes” she would have done differently is to pick up on the Spanish politician/tax official’s hint at a party of reducing the amount of back-taxes they claimed she owed. When she questioned the amount and hinted at their ineptitude, they went with the higher amount she was indignant about instead of settling the matter under-the-table so to speak.


Does any of Ava’s kin still live in the Raleigh area? (Steve Goss)

Ava’s kin are spread throughout North Carolina and even further. Two of her family members still sit on our Museum Board of Directors and live in the Smithfield/Selma area (a niece and nephew).  Other Gardner descendants do live in Johnston County, Wilson County, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem; just to name a few places. One of the most common issues of correspondence that I get as a director is people asking for genealogical verification of a connection to Ava. 


I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed the answers to your questions and I look forward to having more answered in future. Remember to rely on responsible resources for information and keep  in mind the following things: Ava went by her real name (she was never Lucy Johnson), she never had an affair with Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra didn’t rescue her from being broke at the end of her life, and as Ava put it:

I think the most vulgar thing about Hollywood is the way it believes its own gossip. I know a lot of men fantasize about me; that’s how Hollywood gossip becomes Hollywood history. Someday someone is going to say, ‘All the lies ever told about Ava Gardner are true,’ and the truth about me, just like the truth about poor, maligned Marilyn [Monroe] will disappear like names on old tombstones. I know I’m not defending a spotless reputation….I’d just like to keep the books straight…” (Gardner and Evans, 20).

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director/Estate Trustee

Works Cited

Cannon, Doris Rollins. Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. Asheboro, NC: Down Home Press, 2001.

Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. United States of America: Bantam Books, 1990.

Gardner and Evans, Ava and Peter. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Jordan, Mearene. Living With Miss G. Smithfield, NC: Ava Gardner Museum Press, 2012.

“Speak Low When You Speak Love” ~ An Evening With Ava

EveningStokesI apologize for the overdue BLOG posting, but our museum has been involved in some very labor-intensive and exciting prospects over the past month and we are so happy to finally share them with you!

Caitlin Dockery, Deanna Brandenberger, Mary Helen Wyatt pose in front of Moore's Springs Manor, the venue for Ava's exclusive event!

Caitlin Dockery, Deanna Brandenberger, Mary Helen Wyatt pose in front of Moore’s Springs Manor, the venue for Ava’s exclusive event!

Janet steam

Janet Cobb prepares Ava’s costume from The Sun Also Rises.

For Valentine’s Day, a small contingent of our museum staff took on the monumental task of conducting our flagship traveling exhibit effort in partnership with the Stokes County Arts Council! The four members of our party were myself (Executive Director), my intern Ms. Caitlin Dockery (who is also a museum docent), Ms. Mary Helen Wyatt (Board of Directors Chairwoman), and Mr. Rick Lotz (former Board Chairman and current Board Member). A fifth person was an integral part of the team, our bookkeeper and curation intern Ms. Janet Cobb.  The event was organized largely by Mr. Eddy McGee and Ms. Ellen Peric, along with the rest of their dedicated Stokes County Arts Council Board and staff.  Although our museum has previously participated in the Retroback Festival in Spain last year, this year’s event was our first official traveling exhibit dedicated to promoting Ava and our museum.  This was an all-inclusive event which consisted of a romantic evening in the idyllic mountain splendor of Westfield, North Carolina on the Moore’s Springs Manor estate complete with a museum showcase, singing and dancing entertainment provided by The Carolina Crooner Eddie Fedora, and heavy hors d’ouevres by Chef Adam Andrews with a moderate selection of wines.

The museum showcase consisted of an exhibit of five unique Ava artifacts: a wood block poster print of Knights of the Round Table, the black “Sinatra” dress that Ava wore on their first public engagement together, the 1968 oil Bert Pfeiffer painting of Ava’s iconic

Deanna Brandenberger and Caitlin Dockery fit Ava's dress to the mannequin so that it bears her legendary hourglass measurements.

Deanna Brandenberger and Caitlin Dockery fit Ava’s dress to the mannequin so that it bears her legendary hourglass measurements.

