True Love & Wedding Number 3: Ava Gardner & Frank Sinatra

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The Ava Gardner Museum is participating in Hometowns to Hollywood’s Wedding Bells Blogathon! This is our third and final post for the blogathon. For more posts about weddings on and off screen during the Golden Age of Hollywood, head over to Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon page for links to the other participants’ blogs.

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Ava met the man who would become her third husband while she was still married to her first. Years later she would meet him again and begin a love story that would ultimately last the rest of her life, even if the marriage itself didn’t.

Frank Sinatra was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, and an Academy-award winning actor, but when he and Ava first started their relationship he was in a career slump.

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In 1949, early in their romance, Frank recorded this demo of the song “You’re My Thrill” as a tribute to Ava. The song was composed by Jay Gorney with lyrics by Sidney Clare and was released in the 1950s by Billie Holiday and Doris Day. This recording by Frank Sinatra was never released. There are 3 known copies including this one which was a part of Ava’s personal record collection. It is now in the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection and is currently on view as part of the Frank and Ava exhibit.

Frank and Ava began their relationship in 1949 while Frank was still married to his wife Nancy Sinatra, though Frank and Nancy had been on and off and estranged for some time.

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Ava was on Frank’s celebrity softball team, The Swooners, in 1947, before their relationship became romantic. Frank played second base and Ava was a bat girl.

Ava ran into Frank, who she had already met and liked, at a party and their relationship began to turn into more. She described that meeting in her autobiography, Ava: My Story: “And who should arrive at my elbow, dry martini in hand, but one of those guests. The blue eyes were inquisitive, the smile still bright and audacious, the whole face even friendly and more expressive than I remembered. Oh, God, Frank Sinatra could be the sweetest, most charming man in the world when he was in the mood.”

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When Frank and Ava’s relationship became public, Frank and Nancy Sinatra began a very lengthy and public divorce proceeding. When the divorce was finally granted in October 1951, Ava and Frank wasted no time, having been ready to wed for some time, and were officially married on November 7, 1951 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Ava was 28 years old and Frank was 35.

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For Ava’s third and final wedding she wore a mauve marquisette cocktail dress, a double strand of pearls, and pearl and diamond earrings, her “finger itching to receive the narrow platinum wedding ring that Frank and I had chosen.” She forwent the corsage this time and instead carried a clutch bouquet of camellias and miniature carnations. The wedding was attended by Ava’s sister Bappie, Frank’s parents, and several of Frank’s friends.

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After the ceremony, Ava changed into a blue traveling suit and the two hurried off for their honeymoon, trying their best to evade photographers. In the rush, Ava forgot her suitcase, meaning for the first stop of the honeymoon, in Miami, she had none of her own clothes.

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Frank and Ava’s courtship, wedding, and marriage garnered a lot of press attention, which limited their privacy, something the two struggled with during the course of their relationship.

“So I slept in Frank’s pajamas, at least the top half of them, and the next day we walked along the empty beach, me in the bottom half of my travel suit and Frank’s jacket. Naturally a photographer was lying in wait and snapped a shot of us, barefoot, holding hands. I’ve always thought it was a sad little photograph, a sad little commentary on our lives then. We were simply two young people so much in love, and the world wouldn’t leave us alone for a second. It seemed that everyone and everything was against us, and all we asked for was a bit of peace and privacy.” – Ava: My Story

They did find some of that peace when they continued on their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba, where paparazzi left them mostly alone. But peace wouldn’t last long. The two had a turbulent, passionate romance with a lot of highs and lows.

“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.”

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Pressure mounted from press attention, Frank’s career woes, and the criticism the two faced regarding Frank’s divorce from Nancy.

Ava was rising in fame while Sinatra was struggling, though Ava wrote that they never fought about their careers, only romantic jealousies and accusations. “It was another sort of jealousy that ate into our bones,” she said.

About a year after they married, Frank joined Ava in Africa while she shot Mogambo. He was awaiting news about what would become his comeback role in From Here to Eternity. Ava had used her influence and connections to try to help Frank get the part. She had spoken to Joan Cohn, wife of Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, the movie company making the film. Through Joan she had gotten to Harry and encouraged him to offer Frank a screen test. While resistant to the idea, ultimately, he relented and Frank left Africa to screen test for the role of Maggio. He returned triumphantly with the good news that he had landed it. For a short time, the two happily celebrated the success and enjoyed their time on set in Africa.

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This card issued by Scandinavian Airlines commemorates Frank’s crossing of the equator, on their first anniversary, November 7, 1952. This was likely the flight the two took together to Nairobi, Kenya when Frank accompanied Ava to Africa for the filming of Mogambo. We have both Ava’s and Frank’s matching cards in the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection.

