Ava Gardner (December 24, 1922 – January 25, 1990) was a beautiful American actress. She first signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941 and appeared mainly in small roles until she drew critics' attention in 1946 with her performance in Robert Siodmak's film noir THE KILLERS. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in John Ford's MOGAMBO (1953), and for best actress for both a Golden Globe Award and BAFTA Award for her performance in John Huston's THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1964).
During the 1950s, Gardner established herself as a leading lady and one of the era's top stars. She continued her film career for three more decades, appearing in the films 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963), SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1964), THE BIBLE (1966), MAYERLING (1968), TAM-LIN (1970), etc. She continued to act regularly until 1986, four years before her death in 1990, at the age of 67.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922, in Grabtown, North Carolina, 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 tobacco sharecroppers. She was of English and Scots-Irish ancestry.
She was raised in the Baptist faith of her mother. While the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, and Molly received an offer to work as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School that included board for the family and where Jonas continued sharecropping tobacco and supplemented the dwindling work with odd jobs at sawmills. In 1931, the teachers’ school closed, forcing the family to finally give up on their property dreams and they moved to a larger city, Newport News, Virginia, where Molly found work managing a boarding house for the city's many shipworkers. While in Newport News, Jonas became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After her father's death, the family moved to Rock Ridge near Wilson, North Carolina, where Molly ran another boarding house for teachers. Ava 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 City in the summer of 1940, when Beatrice's husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait as a gift for her mother Molly. 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 portrait in Tarr's studio. At the time, Duhan often posed as a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) talent scout to meet girls, using the fact that MGM was a subsidiary of Loews. Duhan entered Tarr's studio and tried to get Gardner's number, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. Duhan made the 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 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 strong Southern accent made understanding her difficult for him. She was offered a standard contract by the studio and left secretarial 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.
Her first appearance in a feature film was as a walk-on in the Norma Shearer vehicle WE WERE DANCING (1942). Fifteen bit parts later she received her first screen billing in GHOSTS ON THE LOOSE (1943) and is featured by name on the theatrical poster. After five years of bit parts, mostly at MGM and many of them uncredited, Gardner came to prominence in the Mark Hellinger production THE KILLERS (1946), playing the femme fatale Kitty Collins.
Films from the next decade or so include SINGAPORE and THE HUCKSTERS (both 1947), SHOW BOAT (1951), THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO (1952), MOGAMBO (1953), THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954), BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956), THE LITTLE HUT and THE SUN ALSO RISES (both 1957) and THE NAKED MAJA (1959). 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!"). In THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, she played the role of doomed beauty Maria Vargas, a fiercely independent woman who goes from Spanish dancer to international movie star with the help of a Hollywood director played by Humphrey Bogart, with tragic consequences. Gardner's decision to accept the role was influenced by her own lifelong habit of going barefoot. She was billed between Charlton Heston and David Niven for 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963), which was set in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900.
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 disaster films throughout the 1970s, notably EARTHQUAKE (1974) with Charlton Heston, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING (1976) with Lancaster). She appeared in THE BLUE BIRD (1976), opposite Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1980s, she acted primarily on television, including the miniseries remake of THE LONG, HOT SUMMER (1985) and HAREM (1986).
Her marriages were legend. 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. Gardner divorced Rooney in 1943, citing mental cruelty; privately blaming his gambling and womanizing, she didn't wish to ruin his on-screen image as the clean-cut, judge's son Andy Hardy that the public adored.
Gardner's second marriage was equally brief, 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. 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 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. Gardner confided to Artie Shaw, her second husband, that, "With him [Frank], it's impossible... It's like being with a woman. He's so gentle. It's as though he thinks I'll break, as though I'm a piece of Dresden china, and he's gonna hurt me." 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 and Sinatra remained good friends for the rest of her life.
Gardner became a friend of businessman and aviator Howard Hughes in the early to mid-1940s, and the relationship lasted into the 1950s. Gardner stated in her autobiography, Ava: My Story, that she was never in love with Hughes, but he was in and out of her life for about 20 years. Hughes' trust in Gardner was what kept their relationship alive. She described him as "painfully shy, completely enigmatic, and more eccentric ... than anyone [she] had ever met".
After Gardner divorced Sinatra in 1957, she went to Spain, where she began a friendship with writer Ernest Hemingway. While staying with Hemingway at his villa in San Francisco de Paula in Havana, Cuba, Gardner once swam alone without a swimsuit in his pool. After watching her, Hemingway ordered his staff: "The water is not to be emptied". Her friendship with 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 later said of the time.
A bout of pneumonia, after a lifetime of smoking, coupled with her underlying condition of lupus erythematosus brought on a stroke in 1986 that left Gardner partially paralyzed. Although she 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 died in January 1990, at the age of 67, of pneumonia and fibrosing alveolitis at her London home at 34 Ennismore Gardens, where she had lived since 1968.
Gardner reportedly called Sinatra the love of her life. When Gardner died, Sinatra was inconsolable. “I should have been there for her,” he was reported saying.Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her siblings and their parents, Jonas and Molly Gardner