Hollywood glamour, Ava’s orange dress suit from the 1957 film The Sun Also Rises, and a Bakelite statue from One Touch of Venus. To prep this small artifact transport, it took four people more than 40 hours to accomplish curation which demonstrates the level of care and conservation required to bring such treasures to a traveling event. The showcase also featured a short documentary and special guest speaker Mary Helen Wyatt, who shared her personal memories of Ava when she visited her hometown of Smithfield. I also had the privilege of speaking at the event to share our museum’s mission and goals as well as to speak about the significance of the items that we chose to feature in the showcase.  All of this took place in the estate’s banquet hall, with romantic lighting, a warm fire as tall as a person stands, and the gentle fluttering of snowflakes against the mountain backdrop.

The assembled exhibit.

The assembled exhibit and banquet room.

I have to say that I was beyond impressed with the turnout of our guests. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was dressed to the nines in vintage clothing. Some had dug out heirloom designer clothing, hats and hairpieces, and many gentlemen were looking dapper in full suits, fedoras and wing-tip shoes; others rented vintage clothing from a niche industry clothing rental store in nearby Winston-Salem.  The one exception was a gentleman who came in the character of cult film icon “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski,

Our comic relief: The Dude!

Our comic relief: The Dude!

much to the amusement of most guests, and to the horror of others who didn’t get the cultural reference of a man dressed in boxer shorts and a bathrobe while holding an open carton of half-and-half.  For my part, it was the moment I finally breathed and was able to laugh and embrace the jovial part of the evening rather than the overwhelming task that lay before us.  It was a fantastic and fun icebreaker!

Romance abounded for couples from their teens to their 90s! Everything from a glamorous date night to three different couples celebrating their wedding anniversaries made this night so very special and humbling for those of us participating because they chose to spend an evening in retro with Ava Gardner’s legacy and to hear the stories of her own life passions, from her career to Frank Sinatra to her family and friends.  Speaking with our guests, it was clear that one of their favorite things was to hear the personal account of Mary Helen Wyatt’s private experiences with Ava and who she actually was when the camera wasn’t rolling. It made Ava accessible to people who admired her and gave them a glimpse of her personal life: the real life in North Carolina, away from Hollywood, the press, and drama.

Mary Helen Wyatt shares her personal memories of Ava with our guests.

Mary Helen Wyatt shares her personal memories of Ava with our guests.

After we closed down for the evening, our ladies of staff returned to our beautiful riverside rental cottage in the hamlet of Danbury that was kindly donated by the Danbury General Store. The charming Dan River Cottage is a full-size house featuring a living room, two bedrooms, a full kitchen, laundry room, deck and bathroom (complete with a slop jar!).Yes

Dan River Cottage, Danbury, NC.

Dan River Cottage, Danbury, NC.

folks, it was then that this California girl realized she was truly in the South when Mary Helen Wyatt explained the function of this homestead relic. If you aren’t familiar with the delightful utilities of a slop jar, I highly recommend you become acquainted with it. It’s positively Shakespearean, in the best way possible! Thankfully, it’s purpose there was purely ornamental. Our escort for the evening, the singular gentleman of our number, was lodged at another donated cabin from the good folks at nearby Hanging Rock State Park.

After an evening of defrocking, makeup removal and girl talk, the next morning found us very saddened to be leaving behind the heartwarming mountain retreat and loving people of Stokes County. The experience was enriching not only as our flagship event but on a personal level, it allowed us to experience sharing our art and history and receiving the same in return.  It also gave us encouragement that there are fans of Ava’s out there that may not be able to travel to our museum but would like to in future and in the meantime, we can bring a little bit of stardust to them.  In addition, it could even ignite the interest of new fans and make people aware of our own jewel of North Carolina, located just down the way in Smithfield. We have begun receiving requests to put on similar events elsewhere and are seriously considering these prospects. Do you belong to a town, county, or organization which would like to host a similar event? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger, Board Member Rick Lotz, and Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt.

Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger, Board Member Rick Lotz, and Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt.

Before leaving the Northwestern part of North Carolina, we did make a quick trip down to Mt. Airy which many of you probably know as TV’s apple-pie community of Mayberry.  It is home to the Andy Griffith Museum and a vibrant downtown culture that is centered on the wholesome family atmosphere for which The Andy Griffith Show was known. In the Downtown Historic District you can also visit the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Music Heritage Hall where concerts and impromptu bluegrass musician gatherings are always being held, much to our enjoyment!

A bluegrass group assembled at the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Heritage Hall, Mt. Airy, NC.

A bluegrass group assembled at the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Heritage Hall, Mt. Airy, NC.