But even as Frank’s career began to recover, Frank and Ava’s marriage was already crumbling. They announced their plans for divorce on October 29, 1953, though the divorce would not be final until 1957. However, even after the divorce the two remained close friends for the remainder of Ava’s life. She regarded him as the love of her life, “lovers forever—eternally.”

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A note from Frank Sinatra to Ava Gardner that reads: “To Lavinia, who is truly my beloved.” Addressed to her by her middle name, this note is written on book leaf and was found among Ava Gardner’s personal collection. It is now a part of the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection.

The two would reconcile a few times after their divorce, for very short reunions. Ava described in Ava: My Story one of these reunions taking place in Australia while she was there filming On the Beach in 1959.

“On a more positive note, my private life got a lift when the real Mr. Sinatra called and told me he was flying to Australia to see me. What’s six thousand miles when you’re still in love? Ostensibly Frank was coming down to give two concerts in Melbourne and two in Sydney. The truth was, we wanted to talk, to look at each other, to be together. The press were, as usual, as thick as flies on the beach, but we had our ways and means of being private. And with only two nights, we didn’t even have time to have a fight!”

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“To Frank and desert nights, Ava”

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Ava gave this watch to Frank Sinatra around 1960, years after their divorce was final. It is inscribed: “To Frank and desert nights, Ava” and possibly alludes to his home and their time together in Palm Springs. The watch is a part of the Ava Gardner Museum’s collection and is currently on view in the Frank and Ava Exhibit.

That the two always felt love for each other is no secret. Frank remarried twice but continued to stay in touch with Ava until her death. According to Ava’s sister Bappie, Frank sent Ava a huge bouquet of flowers every year on her birthday. Grabtown Girl, a biography of Ava’s life, shares Bappie’s recollection that “after the flowers faded and died, Ava left them in their special place on her dresser until a fresh bouquet arrived on the following Christmas Eve.” Frank did not attend Ava’s funeral in 1990 for concerns over a media frenzy, but he did send flowers and a simple note that read, “All my love, Francis.”

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This sprig of eucalyptus is from the large floral arrangement Frank Sinatra sent to Ava Gardner’s funeral. It was retrieved by a fan who gave it to Ava’s sister. It is now in the collection of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Ava’s North Carolina During the “Roaring Twenties”

The “Roaring Twenties,” also known as the Jazz Age is known for economic prosperity, social progressiveness, parties, flappers, and excess. Prohibition and “The Great Gatsby” come to many people’s minds. Speakeasies and bootleggers. Short skirts, bobbed hair and women smoking cigarettes. Art Deco and Jazz music. Industrial growth and new inventions. The spread of the automobile, electricity, and the telephone. Women’s right to vote.

However, many of these changes took place primarily in big cities. Urban areas experienced most of these changes and the majority of the economic prosperity. For rural communities, new technologies and the new industries that fueled economic development in the cities were slow to arrive. Rural areas still depended greatly on farming, which hit an economic recession well before the Great Depression struck the rest of the country in 1929.

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Baby Ava, c. 1923. Ava was born Christmas Eve 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, a small rural community.

For Ava Gardner, who was born in 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, there were no “Roaring Twenties.” For rural North Carolinians like Ava’s family, the images of the 1920s that come to mind were instead seen as signs of the deterioration of traditional values and the increasing differences between urban and rural America. 75% of the North Carolina population was rural in the 1920s, meaning only a small minority of urban North Carolinians experienced the Jazz Age as depicted in popular media.

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Ava Gardner’s personal childhood Bible. While urban centers saw flappers, illegal speakeasies, and women in short skirts and short hairstyles, many in rural areas considered these changes in cities to be against traditional values. Image: Holy Bible, c. late 1920s/early 1930s, in the collection of the Ava Gardner Museum.

Farmers experienced hard times well before the Depression hit, meaning rural areas never experienced the economic prosperity so often thought of during the 1920s. One of the difficulties facing farmers in the 1920s was the infestation of the boll weevil, which ruined one of farmers’ most profitable crops, cotton. Tenant farming increased throughout the decade, meaning farmers were losing their land. This happened to Ava’s father, Jonas Gardner. Jonas had purchased land with his brothers, but after several bad seasons, including the destruction of their cotton crop by the boll weevil, they could not afford to pay their debt on the land and lost it.

“For a time, Jonas continued to farm as a tenant on land that had been his. Later, he worked at the cotton gin in Grabtown and operated a sawmill and a small store near the two-story house that he managed to keep.”

