By Ava Thompson
The Ava Gardner Museum is delighted to welcome Ava Thompson as our latest guest blogger with a special post about the women of the Gardner family. Ava Thompson is the Trustee of the Ava Gardner Living Trust and the great-niece and namesake of Ava Gardner. She is a retired educator with a BS Degree in Speech Communication and an MS Degree in Educational Administration. Over the span of her career she served as a high school English teacher, a middle school and high school principal, and a district level administrator. Ava is also recently retired from semi-professional drag racing and enjoys cycling and spending time with her four grandchildren.
Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Gardner – Mama Gardner
Mama Gardner died before I was born, so I never experienced her warmth, although all the Gardner women remembered her so lovingly. I loved to hear Ava and her sisters reminisce about her. They all admired her courage and her strength in raising her family. They admired her for weathering the storms of life through the Great Depression, the traumatic loss of a child, and the loss of her husband. They admired her for always finding the strength and the courage to move forward in the face of great difficulty.
They all tried to match her skills in the kitchen. In the Gardner house, good food was an expression of love that carried forth with the next generation. Ava said that she felt guilty for not helping Mama Gardner more, especially when they were in Newport News, Virginia, when things were most difficult. She went on to say she guessed it was a matter of selfish childhood. In her autobiographical recordings, Ava talked about how she adored her mother and spoke about how beautiful she was as a young woman. “Mama had magnificent hair and lovely skin.” She went on to talk about her personality. “Daddy was calm and careful. Mama was explosive with enthusiasm!” I have concluded that Ava was spirited just like her mother!
Beatrice “Bappie” Gardner – Aunt Bappie
Aunt Bappie was never short on courage. She made bold decisions and never looked back. When she smiled or laughed, her whole face joined in and her eyes sparkled. As a child I remember how good she always smelled, and I would love to find that vintage perfume. I also loved her pocketbooks, as handbags were called in those days. They were unique in texture and shape and the contents were most interesting. She would let me plunder through her pocketbook in search of chewing gum.
Bappie was masterful in her use of four-letter words. No doubt she greatly influenced Ava in this regard. She was quite a drinker as well, and she loved to gamble. She took me to the horse races at Santa Anita once, and she taught me how to read the racing forms and place my bets. I quickly gave up on gambling however. I was having a very difficult time letting go of the gambling money Ava had given me. Vince Edwards, Dr. Ben Casey in the television series popular at the time, was our escort that afternoon. He and Bappie were great horse racing buddies.
When I was little, she always wanted to sniff my head and make some sweet comment about what my hair smelled like. “Your little head smells like a sugar cookie.” It was something I grudgingly learned to endure. Aunt Bappie was very attentive in writing letters and sending telegrams. I always looked forward to hearing from Aunt Bappie, and I learned to respond with very newsy letters.
She was also very persnickety when it came to the little things. She was never satisfied with my posture or my timid voice. She did not want me to walk like my Daddy! When I was getting married, she was insistent that I have a china, crystal, and silver pattern. She wanted me to have all those things to make me a proper married lady.
Elsie Mae Gardner Creech – Mama Creech, My Grandmother
Of all the Gardner siblings, my grandmother was the most relaxed and the most easy-going. She was very kind to all and very loving with me and the family. She was never motherly with Ava as Bappie and Inez were. She was content to let Ava do it her way and make her own decisions. Their relationship seemed to be more sisterly although Mama Creech was next to the oldest of Ava’s siblings. She was a strong woman in the greatest sense of the word. A widow at a young age, she ran a country store in the Brogden community about a mile from where Ava was born in Grabtown. It was hard work lifting cases of stock and bags of sugar, flour, and meal. The hardware sold in the store was heavy as well. She did it all herself with little hired help.
Of course, I helped her stock the candy case when I stayed with her. The store was a magical place to me as a child where I could have all the caps I needed for my cap pistol, all the BB’s I wanted for my rifle, and an infinite number of marbles. I loved to count the change and stood on a drink crate to work the cash register for Mama Creech. Of course, she was looking over my shoulder. Just like her sisters, she was strong and courageous. She made her own way.
Mama Creech’s country store became a focal point for the entire community where “folks” gathered to share community news, talk politics, and tell tall tales. She was generous in extending credit far beyond the point she should have with many accounts never being paid. It was her nature to be kind and generous! She loved college basketball and coffee! She fried the best chicken in the world and her banana pudding was to die for! She always had a great car. I especially remember her burgundy 1959 Star Chief Pontiac. Her love of cars has easily transferred to me.
When Ava sent me a Corgi and my parents realized I could not keep him (Rex) in town, Mama Creech took him, and I was able to play with him when I visited her. I think he was also a good companion for her. Mama Creech was very permissive with me. She did not enforce food restrictions or bedtime. I stayed up past midnight with her many times watching Jack Parr. I later met him at Sunday brunch at the Plaza Hotel in NYC during a visit with Aunt Ava. Mama Creech and Ava were close because of my Dad, Al Creech, who grew up with Ava. They played together on the school grounds in Brogden at the site where the water tower stood. Ava made the water tower famous by climbing to the top of it. Ava and my Dad played marbles in the sand in front of the teacherage and also on the school grounds where Ava defended my Dad from the older boys. Years later I played in the same school yard and in front of the teacherage that Mama Gardner ran for a time. By then the school was vacant and the teacherage was divided into apartments. Years later it was to become the site of the first Ava Gardner Museum. My Dad and Ava were great friends for life. Ava and Elsie Mae just enjoyed being together. Ava stayed with Mama Creech on several of her last visits home after Mama Creech moved from Brogden into town.