While visiting, we couldn’t pass up the chance to try the pork sandwich at the Snappy Lunch restaurant which had just been featured on the cover of Our State Magazine. Delicious! There is definitely so much to love about the North Carolina Mountains!

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and as anyone who has ever looked at a photograph of Ava knows, this is a true statement. I would therefore like to share with you some candid shots from our Facebook album of our visit to Stokes County which you can view by clicking here. We hope you enjoy them and we’d love to hear your comments and ideas. I would like to end this post by sincerely thanking our friends at the Stokes County Arts Council, Moore’s Springs Manor Venue and Lodging, Artists Way Café, Danbury General Store, Hanging Rock State Park, and the Kooken Foundation for their generous contributions without which none of this would have been possible.  There is a line from Ava’s film One Touch of Venus where she sings, “Speak Low When You Speak Love.”  For us, this event was simple and elegant, not over-the-top and garish; it was formal yet personal and allowed us to emulate Ava’s understated and unique style which truly gave people the experience of An Evening With Ava. We spoke softly with love and it was wonderful time. Thank you to those who celebrated with us and continue to do so by supporting us every day!

Ava with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra.

Ava with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra.

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director

With Her Name in Lights and Her Feet in the Dirt

Ava Gardner promotional pose for

Ava Gardner promotional pose for “The Killers.”

Rita Hayworth once said that the problem with her life was that the men in it fell in love with Gilda, her most glamorous role, and woke up the next morning with her.  That’s a sentiment I can fully identify with. I’ve always felt a prisoner of my image, felt that people preferred the myths and didn’t want to hear about the real me at all.  Because I was promoted as a sort of a siren and played all those sexy broads, people made the mistake of thinking I was like that off the screen.  They couldn’t have been more wrong.  Although no one believes it, I came to Hollywood almost pathologically shy, a country girl with a country girl’s simple, ordinary values (Gardner, 114).

Generally when people think of Ava Gardner, a million images are conjured up of a glamorous silver screen siren, a scarlet seductress, or a simple sultry starlet; roles that she was known for as an MGM contract player; typecast from her breakout portrayal of the femme fatale Kitty Collins in The Killers. But for those who know her more from just the passing of the Hollywood glare, tabloids, or the occasional TCM matinee, they are further in awe of how a farmer’s daughter, a child of the South, could enthrall the world. Even to this day- 25 years to the day she was laid to rest- Ava still mesmerizes audiences and devotees in the wake of her loss. Separating fantasy and fiction is no new story in the formulaic Hollywood tragedy, where she sits among the ranks of bombshells like Rita Hayworth who also lamented her unshakeable goddess mold when it came to people knowing who she really was.  Ironically, Ava would play the character of Maria Vargas, “The Barefoot Contessa,” a role rumored to be based on Rita, but which also paralleled her own life. Today, I would like to offer a different kind of eulogy, from the heart of her legacy, from her own mouth, and by those who knew her.

Ava stars in

Ava stars in “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954)

As I introduced myself to you via this blog a month ago, I let you know just how special this lady is to my community and how her museum is a beacon of hope and potential among tobacco fields, animal farms, and state routes getting people to and from their destinations. Along the way they see her museum, with her name proudly displayed in neon. Most do not stop. Some do. Even fewer take notice as they pass her final resting place just one mile down the road. Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to get within a 100-foot radius of her, but today you could take a moment and stand right beside her. Is that not a bit strange to think about? How tangible this glorified goddess is now?  It’s a curious reversal of feeling experienced by people in this town 75 years ago when she went to Hollywood and as Doris Cannon put it, “they knew her when.”  We still get people who claim to have dated her, or who are related to her, or who worked for her, etc. Some stories are legitimate; some have become exaggerated over time.  There is a saying among my staff that “if Ava Gardner had dated as many men as lay claim to her, she could never have made over 60 films- she wouldn’t have had the time!” Maybe she danced with them at USO benefit, or went to grade school with them, or once signed an autograph or visited their restaurant or shop; but not everyone got close to the real Ava.  Yet people are compelled to find a tie with her.  Those that truly knew her are often understated and listen with kind indulgence, not wanting to correct people they are sure never met her.  I will confess to my own amount of cynicism when I first began working here.  Yet observing the interactions of people, the joy of connecting with the intangible goddess who once walked these same Smithfield streets, it is more than a daydream.  It makes Ava approachable and it makes fairy tales real.  All cynicism aside, these people- whether their tales are true or not- keep Ava’s memory alive and probably know her better than most people. That is to say, they probably know more about who Ava really was. Ava’s niece Mary Edna once told me that when Ava was back visiting, she liked to be home and relax and not wear any makeup. Her sister had to prod her to at least put on some lipstick before they went to the grocery store. Ava would object and cite the tediousness of being made to wear it all the time for her public life. She always had to be camera-ready. At home, she didn’t feel that she needed that. Everyone who knew Ava would remark that she didn’t particularly care for the parties or the country clubs, although she would go if she were invited.

