Ava Gardner

From New World Encyclopedia

Ava Gardner
Ava Gardner.jpg
Birth name: Ava Lavinia Gardner
Date of birth: December 24, 1922
Birth location: Brogden, North Carolina, USA
Date of death: January 25 1990 (aged 67)
Death location: Westminster, London, England
Notable role(s): Kitty Collins
in The Killers
Honey Bear Kelly
in Mogambo
Maxine Faulk
in The Night of the Iguana
Spouse: Mickey Rooney (1942-1943)
Artie Shaw (1945-1946)
Frank Sinatra (1951-1957)

Ava Lavinia Gardner (December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) was an American actress whose life encompassed a true rags-to-riches story. Born to a poor farming family in North Carolina, Gardner was discovered in New York City and soon began acting in both film and, later, television. She had a long career that spanned 44 years, and appeared in more than 60 movies, including The Barefoot Contessa, Mogambo, and Showboat.

Gardner is listed as one of the American Film Institute's greatest actresses of all time. She received an Academy Award nomination for Mogambo (1953).

Her stunning looks, her reputation for wild behavior, and her multiple marriages to prominent movie actors (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra) combined to make her a figure of international renown. Unfortunately, her notoriety also provided ample fodder for gossip magazines. These same characteristics also brought her to the attention of the Catholic Legion of Decency, an organization dedicated to identifying and opposing objectionable content in the film industry. Her lifestyle became a very public rebellion against her strict religious upbringing.

Early years

Gardner was the seventh and final child born to Jonas and Molly Gardner. Born on Christmas Eve, 1922, Gardner had two brothers and four sisters. The family lived in the very small farming community of Grabtown, North Carolina. Her father worked for several years as a cotton and tobacco farmer. The family was very poor. The children received little education. Her mother, Molly, was a Baptist of Scots-Irish descent, while her father, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was a Catholic of Irish-American and Tuscarora Indian descent. The family struggled to make ends meet and ultimately lost all of their property. This started the Gardner's off on a long search for steady income.

A series of moves led them from Newport News, Virginia, to Wilson, North Carolina. Her father contracted bronchitis and died in 1935, leaving Molly to care for all of the children on her own. Many of her siblings had left home by the time Ava graduated from High School in 1939, including her elder sister Beatrice, who married a photographer and moved to New York City.

While taking secretarial classes in Wilson, in 1941, she decided visit her sister in New York. It was at this time that Beatrice's husband, Larry, offered to take Ava's portrait. He then posted them in the display window of his little shop on Fifth Avenue. A short time later, Bernard "Barney" Duhan, a clerk at Loews Theaters which owned MGM at the time spotted a photo of Ava in the window of the photography store. He called the store pretending to be the head talent scout at MGM with the aim of getting the beautiful woman’s phone number. The person who answered the phone was Larry Tarr, Ava’s brother-in-law, the owner of the shop, who excitedly asked “do you want her to come up from NC for an interview?” Duhan said “no just send some photos of her to my attention.” Her brother-in-law dutifully managed to set up a screen test at MGM, even though Ava had no acting experience whatsoever. The screen test was strictly silent, because of her heavy Southern drawl. Gardner recalled that after the test the director "clapped his hands gleefully and yelled, 'She can't talk! She can't act! She's sensational! Sign her!"[1]

New York and Hollywood: MGM

Gardner was offered a standard MGM contract in 1941. The first part of Ava's life in Hollywood included a voice coach to help rid her of her Carolina drawl that was nearly incomprehensible.[2] She also received acting lessons as well as make-up lessons. Even with her training, MGM was hesitant to cast Ava in any major role because she was unknown and inexperienced. Thus, for the next few years, Ava took part in 17 films from 1942-45, none of which gave her more than two lines. The first of these was We Were Dancing. Two years later she had a bit more screen time in Three Men in White, where she played a sexy enchantress who tries to seduce Van Johnson's character. She had other bit roles were in This Time for Keeps, Reunion in France, and Sunday Punch.

In 1946, Gardner, on loan briefly to United Artists, appeared opposite George Raft in the B-movie western film noir Whistle Stop, playing a woman who returns home to her small town after spending time in the big city. She appeared later that year in the melodramatic hit The Killers, while on loan to Universal Studios, acting opposite another new star, Burt Lancaster.

As Gardner began to convince Hollywood of her acting ability she got bigger and better film roles. In 1947, she starred opposite her childhood idol, Clark Gable, in The Hucksters. She played a compulsive gambler in 1949's The Great Sinner, and a murder victim opposite James Mason in East Side, West Side, later that year.

One of Gardner's finest roles came in 1951, when she played Julie La Verne, a biracial song-and-dance star whose heritage surfaces and makes her marriage to a white man illegal. Critics called her performance in the classic stage musical genuinely touching. MGM insisted on dubbing her voice when she sang in this movie, much to Gardner's dismay.

