“I’D JUST LIKE TO KEEP THE BOOKS STRAIGHT”~Ava Gardner

2nd June 1944:  Actress Ava Gardner (1922 - 1990) reclining on a bed to write a letter.  (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

2nd June 1944: Actress Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990) reclining on a bed to write a letter. (Photo by Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Ava Gardner once said, “I don’t care what they write about me, as long as it’s the truth.”  Before her passing, and ever since, Ava has been the target of much tabloid fodder and dime-store biographies. People who are out to scavenge her bones because she isn’t around to defend herself or respond to inaccuracies take advantage in order to line their own pockets. They constantly go around her estate, family members, and friends in order to accomplish some quick vanity publishing and production and some nefarious characters even go so far as to masquerade as unbiased and misrepresent their true intentions: ultimately to put Ava into a box that they have already drawn. Most aren’t interested in an objective look at the woman that Ava was, only in perpetuating the rumor mill which dogged her while she was alive. She even moved to Spain in 1957 to get away from the press after her divorce from Frank Sinatra.

The other day I was going through the archives and found two things I thought were interesting yet disturbing:

  • A press clipping of Ava disheveled and sipping soup from a spoon. The photo shot was taken through a window and at a very unflattering angle when Ava was ill and not at her best. The press utilized this opportunity to form the headline: AVA GARDNER DINES ALONE! How horrified she must have been!
  • A letter Ava personally wrote to fans that must have seen the article (or one similar to it) and wrote out of concern for Ava’s perceived loneliness. Ava felt strongly enough that she addressed the form letters herself. While she felt gratitude for the fans’ sympathy, she also expressed disappointment of her portrayal in the news. Ava stated, “Thank you for your letter. It was very kind of you to write to someone you have never met. I think it only fair to tell you however that Weekend did not interview me for that article, did not express my views in it and did not quote the sources of their information. It was done without my consent. I wanted you to know that I am not unhappy, not lonely or alone and living a peaceful and contented life in good health. I wish you the same.”

So here we are a little more than 25 years after Ava’s death, and people are still doing this to her; without conscience for her memory, her suffering during the time she was here, or the family and estate she left behind. At the museum, we sell four books that we recommend for a comprehensive view of Ava’s life: Ava’s autobiography, Ava’s conversations with Peter Evans, Mearene Jordan’s autobiography on her life with Ava, and one of our museum founder’s biography on Ava and her North Carolina roots. You will find these books cited throughout the blog. They are well-founded or researched and have the approval of our museum. We seek neither to defame Ava nor to laud her as perfection. We seek merely to have her represented honestly, as she requested while she was alive.

A few weeks ago, we asked Ava’s fans what they would ask her if they only could. We had some fantastic requests and where possible, we have allowed Ava to answer them herself, from her written words.  In other cases, family members, friends, and experts affiliated with her estate (myself included) have filled in where possible. We would love to have follow-up questions if you have any, and thank you for letting Ava’s own voice be heard.

Was Ava born from natural birth? (Irineide Silveira, Brazil)

Yes, Ava was born by natural birth. Back in the 1920s in rural North Carolina, C-sections were very rare and would risk infection. Ava was also the seventh child her mother gave birth to, although her mother was 39 at the time Ava arrived which could have led to complications during pregnancy and delivery. Dr. Ralph S. Stevens delivered Ava at around 10p.m. on Christmas Eve; Ava let out a “robust wail- and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief.” (Doris Cannon, Grabtown Girl, 21).Grabtown Girl

Was Ava always a free-spirited person? (Barb Bealer-Shipman)

“[Ava] had a rambunctious and adventurous spirit from the beginning. One warm day she climbed to the second floor of the house and wandered into a room where a tall window had been left open. She crawled through the window and onto the porch roof, where she was spotted toddling around by James Capps…. He coaxed her back to the window with a promise that her mother would give her a bowl of peaches and cream. It would not be the last time that one of the Capps family would come to Ava’s rescue” (Cannon, 22-23).

