Saturday, December 5, 2020

Ava Gardner

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina on Christmas Eve, 1922.  She was the youngest of seven children, born to a family of sharecroppers.  The family grew tobacco.

When she was just 15 years old, Gardner's father passed away from bronchitis, and her mother supported the family by running a boarding house for teachers.  Gardner graduated from high school in 1939 and attended secretarial courses at Atlantic Christian College. 

One year later, she went to New York City to visit her sister.  While there, her brother-in-law Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take a portrait of her as a present for her mother.  Tarr liked the finished product so much that he displayed it in his storefront window on Fifth Avenue.

The photo caught the eye of a Loews Theatre employee, who suggested it be submitted to MGM Studios.  Tarr did just that, and Gardner was invited to audition with their talent department in New York, headed by Al Altman.  After giving her a screen test, Altman famously commented "she can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk, she's terrific!"  They gave her a contract and she was off to Hollywood.

For the first few years, Gardner settled for mostly bit parts.  Her first starring role would come in 1946 when she was cast in the Mark Hellinger film The Killers, based on the story by Ernest Hemingway.  Gardner played Kitty Collins, the first in a long line of femme fatales.  

She followed it up with a string of hits for MGM, including Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954), a role she accepted for her own lifelong obsession of walking barefoot.  Her last leading role was in 1964's The Night of the Iguana, for which she was nominated for both a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for Best Actress.  Click on each title for its theatrical trailer.

She continued to act however, and her next role was opposite Burt Lancaster in Seven Days in May, a 1964 thriller about an attempted military takeover of the U.S. government.  That same year, she accepted the role of Sarah, wife of Abraham, in The Bible: In the Beginning (1966).

In 1968, Gardner moved to London.  There she underwent a hysterectomy in a bid to beat uterine cancer, the disease that had taken her mother's life.  She returned to the U.S. throughout the 70s, appearing in a string of disaster films, including 1974's Earthquake.  Her final film, Regina Roma, was released in 1982, but she continued to appear on television, including a recurring role on the primetime soap opera Knots Landing.

In 1986, Gardner suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed.  Prior to this, she was already suffering from an autoimmune disease called lupus erythematosus and had been a lifelong smoker.  Combined, these conditions marked the beginning of the end.  She passed four years later on January 25, 1990.  She was 67 years old.

Ava Gardner was returned to her home state of North Carolina and was buried at Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield.  

The town has practically turned her grave site into a tourist attraction.

While you're in town, be sure to visit the Ava Gardner Museum, which opened in 1996.  You can take a virtual tour here.

Rest in peace, Ava.


  • Gardner had three Hollywood husbands, beginning with Mickey Rooney in 1942.  She'd leave him just one year later citing cruelty, blaming it on his gambling and womanizing.  Him.  That little midget.  Her second marriage was to jazz musician Artie Shaw, but it didn't last any longer.  Finally in 1951, she married Frank Sinatra, who left his wife Nancy to be with her.  Although the marriage would only last for six years, Gardner would define him as the love of her life.  Despite that, neither Sinatra, Rooney, nor Shaw attended her funeral.  Jerks.

  • In her final years, Gardner decided to release her autobiography, asking writer Peter Evans to serve as her ghostwriter.  During their collaboration, she discovered that her ex-husband Frank Sinatra had at one point sued Evans.  As a result, they were no longer able to work with one another and Evans left the project.  Gardner subsequently released her memoirs Ava: My Story in 1990.  In 2012, Evans passed away and his estate released his version of the story, entitled Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations

  • Gardner actively petitioned for the lead role of Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 Dustin Hoffman film The Graduate, a role that ultimately went to Anne Bancroft.  Producer Mike Nichols felt that at 44, Gardner was too old for the part.  
  • As noted by Al Altman above, Gardiner was not known for her singing abilities.  All of her numbers in Show Boat were dubbed by actress Annette Warren.  However, Gardiner's voice was left intact on the film's soundtrack album. 
  • Gardiner appeared as a guest on the game show What's My Line? in 1953.  You can watch her appearance here.

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