Gardner landed some of her most interesting and best roles during the 1950s, including one as a stubborn and heartbroken nightclub singer opposite James Mason in the 1951 Pandora and The Flying Dutchman, and another opposite Gregory Peck in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) as his true love who encounters tragedy. Many critics believe Gardner's real acting ability surfaced when she worked with renowned director John Ford in his 1953 film, Mogambo, a remake with Clark Gable of the 1932 Red Dust. She played Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly, a spoiled, emotionally scarred, wisecracking rival of Grace Kelly, who plays Gable's do-gooder wife. Gardner's performance won her an Oscar nomination, the closest she would ever get to the coveted award.

In her early thirties, the actress appeared in 1954, in the lead role of The Barefoot Contessa, in which she starred opposite Humphrey Bogart as the mysterious and doomed peasant-turned-film star Maria Vargas. Gardner learned to dance the flamenco for the film, and took immediately to the exotic dance, sometimes practicing it all night. Her other notable roles of that decade included a love-torn Anglo-Indian woman in Bhowani Junction (1954), a selfish and hedonistic patrician in The Sun Also Rises (1957), and opposite Gregory Peck in the post-apocalyptic On the Beach (1959).

The actress moved to Madrid, Spain, in 1955, at age 33, to escape some of the press attention and personal disappointments. She was said to have privately entertained several of the country's leading bullfighters. Gardner opted out her of her long-running MGM contract in 1958, after she starred as the Duchess of Alba in the critically condemned, The Naked Maja.

Although she appeared in fewer films in the 1960s, some of them were among her best. These included her performance as Maxine Faulk in Night of the Iguana, as a low-class, strident hotel owner. Her other films during this period include Fifty-Five Days at Peking (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), Mayerling, with Omar Sharif (1968), and The Bible (1969), directed by John Huston and starring George C. Scott as Abraham and Gardner as his wife, Sarah.

Tiring of her life in Spain and beleaguered by government demands for tax payments, the actress moved to London in 1969, but continued to appear in smaller supporting roles, such as Lilly Langtry in John Huston's 1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and as Charlton Heston's wife in the disaster epic Earthquake, of 1974.

Gardner's last film before leaving public life was The Sentinel in 1977, after which she went into seclusion at her London home. She told a reporter at the time, according to the Internet Movie Database, "I haven't taken an overdose of sleeping pills and called my agent. I haven't been in jail, and I don't go running to my psychiatrist every two minutes. That's something of an accomplishment these days." Among her final appearances were ones at a Rock Ridge High School reunion in 1978, as a cast member on television's Knot's Landing (1979) and Falcon Crest (1985), and in Karem, a 1986 made-for-television movie.

Marriages and relationships

Mickey Rooney

While partying with other Hollywood stars, Gardner was introduced to the top-ranked movie star of the time, Mickey Rooney. Rooney courted her relentlessly until Gardner finally accepted his proposal. The couple was married on January 10, 1942, in Ballard, California. After the marriage, it was hard for Rooney to give up his bachelor ways and his partying, and he often left Gardner home alone. She was only 19 years old at the time, and became very unhappy. She later said of the 17 month marriage, "We were a couple of kids. We didn't have a chance." She once characterized their marriage as Love Finds Andy Hardy.[3]

Howard Hughes

In 1943, after her divorce from Rooney, Gardner met and was pursued by the Texas billionaire Howard Hughes. Hughes fell for Gardner and the two began a relationship that would last on-and-off again for the next twenty-two years. Sometimes they were lovers, other times they were just friends. The couple usually would take up their romance when Ava was between relationships and marriages. Their relationship was often characterized by passion, turbulence, and occasionally, violence. Even when they were not officially together, Hughes would know all that was going on in Ava's life, reportedly even having Frank Sinatra followed so that he could tell Ava if Frank was fooling around on her.

Artie Shaw

Gardner married for the second time in 1945. Her marriage to Artie Shaw lasted just over a year. Her husband, the famous clarinetist and Big Band leader, was a very difficult man who had been married four times before marrying Ava. He would go on to marry another three times, totaling eight marriages in all. The marriage was a disaster from the very beginning, when Shaw continuously harassed Gardner about her lack of education. He felt she wasn't smart enough or refined enough and wanted her to improve her education and meet a higher standard. This drove them apart from the beginning, and Gardner, already self-conscious about her lack of education, began to take refuge in heavy drinking and attending therapy sessions.