Is it true Ava was not a very neat person? (Shehnaz Khan)

Talking with Ava’s niece Mary Edna Grantham the other day, we discussed Ava’s whirlwind lifestyle and traveling habits. Ava was constantly itinerant and rarely stayed in a place for more than a few days. The movie industry taught her to constantly be moving and Ava’s nature was such that she continued the habit even when she was on vacation. Mary Edna recalled that whenever it was time to pack up and go somewhere, Ava’s sister Bappie and her friend Rene would be bustling about with Ava helping as well. There was just so much to pack. Mary Edna also mentioned that Bappie and Rene had a way of rolling Ava’s clothing so that it would rarely need ironing once they arrived at their destination. So while Ava may have been a whirlwind, I don’t believe you could call her disorganized or a messy person, especially with the diligent assistance of Bappie and Rene. And of course, she always looked flawless in her clothing; no doubt aided by the lack of wrinkles from the rolling technique.

Ava with her suitcases on set of

Ava with her suitcases on set of “Mogambo” in Africa, 1953. Wardrobe by Edith Head.

 

Who was her favorite designer? (Ruth Dobson-Torres)

Some of Ava’s designers included top names like Guccio Gucci, Christian Dior, Edith Head, Howard Greer, Ferragamo and even high-end stores like Bergdorf-Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue created custom clothing for Ava, and even occasionally her dog.  We believe her favorite designers to be The Fontana Sisters though. They were responsible for her wardrobe on films such as “The Barefoot Contessa” and  “The Sun Also Rises.”  Ava often acquired the wardrobe from her films as her measurements were quite unique, and heck, it was free! There are perks to being a movie star, even a contracted one. She often traveled with over 20 suitcases of clothes and was once billed by an airline for 661 pounds of luggage. One of my favorite stories is that Ava showed up to her sister Inez’s house and stood outside the screen door while Inez’s husband inquired how long she was planning to stay at that time and how much luggage she had with her. According to her niece Mary Edna, she said, “Now Johnnie, don’t you worry! I’ve got all these cases here but I’ll only stay for a few days and I won’t open all of them, just one! I promise!” With that reassurance, he granted her admittance. Even a movie star is humble when family is involved!

A Fontana Sisters sketch of Ava's dress for

A Fontana Sisters sketch of Ava’s dress for “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954).

 

What were Ava’s measurements? (Serch Marron, Paraguay).

Ava would be women’s size 0 in the U.S. or sometimes a size 2.  She was 5 feet 6.5 inches tall, wore a size 6 shoe (U.S.). Her waist fluctuated between 18 and 20 inches. Ava also had broad shoulders which only helped accentuate her hourglass measurements. At the time of her death, Ava was estimated to be a size 10 due to the detrimental effects from her stroke four years earlier which forced her to live a more sedentary lifestyle in addition to the effects of medications used combat constant her illness with pneumonia and bronchitis. One lounge jumpsuit from Harrods in our collection bears a size 14 tag which would have allowed her to move comfortably and without restriction.

 

What was the name of each of her dogs? (Fabrice Lévêque)

Although Howard Hughes once gave Ava a German Shepherd which could fetch its own dinner from the refrigerator, Ava’s true love of dogs was realized when she got her corgis.

Ava and her corgi Rags.

Ava and her corgi Rags.

Their names were Rags, Rags II, Cara and Morgan (her last). Ava also had dogs as a child, two of whose names were Boots and Prince. We are not quite sure of the breed though a lab and a border collie appear in some family photos.

