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.

Ava_Burton_color

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

photo 1

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.

“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_singing

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_frank_plane

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&frank

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.

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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.

 

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.