Ava enjoys a nice breakfast with her sisters Myra and Inez.

Ava enjoys a nice breakfast with her sisters Myra and Inez.

Her favorite thing to do was to sit around with family and friends, go out in the garden barefoot, or to visit everyday people. Her niece also told me that one day when Ava was visiting from London, Ava’s nephew Billy waited for her to emerge from taking a shower, wrapped in a towel and soaking wet, in order to snap a picture of her. She furiously chased after him yelling epithets and what would happen if she ever caught him.  But that was the real lady: a fun and feisty aunt who was always down to earth in North Carolina when she wasn’t headlining a marquee in Hollywood. And after all the key lights were dimmed, the makeup washed off, and the sycophants had gone home, she was still just a Grabtown girl. A real, raw, country bright leaf.

Ava dines with her family in Smithfield, NC.

Ava dines with her family in Smithfield, NC.

“Grabtown Gypsy”

            This moniker was acquired thanks to the wit of Humphrey Bogart on the set of The Barefoot Contessa in 1953. And although it sounds playful, it is said that Ava hated being called that. The truth was that Ava was a good girl, a fearful Baptist, and obedient daughter during her upbringing in North Carolina.  Hollywood allowed her to open up, become worldly, and embrace the itinerant and occasionally flamboyant lifestyles of her celebrity; even leading her to wander among the caves of Granada and learn flamenco. (I once asked Ava’s niece if Ava really liked flamenco or if she adopted it for attention. She responded that she wasn’t sure that Ava did but that it was different, exotic, and got a reaction from people. Bappie reportedly dismissed the genre as cacophony!)

GrabtownAva’s actions under the spotlight were often controversial and critiqued by those who had no idea what living in the spotlight actually meant or the rules that came along with it. The truth is that the name probably was apt for Ava’s lifestyle until she settled into a quieter life in London in 1968.  Until then, she was a wanderer always searching for something and having a good time doing it. Living for the moment. What’s wrong with that?  This day in age, her life seems less scandalous then it would have 50 years ago.  If you want to know about Ava’s true roots up until her departure for Hollywood and on her continuing relationship with her home state, I can personally recommend the most outstanding accounts to date in Doris Rollins Cannon’s Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home.  Nowhere else will you see the research and personal interviews that tell you about who Ava really was when not in the limelight.

People often forget about Ava’s personal causes and how she furthered causes of gender, race, and even animal welfare.  To this day, her legacy is still involved in these activities. These topics are better saved for discussion in a future blog post.

For Ava’s turbulent love life, which often made bigger headlines than her films or humanitarianism, it was clear that the world had a fascination and even sympathy for her journey. A love which was immortalized in torch songs and iconic photographs, Ava’s tragedy is that her true love was unrequited.  Frank Sinatra was “the love of her life,” and although they could not live together or without each other, the love smoldered even after her death. Most people are touched by the absolutely endearing ending to the story, with Frank abstaining from funeral attendance, but simply sending a bouquet of her favorite flower (yellow roses) and signing the card “All My Love, Francis.”  The only woman to ever call him that (besides his mother), Ava received the humblest and most sincere final tribute from the man who had conquered the world with his music and a goddess with his heart.

Frank Sinatra was the love of Ava's life. They were married from 1951-1957.

Frank Sinatra was the love of Ava’s life. They were married from 1951-1957.