How  did Ava keep her youthful slim figure all her life? (Camille Baggott, Franklin, NC)

Dear Camille, if you have read our Ava Gardner cookbook, you might very well ask that question! Ava loved Southern fare and ate heartily. While in Hollywood and Spain, Mearene Jordan constantly cooked Spanish omelets and fried chicken late at night for Ava; and in Russia, Rene made nothing but fried chicken for Ava and Elizabeth Taylor owing to the stringent food lines in the USSR at that time (Mearene Jordan, Living With Miss G, 235). As we are gearing up to re-release the cookbook again, I asked Ava’s niece Mary Edna about Ava’s diet. She explained that while Ava did splurge when she was home, when she moved to California her diet consisted of a lot of salads. Ava also smoked over 60 cigarettes a day and imbibed in the evenings which may explain why she had fewer food calories than we all might expect. Mary Edna also imparted an anecdotal tale of her, her brother and a few other family members picking Ava up at the Raleigh-Durham airport on a trip home from London. Ava was in traveling clothes and not suited to go to a fine dining establishment. Nevertheless, they took her to the Angus Barn (a famed Raleigh restaurant). When it came time for Ava to order, she simply asked for a single onion slice, about ¼ inch thick, drizzled with thousand island dressing. Now that’s a diet I hadn’t heard of before…but I love onions, so it might be worth a try! What about you?

 

Ava's Discovery (1939) by Larry Tarr, the photo which made her famous.

Ava’s Discovery (1939) by Larry Tarr, the photo which made her famous.

Did you ever really want to be an actress? How did you become one? (Carol Vetrano)

“When people ask me about how I got into the damn picture business in the first place, I just have to smile. Because the truth is, if my sister Bappie hadn’t decided on the spur of the moment to drop into Tarr’s photographic studio on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixty-third Street in New York City, I probably would’ve ended up happy as a clam plugging away behind a typewriter somewhere in North Carolina for the rest of my days” (Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, 27).

There is also letter from 1936 that Ava wrote to her childhood friend Clara (Ava would have been 13 at the time). She expressed her longing to become an actress but wasn’t sure how she could ever bring it about (Cannon, 42-43). Ava also used to go with her mother to watch films at the Victory Theater (later rebuilt as The Howell Theater, which is now the longest running historic movie house in North Carolina) located in Downtown Smithfield. Their favorite actor was Clark Gable. In Ava’s memoir, she reminisced about seeing “Red Dust” in 1932. Little did she know that she would star in the remake opposite Clark Gable in 1953, renamed “Mogambo.” This is proof that there is stardust right here in Smithfield.

If you were not an actress, what career would you have chosen? (Cathey Watkins)

“I had to do something and I didn’t know how to do anything else [aside from acting]. I once thought about becoming a nurse, but I knew I’d vomit every time a patient vomited and I wouldn’t be much use. I could have been a secretary again, brushed up on my Atlantic Christian College dictation speed of a hundred and twenty words per minute. But I knew that would make me really crazy.  The truth is that the only time I’m happy is when I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t understand people who like to work and talk about it like it was some sort of goddamn duty. Doing nothing feels like floating on warm water to me. Delightful, perfect” (Gardner, 189).

 

What was your favorite movie role you were in and why? (Tressa Lett Jones, Gloria Mayo, and Life Policy Payout)

“As far as my career as an actress went, Mogambo was probably as close to a pinnacle as anything I’ve done. I did get nominated for an Academy Award for best actress…” (Gardner, 188).

Many of Ava’s roles were sources of disappointment for her.  Ava did not consider herself a strong actress and the roles in which she considered herself to be one were roles where she could act naturally and effortlessly. While “Bhowani Junction” was one of her more serious roles, “The Night of the Iguana” is often heralded as her most honest performance because she didn’t have to act. The character of Maxine Faulk was a raw version of Ava’s glamorous self, of casual North Carolinian hospitality and gumption. Ava’s relationship with her costars was delightful despite the less than ideal conditions. And Ava once said,

“Dear John [Huston]. I have only one rule in acting- trust the director and give him heart and soul. And the director I trusted most of all was John Huston. Working with him gave me the only real joy I’ve ever had in movies.” (Gardner, 251)

This film would be the first she would make for John and she also cites this as the beginning of their friendship which lasted till his death (this of course excludes the diving board incident at his house years before). For this reason, I believe that “The Night of the Iguana” was not only her favorite, but also her best film.

