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