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.”
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.
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 and 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.” 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’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.
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.
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.”
Doris first met Ava in the spring of 1978, following her appearance at Rock Ridge Reunion
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
Thank you for reading and stay tuned for more blogs throughout another exciting year!
AGM Executive Director
Trustee of the Ava Gardner Estate
 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.
 Cannon, 37.
 Gardner and Evans, Ava and Peter. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations. (Simon & Schuster: New York, NY: 2013), 84.
 Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1990), 200.
 Gardner and Evans, 19-20.
 Cannon, 3-7.
 Cannon, 118.
 Cannon, 123-124.
 Cannon, 135.