Best known for her performances in The Night of the Iguana, The Barefoot Contessa, and Mogambo. The latter of which she received an Academy Award nomination.
H.M. Pulham, Esq.
Babes on Broadway
Joe Smith, American
We Do It Because
This Time for Keeps
Kid Glove Killer
Calling Dr. Gillespie
Mighty Lak a Goat
Reunion in France
Ghosts on the Loose
Two Girls and a Sailor
Three Men in White
Maisie Goes to Reno
She Went to the Races
One Touch of Venus
The Great Sinner
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman
My Forbidden Past
Knights of the Round Table
The Little Hut
The Sun Also Rises
The Naked Maja
On the Beach
The Angel Wore Red
55 Days at Peking
The Bible: In the Beginning
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
Permission to Kill
The Blue Bird
The Cassandra Crossing
City on Fire
The Kidnapping of the President
Priest of Love
I wish to live until 150 years old but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other. ~ Ava Gardner
Ava Gardner was born Ava Lavinia Gardner on December 24, 1922 near the farming community of Smithfield, North Carolina. She was the youngest of seven children. She had two older brothers, Raymond and Melvin, and four older sisters, Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez, and Myra. Her parents, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” (née Baker) and Jonas Bailey Gardner, were poor cotton and tobacco farmers.
While the children were still young, the Gardner’s lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Molly to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School. When Gardner was seven years old, the family decided to try their luck in a larger city, Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boarding house for the city’s many ship-workers. 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 Rock Ridge near Wilson, North Carolina, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. 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 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 Fifth Avenue.
A Loews Theatres legal clerk, Barnard 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.
Shortly after, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, traveled to New York to be interviewed at MGM’s New York office by Al Altman, head of MGM’s New York talent department. With cameras rolling, he directed the 18-year-old to walk towards the camera, turn and walk away, then rearrange some flowers in a vase. He did not attempt to record her voice because her Southern accent made it almost impossible for him to understand her. Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, however, sent a telegram to Altman: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, She’s terrific!” She was offered a standard contract by MGM, and left school for Hollywood in 1941 with her sister Beatrice accompanying her. MGM’s first order of business was to provide her with a speech coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them.
Soon after Gardner arrived in Los Angeles, she met fellow MGM contract player Mickey Rooney; they married on January 10, 1942. The ceremony was held in the remote town of Ballard, California, because MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was worried that fans would desert Rooney’s Andy Hardy movie series if it became known that their star was married. Largely due to Rooney’s serial adultery, Gardner divorced him in 1943, but agreed not to reveal the cause so as not to affect his career.
After five years of bit parts, mostly at MGM and many of them uncredited, Gardner came to prominence in the Mark Hellinger-produced smash-hit film noir The Killers (1946), playing the femme fatale Kitty Collins.
Other films include The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Lone Star (1952), Mogambo (1953), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), Bhowani Junction (1956), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and On the Beach (1959). A particularly notable role was in The Barefoot Contessa as the doomed beauty Maria Vargas, a fiercely independent woman who goes from Spanish dancer to international film star with the help of a Hollywood director played by Humphrey Bogart, with tragic consequences.
Gardner starred as Guinevere in 1953’s Knights of the Round Table, opposite actor Robert Taylor as Sir Lancelot. Indicative of her sophistication, she portrayed a duchess, a baroness, and other ladies of royal lineage in her films of the 1950s.
She was billed between Charlton Heston and David Niven in 55 Days at Peking in 1963, which was set in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The following year, she played her last major leading role in a critically acclaimed film, The Night of the Iguana (1964), based upon a Tennessee Williams play and starring Richard Burton as an atheist clergyman and Deborah Kerr as a gentle artist traveling with her aged poet grandfather. John Huston directed the movie in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, insisting on making the film in black and white, a decision he later regretted because of the vivid colors of the flora. Gardner received billing below Burton but above Kerr.
She next appeared again with Burt Lancaster, her co-star from The Killers, this time along with Kirk Douglas and Fredric March, in Seven Days in May (1964), a thriller about an attempted military takeover of the US government. Gardner played a former love interest of Lancaster’s who could have been instrumental in Douglas’s preventing a coup against the President of the United States.
John Huston chose Gardner for the part of Sarah, the wife of Abraham (played by George C. Scott), in the Dino De Laurentiis production The Bible: In the Beginning…, which was released in 1966.
Gardner moved to London in 1968, undergoing an elective hysterectomy to allay her worries of contracting the uterine cancer that had claimed the life of her mother. That year, she appeared in Mayerling, in which she played the supporting role of Austrian Empress Elisabeth of Austria opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph I.
She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably Earthquake (1974) with Heston, The Cassandra Crossing (1976) with Lancaster, and the Canadian movie City on Fire (1979). She appeared briefly as Lillie Langtry at the end of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and in The Blue Bird (1976). Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982), a direct-to-video release. In the 1980s she acted primarily on television, including the mini-series remake of The Long, Hot Summer and in a story arc on Knots Landing (both 1985).
Gardner’s second marriage was brief as well, to jazz musician and bandleader Artie Shaw, from 1945 to 1946. Shaw had previously been married to Lana Turner. Gardner’s third and last marriage was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra, from 1951 to 1957. She would later say in her autobiography that he was the love of her life. Sinatra left his wife, Nancy, for Gardner and their subsequent marriage made headlines.
Sinatra was blasted by gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the Hollywood establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, and by his fans for leaving his wife for a noted femme fatale. Gardner used her considerable influence, particularly with Harry Cohn, 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.
The Gardner-Sinatra marriage was tumultuous. During their marriage Gardner became pregnant twice, but aborted both pregnancies. “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies,” according to her autobiography, which was published eight months after her death. Gardner remained good friends with Sinatra for the rest of her life.
After Gardner divorced Sinatra in 1957, she headed for Spain, where she began a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway (she had starred in an adaptation of his The Sun Also Rises that year, and five years earlier, Hemingway had successfully urged producer Darryl F. Zanuck to cast Gardner in The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a film which adapted several of his short stories). Her friendship with Hemingway led to her becoming a fan of bullfighting and bullfighters, such as Luis Miguel Dominguín, who became her lover.
After a lifetime of smoking, Gardner suffered from emphysema, as well as an unidentified auto-immune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Although Gardner could afford her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her visit to a specialist in the United States, and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically staffed private plane. She suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. Her last words (to her housekeeper) were reportedly “I’m so tired”. She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, at her London home where she had lived since 1968.
Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her brothers and their parents, Jonas (1878–1938) and Molly Gardner (1883–1943). The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.