Frank Sinatra

Gardner's third and final marriage was to the man that she would always refer to as the "love of her life," Frank Sinatra. The marriage lasted the longest of the three, from 1951-1957, but the relationship between the two had started much earlier. Sinatra had met Gardner when she was still married to Mickey Rooney, while Sinatra was singing at the Mocambo Club on the Sunset Strip in 1942. After his performance was over, he quickly set his sights on Ava. He made his way to her through the audience, unveiled that big grin, as Ava tried to keep her cool. "Hey, why didn't I meet you before Mickey? Then I could have married you myself," he said.[4]

Always an intense flirt, Sinatra tried to win Ava's heart after her divorce from Rooney, but Ava, knowing that Sinatra was a married man, resisted his advances. In 1949, Ava decided not to resist the man she loved any longer. The affair began and Frank promised to leave his wife, Nancy, for Ava, but Lana Turner warned Ava that he had made the same promises to her. Rather, it was the press that eventually caused Nancy Sinatra to separate from Frank.

Frank and Ava's relationship was splashed across the headlines and they received hate mail, as Frank was Catholic and not allowed to divorce. His career was also failing, he was losing his voice, and he hadn't had a hit film in quite some time. The country began to hate Frank for leaving his "good wife" for this exotic femme fatale. Ava's career, on the other hand, only got better. She was hot in Hollywood, producing hit after hit. Frank even had to borrow money from Ava to buy his children Christmas presents because he had gone bankrupt. So, Gardner used her connections in Hollywood and helped Sinatra get cast in his Academy Award-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1953). The role and the award revitalized Sinatra's acting and singing careers.

The relationship was always rocky and turbulent. Both were very jealous of the acts of the other. Sinatra was jealous of Howard Hughes and even threatened to kill him, Ava would become jealous if Frank looked at another woman while he was singing. They had raging disagreements, often in public. The marriage came to an end in 1957, leaving Ava was through with marriage entirely. However, the two did keep in contact the rest of their lives.

Later years

Gardner moved to London in 1968, and began having several different health battles. She first had a hysterectomy because she was afraid of contracting uterine cancer, as her mother did. She also suffered from emphysema and had two different strokes by 1986. She became bedridden and Sinatra paid her $50,000 medical expenses. She contracted pneumonia in 1990, and died at the age of 67.

Ava Gardner's body was returned to her hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina. She is buried at the Sunset Memorial Park, and the town has honored her with the Ava Gardner Museum.


  • Fancy Answers (1941) (short subject)
  • Shadow of the Thin Man (1941)
  • H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)
  • Babes on Broadway (1941)
  • We Do It Because- (1942) (short subject)
  • Joe Smith - American (1942)
  • This Time for Keeps (1942)
  • Kid Glove Killer (1942)
  • Sunday Punch (1942)
  • Calling Dr. Gillespie (1942)
  • Mighty Lak a Goat (1942) (short subject)
  • Reunion in France (1942)
  • Hitler's Madman (1943)
  • Ghosts on the Loose (1943)
  • Young Ideas (1943)
  • Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
  • Swing Fever (1943)
  • Lost Angel (1943)
  • Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)
  • Three Men in White (1944)
  • Maisie Goes to Reno (1944)
  • Blonde Fever (1944)
  • Music for Millions (1944)
  • She Went to the Races (1945)
  • Whistle Stop (1946)
  • The Killers (1946)
  • Singapore (1947)
  • The Hucksters (1947)
  • One Touch of Venus (1948)
  • The Bribe (1949)
  • The Great Sinner (1949)
  • East Side, West Side (1949)
  • Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951)

  • Show Boat (1951)
  • Lone Star (1952)
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)
  • Knights of the Round Table (1953)
  • Ride, Vaquero! (1953)
  • The Band Wagon (1953) (Cameo)
  • Mogambo (1953)
  • 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)
  • On the Trail of the Iguana (1964) (short subject)
  • Seven Days in May (1964)
  • The Night of the Iguana (1964)
  • The Bible: In The Beginning (1966)
  • Vienna: The Years Remembered (1968) (short subject)
  • Mayerling (1968) (1968)
  • Tam-Lin (1970)
  • The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972)
  • Earthquake (1974)
  • Permission to Kill (1975)
  • The Blue Bird (1976)
  • The Cassandra Crossing (1976)
  • The Sentinel (1977)
  • City on Fire (1979 film)|City on Fire (1979)
  • The Kidnapping of the President (1980)
  • Priest of Love (1981)
  • Regina Roma (1982)


  1. Answers.com, Ava Gardner. Retrieved July 26, 2007.
  2. Dorris Rollins Cannon, "Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner's North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home." ISBN 1-878086-89-8
  3. Answers.com, Ava Gardner. Retrieved July 26, 2007.
  4. Avagardner.org, Chairman of the Board Retires. Retrieved July 26, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cannon, Doris Rollins. 2001. Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner's North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home. Asheboro, N.C.: Down Home Press. ISBN 1878086898
  • Dagneau, Gilles. 2002. Ava Gardner. Rome: Gremese. ISBN 8873014968
  • Flamini, Roland. 1983. Ava: A Biography. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan. ISBN 0698111230
  • Gardner, Ava. 1990. Ava: My Story. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 0553071343
  • Server, Lee. 2006. Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing." New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312312091

External links

All links retrieved August 23, 2023.


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