Thursday, December 2, 2010

Montly Muse: Ava Gardner

Its the beginning of December which means its time for another monthly muse and this month it is the divine Ava Gardner.

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922 in Grabtown, Johnston County, North Carolina. She was the youngest of seven children to Mary Elizabeth ("Mollie") Gardner (née Baker) and Jonas Bailey Gardner. Her parents were poor cotton and tobacco farmers but the lost their property when she was young so her father went to work at a sawmill and her mother as a cook and housekeeper.

When Gardner was 13 years old, the family decided to try their luck in a bigger town, Newport News, Virginia where her mother found work as a boardinghouse manager. Ava's father died when she was 15 of bronchitis. After Jonas Gardner's death, the family moved to the Rock Ridge suburb of Wilson, North Carolina, 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.

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 York 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 speech coach, as her Carolina drawl was nearly incomprehensible to them

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), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), 1954's The Barefoot Contessa (which some consider to be Gardner's "signature film" since it 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.

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 London, 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 of Austria opposite James Mason as Emperor Franz Joseph I.

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). She also starred in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) with Paul Newman and Jacqueline Bisset, The Blue Bird (1976) with Jane Fonda and Elizabeth Taylor.

Her last movie was Regina Roma (1982), a direct-to-video release. In the 1980s she acted primarily on television, including the miniseries remake of The Long Hot Summer (1985) and the prime-time soap opera Knot's Landing, also in 1985. In 1986 she appeared in her two final projects, the TV movies Harem and Maggie.

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 afford her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her to visit a specialist in the United States, 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, Sinatra's daughter Tina found him slumped in his room, crying, and unable to speak.


  1. Emma, nice post! You might enjoy a new anthology published by Entasis Press, AVA GARDNER: TOUCHES OF VENUS, which includes writers from around the world and their "takes" on the talented and lovely Miss Gardner!

  2. oh wow, i love her brooch in the picture. Your blog is fab!!

    I found you on Va-Voom Vintage's link up list!! i'm your newest follower :)