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FAQs About Ava

Questions frequently asked about Ava Gardner's life growing up:

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Ava Gardner


1. Why does the family Bible say Ava was born in 1923 when Ava was born Christmas Eve 1922?

In many rural areas, the Family Bible was seen as an official record, as much as any birth or death record filed with the county. In all of the excitement of the birth and the Christmas season, Ava’s birth was not noted until after the first of the year, at which time a family member made a mistake and recorded the current year "1923."


2. Was Ava extremely poor as a child?

By the time of Ava’s birth, Ava’s father, Jonas, had become rather prosperous as a farmer and also owned a sawmill to supplement the family’s income. However, the effects of a post-World War I agricultural depression caused the Gardner family to lose the farm, and they were forced to seek a livelihood elsewhere. In 1924, Ava and her parents moved to the Brogden Teacherage, a boarding house for teachers at the local Brogden School. Her mother, Mollie, was the caretaker, cooking teachers’ meals and tending to housekeeping, while Jonas became the school groundskeeper.

During those difficult years, many lost homes and farms and struggled to provide for their families. The Gardners never went without food or clothing (including shoes), although by today’s standards they would be considered poor.


3. Is Ava Gardner her "real" name?

Ava Lavinia Gardner is the name given to her at birth. She was named after a beloved Aunt named Ava, and Lavinia was chosen by Mollie because she thought it was pretty. A story was concocted during her career that Ava was not her real name; instead her name was Lucy Johnson and it was changed when she arrived in Hollywood. This rumor has persisted throughout the years, even to be considered fact during one episode of Jeopardy and was included in North Carolina Fourth Grade Social Studies text books in the 1990s.


4. Did her parents live to see her become a star?

Unfortunately, no. Jonas Gardner died of a bronchial condition in 1938 when the family was living for a short while in Newport News, Virginia. Ava and her mother moved back to North Carolina to be close to family and friends and Ava was "discovered" in 1941. Ava moved to Hollywood and married Mickey Rooney soon after in January 1942. Their divorce was announced the same day as her mother’s death from cancer: May 21, 1943. Ava would not rise to stardom until the release of the critical and commercial success of The Killers in 1946.


5. Is Smithfield, NC Ava Gardner’s hometown?

Ava was born and raised in a small community called Grabtown, 8 miles east of Smithfield, NC. Grabtown was nothing more than a crossroads with a general store and the local cotton gin, and nearby Brogden was a similar rural hub with a school. Smithfield was the nearest town, and it was there the Gardners went to shop and to watch movies at the Victory Theater.


6. What religion was Ava Gardner?

Ava was raised Baptist.


7. Where is her "birthplace?" Can I go visit it?

Ava Gardner was born at 740 Avenue Road in the Grabtown area of the Brogden community, 8 miles southeast of Smithfield. As a toddler, she climbed out onto the porch roof and had to be coaxed back into the house with the promise of a bowl of peaches. Today the home is owned by the Allen family and is their private residence. Visitors may drive by the home and take photos, but please do not disturb the Allen family by knocking on their door!


8. Where is Ava Gardner buried?

Ava Gardner requested that her remains return home to be laid to rest alongside her parents and siblings. Ava’s gravesite is located one mile west of the museum at Sunset Memorial Park, at the intersection of Highways 70 Business and 210.


9. Did Frank Sinatra attend Ava’s funeral?

Ava requested a quiet memorial service; therefore, none of her Hollywood friends (including Frank) were in attendance in an effort to insure that the focus would be on Ava, rather than on their presence. Frank, along with Lena Horne and other friends, sent floral arrangements. The card on Frank’s floral bouquet read, "With my love, Francis."

 Ava and her nephew

10. Did Ava come back home to visit family after she went to Hollywood?

Ava was a very private individual and loved visiting family and friends in Johnston County, far from the limelight of Hollywood and the constant harassment from the press. Although she never had any children of her own, she loved and doted on nieces, nephews, and younger cousins, bringing them gifts and even hand-me-down designer fashions. Although she lived the last 35 years of her life abroad, she never gave up her American citizenship and continued to visit home quite often. Her last public appearance in North Carolina was for the Rock Ridge High School Reunion in 1978 and her last visit to Johnston County was in 1985. She suffered a stroke in 1986, which prohibited travel.


11. Did Ava ever visit the Museum?

While visiting Ava in London in 1978, Tom Banks, the original owner of the Ava Gardner collection, discussed donating the collection to an institution such as Columbia University, but Ava suggested the collection belonged in her home state. In the early 1980s Dr. Banks purchased the Brogden Teacherage, the house where Ava lived from age 2 to 13, and operated his own Ava Museum during the summers for nine years. During a visit to Johnston County in 1985, Ava visited the Museum with her sisters but found it locked. Someone said, "We’ll get someone to come open it!" but Ava told them not to worry. "I already know everything that’s in there. I’ve lived it."


12. Does Ava have family still in the Smithfield area?

Ava has a niece, several nephews, great-nieces, great-nephews, and cousins who still live in Johnston County. Two family members are on the Museum Board of Directors, and the family has long supported the Ava Gardner Museum and its mission.


