“What’s the point? My face, shall we say, looks lived in.” – Ava Gardner.
Ava Gardner Biography
When Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on 24 December 1922, her family were cotton and tobacco farmers in Smithfield, North Carolina. Mary Elizabeth, who everyone knew as Mollie and Jonas Bailey Gardner had seven children with, two boys, and five girls, with Ava being the youngest. Jonas and Mollie were poor, to begin with, but they lost their property when the children were all still quite young and so had to look for alternative income. Jonas found work in a sawmill and Mollie found work at a dormitory for school teachers as a housekeeper.
The income wasn’t nearly enough though and the Gardners decided that they might have better luck in a larger city and so headed off to Newport News in Virginia to look for better work when Ava was about seven years old. Mollie found work running a boarding house for ship workers and things were ok for a while, but about seven years later, Jonas contracted bronchitis and unfortunately died.
Following her husband’s death, Mollie moved the family to Rock Ridge in North Carolina where once again, Mollie found work running a boarding house, this time for teachers.
After Ava Gardner graduated from the high school in Rock Ridge, she attended Atlantic Christian College, with a view to becoming a secretary, but this was to last for only about a year because of what happened next.
In 1941, Ava visited her sister, Beatrice, who had by now married a professional photographer called Larry Tarr and was living in New York. During her visit, Larry decided he would like to take a portrait photograph of Ava. The results were so good, that he displayed the portrait in the window of his studio on Fifth Avenue.
The portrait was spotted by Barnard Duhan, who worked for Loews Theatres, the owners of MGM Studios. Duhan was in the habit of pretending to be a talent scout for MGM in order to meet girls and so tried to get more information about the girl in the picture but was turned away by Larry Tarr’s secretary. However, as he was leaving he made an off the cuff remark about someone needing to get the girl to MGM.
This sounded like a great idea to Beatrice and Larry and they contacted the studio. Soon after, Ava traveled back to New York again to meet with Al Altman, who was head of the talent department at MGM’s New York office. He arranged for a camera to record Ava whilst he directed her with some simple tasks. He made no effort to record her voice as her deep Southern drawl made it all but impossible for Altman to understand her. As a result of the test MGM studios gave Ava Gardner a contract and in 1941 she left school and headed off to Los Angeles. The first thing she did when she arrived was a attend lessons with a speaking coach.
Shortly after she arrived in Los Angeles, she met Mickey Rooney and the pair fell for each other and decided to get married. The studio wasn’t that happy about it though as Rooney, another MGM contract actor was appearing in a popular series of movies as Andy Hardy and they thought that if it got out that he was married his popularity, and therefore that of the movies would suffer. Consequently, the studio arranged a venue for the wedding in the middle of nowhere, in a town called Ballard in California. The couple was married on 10 January 1942, but the studio needn’t have worried. Less than a year later, they were divorced, with the main cause being Rooney’s string of affairs.
Ava would marry again in 1945, this time to a bandleader called Artie Shaw. He had previously been married to Lana Turner, but this marriage too failed and the couple was divorced in 1946. Also during the 1940’s she had an on-off relationship with the reclusive Howard Hughes who she described as painfully shy. Their relationship lasted into the 1950’s but she said in her autobiography that she was never really in love with him.
After five years of playing mainly uncredited bit parts under her MGM contract, Ava Gardner landed her first real role as Kitty Collins in 1946’ The Killers. The movie was a hit and led to a number of roles soon after including The Hucksters, Show Boat and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. She starred opposite many leading men of the era including Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart.
In 1951, Ava Gardner married again, but this time, far from being a secret, the union caused headlines around the world as she married Frank Sinatra who had left his wife Nancy for her. During her time with Sinatra, Ava became pregnant on two occasions but both times, she had terminations. MGM had severe penalty clauses in her contract and to have a baby would probably have meant the end of her career. The marriage lasted only until 1957, but even so, Gardner said that Sinatra was the love of her life and they remained lifelong friends.
Following the divorce from Sinatra, Ava spent time with Ernest Hemingway. On one occasion she was swimming naked and alone in the pool at his villa in Cuba. After he witnessed this, Hemingway ordered the staff not to empty the pool of its water.
In 1953, Ava Gardner starred as Queen Guinevere opposite Robert Taylor’s Sir Lancelot in Knights of the Round Table and it was noted that she could not only play the femme fatale as she had so skilfully done in The Killers but could also play sophisticated parts such as duchesses, baronesses, and queens.
Ava Gardner’s star was ascending through the 1950’s and by 1963 when she starred opposite Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking, she received second billing, ahead of David Niven. In her last leading role in a significant film, she received second billing again, this time behind Richard Burton and ahead of Deborah Kerr in The Night of the Iguana which was released in 1964.
Two years later, though, she made efforts to land the part of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate which was released in 1967. She was never seriously considered for the part by Mike Nichols as he wanted someone younger. She was by this time 43 years old. Anne Bancroft who got the part was only 36.
The following year, Ava Gardner moved to the place where she would call home for the rest of her life, 34 Ennismore Gardens in London. At the same time, she decided to have a hysterectomy. Her mother had died of uterine cancer, and she had the surgery to prevent the same thing happening to her.
This didn’t stop her taking on significant roles though as also in 1968, she starred as Empress Elisabeth of Austria opposite James Mason’s Emperor Franz Joseph I.
The 1970’s brought cinema goers the disaster movie, and Ava Gardner starred in a number of them including Earthquake with Charlton Heston, The Cassandra Crossing with Burt Lancaster and a Canadian movie called City on Fire which also starred Barry Newman and Henry Fonda.
A few more movies followed but her career was now winding down with her last outing being 1982’s Regina Roma, which was a straight to video release. After this, she made a switch to television and had a fairly long story arc in Knots Landing.
Illness started to take its toll in the 1980’s. She had been a lifelong smoker and suffered from an auto-immune disorder as well as emphysema. In 1986, she had two strokes which left her bedridden. Frank Sinatra arranged and paid for a specially equipped plane to fly her to the USA for treatment, but in the middle of January 1990 Ava suffered from a fall at home and was unable to move until her housekeeper found her. Her housekeeper said that her last words were, “I’m so tired.” A week later, on 25 January 1990, Ava Gardner died from pneumonia. She was 67 years old.
She was buried alongside her brothers, sisters, and parents in Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield, North Carolina, USA.