– From Grabtown Girl by Doris Rollins Cannon

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Ava’s aunt, mother, father and three of her older sisters before she came along to join the family. Photo circa 1910s.

Ava said of her father in her autobiography:

 “On one level, there wasn’t much to separate Daddy from the other farmers in Johnston County, North Carolina. He wore overalls hitched up over a plaid woolen shirt, with a short chunky jacket added if the season demanded it…Daddy sharecropped. He farmed the land, and the deal he made was the traditional half and half. The landlord provided seed and fertilizer and they shared the profits, when there were any.”

Electricity and plumbing expanded across the state, but took longest to reach rural areas. These luxuries did not fully reach rural Johnston County until the 1940s. Likewise, the flapper image did not describe most rural women, though style trends were influenced by it. Only wealthy women who had free time could participate in the complete flapper lifestyle.

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Ava, age 4, 1927.

National Prohibition, which came into effect on January 17, 1920 did not have much of an effect on North Carolina which had already enacted its own state-wide prohibition in January 1909. Johnston County, where Ava lived as a child, had actually led the opposition to state prohibition, earning itself the distinction of “Banner Whiskey County” in 1908. Johnston County has a long history with alcohol, moonshine, and bootlegging. As recently as 2016 the county itself was dry, while various towns within it allowed alcohol sales.

The one popular 1920s image that applies wholeheartedly to rural North Carolina though is that of bootleggers, but owing to North Carolina’s early enaction of Prohibition, these bootleggers had been running for 10 years already, procuring alcohol from Virginia or South Carolina and bringing it back into the state. It is North Carolina’s bootlegging history that gave rise to NASCAR, owing to bootleggers who worked to make their cars run faster, better to outrun the police in. National Prohibition did increase North Carolina moonshiners’ business, since alcohol was not so easily procured at the state borders.

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Ava visited North Carolina in 1949 and stopped by the house she was born in.

The Roaring Twenties came to a crashing halt on October 29, 1929 when stock prices on Wall Street plummeted. The crash contributed to a worldwide depression. Prohibition officially ended in December 1933 and gone were the days of speakeasies and flappers, of prosperity and excess. Though for many in Ava’s North Carolina, they had never really existed.

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One of the ways Ava’s parents made ends meet was by moving to and working at the Brogden Teacherage in the late 1920s. Ava’s mother cooked for the teachers that boarded there, and her father cared for the property. The Brogden school and teacherage closed in 1935 because of economic constraints caused by the Great Depression.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Ava’s Holiday Cheeseball Recipe

Ava Gardner was a Southern woman through and through. In her autobiography she talks about food & family and brags about her mother’s cooking.

“The kitchen…always looked as though a hurricane had just swept through it. But out of that mess came the most wonderful food. Her cooking was really the result of knowledge handed down from mother to daughter for generations.” – Ava Gardner on her mother’s cooking in Ava: My Story.

In honor of the holiday season we are sharing Ava’s personal recipe for her holiday cheeseball.

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Handwritten recipe for Ava’s Holiday Cheeseball.

Ingredients:

1 large package cream cheese

5 oz Roquefort Cheese

5 oz soft cheddar cheese

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 cup crushed walnuts (soaked in port sherry)

Leave cheeses out overnight so it can be mixed easily. Mix all ingredients together (except nuts), blend well. Add ½ cup chopped walnuts and mix again. Form into a large ball and place in fridge overnight or all day. Half hour before serving, roll in remaining walnuts. Serve.

Want more of Ava’s family recipes? Check out the recipe cards available in our gift shop! These recipes, straight from the Gardner Family kitchen, include some of Ava’s Southern favorites.

The Ava Gardner Museum’s 2019 Holiday Gift Guide

The holiday season is upon us with Thanksgiving next week and only 34 days till Christmas! The Ava Gardner Museum Gift Shop has great gifts for the classic film buffs and Ava fans in your life.

Buying from our gift shop also supports our mission to preserve our collection of priceless artifacts relating to Ava’s career and private life, and to share Ava’s story through exhibits.

For Classic Film Fans:

For film fans of all ages, a classic film on DVD is a perfect gift. We have a variety of films including Ava’s acclaimed performances in The Killers, Show Boat, Mogambo, and The Barefoot Contessa.

Books about Ava’s life and her Hollywood career make great gifts for the bookworms in your life.

And for budding Ava fans, an Ava Gardner Museum coloring book or stuffed corgi, Ava’s favorite dog, will ignite their love of classic films.

 

For Ava’s Biggest Fans

Outfit the biggest fans in your life with Ava gear they can wear proudly. Apparel, tote bags, koozies, and more showcase their love of Ava and classic films.