 

Ava starring as Maxine Fault in

Ava starring as Maxine Faulk in “Night of The Iguana” (1963).

How was it being “one of the boys” in a time when women were expected to be soft and girlie? (Jaxx Dexter, Buzzards Bay, MA).

“Whatever the final shape of the film, it didn’t affect my feelings for George Cukor, or his for me. In fact it was George who said the nicest thing that’s ever been said about me. ‘Ava,’ he told an interviewer, ‘is a gentleman.’ A gentleman. I like that.” (Gardner, 218)

 

Did you have any insecurities? (Michela Luise)

“If you sense a little ambivalence in my thoughts about my ability as an actress, you’re right. On one level, all I wanted to be was an actress, and I often felt that if only I could act, everything about my life and career would have been different. But I was never an actress- none of us kids at Metro were. We were just good to look at. Making things worse was that I really didn’t have the correct emotional makeup for acting. If I’d had more drive, more interest, maybe I could have done better, but I disliked the exhibitionist aspects of the business and the work was terribly frightening to me” (Gardner, 188).

Mickey or Frank? (Bob Harvey)

“The first time I met Frank Sinatra, I was still married to Mickey Rooney. We were out at some Sunset Strip club, probably Mocambo, and Frank was there.  He knew Mickey pretty well- who didn’t- and he stepped across to meet the new wife.  And being Frank he did the big grin and said, ‘Hey, why didn’t I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself.’ That caught me off guard. I guess I smiled back uncertainly, but I don’t think I said a word.  Because in those early days, I was always feeling out of my depth.  Even to meet Frank Sinatra was exciting enough.  To have him say a thing like that left me dumbfounded” (Gardner, 122).

The answer is clearly, always Frank.

Did you love Frank as much as he loved you?(Esperanza Hope)

“Love is a wordless communion between two people. [One night Frank and I] went back to that little yellow house in Nichols Canyon and made love. And, oh, God, it was magic. We became lovers forever- eternally. Big words, I know. But I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love. And God almighty, things did happen” (Gardner, 125).

Although Ava and Frank loved each other deeply, they could not control their jealousy of one another and their careers often took them in opposite directions.

“I remember exactly when I made the decision to seek a divorce….I was deeply hurt. I knew then that we had reached a crossroads. Not because we had fallen out of love, but because our love had so battered and bruised us that we couldn’t stand it anymore. When you have to face up to the fact that marriage to the man you love is really over, that’s very tough, sheer agony” (Gardner, 191).

Despite their divorce, Ava and Frank would reconcile as lovers and friends many times throughout their lives, and by many accounts (including her own), they considered each other the love of their lives.

An Eternal Love- Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

An Eternal Love- Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner

Why didn’t you have children in any of your marriages? (Grace Land)

“[Mickey Rooney and I] were babies, just children, and our lives were run by a lot of other people. We hadn’t had a chance” (Gardner, 59).

“I decided I wanted [Artie Shaw’s] baby. But he was very wise. He was protecting me- and I’m sure he was thinking of himself, too- he said this is not the time to have a child. I don’t think in my heart I genuinely wanted a baby at all” (Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations, 205).

“I had the strongest feelings about bringing a child into the world. I felt that unless you were prepared to devote practically all your time to your child in its early years it was unfair to the baby. If a child is unwanted- and somehow they know that- it is handicapped from the time it is born. Not to mention the fact that MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies. If I had one, my salary would be cut off.  So how would I make a living? Frank was absolutely broke and would probably continue to be (or so I thought) for a long time. My future movies were going to take me all over the world. I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on….But it was my decision, not his….as long as I live I’ll never forget waking up after the operation and seeing Frank sitting next to the bed with tears in his eyes. But I think I was right. I still think I was right” (Gardner, 184-187).