Inez Gardner Grimes – Aunt Inez
Bappie and Inez were both motherly towards Ava and this caused friction sometimes. Ava had a will of her own and did not want to take instruction from either of them. Inez was very much like Mama Gardner. She was the anchor of her family. She was a wonderful mother to her children and an excellent cook. As any great mother, she was also a disciplinarian. She spanked me on one occasion for unraveling a roll of toilet tissue all over the house. My grandmother, Elsie Mae, never corrected me. She just let me do whatever I wanted as long as I was safe.
Aunt Inez took care of Mama Gardner in the last months of her life at the same time she took care of her own family and supported her husband. She was the quintessential, strong southern woman who used her influence for the good of all the family. I loved to be with Mama Creech (Elsie Mae) and Inez. They were great friends. They quarreled over their favorite ACC basketball teams; they quibbled over just the right amount of different ingredients for the Christmas ambrosia; they fried chicken and drank coffee, and I have never seen two people who could get as ticked over the slightest thing as those two could. They would laugh until they cried, and I have yet to figure out what was funny. They took great care in baking the coconut cakes that were to be delivered to Ava. One was put in my lap on a plane to New York. I dared not even breathe in fear of damaging the cake.
Inez and Mama Creech took me with them to see Aunt Ava’s aunt and namesake, Ava Virginia Speight. She was a very proper lady with perfect posture and not a hair out of place. She was beautiful and looked very regal to me. I think she is the one responsible for Aunt Ava’s perfect posture since Ava Virginia lived in the Gardner home for a time while Ava Lavinia was growing up.
Myra Gardner Pearce – Aunt Myra
Myra and Ava were very close and a lot of comfort to each other in later life. Myra too was a strong woman who raised her family of three children while she helped her husband run their diaper service business. She was decidedly motherly, enterprising, and smart. I loved to go to her house in Winston-Salem to play with my cousins. Melvin was her youngest and was always in trouble. We were told not to climb the apple tree in the back yard, but Melvin lured me into breaking this rule, and he took the spanking with a switch broken from a bush for the both of us when we broke a sizable limb from the tree, and we were caught. I loved to hear Myra talk. She had a very pleasing and distinctive voice. It was raspy like Ava’s came to be.
Ava’s Influence on Me
When I was a child, I thought Ava was mine because we had the same name. She always had time to play with me, and the games she came up with were so much fun like searching for wild strawberries in the back yard. I was able to get away with things with Aunt Ava that I would never have been able to get away with otherwise. If I did something wrong, she would never tell. It was just our secret. We had lots of secrets, and it was fun to keep them. She sent the greatest gifts from all over the world: clothes, jewelry, toys, and dolls. She visited with my class at school and with my Brownie Scout troop. She came to my birthday parties and regularly sent cards and letters. I kept them in a scrapbook. As I got older, I went on trips with her, and I met some of the most famous people of the time. I shopped with Ava in the very best stores and ate at the best and most famous restaurants. When I was older, I learned that Ava actually gave me her name when she asked my parents to name me Ava. Truly, Ava was the special person in my life.
If she had anything close to regret, it would be not having a formal education. When I was fourteen, she told me to take my school work seriously, study, and get a good education. She said she wanted me to rely on myself and not on a man, and education was the key to being independent. She went on to say, “I want you to be free to live your life just like you want to live it.” I have passed this advice on to my daughter and heard her sharply remark to her new husband a decade ago, “I do not need for you to tell me how to manage my money.” He backed away, and I smiled knowing Aunt Ava’s advice was effectively passed on.
In spite of her determined self-reliance, she loved the company of men, had great loves and many great male friendships including Gregory Peck, John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, Roddy McDowell, and Robert Graves just to list a few. Being liberal in her views of social issues, she would be supportive of the “me too” movement. She never had any problem enforcing her personal boundaries and received lots of publicity for fighting off men including knocking out Howard Hughes.
Even though she did not have the education she wanted, she achieved total independence. She proudly confided to me that she took no alimony from any of her three husbands. She laughed when she told me she was the only one of Mickey’s many wives that he was not supporting.
I remember my beloved Aunt Ava as a thoroughly modern woman ahead of her time in many ways. She disregarded the expectations and stereotypes of her time. She made her own way in the world passionately, confidently, and fearlessly, making her own decisions. She was one of the first celebrities to break away from Hollywood to live abroad and in so doing paved the way for many stars that followed her.
In addition to her independence, she was compassionate and generous. We left a club in Greenwich Village in New York City late one evening and encountered a disabled person on the street corner. She stopped to talk with him while all others passed him. After spending many minutes with him, she wished him well and gave him all the cash she had with her. She commented to me that we should be very grateful and humble for our good fortune.
To find happiness on your own and not rely on the approval of others is a great lesson to me and others. She is a great role model in her courage and independence.