The Birthday Girl in Her Own Words

Ava Gardner’s thoughts on her hometown, childhood birthdays, sharing a birthday with Howard Hughes and being born a night owl. Quotes from Ava’s autobiography, Ava: My Story, with historical context provided by Ava Gardner Museum’s collection manager, Beth Nevarez.

Baby Ava

Baby Ava, circa 1923.

December 24, 1922 – Ava Gardner is born.

“I was born Ava Lavinia Gardner on Christmas Eve 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina. Not Brogden, not Smithfield, like so many of the books say, but poor old Grabtown. God knows why it got that name: there was no place to grab, and hardly any town at all.”

Grabtown is an unincorporated community in Johnston County, North Carolina about 9 miles southeast from the town of Smithfield. Ava Gardner was born on a farm in this community to Jonas and Mary “Mollie” Gardner. Ava’s father was a sharecropper, who farmed land owned by someone else. The landlord provided the seed and the fertilizer while Jonas worked the land, and they split the profits if there were any. The family moved to Brogden, NC when Ava was two years old so that her mother could take a job cooking and cleaning for the teachers who lived at the local teacherage.

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Ava on the porch of the house she was born in during a visit home to North Carolina in 1949.

Christmastime Birthday

“As a child, what I loved about my birthday was the Christmas tree with lighted candles on it and the fact that all the relatives came to my party…And even when we were too poor to have two presents, Mama always made sure to bake two special cakes just for me. One was chocolate, the other white coconut. Mama understood how lonely just one present for Christmas and your birthday could be.”

Christmas trees with lighted candles were popular in the United States from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. Since they were a fire hazard, many people only lit them for short periods of time (maybe 30 minutes), watched them closely, and had water or sand on standby just in case. Electric lights for trees were first used in 1882, but they had to be hand-wired and powered by electricity, which was not yet available in most places. In 1903, pre-wired strings began to be sold by GE, but they were still rather expensive. As more companies began to produce string lights, they became cheaper. Electricity took longer to reach rural areas though and even when it did, Ava’s family likely used lighted candles to save money.

Ava and Mollie

Ava and her mother Mollie.

Sharing a Birthday with Howard Hughes

“What can I say about Howard Hughes? A world-famous aviator, a multi-multi-millionaire, a very complex man, courageous, bold, and inventive? You bet. But also painfully shy, completely enigmatic and more eccentric, honey, than anyone I ever met. For God’s sake, he and I were born on the same day, and if you think that Capricorns fall into the same category, you know what that means. I was never in love with him, but he was in and out of my life for something like twenty very remarkable years.”

Howard Hughes was born on Christmas Eve in 1905, making him 17 years to the day older than Ava. Howard pursued Ava for years, on and off, and her friendship with Howard was a source of contention between her and husband Frank Sinatra. Ava is portrayed by Kate Beckinsale in the biopic film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Howard Hughes.

Hughes & Gardner

One of the only photos of Ava and Howard Hughes as he hated publicity and avoided photographs.

Born a Night Owl

“I came into this world at ten o’clock at night, and I’ve often thought that was the reason I turned into such a nocturnal creature. When the sun sets, honey, I feel more, oh, alert. More alive. By midnight, I feel fantastic. Even when I was a little girl, my father would shake his head and say, ‘Let’s just hope you get a job where you work nights.’ Little did he know what was in store for me. It takes talent to live at night, and that was the one ability I never doubted I had.”

Ava was well-known in her time for enjoying nightlife. She regularly attended parties, concerts, events, and nightclubs, some of it expected for her Hollywood roles, but much for her personal enjoyment. She was a regular at the legendary Hollywood nightclub, Mocambo. Many of the most exciting adventures and stories she described in Ava: My Story took place in the early hours of the morning. Ava balanced her love of the night with early call times though, going to bed early when necessary.

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Ava enjoying a night out with Frank Sinatra.

On Her Life & Legacy

“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.”

Today we celebrate this free spirit, a tobacco farmer’s daughter-turned Hollywood legend, and we proudly share her life and legacy at the Ava Gardner Museum. Happy Birthday, Ava!

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“A gloomy film, but Ava at her best:” The 60th Anniversary of “On the Beach”

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On this day in 1959 On the Beach premiered simultaneously in 18 different theaters on all 7 continents. Premieres were held in New York, Hollywood, London, Rome, Tokyo, Caracas, and Melbourne, among other cities, with a screening even arranged at the Little America base in Antarctica and a special premiere held in Moscow, even though the film did not receive a commercial release there.

The stars of the film attended varying premieres, with Ava Gardner attending the Rome premiere, Gregory Peck the Moscow premiere, and Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins, and director Stanley Kramer attending the Hollywood premiere.

The film received such an international release due to its important and timely topic. Based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute, the film is a post-apocalyptic science fiction drama that follows the effects of nuclear fallout from World War III. Released during the Cold War, the film cautioned the world about the devastation of nuclear war.

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Ava Gardner played Moira, a woman living in Australia awaiting nuclear fallout to spread into the Southern Hemisphere after it had already wiped out life in the Northern Hemisphere. Gregory Peck starred as her love interest, an American submarine Captain in Melbourne, who is ordered to determine if a telegraph signal is a sign of life remaining in the United States. The film also featured Fred Astaire in his first dramatic role and Anthony Perkins in one of his earlier roles.

On the Beach was directed by Stanley Kramer, who was known for his fierce independence as a director and producer who brought important social messages to the screen that most studios avoided. His films tackled taboo topics such as racism (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), greed (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and fascism (Judgment at Nuremberg).

Ava said of the film’s script:

“Though I’d read the book, Stanley’s script made me weep. You couldn’t say it was marvelous—that was somehow the wrong word. It was compelling, tragic, moving, chilling… Stanley liked to call it ‘the biggest story of our time,’ and who could disagree? It was a fictional scenario, but my God, everyone in the cast and crew knew it could happen. And that added a dimension of reality to the unreal world of filmmaking that none of us had experienced before.” – Ava: My Story

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The Ava Gardner Museum has an On the Beach script signed by director Stanley Kramer in our collection. The script was donated to the museum in 2017 by a fan.

On the Beach was also the third film on which Ava worked with Gregory Peck. The pair previously starred together in The Great Sinner (1949) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). The Ava Gardner Museum has a lobby card from On the Beach on exhibit that Gregory Peck signed. His inscription reads: “A gloomy film, but Ava at her best.” In Ava: My Story, Peck’s contribution to the book recounts how he enjoyed watching Ava grow as an actress, improving with each of the films they made together. The two were lifelong friends. After her passing, Ava’s beloved corgi Morgan went to live with the Pecks, as did her housekeeper and friend Carmen Vargas.

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On the Beach was one of Ava’s favorite projects, and in Ava: My Story she summarizes her feelings on the film: “I was proud of being part of this film, proud of what it said.”