Gardner, Ava (1922–1990)

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Gardner, Ava (1922–1990)

American screen actress, one of MGM's most popular stars, whose candor often had Hollywood wincing. Born Ava Lavinia Gardner on December 24, 1922, in Brogden, North Carolina; died of pneumonia at age 67 on January 25, 1990; youngest of seven children of Jonas and Mary Gardner; married Mickey Rooney (an actor), in 1942 (divorced 1943); married Artie Shaw (a musician), in 1945 (divorced 1947); married Frank Sinatra, in 1951 (divorced 1957); no children.

After a trip to New York City to visit a sister (1940), was called to the MGM casting office for a screen test and sent to Hollywood as one of the studio's group of young women with screen potential; appeared in her first film (1941), but was confined to bit parts and walk-ons until catching the public's attention in The Killers (1946); for the next decade, held the position of Hollywood's reigning love goddess; nominated for an Academy Award for her work in Mogambo (1953); moved to Spain (mid-1950s) and lived there for some years while appearing in a number of well-received international film productions; returned to U.S. (1970s) and continued working in feature films and television until her death from pneumonia, age 67.


H.M. Pullham, Esq. (1941); We Were Dancing (1942); Joe Smith American (1942); Sunday Punch (1942); This Time for Keeps (1942); Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942); Kid Glove Killer (1942); Pilot No. 5 (1943); Hitler's Madman (1943); Ghosts on the Loose (1943); Reunion in France (1943); DuBarry Was a Lady (1943); Young Ideas (1943); Lost Angel (1943); Swing Fever (1944); Music for Millions (1944); Three Men in White (1944); Blonde Fever (1944); Maisie Goes to Reno (1944); Two Girls and a Sailor (1944); She Went to the Races (1945); Whistle Stop (1946); The Killers (1946); The Hucksters (1947); Singapore (1947); One Touch of Venus (1948); The Bribe (1949); The Great Sinner (1949); East Side/West Side (1949); My Forbidden Past (1951); Show Boat (1951); Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951); Lone Star (1952); The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952); Ride Vaquero! (1953); The Band Wagon (1953); Mogambo (1953); Knights of the Round Table (1954); The Barefoot Contessa (1954); Bhowani Junction (1956); The Little Hut (1957); The Sun Also Rises (1957); The Naked Maja (1959); On the Beach (1959); The Angel Wore Red (1960); 55 Days at Peking (1963); Seven Days in May (1964); The Night of the Iguana (1964); Mayerling (1968); The Devil's Widow (Tam Lin, 1971); The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972); Earthquake (1974); Permission to Kill (1975); The Blue Bird (1976); The Cassandra Crossing (1951); The Sentinel (1977); City on Fire (1980); The Kidnapping of the President (1980); Priest of Love (1981); Regina (1982).

It was the largest crowd of strangers anyone in tiny Smithfield, North Carolina, could remember, certainly for a funeral. Several hundred stood outside the barricades erected around the gravesite at the Sunset Memorial Park, hunched under umbrellas that rainy morning of January 29, 1990. A smaller group of more intimate friends and family of the deceased stood silently next to the grave as Smithfield's famous daughter, Ava Lavinia Gardner Rooney Shaw Sinatra, was laid to rest.

Four days earlier, Ava Gardner had died—far away from a muddy field bordered by a trailer park in rural North Carolina and in much more elegant surroundings—having succumbed peacefully at her flat in a fashionable London neighborhood near Hyde Park. In further contrast, Gardner's quiet passing was nothing like her often tempestuous life as one of Hollywood's most famous love goddesses and later as an internationally known actress and jet setter whose escapades and amours had been the delight of scandal sheets in the United States and Europe. As the minister who delivered the eulogy at her memorial service tactfully put it, "She was no saint."