 

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A Taste of Home

Our gift shop sells locally-made jams and jellies, as well as classic candies, and Gardner Family recipes. Share a taste of Ava’s home state with these unique gifts.

 

Stocking Stuffers

For those who deserve more than a lump of coal, fill their stockings with Ava swag. Tumblers, notecards, magnets, coffee mugs, and more all make great stocking stuffers.

 

Ava Advocate Program – The Gift that Keeps Giving

For the biggest Ava film fans in your life, consider gifting membership in the Ava Advocate Program. Membership includes free admission to the museum for a year, a 15% discount in the gift shop, and the 2020 Ava Calendar, featuring portraits of Ava by Bert Pfeiffer.

Or consider honoring the film fan in your life by making a donation in their name to the Ava Gardner Museum.

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For more gift ideas, browse our online gift shop or stop by and shop at the museum!

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.

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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!

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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

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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.

The Writer & The Rose of Smithfield

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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]  

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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.

“Speak Low When You Speak Love” ~ An Evening With Ava

EveningStokesI apologize for the overdue BLOG posting, but our museum has been involved in some very labor-intensive and exciting prospects over the past month and we are so happy to finally share them with you!

Caitlin Dockery, Deanna Brandenberger, Mary Helen Wyatt pose in front of Moore's Springs Manor, the venue for Ava's exclusive event!

Caitlin Dockery, Deanna Brandenberger, Mary Helen Wyatt pose in front of Moore’s Springs Manor, the venue for Ava’s exclusive event!

Janet steam

Janet Cobb prepares Ava’s costume from The Sun Also Rises.

For Valentine’s Day, a small contingent of our museum staff took on the monumental task of conducting our flagship traveling exhibit effort in partnership with the Stokes County Arts Council! The four members of our party were myself (Executive Director), my intern Ms. Caitlin Dockery (who is also a museum docent), Ms. Mary Helen Wyatt (Board of Directors Chairwoman), and Mr. Rick Lotz (former Board Chairman and current Board Member). A fifth person was an integral part of the team, our bookkeeper and curation intern Ms. Janet Cobb.  The event was organized largely by Mr. Eddy McGee and Ms. Ellen Peric, along with the rest of their dedicated Stokes County Arts Council Board and staff.  Although our museum has previously participated in the Retroback Festival in Spain last year, this year’s event was our first official traveling exhibit dedicated to promoting Ava and our museum.  This was an all-inclusive event which consisted of a romantic evening in the idyllic mountain splendor of Westfield, North Carolina on the Moore’s Springs Manor estate complete with a museum showcase, singing and dancing entertainment provided by The Carolina Crooner Eddie Fedora, and heavy hors d’ouevres by Chef Adam Andrews with a moderate selection of wines.

The museum showcase consisted of an exhibit of five unique Ava artifacts: a wood block poster print of Knights of the Round Table, the black “Sinatra” dress that Ava wore on their first public engagement together, the 1968 oil Bert Pfeiffer painting of Ava’s iconic

Deanna Brandenberger and Caitlin Dockery fit Ava's dress to the mannequin so that it bears her legendary hourglass measurements.

Deanna Brandenberger and Caitlin Dockery fit Ava’s dress to the mannequin so that it bears her legendary hourglass measurements.

Hollywood glamour, Ava’s orange dress suit from the 1957 film The Sun Also Rises, and a Bakelite statue from One Touch of Venus. To prep this small artifact transport, it took four people more than 40 hours to accomplish curation which demonstrates the level of care and conservation required to bring such treasures to a traveling event. The showcase also featured a short documentary and special guest speaker Mary Helen Wyatt, who shared her personal memories of Ava when she visited her hometown of Smithfield. I also had the privilege of speaking at the event to share our museum’s mission and goals as well as to speak about the significance of the items that we chose to feature in the showcase.  All of this took place in the estate’s banquet hall, with romantic lighting, a warm fire as tall as a person stands, and the gentle fluttering of snowflakes against the mountain backdrop.

The assembled exhibit.

The assembled exhibit and banquet room.

I have to say that I was beyond impressed with the turnout of our guests. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, was dressed to the nines in vintage clothing. Some had dug out heirloom designer clothing, hats and hairpieces, and many gentlemen were looking dapper in full suits, fedoras and wing-tip shoes; others rented vintage clothing from a niche industry clothing rental store in nearby Winston-Salem.  The one exception was a gentleman who came in the character of cult film icon “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski,

Our comic relief: The Dude!