 

Did Ava introduce Frank to Barbara in his later years? (Justin Marouf)

Ava was not responsible for introducing Frank Sinatra and Barbara Marx. Ava and Barbara likely met at some point as Barbara frequently traveled with Frank. However, they hated each other immensely, mostly because Frank carried a torch for Ava and up till his wedding day to Barbara, was waiting for Ava to give him the word that they could try again.  There are rumors that Barbara’s jealousy was so fierce that she smashed a statue of Ava that Frank owned. There is only one other copy in the world today. If Ava or her sister Bappie ever need to get in touch with Frank, Ava’ s niece told me the other day that Bappie had a way around Barbara: Bappie had an “in” with Frank’s assistant/secretary and would go around Barbara to speak with Frank that way.

While working with the great Clark Gable, how much was Frank’s ticket to New York for the audition to “From Here to Eternity” and how long was his trip before he came back to tell her that he got the part? (Justin Marouf)

This is something that Ava never went into much detail on, as money was not something that was generally talked about, especially when it came to her relationship with Frank. Since they spoke every day, and frequently even after their divorce, it is likely Ava knew immediately after Frank learned he got the part of Maggio. As far as the ticket cost, a look at fares during that era might give you an idea how much that ticket was worth.

Can you tell us more about your relationship with Frank? (Stefanie Soar)

At the museum, we recommend four different books that we feel are a comprehensive look at Ava’s life, including her time with Frank. Ava was notoriously protective of Frank and usually chose her words about him carefully. For the most intimate looks at their relationship, I personally recommend Mearene Jordan’s book, Living With Miss G which Living With Miss Gdocuments her decades-long friendship and assistantship with Ava, including some of the most private moments possible and Ava’s personal commentary on Frank.

 

I would love to see pictures of her and her equally fabulous Facel Vega automobiles (Rich Morlock, Mid-Hudson Valley, New York).

The Facel Vega was purchased directly from the factory in 1958 shortly after filming “On The Beach” and was one of a limited number that year. It recently sold at auction for a sum we understandably couldn’t match at the museum, but you can find out more about the auction hereDuring her time in Europe, Ava was also well known for driving a Mercury Coupe.

Ava with her Facel Vega car.

Ava with her Facel Vega car.

 

Ava worked with Omar Sharif on the movie Mayerling (1968). Any word on what she thought of him and the movie? (Thomas Greenwood)

Ava’s friend Rene Jordan discusses the escapades she and Ava had with Omar and his black valet in Paris and also stresses her admiration for the film:

“[Omar] Sharif immediately captivated us with his sense of humor, his charm, his immense knowledge about practically everything, and the fact that he was completely on Miss G’s wave length. Both of their philosophies coincided in the belief that acting in the movies was only a way of making a living. Sharif got really sentimental in that atmosphere, but he was always the perfect gentleman. No hanky-panky….Miss G pulled off her role well and, as I’ve already mentioned, with a bit of help from Sydney Guilaroff and me. I loved the film. All the main characters were splendid, and the film rose to a climax which was moving and tragic” (Jordan, 223-225).

 

Why did you choose London to rest in your final years? What was it about that city that made you decide to stay indefinitely? (Kari Elizabeth Hobbs)

“Since that first visit on my way to Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, I’ve always loved London. So it rains sometimes. It rains everywhere sometimes. And I happen to like the rain. More important, the British leave you alone. They take three or four photographs when you arrive and then they forget you exist. It’s a very civilized town. If I choose to walk down the street or go across the park with my dog, nobody bothers me.  When people do recognize me, they smile and nod their heads, which is a hell of a lot different from the treatment I’ve been used to….I do…have a lot of friends in London…really good friends, so I’m far from lonely. We have dinner at our homes or, if we go out, it’s to places where we won’t be disturbed….Actually, my apartment in Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge suits me so well I hate to leave it, even for a park bench.” (Gardner, 275-277).