Despite Gardner's very public and notorious life, friends often remarked that it was all merely the antics of a country roughneck made insecure by too much attention. Ava, born on Christmas Eve, 1922, was the youngest of five daughters and two sons raised by Jonas and Molly Gardner in tiny Brogden, North Carolina. (Gardner often referred jokingly to the place as "Grabtown," confusing some biographers who list her birthplace as "Grabton.") Brogden was little more than a collection of farmhouses sprinkled among the tobacco fields that Jonas worked, the nearest town of any size being Smithfield, and the nearest city a distant Raleigh-Durham. Despite later studio biographies that painted Gardner's childhood as poverty-stricken, the Gardners were relatively prosperous and hardly the leather-skinned sharecroppers MGM claimed. "Those stories really depress us all here [in Smithfield]," one of Gardner's nephews told a reporter for Time magazine, "and they depressed Ava sometimes." Jonas, described by another of the numerous local Gardners as "more than well-to-do," made a good profit on his tobacco crops, and owned a sawmill and a country store. Molly brought in extra money by working as a cook and housekeeper at a boarding house for teachers in Smithfield, and by all accounts the Gardner children were as respectable as any. "She was a tomboy back then," yet another Gardner relative once remembered. "She could hold her own." Even then, however, Gardner's good looks were much remarked on. She had inherited her mother's auburn hair and radiant, alabaster skin, while her high cheekbones and almond-shaped green eyes set her off from her older sisters.

The Gardners were strict Baptists, but Jonas and Molly had no objection to the normal pleasures of a country childhood. By great good fortune, Smithfield happened to boast a movie theater, to which Ava would thumb a ride when she had enough pocket money for a cheap balcony seat. Her attraction to the silvery images on the screen was that of any country girl dreaming of fame and fortune. "I always wanted… to be a movie star," she wrote to a friend when she was 13 years old. "I still do, but I know I can't so I have about given up hope." Near the end of her life, Gardner denied any such ambition. "If I… thought even for a minute that somebody like me could ever end up" on a movie screen, she wrote in her autobiography, "I surely don't recall it." One of Gardner's favorite films was 1932's Red Dust, starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow . She would have cause to remember the picture some years in the future.

In 1929, Gardner had just finished appearing in her first production—an operetta called A Rose Dream, presented by her first-grade class—when the stock-market crash reverberated across the country. The ensuing Depression years were as hard on the Gardners as on any rural family dependent for generations on the land. Jonas was eventually forced to sell his tobacco fields while Molly took her two youngest daughters, Ava and Myra, to Newport News, Virginia, where she had found a position as a cook in a boarding house catering to dockyard workers. Jonas failed to find work during the two years Molly was in Virginia and suffered from failing health. When his wife and daughters returned to Brogden, they found Jonas had developed a lung infection that eventually claimed his life in 1938.

By the time Ava graduated from Smithfield High School in 1939, her remarkable beauty had blossomed to such an extent that Molly felt compelled to keep a sharp eye on her, once following her daughter and an ardent suitor to a well-known necking spot at a nearby lake and dragging Ava from the car. Although Gardner spoke warmly of her mother in her autobiography, other family members blamed Molly for instilling in Gardner a deep suspicion of men and an insecurity about her appearance that plagued her throughout her life—two weaknesses they saw as the basis for Gardner's later troubled relationships. "She loved macho men," actress and friend Arlene Dahl once said. "She loved them because they knew who they were and were so positive and strong. She admired what she didn't have."

After her graduation, Gardner enrolled at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, North Carolina, expecting to become a secretary. In 1941, Molly gave permission for Gardner to visit her eldest sister Beatrice Tarr in New York City over summer vacation. "Bappie," as everyone called Beatrice, had married photographer Larry Tarr, the owner of a chain of photography studios in the New York area. Bappie lived what seemed to Gardner to be a glamorous life in the world's most exciting city, and for months afterward she would remember meeting Henry Fonda and his date at an elegant nightclub frequented by Tarr. Like any man who caught sight of Gardner, Tarr was wonderstruck and persuaded her to pose for him, placing one of the resulting photographs in the window of his Fifth Avenue studio. The head shot showed Gardner shyly gazing at the camera from under a gingham bonnet and attracted a good deal of attention from passersby, including a clerk for MGM whose New York offices were just a block or two from Tarr's studio.

