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.

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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.

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.

“To Lavinia, Who Is Truly My Beloved.” ~Frank Sinatra

Ava and Frank Cake

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra share a little December birthday cake in Germany, 1951.

Today would have been his 100th birthday. She called him Francis. You know him as Frank Sinatra, the most famous voice in history. Their love was a burning passion that was tempered with the firestorm of the cruel media. During a time when Frank’s star was in a rut, Ava’s was on the rise. During the time when they both rose professionally, they crashed personally. Ava once said that when things were good, they were magical and when they were bad, they were the worst. So how did two tempestuous personalities create one of the longest-lasting love stories during the Golden Age of Hollywood?

Ava and Frank first met in 1941 when Ava was still married to Mickey Rooney. Recent biographical rags would have you believe that Frank picked her out of a magazine (sorry Mr. “Biographer-to-the-Stars,” but you’ve got your plotlines confused; that was actually Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth). Ava was blown away when he told her “Hey, why didn’t I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself.” Ava, still the shrinking violet of the Hollywood machine, didn’t know how to process the situation. “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

Ava Frank Sinatra Mickey Rooney table talking

Ava is first introduced to Frank Sinatra while married to Mickey Rooney in 1941.

exciting enough. To have him say a thing like that left me dumbfounded.”1 Following Ava’s divorce from both Mickey and Artie, and Frank’s own separation from Nancy Barbato Sinatra, Frank pursued Ava in social settings to which she always politely declined. Frank would go on to date other actresses like Marilyn Maxwell and Ava’s own personal friend, movie superstar Lana Turner. Yet she and Frank always seemed to cross paths and she finally accepted an invitation for a date but never went further until 1949 as she felt it was rushed and wrong. Ava was cautious of embarking on a tenuous romance with a not-yet-divorced, separated, married man. She was also conscious of her proclivity for falling for musicians. Her devastating marriage and divorce from Artie Shaw was proof enough of that. Frank’s allure attracted many women, a whole generation of bobbysoxers included, that proved he had his options open as well. “That is not to say that I did not think, even then [turning him down], that Frank was one of the greatest singers of this century. He had a thing in his voice I’ve only heard in two other people – Judy Garland and Maria Callas. A quality that makes me want to cry for happiness, like a beautiful sunset or a boys’ choir singing Christmas carols.”2

frank_singing

Frank Sinatra and wife Ava Gardner take the stage in Wiesbaden, Germany in 1951 to sing “Bewitched, Bothered, Bewildered.”

In the summer of 1949, Frank and Ava met again in Palm Springs and rekindled their attraction once Ava confirmed with him that he and Nancy were indeed separated. “The kids, however, were something else; he was committed to them forever. I was to learn that that kind of deep loyalty – not faithfulness, but loyalty – was a critical part of his nature.”3 Ava’s affection for his children was something she would come to demonstrate openheartedly, without agenda, but because Ava loved children in general, and Mr. Sinatra’s children especially because they were his. Frank Sinatra, Jr. recounted how his sister Nancy was delighted to learn how to do makeup from an iconic movie star. He himself had his first memory of meeting Ava as a little boy at a Palm Springs airport in 1952, after she was

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Ava with husband Frank Sinatra at the London Airport in 1952 on their way to film “Mogambo.” This is the same year that Frank Sinatra, Jr. first met Ava as a young boy at a Palm Springs airport.

already the wife of his father. He remembers her as being kind to him, but not much more until years later.

Ava’s romance with Sinatra heated up once she knew she was free to give into her passion for him. “Love is a wordless communion between two people….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.”4 Things like the morality clause being called out in Ava’s movie contracts, petitions to denounce Ava’s career and even prosecute her for indecency. Things like separation owing to careers and people inserting themselves between the lovers. Things like Frank and Ava’s own jealousy about each other. “As if all this press attention, the idea the world had that it was entitled to know all about every minute of our lives, wasn’t enough to put strains on our love….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.”5 Ava assured her fans in her autobiography that they never fought about professional differences (matter-of-factly, her star was higher than his during their marriage). “Accusations and counteraccusations, that’s what our quarrels were all about.”6

Ava and Frank Pandora and Flying Dutchman premiere Los Angeles 1952

Signs of trouble: 10 Jan 1952, Los Angeles, California, USA — Frank Sinatra with Ava Gardner at the Premiere of “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” Image by © Michael Ochs Archives/Corbis

 

Frank Sinatra, Jr. also confirms that Frank and Ava’s troubles were all because they were the same type of temperament and personality. He likened their love to magnets that inevitably repel each other. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other, it was that they were too much like each other. Also to blame was the merciless nature of the press. “Maligning. Anything you read about her, you will find that.” According to him, Ava could never do right under the scrutiny of stardom and everything she did was magnified in the public eye. She was never given a chance to be happy by the outside world because she was “not criticized, she was absolutely maligned.”7 This is something that Frank Sinatra, Jr. could himself relate to, and ironically, it is one of the things that they would later commiserate with each other about.

Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra Jr. son Tahoe Daily Tribune singing

Frank Sinatra Jr. (left) and Frank Sinatra (right) sing side-by-side before the kidnapping incident that unfairly scarred Frank Jr.’s reputation. Frank Sinatra, Jr. is currently leading his multimedia concert performance in tribute of his father, “Sinatra Sings Sinatra.” Photo (c) Tahoe Daily Tribune.

Eventually, the breakdown of their marriage occurred with Ava bearing the brunt of the blame for breaking Sinatra’s heart and really teaching him what it was to sing the blues. The notoriety of this rumor persists to this day, despite the fact that Ava and Sinatra rekindled their passion many times during the years and remained friends until Ava’s death. The fact was that they could not stay married to each other, a shackling as Ava once referred to it which didn’t allow them to be free, to be who they needed to be in order to succeed with each other. “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.”8

Their separation and subsequent divorce might be credited with what allowed them to maintain a friendship. Ava also discovered something critical about herself and decided to break the pattern. “I think the main reason my marriages failed is that I always loved too well but never wisely. I’m terribly possessive about the people I love and I probably smother them with love. I’m jealous of every minute they spend away from me. I want to be with them, to see them, to be able to touch them. Then, and only then, am I happy. For instance, when I couldn’t get Frank on the telephone immediately, I wanted to kill myself. It was stupid, I suppose, but it was me.”9 Ava went on to say how Frank always stayed in touch with her no matter how far apart or how busy their lives got. In fact, speaking with Ava’s nephew Mel Pearce (Myra’s son) recently, I was treated to a story about how Ava and Myra were on vacation in Acapulco in the 1970s when a naval ship that Mel was stationed on in the Indian Ocean had an explosion on board, killing many sailors. Receiving the word in Mexico and not knowing the fate of her nephew, Ava called Sinatra in a panic. Frank told her to hang tight and he would see what he could find out. He then promptly called Spiro Agnew, Vice President of the United States at the time, who had a list of casualties in his hand and confirmed that Mel was not among those listed. Frank then called up Ava to set her and Myra’s worries to rest. Frank and Ava’s marriage was long over at that point, yet he would still drop everything to help her or her family. What a guy!

ava&frank

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra remained very close friends till Ava died in 1990. Here they are, comfortable in Ava’s London home in the late 1960s.

Frank’s generosity, already touching in its sincerity, is often exaggerated by people that seem to think it needs more than it already has associated with it. The rumor that Frank took care of Ava financially in her final years is widespread with all its inaccuracies. The fact is that while Frank supported Ava emotionally, Ava was financially independent at the time of her death. As the trustee of her estate, I can confirm this unequivocally. The fact is that when Ava suffered her stroke in 1986, Frank wanted her to get a second opinion at a hospital in California. Knowing Ava’s stubborn nature (much like his own), he knew she would not go on her own and thus insisted on flying her out to California and paying for the doctor and associated tests. Ava’s gratitude was endless. Isn’t that enough to the story? Why do people go on to exaggerate? Also widespread in its error is the rumor that Frank paid for her funeral, or that he attended the funeral, neither of which are true. This is because Ava didn’t allow any celebrities at her funeral to provide for the privacy and respect for her family to grieve. Frank did send a floral display with a simple note: “With my love, Francis.” He included the yellow roses he sent to her every year on her birthday- which she would keep on a mantle till the next year he sent another bouquet to replace them. To me, that is hauntingly romantic on its own and speaks volumes of their mutual affection. No exaggeration needed.

