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.

Baby Ava

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.

Ava's personal childhood Bible - gift from Gardner family_front

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

Ava Virgina, Mollie, Jonas, Inez, Bappie, Elsie Mae

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.

201902000001

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.

Ava at home NC on porch

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.

Brogden Sch-Teacherage_300dpi

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.

Baby Ava

Baby Ava, circa 1923.

December 24, 1922 – Ava Gardner is born.

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

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

Ava at home NC on porch

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

Christmastime Birthday

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

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

Ava and Mollie

Ava and her mother Mollie.

Sharing a Birthday with Howard Hughes

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

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

Hughes & Gardner

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

Born a Night Owl

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

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

Ava and Frank candid enjoying herself laughing

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!

Ava big birthday smile brooch christmas tree 1954

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.

ava-holiday-cheeseball-handwritten-recipe-2.jpg

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.