Gardner had only been back at school a few weeks when Bappie called excitedly with the news that MGM's Marvin Schenck, the studio's New York talent executive, wanted to meet her. Gardner would remember the meeting for the rest of her life. As she answered his questions about her background in her thick Southern drawl, she said, "[H]e listened attentively to the first few sentences I said, and a rather abstract expression gradually drifted over his face. I don't think he understood more than three words out of the twenty I'd spoken." (Howard Dietz, the studio's publicity director who was also at the meeting, recalled to reporters that Gardner dropped her g's "like magnolia blossoms.") But Schenck, like so many before him, could not ignore Gardner's radiant beauty and called for a screen test in which she was placed in a chair and merely asked to run through a series of emotions. With the exception of her appearance in her first-grade operetta, Gardner had never acted in her life, let alone faced the scrutiny of a motion-picture camera. This first experience would leave its mark. Even at the height of her career years later, she would admit that she still felt uncomfortable in front of cameras. Two weeks after the screen test, Gardner left for Hollywood with Bappie, to whom she declared that

she was going to marry "the biggest movie star in the world." Arriving on the MGM lot, she was forced to undergo another test for Louis B. Mayer himself. Mayer, unimpressed with her acting ability but predictably struck by her looks, signed her to a seven-year contract at $75 a week and added Gardner to his stable of potential young starlets. With her fellow hopefuls, Gardner embarked on a year's worth of studio-financed lessons in voice, diction, gymnastics, hair and makeup techniques, personal comportment and, last but by no means least, acting. Gardner tried to learn as fast as she could, admitting many years later: "I didn't enjoy it. I didn't work hard enough at being an actress." Mayer also ordered up a studio biography for her, launching the legend of the starving share-cropper's daughter whom he decided had been born Lucy Johnson, to the great confusion of future biographers.

On a tour of the lot during her early days at MGM, Gardner was escorted onto the sound-stage where Babes on Broadway, one of the lavish musicals for which the studio was famous, was in production. During a break in the shooting, a strange figure detached itself from the crowd and swept over to her. "Whatever it was," she remembered, "it looked like Carmen Miranda . It wore a bolero blouse, a long and colorful slit skirt, enormous platform shoes, and the biggest fruit-laden hat I'd ever seen." It turned out to be Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland 's co-star on the film and MGM's most valuable property after a successful series of "Andy Hardy" movies. Rooney later said that Gardner was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, so much so that his pursuit of her was relentless, starting with dinner at the old Chasen's with Bappie prudently along as chaperon. It was Rooney who gave Gardner her first useful lessons in film acting and who offered career advice. On January 10, 1942, less than six months after her arrival in Hollywood, Gardner and Mickey Rooney were married. He was 21, Gardner just 19.

Ava Gardner">

I do it for the loot, honey—always for the loot.

—Ava Gardner

Partly because her Mayer-financed education was taking effect, and partly because of Rooney's clout with studio executives, Gardner appeared in her first film the year of her marriage. It was the beginning of many purely ornamental walk-ons until her initial small speaking role in 1942's Kid Glove Killer, and a minor role in a Dead End Kids comedy when MGM loaned her out to Monogram to give her more experience at someone else's expense. By the end of 1942, she had appeared in eight films and had attracted attention as Mrs. Mickey Rooney at the continual round of studio-arranged publicity events Rooney attended. At one of them, that heartthrob of the bobbysoxer generation, Frank Sinatra, made a point of introducing himself. "Why didn't I meet you before Mickey?" he told her, conveniently forgetting for the moment his own marriage to Nancy Sinatra . "Then I could have married you myself." Marriage was on Gardner's mind, too, for her union with Rooney had been deteriorating for some time. "Mickey was so different from me," she remembered in later years. "He was enthusiastic, sure of himself, and good at everything he tried. I simply didn't fit into his world." The two were amicably divorced on May 2, 1943, after only 18 months of marriage.

Gardner's first substantial role in a film came soon after her divorce from Rooney. She played a seductive young woman hired by a prominent physician to test the moral character of a promising young intern; 1944's Three Men in White was one in a series of popular "Doctor Gillespie" pictures in which Lionel Barrymore played the sternly moral physician. During this same year, Gardner's extravagant romantic life began to accelerate. She plunged into a relationship with millionaire Howard Hughes which ended abruptly one night when Hughes, famously a teetotaler, arrived at the house he had bought for her to find a spirits-soaked party in full swing with Gardner as host. The ensuing argument culminated in Gardner throwing a heavy vase at Hughes, knocking him out cold, before fleeing the house with as many of her belongings as she could gather up before he came to. The year 1944 also marked her second, brief marriage to bandleader Artie Shaw, who had already married four times and was just divorced from Gardner's friend Lana Turner . "I suppose Artie was the first intelligent, intellectual male I'd ever met," Gardner later said, "and he bowled me over." But she began to balk at Shaw's constant hectoring about her lack of education, although she suffered through courses in English literature and economics in which Shaw had enrolled her at University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). Matters only grew worse when Shaw insisted she see a psychoanalyst, the only concrete result of the visits being that Gardner's already considerable alcohol consumption increased. By August of 1946, after a mere ten months of marriage, the two were divorced. "I thought at the time that love could cure anything," she said after the divorce. "I found out the hard way it can't."

