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.

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