Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on Christmas Eve, 1922, in Grabtown, a rural community seven miles east of Smithfield, NC. She was the youngest of seven children of Jonas and Mary Elizabeth (Molly) Gardner. When fire consumed the family’s barn and cotton gin in 1924, the Gardners, along with two-year-old Ava moved to the “teacherage”---a boarding house for young lady teachers at the local Brogden school. Jonas Gardner labored as the caretaker and Mollie Gardner served as the cook for the residents of the house. The effects of “The Great Depression” eventually forced the closing of the teacherage, and in 1935, the family moved to Newport News, Virginia to operate another boarding house for shipyard workers. After the death of Jonas Gardner in 1938 from a prolonged illness, Ava and her mother moved from Virginia to the Rock Ridge community (near Wilson, North Carolina), once again managing a boarding house for teachers. Although their income allowed for a meager existence, Mollie Gardner insisted that Ava continue her education rather than working to help support the family. Ava graduated from Rock Ridge High School in 1939, and later attended Atlantic Christian College.
Ava Gardner’s rise to an international film legend was true modern day fairy tale. Ava’s older sister of nineteen years, Beatrice “Bappie” Gardner, had moved to New York and married Larry Tarr, a professional photographer and proprietor of his family’s photographic studios. While Ava was visiting her sister in New York in the summer of 1939, Tarr produced a series of photos of the young Ava. One image displayed in the window of his Fifth Avenue shop caught the attention of Barney Duhan, a young man who was working in the legal department of Lowe’s Theatres as an errand boy. Attempting to acquire Ava’s phone number for a date, Duhan posed as a talent scout for MGM with connections “straight through to the right people.” Although he implied Ava’s good looks would interest MGM, the savvy receptionist knew the ways of smart young New York boys interested in pretty young girls and stalled his effort by simply promising to deliver the message. Hearing of the incident and recognizing an opportunity, Larry Tarr and his staff worked through the night to print more photos of Ava. Tarr delivered them the next day to MGM’s New York office, and Ava soon got the call young girls dreamed of. She was asked to appear for a screen test, and in 1941 at the age of 18, Ava signed a seven-year movie contract with MGM studios for fifty dollars a week.
Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, Ava met and married film star Mickey Rooney. The marriage lasted one year. Her second short-lived marriage was to bandleader Artie Shaw, one of the “swing era” greats. Ava’s third and last husband, and great love of her life, was singer Frank Sinatra. They were married in 1951 and divorced in 1957, unable to survive the pressures of their careers and their jealousy of each other. People magazine classified Frank and Ava’s marriage as one of the “Romances of the Century.”
Ava had small walk-on roles in 15 MGM movies before her career began to soar. In 1946, MGM loaned her out to Universal to play femme fatale Kitty Collins in the classic film noir The Killers. Critics and movie audiences took notice. With a hot property on his hands, Louis B. Mayer wasted no time casting Ava opposite the King of Hollywood – Clark Gable in The Hucksters. Other studio directors started also taking notice, and Ava soon landed the title role in Universal’s One Touch of Venus and was well on her way to becoming a Hollywood legend.
In 1950, MGM chose Ava over several screen legends to portray the role of Julie Laverne in Show Boat, one of the greatest musicals of all time. Ava teamed up with with Gable again in 1953 to shoot Mogambo, a remake of Gable’s 1932 film Red Dust. Ava received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Honey Bear Kelly in the film. In 1964, Ava received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ Night of the Iguana, which starred Richard Burton. After starring in successful disaster films during the 1970s such as Earthquake and The Cassandra Crossing, Ava begin working in television in the mid-1980s, including one season on the popular CBS drama Knots Landing.
At age 33, Ava moved to Madrid, Spain, where she resided for more than 10 years. Then, in 1968 she moved to London, England, where she lived the rest of her life. During her years abroad, she returned to America often to continue her film career and to visit her family in Smithfield, NC. Ava’s last public appearance in North Carolina was in 1978 at the Rock Ridge High School reunion, with North Carolina’s Governor James B. Hunt (also a Rock Ridge High School graduate). Her last visit in Smithfield was in May of 1985. In 1986 she suffered a stroke, and died of pneumonia on January 25, 1990. She is buried in Sunset Memorial Park, US Highway 70, in Smithfield.