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-gardner-paparazzi

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

7-AVA_HUNT

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_maryedna.JPG

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.

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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.