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Ava Lavinia Gardner (December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) was an Americanmarker actress.

She was signed to a contract by MGM Studios in 1941 and appeared in supporting roles until she drew attention with her performance in The Killers (1946). She became one of Hollywood's leading actresses. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her work in Mogambo (1953). She appeared in several popular films during the 1950s, and received BAFTA Award nominations for her performances in Bhowani Junction (1956), On the Beach (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1964).

She is listed as one of the American Film Institute's greatest stars of all time.

Early years

Gardner was born in 1922 in the small farming community of Brogden, North Carolinamarker (nicknamed "Grabtownmarker"), the youngest of seven children (she had two brothers; Raymond and Melvin, and four sisters; Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez and Myra) of poor cotton and tobacco farmers; her mother, Mary Elizabeth ("Mollie") Gardner (née Baker) was a Baptist of Scots-Irish and English descent, while her father, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was a Catholic of Irish American and American Indian (Tuscarora) descent. When the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Mollie to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School.

When Gardner was 13 years old, the family decided to try their luck in a bigger town, Newport News, Virginiamarker, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boardinghouse for the city's many shipworkers. While in Newport News, Gardner's father became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After Jonas Gardner's death, the family moved to the Rock Ridge suburb of Wilson, North Carolinamarker, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. Ava Gardner attended high school in Rock Ridge and she graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year.

Gardner was visiting her sister Beatrice ("Bappie") in New York in 1941 when Beatrice's husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed the finished product in the front window of his Tarr Photography Studio on tony Fifth Avenue.

Early career

in My Forbidden Past (1951)

In 1941, a Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard "Barney" Duhan, spotted Gardner's photo in Tarr's studio. At the time, Duhan often posed as an MGM talent scout to meet girls, using the fact that MGM was a subsidiary of Loews. Duhan entered Tarr's and tried to get Gardner's number, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. Duhan made the offhand comment, "Somebody should send her info to MGM", and the Tarrs did so immediately. Shortly after, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, traveled to New Yorkmarker to be interviewed at MGM's New York office. She was offered a standard contract by MGM, and left school for Hollywood in 1941 with her sister Bappie accompanying her. MGM's first order of business was to provide her a voice coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them.

Oscar nomination

Gardner was nominated for an Academy Award for Mogambo (1953); the award was won by Audrey Hepburn for Roman Holiday. Her performance as Maxine Faulk in The Night of the Iguana (1964), was well reviewed, and she was nominated a BAFTA Award and a Golden Globe.

Other films include The Hucksters (1947), Showboat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), 1954's The Barefoot Contessa (which some consider to be Gardner's "signature film" which mirrored her real life custom of going barefoot), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Sun Also Rises in which she played party-girl Brett Ashley (1957), and the film version of Neville Shute's best-selling On the Beach, co-starring Gregory Peck. Off-camera, she could be witty and pithy, as in her assessment of director John Ford, who directed Mogambo ("The meanest man on earth. Thoroughly evil. Adored him!")

Later life

In 1966, Gardner briefly sought the role of Mrs. Robinson in Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967). She reportedly called Nichols and said, "I want to see you! I want to talk about this Graduate thing!" Nichols never seriously considered her for the part, but he did visit her hotel, where he later recounted that "she sat at a little French desk with a telephone, she went through every movie star cliché. She said, 'All right, let's talk about your movie. First of all, I strip for nobody.'"

Gardner moved to Londonmarker, England in 1968, undergoing an elective hysterectomy to allay her worries of contracting the uterine cancer that had claimed the life of her own mother. That year, she made what some consider to be one of her best films, Mayerling, in which she played the Austrian Empress Elisabeth opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph. She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably Earthquake (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and the Canadian movie City on Fire (1979). Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982).

Marriages and relationships

Mickey Rooney

Soon after her arrival in Los Angelesmarker, Gardner met fellow MGM contract player Mickey Rooney; they married on January 10, 1942 in Ballard, Californiamarker; she was 19 years old and he was 21.Gardner made several movies before 1946, but it wasn't until she starred in The Killers with Burt Lancaster, that she became a star as well as a sex symbol. Rooney and Gardner divorced in 1943. He later reputedly rhapsodized about their sex life, but Gardner retorted, "Well, honey, he may have enjoyed the sex, but [goodness knows] I didn't." She once characterized their marriage as "Love Finds Andy Hardy".

