Ava Gardner (1922 – 1990)

Written By Jonathan Martin

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922, in Grabtown, a small rural community in Johnston County, North Carolina. In 1986, Gardner suffered a stroke leading to health complications and she later passed away on January 25, 1990. Her resting place remains the Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield.

Ava was the youngest of Jonas and Mary Gardner’s seven children. In 1924, the whole Gardner family moved to a boarding school after a fire burnt their barn and much of the family farm. Jonas served as the school caretaker while his wife cooked for school residents, but the Great Depression forced the closing of the school in 1935. After her father’s death, Ava and the rest of her family moved to Virginia and later Wilson, North Carolina. Ava graduated from Rock Ridge High School in 1939.

After she attended Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College), Ava pursued an acting career, and her big break came when she visited her sister, Beatrice, in New York in 1939.  Larry Tarr, a professional photographer who was married to Beatrice, decided to take pictures of Ava.  He showcased one picture at his Fifth Avenue shop.  With hopes to spark interest in the Southern belle, Tarr took more photos and sent several to MGM’s office in New York.  In a remarkable turn of events, MGM called Gardner, offered her a chance to appear for a screen test, and later signed Gardner to a movie contract.

On July 25, 1941, the Smithfield Herald featured an article on Gardner and her upcoming move to Hollywood. At just eighteen years old, Gardner became Johnston County’s most popular native when she became an actress. The caption under the photo in the Herald read, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has signed her up for a 7-year contract—and it’s easy to understand why.”

Ava’s career began with a slow start as she appeared in fifteen movies with only minor roles. However, in 1946, Gardner appeared in the classic movie The Killers, jumpstarting her film career. Later, Gardner was slated as the main act opposite Clark Gable in The Hucksters, and she appeared in Universal’s One Touch of Venus. Gardner’s most significant role was in the 1950’s movie Show Boat; some critics claim this movie as the best musical of all time.

After she appeared in several more films, Gardner moved to Spain in 1955 where she resided for over a decade.  In 1968 she moved to London, England, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Gardner visited North Carolina several times in her later years, particularly in 1978 at the Rock Ridge High School reunion with the likes of North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt, also a Rock Ridge graduate.

Gardner was married three different times as a Hollywood starlet. On January 10, 1942, she married Mickey Rooney in Ballard, California. Just three years later, Gardner married Artie Shaw, a Hollywood bandleader, on October 18, 1945, in Beverly Hills. Gardner’s third husband was the legendary crooner Frank Sinatra.  They married on November 7, 1951. When asked about her marriages later in her life, Gardner proclaimed, “I don’t know why the hell anybody should talk about my marital record — my three ex-husbands had 20 wives between them” (On This Day in N.C., Powell, p. 209).

On September 3, 1951, Time magazine presented Ava Gardner as its main cover story, focusing on Gardner’s shortcomings. The prominent magazine proclaims that the Johnston County actress is not the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, that she doesn’t have the best figure, and few believe that she is great performer. However, Time finished its article by saying, “[Gardner] seems to exude the kind of allure that sets the mysterious Geiger counters which measure clamor clicking like subway turnstiles” (On This Day in N.C., Powell, p. 163).

In her home county in North Carolina, the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield honors the starlet and her accomplishments on screen.