For a woman that has been vilified in the media and in popular memory for the better part of the last century, our wish for Frank’s 100th birthday is that she can be remembered as a valuable part of his life as he himself saw her; that she inspired many a torch song, there is no doubt. But they both hurt each other, they both loved each other, and in the end, the love was stronger than the hurt, than the tabloids or rubbish biographies, or even public opinion. When you find a note among Ava’s private possessions 25 years after her death, a note that she kept all her life, that was torn out of a book leaf and reads, “To Lavinia, who is truly my beloved. FS” signed in the shape of a musical clef, you begin to understand the understated romance that was between them all the days of their lives despite the wave of opposition they never stopped facing. When you hear the

Frank Sinatra note to Ava Lavinia truly my beloved

Private scribble on a book leaf that Frank wrote to Ava found among her personal collection. It is currently on display at the Ava Gardner Museum.

rare demo recording of the 78rpm vinyl of “You’re My Thrill” sung by Frank for Ava and kept in her personal collection, you can feel the epitome of their love manifested through the music, though very few people in the world have ever heard that particular recording. (A copy was given to Frank Sinatra, Jr. at Ava’s marker dedication as a token of our thanks).

On November 18, 2015, Ava’s one-time stepson Frank Sinatra, Jr. dedicated her North Carolina Highway Historical Marker at the Carolina Theatre of Durham following his inspiring performance of “Sinatra Sings Sinatra,” a spectacular tribute to his father: the man and the music. In his speech, he explained that Ava was “maligned at every turn of the…screw” and expressed his disappointment that as Sinatra’s wife, as a woman who was in love with a man she was married to, she was not allowed to be left alone. When you hear how Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Ava spent an evening in Spain in 1964 gaining an understanding of each other as public “villains” and expressing the pain that fame can bring with it, maybe we can start to understand our roles as fan and tabloid patrons, a little more in the misery that comes as a cost of stardom.10 Do we have the right to be indignant about the heartbreak they supposedly caused each other? Is it even our business? Ava said that after years of mudslinging she should be able to weather it, but she never could. It hurt her every…single…time. It hurt Frank too. And it spilled into the next generation with Frank Sinatra, Jr. and the trials he went through to overcome his kidnapping and create a career for himself while the tabloids were happier perpetuating the myth of an elaborate hoax instead of celebrating the talent of a great voice from the son of a great musician. How different everyone’s lives might have been if we just practiced what Ava preached: to have a little more kindness in this world. She said that it starts with ourselves. I believe that she is right in this, that we see negativity in ourselves and therefore we look for something worse in others to pacify our own guilt. It goes back to that old adage “misery loves company.” Rather shouldn’t we try to embrace the fragility of their human nature, of their imperfection, and of their love in spite of it? You would think that would be more appealing to the salacious perpetuation of ugliness which has been the broken record of the past 59 years.

frank

Photo and autograph from Ava’s private collection, currently housed at the Ava Gardner Museum.

 

This year the Ava Gardner Museum has created a unique Triumvirate Tribute Exhibit dedicated to Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday, Ava Gardner’s 25th anniversary of passing, and Omar Sharif. Each section displays intimate glimpses into the lives of these three individuals and Ava’s special relationship with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra, as well as her friend and costar Omar Sharif, who sadly passed away this year. Please join us at the museum to celebrate and enjoy the lives of these wonderful stars.

We have attached the video of the dedication and of Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s touching memory of Ava below, in tribute to both Frank and Ava during the month of both their birthdays, and in special thanks to Frank Sinatra, Jr. for divulging such a personal and heartfelt experience, in hopes of

Frank Sinatra Jr.

Frank Sinatra, Jr. in a promotional shot for his show “Sinatra Sings Sinatra” 2015 (c) Frank Sinatra, Jr.

setting straight the truth about the love that was shared, and the lives that were lived (a transcription of the video will follow soon). We think that is something both Frank and Ava would want. Happy 100th birthday Frank! Today we choose to remember the love and friendship you shared with a woman who might have been more worthy than the world was ever allowed to see.

 

 

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for our next blog.

Coming soon: Carmen Vargas, the Gardner Family, and the Smithfield marker unveiling ceremony.

Don’t forget to subscribe!

~Deanna Brandenberger

AGM Executive Director

Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate

  1. Gardner, 122.
  2. Gardner, 123.
  3. Gardner, 125.
  4. Gardner, 125.
  5. Gardner, 127.
  6. Gardner, 127.
  7. Sinatra, Jr., Frank. Ava Gardner Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony Speech. Durham, North Carolina. November 18, 2015.
  8. Gardner, 191.
  9. Gardner, 192.
  10. Sinatra, Jr., Frank. Ava Gardner Historical Marker Dedication Ceremony Speech. Durham, North Carolina. November 18, 2015.