Although her personal affairs were in turmoil, Gardner's career took a decided turn for the better with her work in The Killers, based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. She smoldered her way through the film as Kitty Collins, the gangster's moll who brings about the destruction of Burt Lancaster's Swede, his first starring role. The dark tale proved so popular that Gardner was named Look magazine's most promising newcomer in 1947. Encouraged by her reception, MGM increased Gardner's public exposure with product endorsements, guest spots on national radio programs, and larger roles in bigger-budget films while feverishly keeping the press away from her private life, including a rumored abortion after an affair with actor Howard Duff left her pregnant. The Hucksters, in 1947, marked her first work with Clark Gable, while the following year's One Touch of Venus, in which she played a statue of the goddess Venus who comes to life in 20th-century Brooklyn, showed her flair for comedy. By the time Gardner returned home to Brogden for a family visit, she was enough of a star for Photoplay to follow her there and induce her to pose on the porch of her childhood home.

Late in 1948, while Gardner was shooting East Side/West Side on the Metro lot, Frank Sinatra renewed their friendship. With his singing career suffering from the aging of his swooning teenage fans and a new acting career at MGM off to a shaky start, Sinatra found Gardner a willing commiserator. Before long, their tempestuous and very public courtship was in full swing. Fans of both were outraged at their dating and wrote torrents of sympathetic letters to Sinatra's wife and three children, while Gardner was portrayed as a homewrecker. One of the milder letters she received was addressed to "Bitch-Jezebel-Gardner." Ava confessed surprise at the controversy her affair with Sinatra touched off. "I didn't understand… why there should be this prurient mass hysteria about a male and female climbing into bed and doing what comes naturally," she complained. "It's blessed in weddings, celebrated in honeymoons, but out of wedlock it's condemned as the worst of sins." When the Roman Catholic Church's Legion of Decency called for a boycott of her films, MGM's answer was to ship Gardner out of the country to Spain to star opposite James Mason in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which Gardner noted late in her life was one of her favorite films and which is considered among her most charming performances. The picture was shot in Barcelona and was Gardner's first exposure to the culture that would captivate her for the next 15 years. Her passionate affair with a bullfighter during the shoot was much reported, as were the public arguments with a jealous Sinatra, who had followed her to Spain.

In 1951, MGM cast Gardner as the mulatto Julie in its remake of Show Boat. Although her musical numbers were dubbed by Lena Horne in the final release of the film, Gardner insisted on doing her own singing for the soundtrack recording and astonished everyone with her performance. By the end of the year, and despite the fan magazine rumor mills about her love life (or perhaps because of them), Gardner was MGM's most popular female star. Also by the end of the year, Gardner had become the second Mrs. Frank Sinatra. The two were married on November 7, 1951, just days after Sinatra's divorce decree was finalized.

Her marriage to Sinatra marked the beginning of Gardner's most successful years on the screen. Henry King's 1952 adaptation of Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, shot entirely on location in Africa, brought Gardner to international attention. The following year, she and an international crew braved searing heat, impending terrorist attacks, and wild animals to film Mogambo (the Swahili word for passion) in Kenya. The picture was a remake of none other than Gardner's favorite film as a teenager, Red Dust, and she played opposite Clark Gable, one of the original film's stars. Even Gardner, who never gave her acting much thought, admitted she did "a pretty good job" under John Ford's direction. So did Hollywood, which nominated her for Best Actress. She lost the award to Audrey Hepburn (for Roman Holiday), although Sinatra's career was resuscitated by his winning the Best Supporting Actor award for his work as Maggio in From Here to Eternity—a role that Gardner was rumored to have pressured Columbia to give him. In 1954, Gardner gave to cinema what is still considered her signature role, as the Italian slum-girl-turned-aristocrat Maria Vargas in The Barefoot Contessa. The film's most famous scene, Maria's wild and sensual flamenco dance for her aristocratic lover, took several physically painful days to film and won Gardner the respect of her co-stars, Humphrey Bogart and Rossano Brazzi, and the entire crew.