 

London, England, 1969, American actress Ava Gardner is pictured walking her pet dog while on location filming the movie

London, England, 1969, American actress Ava Gardner is pictured walking her pet dog while on location filming the movie “Tam Lin” (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

What’s the one thing in your life you would have done differently? (Brian Danus)

“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).

We are willing to bet that one of the “few changes” she would have done differently is to pick up on the Spanish politician/tax official’s hint at a party of reducing the amount of back-taxes they claimed she owed. When she questioned the amount and hinted at their ineptitude, they went with the higher amount she was indignant about instead of settling the matter under-the-table so to speak.

 

Does any of Ava’s kin still live in the Raleigh area? (Steve Goss)

Ava’s kin are spread throughout North Carolina and even further. Two of her family members still sit on our Museum Board of Directors and live in the Smithfield/Selma area (a niece and nephew).  Other Gardner descendants do live in Johnston County, Wilson County, Raleigh, and Winston-Salem; just to name a few places. One of the most common issues of correspondence that I get as a director is people asking for genealogical verification of a connection to Ava. 

ava_earlymovie2

I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed the answers to your questions and I look forward to having more answered in future. Remember to rely on responsible resources for information and keep  in mind the following things: Ava went by her real name (she was never Lucy Johnson), she never had an affair with Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra didn’t rescue her from being broke at the end of her life, and as Ava put it:

I think the most vulgar thing about Hollywood is the way it believes its own gossip. 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….I’d just like to keep the books straight…” (Gardner and Evans, 20).

~Deanna Brandenberger, AGM Executive Director/Estate Trustee

Works Cited

Cannon, Doris Rollins. Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. Asheboro, NC: Down Home Press, 2001.

Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. United States of America: Bantam Books, 1990.

Gardner and Evans, Ava and Peter. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Jordan, Mearene. Living With Miss G. Smithfield, NC: Ava Gardner Museum Press, 2012.

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.

Much Ado About Ava Gardner

Image

ImageIt truly amazes me that someone who considered herself “just a lousy movie star” is still receiving accolades 24 years after her death. And not just a few. Since August 2012 Ava Gardner has been the subject of three memoirs, one a New York Times bestseller. She has been featured in Vanity Fair, Southern Living, Ralph Lauren, Reminisce, and other magazines. Max Factor is using her in a current international ad campaign. Movie deals based on two of these books are developing as I write. The upcoming March issue of Our State magazine will feature her, including one of Bert Pfeiffer’s stunning portraits on the cover. The City of Granada, Spain, will devote its annual classic film festival, Retroback 2014, February 21-March 2, to her memory. The Ava Gardner Museum Board is graciously allowing me to take a traveling exhibit to Granada for the ten-day event, and I will be joined there by Carmen Vargas, Ava’s beloved housekeeper, as we accept the 2014 Retroback Award for our hometown star at the opening gala on February 22.

What is it about this Hollywood has-been that keeps people watching her movies, collecting her memorabilia, and visiting her museum? I have not read every biography and every feature article ever written about her (although they are all pretty much at my fingertips in the museum’s archives), but I have read and heard enough to realize there was something extraordinary about Ava Gardner even beyond her breath-taking beauty. Her genuineness–she was a real person with real flaws who made no apologies for being herself–strikes a chord with many, especially the younger generation. Although looked upon as royalty by some, she is well remembered for being personable and at ease around “little people.” After all, she had once been one herself. Carmen recalls in her later days she often brought homeless persons to her London flat to give them food or call a cab to take them to a doctor. She was passionate about racial equality–something instilled by her parents–and even held a life membership in the NAACP beginning in 1968. I wonder how many other Hollywood stars had such a record. For these and other reasons, this barefoot beauty from North Carolina will not soon be forgotten.

As time and technological connectivity permit, I will be posting highlights from my trip to Spain, so stay tuned.

Todd Johnson

Executive Director

Ava Gardner Museum