Questions about Ava Gardner’s life in Hollywood:


1. How many times did Ava marry?

Ava married three times: Mickey Rooney (1942-1943), Artie Shaw (1945-1946), and Frank Sinatra (1951-1957)


2. Why did she never have children?

If it had been up to Ava, she never would have left Johnston County, would have married a local boy and stayed home to raise a family and cook fried chicken. Instead, Ava found herself going down another path. The marriages she had were rocky, even with the love of her life, Frank Sinatra. She did not want to bring children into a family that wasn’t stable. In addition, she was under contract with MGM, and they would want her to continue to work even after having children. Ava felt children should be raised by their mothers, not by nannies, and wouldn’t have children if she couldn’t be home with them.


3. When Ava went to Hollywood, she had a pronounced Southern accent. How was that corrected?

As part of her contract with MGM, Ava was given lessons in voice production, elocution, and drama. Ava worked tirelessly with Gertrude Vogeler, a voice coach assigned to her by MGM, to get rid of her thick North Carolina accent. Later, in her role as Julie LaVerne in Show Boat, Ava would have to work to get her accent back.


4. What size was Ava?

By today’s standards, Ava would be a women’s size 0 (US). She was 5 feet 6.5 inches tall, wore a size 6 shoe (US), and had an 18-inch waist.


5. Did Ava have an affair with Howard Hughes?

Howard Hughes was very interested in Ava, showered her in gifts of jewelry, furs, and exotic vacations, and proposed marriage on several occasions. However, Ava was never romantically interested in Howard and always considered him just a friend. She was put off by his strange ways, including his habit of eating the same thing for dinner every night and his lack of personal hygiene.


6. Was Ava an alcoholic?

Ava was painfully shy and uncertain about her ability to act and alcohol helped calm her nerves before going in front of the camera. Ava was the first to admit that she didn’t even like the taste of alcohol, but she often drank to feel at ease in social situations. Although Ava was very frank about her drinking habits, alcoholism is a serious disease, and Ava was never diagnosed as being an alcoholic.


7.  Why did Ava marry Mickey Rooney?

When Ava first arrived in Hollywood, Mickey Rooney was the biggest star at MGM.  She at first was not attracted to Mickey, but he was persistent and her sister Bappie encouraged her to go out with him.  Over time Ava grew very fond of Mickey, and when he asked her to marry him, she agreed.  However, Ava thought her marriage to Mickey would be like her parents'.  Ava wanted to stay home, begin a family, and cook fried chicken. Mickey thought he could continue his bachelor lifestyle.  The marriage ended in divorce in a little over a year.


8.  What happened to the sister who traveled to Hollywood with Ava?

Beatrice "Bappie" Gardner Cole accompanied her younger sister Ava to Hollywood and lived with Ava for the first few years while Ava worked at MGM as a "starlet."  She and Larry Tarr, the photographer who took the photo that started Ava's career, were divorced soon after she and Ava moved to Hollywood.  Even after Ava became a star, Bappie continued to live in California and often continued to travel and spend time with Ava as a friend, sister, and mother-figure.  Bappie met and married Art Cole, a properties manager for Desilu Studios, in the late 1950s and they remained married until his death.  Bappie outlived her sister, although at the time of Ava's death she had recently had a foot amputated due to complications of diabetes and was unable to travel to the funeral. She died in a California nursing home November 6, 1993, eight days shy of her 90th birthday.  She was brought home to Johnston County and buried next to Ava, whose life she had helped to mold and to whose side she'd always come to in times of need.


Questions about Ava Gardner’s life abroad:

 Ava in Spain

1. Why did she spend the last 35 years of her life in England and Spain?

Ava was a very private individual and craved a life away from the limelight. As long as she was in America, she was hounded by the press and photographers. After traveling abroad for the first time and visiting Spain during the filming of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), she fell in love with the Spanish people and felt she could be herself in Spain. After her marriage with Frank Sinatra began to crumble in 1955, she decided to move to Spain, both to escape the pressures of Hollywood and the press surrounding their breakup. For the first time since living in North Carolina, Ava felt she was in a place she could call home. She lived in Spain until 1968 and then moved to London and lived there until her death in 1990.


2. What was the cause of her death?

Ava had a stroke in 1986, which left her paralyzed down much of her left side and severely weakened her. She had smoked for decades and could not go far without an oxygen tank. In her poor health, Ava passed away in her sleep due to complications from bronchial pneumonia.


3. Was Ava financially destitute at her death?

Ava was under contract with MGM from 1941-1958. During these years, Ava could not choose the film roles she wanted and regardless of how successful the films may be, she still received her weekly pay according to her contract. After 17 years under contract with MGM, Ava was finally free to choose to do the movies she wanted to do and negotiate the salary for each film. It was in the years after 1958 that Ava made the most money and due to smart financial management, Ava was very comfortable financially at her death.


4. Did Frank Sinatra support Ava financially in her final years?

Ava was financially able to pay for all of her medical expenses in her final years. However, Frank did want Ava to visit a certain specialist in Los Angeles. Ava at first refused, but Frank was persistent, as it meant a great deal to him to help Ava. She relented and allowed him to pay for a medically staffed private jet to fly her to Los Angeles, visit the specialist, and return to London. This was the only thing Frank did for her in her later years, and he did it because he wanted to, not because she could not afford to.

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