Our comic relief: The Dude!

much to the amusement of most guests, and to the horror of others who didn’t get the cultural reference of a man dressed in boxer shorts and a bathrobe while holding an open carton of half-and-half.  For my part, it was the moment I finally breathed and was able to laugh and embrace the jovial part of the evening rather than the overwhelming task that lay before us.  It was a fantastic and fun icebreaker!

Romance abounded for couples from their teens to their 90s! Everything from a glamorous date night to three different couples celebrating their wedding anniversaries made this night so very special and humbling for those of us participating because they chose to spend an evening in retro with Ava Gardner’s legacy and to hear the stories of her own life passions, from her career to Frank Sinatra to her family and friends.  Speaking with our guests, it was clear that one of their favorite things was to hear the personal account of Mary Helen Wyatt’s private experiences with Ava and who she actually was when the camera wasn’t rolling. It made Ava accessible to people who admired her and gave them a glimpse of her personal life: the real life in North Carolina, away from Hollywood, the press, and drama.

Mary Helen Wyatt shares her personal memories of Ava with our guests.

Mary Helen Wyatt shares her personal memories of Ava with our guests.

After we closed down for the evening, our ladies of staff returned to our beautiful riverside rental cottage in the hamlet of Danbury that was kindly donated by the Danbury General Store. The charming Dan River Cottage is a full-size house featuring a living room, two bedrooms, a full kitchen, laundry room, deck and bathroom (complete with a slop jar!).Yes

Dan River Cottage, Danbury, NC.

Dan River Cottage, Danbury, NC.

folks, it was then that this California girl realized she was truly in the South when Mary Helen Wyatt explained the function of this homestead relic. If you aren’t familiar with the delightful utilities of a slop jar, I highly recommend you become acquainted with it. It’s positively Shakespearean, in the best way possible! Thankfully, it’s purpose there was purely ornamental. Our escort for the evening, the singular gentleman of our number, was lodged at another donated cabin from the good folks at nearby Hanging Rock State Park.

After an evening of defrocking, makeup removal and girl talk, the next morning found us very saddened to be leaving behind the heartwarming mountain retreat and loving people of Stokes County. The experience was enriching not only as our flagship event but on a personal level, it allowed us to experience sharing our art and history and receiving the same in return.  It also gave us encouragement that there are fans of Ava’s out there that may not be able to travel to our museum but would like to in future and in the meantime, we can bring a little bit of stardust to them.  In addition, it could even ignite the interest of new fans and make people aware of our own jewel of North Carolina, located just down the way in Smithfield. We have begun receiving requests to put on similar events elsewhere and are seriously considering these prospects. Do you belong to a town, county, or organization which would like to host a similar event? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger, Board Member Rick Lotz, and Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt.

Executive Director Deanna Brandenberger, Board Member Rick Lotz, and Board Chairwoman Mary Helen Wyatt.

Before leaving the Northwestern part of North Carolina, we did make a quick trip down to Mt. Airy which many of you probably know as TV’s apple-pie community of Mayberry.  It is home to the Andy Griffith Museum and a vibrant downtown culture that is centered on the wholesome family atmosphere for which The Andy Griffith Show was known. In the Downtown Historic District you can also visit the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Music Heritage Hall where concerts and impromptu bluegrass musician gatherings are always being held, much to our enjoyment!

A bluegrass group assembled at the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Heritage Hall, Mt. Airy, NC.

A bluegrass group assembled at the Historic Earle Theater & Old-Time Heritage Hall, Mt. Airy, NC.

While visiting, we couldn’t pass up the chance to try the pork sandwich at the Snappy Lunch restaurant which had just been featured on the cover of Our State Magazine. Delicious! There is definitely so much to love about the North Carolina Mountains!

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and as anyone who has ever looked at a photograph of Ava knows, this is a true statement. I would therefore like to share with you some candid shots from our Facebook album of our visit to Stokes County which you can view by clicking here. We hope you enjoy them and we’d love to hear your comments and ideas. I would like to end this post by sincerely thanking our friends at the Stokes County Arts Council, Moore’s Springs Manor Venue and Lodging, Artists Way Café, Danbury General Store, Hanging Rock State Park, and the Kooken Foundation for their generous contributions without which none of this would have been possible.  There is a line from Ava’s film One Touch of Venus where she sings, “Speak Low When You Speak Love.”  For us, this event was simple and elegant, not over-the-top and garish; it was formal yet personal and allowed us to emulate Ava’s understated and unique style which truly gave people the experience of An Evening With Ava. We spoke softly with love and it was wonderful time. Thank you to those who celebrated with us and continue to do so by supporting us every day!

Ava with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra.

Ava with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra.

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director

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.