Ava Gardner Museum

I spotted the sign on previous trips along I-95 in North Carolina before, but never had time to stop until today. I wanted to see what the “Ava Gardner Museum” in tiny Smithfield, North Carolina was all about.

Ava Gardner Museum at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield, NC

Ava Gardner Museum at 325 E. Market St. in Smithfield, NC

As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised. Full of dresses and movie costumes from the 1940’s and 1950’s, posters and paintings, jewelry and other memorabilia – the museum showcases the life of legendary actress and North Carolina native Ava Gardner. Ava was a star during Hollywood’s heyday and the museum highlights the glamour and aura of that era.

Visitor Jan Vach of Savannah, Georgia was leaving as I arrived. “I used to watch her movies when I was growing up as a little girl,” she explained. “She was beautiful and very glamorous. There was only one Ava Gardner. I guess the closest to her would be someone like Elizabeth Taylor, in my mind.”

I paid the $8.00 admission fee, went inside, and watched the nearly 20 minute film that tells Ava’s story. She was born on Christmas Eve in 1922 in a small farmhouse in Grabtown, North Carolina. Grabtown was a tiny tenant farm community about eight miles up the road and Ava’s father was one of those tenant farmers. The woman who would later capture hearts with her stunning beauty was the youngest of six children and grew up in a home with no indoor plumbing. They say, in the film, that while the Gardners were poor, they were a close, loving, tight-knit family. 

At 17, Ava graduated from a secretarial course at a local Christian college. Her future – until she eventually got married – was all set.

But then, in a twist of fate, she went to visit one of her sisters in New York. The sister’s photographer husband took a photo of Ava and set it in his shop window. 

The face that launched an MGM career

The face that launched an MGM career

The year was 1940, the film “Gone with the Wind” had just been released, and Ava - with her big picture hat - bore a slight resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara. In life, timing is everything. Someone from MGM – the great movie studio of the time – saw her picture and the rest (skipping ahead here) is history.

Ava went on to Hollywood, starred in movies, and met and married some of the biggest celebrities of the time. Her husbands included actor Andy Rooney, charismatic bandleader and clarinet great Artie Shaw, and singer Frank Sinatra. She also had a long on again, off again relationship with Howard Hughes.

In movies, she co-starred alongside some of Hollywood’s greatest leading men like Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart and others. 

And she had a strong friendship with Ernest Hemingway. She would star in three films based on his books. She led an amazing, storybook life.

And yet, despite the stardom, the actress who grew up dreaming of a family of her own never had any children. And love, in the end, never lasted. Throughout her later years, she told friends and family that Frank Sinatra was the one great love of her life. He, apparently, told others the same about her. However, for whatever reason, they couldn’t live together. Someone said they clashed because they were “too much alike.”

Ava left Hollywood after her marriage to Sinatra ended and moved to Spain where she lived for years, immersing herself in a culture known for its zest for life. She also continued to take on select movie roles. Later, she moved to London where she lived a quiet, often lonely life. In 1990, she died of pneumonia. She was 67.

She was buried in Smithfield in a cemetery not too far from the museum. Among the many flowers at her funeral was an arrangement with a card that read simply, “With my love, Frances.”

“It was a very charming story,” notes Vach recapping the tour of the museum. “But also a sad life, too, seeking love and never finding it. It was fleeting. And she didn’t have children and it seemed like she loved family life, so it was sad. Despite the fact she said, “I had a wonderful life.”

Ava Gardner is buried not far from her mother and father.