“Lavinia’s The One in the Middle”

            Ava’s dear friend Robert Graves exchanged poems and correspondence with Ava and often mentioned her as a muse. Inspiring such poems as the above titled, “The Portrait,” and a few others we actually have handwritten pieces we have in our collection, Robert immortalized Ava’s charisma in even the most mundane ways.  In “Lavinia’s The One in the Middle,” Ava is on a visit to California and life happens where she follows: a mix of chaos, humor, and excitement!  Ava’s final journey home to be laid to rest in Smithfield next to her other family members (excepting little Raymond), was also dramatic until the end, with Ava caught in the middle.  When Ava passed away, her body was taken by British officials to be prepared for the cross-Atlantic flight.  She was placed in a standard coffin, which by all accounts was ugly, and a plaque attached with her name ignominiously misspelled as AVA GARDENER.  Ava’s friend and maid Carmen Vargas was set to accompany the body home to North Carolina- yet she and the body were on different flights due to luggage requirements. Ava’s body ended up going to Atlanta where it was briefly misplaced!!! When she was finally re-routed to Raleigh and then home to Smithfield about 20 minutes away, it was taken to the Underwood Funeral Home, where the body was prepared for the impending service.  Ava’s family replaced the coffin with a finer one and had the other destroyed so that looters would not come to salvage keepsakes.

Ava's Grave Site- Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, NC

Ava’s Grave Site- Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, NC

It is unfortunate that people would behave in such a way; believe it or not, some even steal flowers and objects from her grave to this day.  A closed casket viewing was held before the funeral; not only to protect her from macabre photo opportunists, but because she was very swollen from her illness and medications.  The family did not wish for her to be remembered that way.  When the funeral was held on January 29, 1990 at Sunset Memorial Park, no celebrities were in attendance out of respect for Ava’s wishes. She didn’t want people to distract attention from her and she wanted her family and friends be allowed to grieve in peace.  As it was, thousands of people descended onto the town of Smithfield to pay their last respects.  The service was conducted by Reverend Francis C. Bradshaw of The Centenary United Methodist Church at 11:00AM.  It is said that the funeral was similar to the ending of The Barefoot Contessa: a rainy miserable day when she was laid in the ground, and when the service concluded, the sky was sunny and the rain had stopped.  Trust Ava to have a sense of drama and humor.

The funeral scene from

The funeral scene from “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954)

25 Years Later

            A quarter of a decade has passed.  Some people say that Ava’s legend is becoming more obscure, but others say counterwise.  With the advent of classic movie channels, public domain, nostalgia, and modern interest, Ava lives again in the memories of people who are not just of her generation, but across many generations, in many cultures, spanning the globe- all enjoying her films.  In Spain, a statue was erected at Tossa del Mar to mark the spot she filmed Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Collectors constantly vie to own her belongings and memorabilia. Women still buy Max Factor to emulate her classic look. Her hand and shoeprints delight people who try to fit into them daily at Grauman’s Chinese Theater or visit her star on the Sunset Strip.  And there are those who come home to Smithfield to visit her lasting legacy in the form of the museum, her gravesite, or other destinations on the Ava Gardner Heritage Trail. Some are even lucky enough to chat with Ava’s friends and family who frequent the museum. For me, I get to see her every day and understand the impact she has truly made in this world.  It motivates me to do my best in working with my staff, Board of Directors, and Ava’s hometown community, to come together and show that if a little North Carolina farm girl can accomplish all she has, how special of a home she really has.  We keep her name up in neon, and her feet are now forever in the dirt.  Our Barefoot Contessa is home, loved, and like the statue of her heroine, is immortalized.

There are many things I would like to say about Ava Gardner, most of which someone else has probably already said, and said better.  In an excerpt from her funeral program, Doris Cannon wrote:

How proud we were of the Tar Heel country girl who made good! If she could do it, perhaps others could also! Those who reach the top tend to pull others upward also, whether they or we realize it….What would she express to us today? She once told Bill Morrison of The News and Observer, “There should be a little more quality in this life, a little more delicacy, a little more love and gentleness and kindness.  That goes for just about everything. And it must begin with ourselves.”  Those are the words that we should carry with us from this place. (Cannon, Funeral Program, 1).

I often get asked what I think Ava would think of the to-do everyone has made of her and the success of her museum. I have my own opinion, but I rely on people like Ava’s niece Mary Edna, who kindly shares delightful tidbits when they are relevant. She told me that Ava would think we were making such a fuss but that she would be so impressed and honored.  That makes me very happy.  Does Ava inspire others? Every day your comments on our blog, our Facebook, our Twitter, your letters, emails and phone calls reinforce that she does.  I, like Doris, hope that the inspiration takes you further, to a place of acceptance and kindness, even if it’s not the path you would have chosen. As Ava once wrote, “One thing I’ve always known is that the process of growing up, growing old, and growing toward death has never seemed frightening.  And, you know, if I had my life to live over again, I’d live it exactly the same way. Maybe a few changes here and there, but nothing special. Because the truth is, honey, I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve had a hell of a good time” (Gardner, 279).