Artie Shaw

Gardner's second marriage was to jazz musician and band leader Artie Shaw, from 1945 to 1946.

Frank Sinatra

Gardner's third and last marriage (1951-1957) was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra. She would later say in her autobiography that of all the men she'd had - that he was the love of her life. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, for Ava and their subsequent marriage made headlines. Sinatra was savaged by gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Hollywood establishment, the Catholic church, and by his fans for leaving his wife for a "femme fatale". His career suffered, while hers prospered - the headlines solidifying her screen siren image. Gardner used her considerable clout to get Sinatra cast in his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1953). That role and the award revitalized both Sinatra's acting and singing careers. Gardner said of her relationship with Sinatra, "We were great in bed. It was usually on the way to the bidet when the trouble began."

During their marriage Gardner became pregnant twice, but she had two abortions. "MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies", she said. She said years later, "We couldn't even take care of ourselves. How were we going to take care of a baby?" Gardner and Sinatra remained good friends for the rest of her life.

Howard Hughes

Gardner became a friend of billionaire aviator Howard Hughes in the early to mid-1940s, a close relationship that lasted well into the 1950s. Although he made numerous marriage proposals, Ava did not consider him a romantic interest, as she was put off by his eccentric ways (including his significant body odor).

Luis Miguel Dominguín

Gardner divorced Sinatra in 1957 and headed to Spainmarker where her friendship with famed writer Ernest Hemingway led to her becoming a fan of bullfighting and bullfighters such as Luis Miguel Dominguín, who became her lover. "It was a sort of madness, honey", she said later of the time.

Final years

After a lifetime of smoking, Gardner suffered from emphysema, in addition to an autoimmune disorder (which may have been lupus). Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Although Gardner could have afforded her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her to visit a specialist in the U.S., and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically-staffed private plane. Her last words (to her housekeeper Carmen), were reportedly, "I'm so tired", before she died of pneumonia at the age of 67. After her death, one of Sinatra's daughters found him slumped in his room, crying, and unable to speak.

Gardner was not only the love of his life but also the inspiration for one of his most personal songs, "I'm a Fool to Want You", which Sinatra (who received a co-writing credit for the song) recorded twice, toward the end of his contract with Columbia Records and during his years on Capitol Recordsmarker. ("It was Ava who taught him how to sing a torch song", Sinatra arranger Nelson Riddle was once quoted as saying.) It has been reported that Sinatra attended her funeral, due to the presence of a black limousine parked behind the crowd of 500 mourners. Instead, a hairstylist from Fayetteville, North Carolinamarker had felt that a limousine was the only appropriate mode of transportation to Gardner's funeral. A floral arrangement at Gardner's graveside simply read: "With My Love, Francis".

Last acting roles

Gardner's acting career began to lose momentum after this, and although she continued infrequently to work in films and on television (Knots Landing).


Gardner died in her London home in 1990, from pneumonia, following several years of declining health.

Remembered in song

"Frank and Ava", a song by Suzanne Vega


Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolinamarker, next to her brothers and their parents, Jonah (1878-1938) and Mollie Gardner (1883-1943). The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.

Film Portrayals

Gardner has been portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden in the TV miniseries Sinatra, Deborah Kara Unger in HBO's The Rat Pack, and Kate Beckinsale in the 2004 Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator.


Short subjects

  • Fancy Answers (1941)
  • We Do It Because (1942)
  • Mighty Lak a Goat (1942)
  • Some of the Best (1949)
  • On the Trail of the Iguana (1964)
  • Vienna: The Years Remembered (1968)

Further reading

  • Server, Lee. Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing. St. Martin's Press, 2006. ISBN 0-312-31209-1


  1. [1]
  2. Cannon, Dorris Rollins, Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner's North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home; ISBN 1-878086-89-8
  3. Washington Post article, "Movie Stars: The odd and amazing careers of Ava Gardner, Barbra Streisand, Patricia Neal and Ed Sullivan", short reviews by Dennis Drabelle, Washington Post Book World, Sunday, July 2, 2006
  4. Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of New Hollywood. New York: Penguin Books, 2008, pg. 238
  5. Gardner, Ava. Ava: My Story. New York: Bantam, 1990.

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