The turmoil of Gardner's off-screen life attracted almost as much attention as her work on-screen. Her relationship with Sinatra was intensely emotional, marked by arguments in nightclubs and on the sets of various films along with what both frankly admitted was an exuberant sex life. "We were always great in bed," Gardner later remarked. "The trouble usually started on the way to the bidet." By 1954, Gardner and Sinatra had separated, Sinatra sinking into a deep depression and an attempted suicide while Gardner settled permanently in Madrid and began a new affair with a Spanish bullfighter. Their divorce was finalized three years later, in 1957. Years afterward, Sinatra still kept a picture of Gardner taped to his dressing room mirror wherever he went, and Gardner confessed to actress Arlene Dahl that Sinatra had been the only real love in her life.

Gardner's passion for bullfighting is reflected in her radiant performance in 1957's The Sun Also Rises, the third of her films to be based on a work by Hemingway. (Gardner was great friends with Hemingway and his wife Mary Welsh Hemingway and was devastated by the writer's suicide in 1960.) Gardner went so far as to take bullfighting lessons, which ended abruptly when her left cheek was gored by a bull. Rushed aboard a plane and flown to a London hospital for cosmetic surgery, Gardner later said the incident made her realize on how fragile a thing her career rested. The next decade included some of Gardner's best work in a series of high-profile international productions. She played the Duchess of Alba in The Naked Maja, based on the life of Goya (during which she was accused by Shelley Winters of carrying on an affair with Winters' husband at the time, Anthony Franciosa, Gardner's co-star in the picture); traveled to Australia to appear to great acclaim in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, playing one of a small group of survivors of a nuclear holocaust; played Tennessee Williams' ginsoaked hotelkeeper Maxine in 1964's Night of the Iguana; and captivated audiences as Sarah in John Huston's epic The Bible in 1966, during which co-star George C. Scott was said to have suffered a nervous collapse when Gardner refused to marry him if he left his then-wife, Colleen Dewhurst . Gardner considered Huston, who had also directed her in Iguana and would do so again in 1972's The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, the greatest director then working in the business. Huston was equally complimentary, publicly stating that Gardner was one of the most underestimated actresses in cinema.

The luster of Gardner's career, however, began to fade after these heady years. Indeed, after the poor reception for 1968's Mayerling, she stayed away from a studio for three years and swore to give up acting once and for all after her appearance in a disastrous Gothic thriller, The Devil's Widow, in 1971. Now entering her 60s, health problems began to plague her, including an illness at first misdiagnosed as cancer but which later proved to be a particularly stubborn infection. By now, Gardner had sold her home in Madrid and moved to London's fashionable Ennismore Gardens, near Hyde Park, telling friends she preferred the greater privacy London allowed her. She appeared in a number of highly commercial films during the 1970s, including Universal's wildly popular disaster film, Earthquake, and the suspense film The Cassandra Crossing, in which she played opposite Burt Lancaster for the first time since The Killers in 1946. Her final theatrical film was 1982's Regina, although she continued to work by making her television debut in the mini-series "AD" in 1985 and in a recurring role as Ruth Galveston in the series "Knots Landing."

Her personal life in these later years was also more restrained. She now preferred quiet evenings at home in London and confined her relationships to a close circle of friends. She kept her apartment notably free of nostalgic mementos and accepted her aging with her usual, salty common sense. "Honey, there comes a time when you have to face the fact that you're an old broad," she remarked in 1989, at 66. "I've had a hell of a good time so my face looks, well, livedin. You won't find me standing in front of a mirror, weeping." In 1986, Gardner had suffered a stroke which left her partially paralyzed and vulnerable to respiratory infections. With her illness, friends noted, Gardner's legendary fighting spirit seemed to disappear. She was confined to her bed after a bad fall in January of 1990, complicated by pneumonia. On the morning of January 25, she died quietly in her sleep.

There may have been no celebrities for that expectant crowd attending Gardner's funeral four days later, but everyone noticed the inscription on a huge wreath that stood by her coffin. "With my love," it simply said, followed by the name, "Francis."


Fowler, Karin J. Ava Gardner: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1990.

Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. NY: Bantam Books, 1990.

Green, Michelle. "Many Passions, No Regrets" (obituary), in People Weekly. Vol. 33, no. 6. February 12, 1990.

Norman Powers , writer-producer, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York