I will end by quoting Robert Graves’ final lines of “Lavinia’s The One in the Middle”:

Please hurry back and hurry good,

Sweet barefoot belle of Hollywood!

And as you go, we’d have you know:

We’re here to show we love you so.

And so we are. Please visit the Ava Gardner Museum on your next time through.

Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, NC

Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, NC

RIP Ava Lavinia Gardner

December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990

(Copyright Deanna Brandenberger)

(Copyright Deanna Brandenberger)

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director

Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. United States of America: Bantam Books, 1990.

“What I’d like to say about stardom is that it gave me everything I never wanted.” ~ Ava Gardner*

Whenever I read this quote, I think, me too, Ava.

       The quote is often misinterpreted to represent that she was unhappy with the way her life turned out, but as her autobiography closes, she says she would have stayed the course for the most part. I think that is relatable to many of our own experiences as everyday mortals. The relation I feel toward Ava is that her stardom has changed my life. Once again, this doesn’t make me terribly unique. Immortalized on the silver screen, Technicolor, and modern film; she is still the 25th most popular actress of all time according to the American Film Institute.  Her image has evoked emotion and inspiration to many of us the world over. Her wily wit and sultry passion has delighted us for decades.  What does make my situation unique is that my education led me down many unexpected career avenues, combined with my love for vintage film, and it landed me in the lap of Smithfield, North Carolina in November of last year- the home of the legendary silver screen siren herself. I never imagined that Ava’s stardom would give me a dream job I never knew I wanted.  While this blog will mostly focus on Ava and topics having to do with the Ava Gardner Museum, I wanted to introduce myself because it is my voice, my eyes, and my words that you will experience through if you are reading this blog. Therefore, I wanted to share a bit about myself and what I do at the Ava Gardner Museum with all of you.

About Me

     I think back to the first time I heard about her. My grandfather, a WWII pilot and author, told me that if I wanted to see what a real woman was, it was Ava Gardner. “Now there was a woman!” he would reminisce. “Poor little girl grew up in tobacco country. Had to get everything on her own merits.”  I knew just what he meant. She was raw, stimulating, independent- scrappy even. Yet she was gorgeous, gracious, a Southern lady. What an enigma! He would talk about her as a bombshell pinup, and I could easily imagine him drawing her on the side of his plane before taking off on a mission as so many pilots did back then. I don’t think he ever thought his love for her would end up becoming mine.  I read her autobiography at the age of 12 and then I gave it to him. At 91 years old, it is one of the few possessions he still hangs onto.

Ava's autobiography, published 1990.

Ava’s autobiography, published 1990.

A Northern California native, I grew up loving vintage films. My family had a few ties to the movie industry. My grandmother went to school with Judy Garland, my grandfather flew with Robert Taylor, and my great-aunt was a seamstress on the epic Ten Commandments.  Needless to say, vintage film was common in my home growing up. My mother was a fan of Howard Keel, Judy Garland, and Julie Andrews. Some of my most vivid memories are of The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz, and her favorite, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. My favorites were Lana Turner, Gene Tierney, Judy Garland and of course, Ava Gardner! Since Ava and Lana were Hollywood chums, I became even more interested in their lives. Dating and/or marrying the same men (Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra), hanging out at the same parties, and friendly box office competition- these women were some of the most glamorous of the age!

