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. 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." 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 Gardner had small "walk-on" roles in fifteen MGM movies before her career began to prosper. In 1946, Ava landed her first starring role in the United Artists production, Whistle Stop, opposite George Raft. Later that same year, MGM loaned Ava to Universal Studios to play femme fatale Kitty Collins in the classic film noir, The Killers. Starring with new-comer Burt Lancaster in this adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story, critics and movie audiences alike took notice of Ava's performance. Her success in The Killers led to other roles as Hemingway heroines, including Cynthia Street in The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.
In 1950, Ava was chosen over several screen legends by MGM to portray the role of Julie Laverne in Show Boat, one of the greatest musicals of all time. Although some columnists and studio brass complained that awarding Ava Gardner such a plum role was a mistake, MGM executive George Sidney was determined. Ava's career had blossomed, and by the end of 1950, MGM's publicity department was sending out black-and-white photos of Ava to the tune of 3,000 requests per week.
Ava's first recognition by the motion picture industry came in 1953 with a "Best Actress" Oscar nomination for her performance as the wisecracking "Honey Bear" Kelly in Mogambo. For a second time, Ava was teamed with box-office legend Clark Gable in the African adventure, a remake of the 1932 film Red Dust. Ava's second tribute to her acting talent came in 1964 when she received a Golden Globe nomination for her role as Maxine in the film version of The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams.
The film most consider to be the "definitive Ava Gardner film" was The Barefoot Contessa in 1954. With this film, Ava was billed as "the most beautiful animal in the world," and truly achieved international stardom. While filming The Barefoot Contessa, she learned to dance the flamenco, attended bullfights, and came to love all things Spanish. The following year, Ava would choose Spain as her new home.
Ava traveled to Spain with her personal assistant and companion, Reenie Jordan, and enjoyed exploring the Spanish countryside and living a private life out of the media spotlight. Ava took Spanish lessons to feel less like a tourist, frequently attended bullfights and danced the flamenco in local nightclubs. She bought a home named "La Bruja," or "The Witch," filled it with new furniture, books, and records, and for the first time since leaving North Carolina, felt at home.
Although she enjoyed the solitude of the countryside, Ava also began to miss the excitement of the city, and she moved from LaMoralija and rented an apartment in Madrid. One of her neighbors was none other than Juan Peron, the ex-dictator from Argentina. After several disagreements with the infamous Peron, and local authorities claiming she owed back taxes to Spain, Ava packed up and moved to London in 1968.
In 1968, Ava moved to London where she lived the rest of her life after purchasing an apartment at 34 Ennismore Gardens. Life in London included attending concerts in Albert Hall, going for walks with her dog in Hyde Park, and shopping at the legendary Harrod's department store.
During all her years abroad, Ava continued her film career, making twenty-one motion pictures, two made for television movies (A.D. and The Long Hot Summer), and multiple appearances in Knot's Landing, a CBS prime-time drama.
Although she lived abroad for over 35 years, Ava retained her American citizenship and visited her family in North Carolina as often as possible. During her years abroad, she returned to America often to continue her film career and to visit her family in Smithfield, NC. 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.