Great Basin archaeology September 2013

Great Basin archaeology September 2013

Eventually, I began higher education and working. I gained my Bachelor’s degree in History in Nevada and minored in Archaeology, and this is where my museology experience also began. First, as part of museum studies classes, then internships, then graduate research assistantships, volunteering and actually working in the field for pay. I think very few people go into museum studies and actually get a job right off the bat. That is why so many of us diversify our skills: so that eventually, we land where we belong.  I followed that with a Master’s degree in History. Not even history of film; I concentrated on the history Latin America and Europe.  I became an archaeologist, primarily in the Great Basin; a career which is not as romantic as it sounds. However, I often had amazing experiences that I couldn’t have anywhere else in the world.  I met some of the most unique people who I catch up with every once in a while too. I worked in other fields as well: mining/engineering, water rights, ISO and internal auditing, gambling and entertainment, in addition to cultural resource management. I am a bit of a workaholic I guess you could say. I went on to become a college instructor of history and humanities in the capitol of Carson City at the age of 27. I loved teaching college. That experience of sharing knowledge and gaining perspectives in an academic environment is such a rich one! Yet I never seemed to fit in. It was like I was constantly searching for the glass slipper of careers. That is until the economic recession caused me to move to North Carolina to be near family and leave the rain shadow desert of Reno far behind. I’ve never regretted it. It was one of the very few times gambling ever worked out for me.

How Does One Become a Museum Director?

            It takes confidence in experience, knowledge and credentials but those qualities also belong to the other thousands of qualified historians also out of work or job-hunting. The short answer is that a lot of it comes down to luck and the grace of God.  Right place, right time. Networking.  I volunteered and communicated with anyone in the region in my fields. Then one day, I remembered visiting the Ava Gardner Museum and realized I hadn’t asked to network with the director. Turns out, I had contacted him only a day after he had given his resignation because he was moving on to another position within the county. Serendipity?  Definitely.  I met with him and talked about the museum and his job- and I realized I was hungry for it.  I was impressed at how far the museum had come since its inception in the early 1980s and the developments that still needed to take place galvanized my resolve to be involved.  I knew I could help the museum to develop in new ways if I was given the chance. There was competition, but I proved myself and I also demonstrated that I had a passion for vintage film and a particular devotion to Ava.  Moreover, I had an intense attraction to what I could do with relating her to local as well as world history. What an honor. Then there was grandpa…. How proud he would be! And so he is.

I started my employment on July 1, 2014.  There is an old adage that if you love what you do, you never truly work a day in your life. I always thought that saying was utter hogwash until I became the director here. I love my job. I cannot say that enough. I love selling stardust and introducing such a remarkable woman, actress, and North Carolinian woman to the world. Ava is the archetypal country girl Cinderella. Dreams do come true folks, and they come true in Johnston County.  Not just for Ava, but for a lost California girl like me too.

AGM Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt (left) and Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger (right) share a smile at the Ava Gardner Festival, October 3, 2014.

AGM Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt (left) and Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger (right) share a smile at the Ava Gardner Festival, October 3, 2014.

What does a Museum Executive Director do?

         Our museum is small 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization. I am the only full-time staff member. I have three part-time docents, and they take turns on day shifts; I have a part-time bookkeeper as well.  That means everything else is left to me.  Administration, finance, museum curation and conservation, oral history, heritage tours, sales and marketing, exhibit design, public relations, fundraising and grant-writing, community relations and outreach, social media, and a myriad of miscellaneous responsibilities. As you can imagine, these categories are really an umbrella for everything a director does.  I literally change air filters and light bulbs on some days.  There is no job too big or too small for a director. Fortunately, I have wonderful Board members who are willing to roll up their sleeves alongside me.  Everyone involved with this museum cares about it on a personal level and they contribute. Some of them even knew Ava; two are even family members! So if you are interested in the success story of an underdog effort like ours, you have to know that it is because of these people who turn the gears and their efforts are the oil to the machine.

I also became the Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate. This position is separate from my position as the museum executive director and there is no remuneration. It is a sacred duty for me because I love Ava and what is left of her legacy in her estate deserves the best management it can get. When it comes to the Trust, my obligation has to remain separate from my duties as a museum director.  The trustee is responsible not only for the finances of the estate, but anyone who wishes to utilize the intellectual property, an image or likeness, or copyright of Ava’s must get my approval. It is an honor to serve Ava in this very personal role and to ensure that her name and image are used in an appropriate and beneficial way.

 Why don’t I have 10 arms?

            Everyone has an opinion, and believe it or not, I love to hear every one of them. The most common thing I hear is critiquing on why I don’t do more in one area or another. Simply put, it’s usually because I do not have time or resources. It always comes down to those two things. Would I love to have at least two assistants? Absolutely! Is it possible on a non-profit budget like ours? Not unless I can find a way to fund it. Fundraising, grants, sponsorships, admissions and gift shop sales are the way we do this. Those processes in themselves take time. One project can offset the needs of another and time balance is critical when you are only one person. Are we spread thin here? Yes. However, everything we present is quality and our reviews and feedback show consistently that as a specialized film museum, we are uniquely successful and enjoyable to our visitors. Expansion and development is a long-term goal but it will take years. We depend on our Ava fans and advocates supporting us, giving feedback, and visiting when they can.  In turn, we try to keep refreshing our exhibits and making each experience a pleasant one with new items to see.

As I begin this blog, I want to open up a dialogue with you: the Ava fans and the visitors, no matter where you are in the world. We will discuss the museum, our projects, Ava’s personal life, her career, and her legacy. Write me questions with what you are curious about or your comments and suggestions. I want to hear them! Comment below the blog or write me an email at avainfo@avagardner.org . Thank you for letting me introduce myself to you and I look forward to the conversations about Ava that we are going to have!

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director

*Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. United States of America: Bantam Books, 1990. p.198.

It’s a “Fashion Fling” at the Ava Gardner Festival, Oct 3-5

The Ava Gardner Museum will open the new "Ava's Closet" at this year's festival, October 3-5.

The Ava Gardner Museum will open the new “Ava’s Closet” exhibit at this year’s festival, October 3-5.

Megan Fox and Jennifer Lopez claim their admiration; Marcia Gay Harden and Kate Beckinsale played her on the big screen. Today, nearly 25 years after her death, designers, stars, and fans continue to emulate the sultry elegance of Ava Gardner’s fashion style. To celebrate her sense of style, this year’s Ava Gardner Festival, October 3-5, will feature a new exhibit entitled Ava’s Closet, which will showcase her personal fashion.

“The Fontana Sisters of Rome, Walter Plunkett of Show Boat-fame, Irene Lentz, Edith Head and Christian Dior are just a few to design costumes and personal clothes for Ava,” stated museum director Deanna Brandenberger. She had the glamour and style that photographers begged to capture and fashion designers clamored to dress. She is listed 25th among the American Film Institute’s Greatest Female Stars.

Friday night’s “Fashion Fling” will officially open the new Ava’s Closet exhibit at 7pm with two new cases: one for evening wear and the other for Ava’s casual clothing and accessories. A reception with Sinatra-style entertainment by The Carolina Crooner, hors d’ oeuvres and beverages will provide the “fling” for the evening. Ticket prices are $25.00 person and the event is the museum’s annual fundraiser to support the operation of the museum. Continue reading

Much Ado About Ava Gardner


ImageIt truly amazes me that someone who considered herself “just a lousy movie star” is still receiving accolades 24 years after her death. And not just a few. Since August 2012 Ava Gardner has been the subject of three memoirs, one a New York Times bestseller. She has been featured in Vanity Fair, Southern Living, Ralph Lauren, Reminisce, and other magazines. Max Factor is using her in a current international ad campaign. Movie deals based on two of these books are developing as I write. The upcoming March issue of Our State magazine will feature her, including one of Bert Pfeiffer’s stunning portraits on the cover. The City of Granada, Spain, will devote its annual classic film festival, Retroback 2014, February 21-March 2, to her memory. The Ava Gardner Museum Board is graciously allowing me to take a traveling exhibit to Granada for the ten-day event, and I will be joined there by Carmen Vargas, Ava’s beloved housekeeper, as we accept the 2014 Retroback Award for our hometown star at the opening gala on February 22.

What is it about this Hollywood has-been that keeps people watching her movies, collecting her memorabilia, and visiting her museum? I have not read every biography and every feature article ever written about her (although they are all pretty much at my fingertips in the museum’s archives), but I have read and heard enough to realize there was something extraordinary about Ava Gardner even beyond her breath-taking beauty. Her genuineness–she was a real person with real flaws who made no apologies for being herself–strikes a chord with many, especially the younger generation. Although looked upon as royalty by some, she is well remembered for being personable and at ease around “little people.” After all, she had once been one herself. Carmen recalls in her later days she often brought homeless persons to her London flat to give them food or call a cab to take them to a doctor. She was passionate about racial equality–something instilled by her parents–and even held a life membership in the NAACP beginning in 1968. I wonder how many other Hollywood stars had such a record. For these and other reasons, this barefoot beauty from North Carolina will not soon be forgotten.

As time and technological connectivity permit, I will be posting highlights from my trip to Spain, so stay tuned.

Todd Johnson

Executive Director

Ava Gardner Museum