I felt weak kneed and silly this summer the first time I drove into the Smithfield cemetery and walked toward Ava Gardner’s grave at her family site. I felt the same the second time I did it recently. I said, “We’ve got to quit meeting like this,” and I left with my psyche barely intact and in awe of the power of this Hollywood Venus over a mere mortal male. Which is, I understand, how every other man that ever met her felt. And, when I met her, she was six feet underground.
Night of the Iguana got me through a very difficult period when I first saw it in 1971. It’s message of forgiveness and redemption from demons had such a healing effect that it jump started my stalled spirit. Recently, it has been disappointing to learn that Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, and John Huston made the movie drunk, but it should not have been news that what goes on behind the camera and in front of it are two different stories.
The amazing story, however, is how this barefoot kid who handed tobacco leaves to her Dad in the hot farm fields near Smithfield brought, in succession, the world’s top box office actor, one of the country’s best clarinetists, the world’s richest man, the world’s most loved crooner, and the world’s best bullfighter all to their knees in blubbering adoration.
Even her incidental encounters made news, like an afternoon flirting with Fidel Castro, or shouting insults to Juan Peron, a tenant in her Madrid apartment building as he gave imaginary speeches from his balcony to a non-existent audience below. (He had complained about her all night parties.) Then there were the surreal gifts from Salvador Dali, and the Mediterranean yacht cruise with Adlai Stevenson.
Not to mention her life long interest in literature and her friendship with novelist Ernest Hemingway and the poet Robert Graves who wrote poems for her and gave her all his anthologies which are now in a glass case on main street in Smithfield.
And, how Ava became one of the world’s most notorious intoxicated trash mouths, banned from various European hotels and restaurants, is a puzzling story for someone of such talent, intelligence, and beauty. Is there something in the Carolina small town soil that hands out equal portions of “joy of living” with predestined recklessness? Or was it the Hollywood system, the studio exploitation and tyranny, the infamous Hollywood code that stifled creativity. Possibly, it was the outrageous idolatry of matinee idols, that no one could possibly survive. The people demand a Diva, and for a while, Ava could foment airport hysteria anywhere in the world. She was one of the earlier targets of paparazzi harassment.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear from her life story and watching many of her movies that Ava was a terrific, somewhat unfulfilled talent, and had she come along even 20 years later, and believed in herself a bit more, she might have been one of those year in, year out Oscar contenders. But, she never even saw it as a career. One day she was studying to be a secretary at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, and six months later, she was in Hollywood married to Mickey Rooney. Stenographer or world class love goddess? Oh well, we have to make choices… the road less traveled will do just fine. She had never even acted in high school plays. The only indication as a kid that something extraordinary lay ahead of her was that for years she had been turning eastern North Carolina heads everywhere she went with a “Wow, who was that?”
By some accounts, Bhowani Junction might have been her best acting had not the Hollywood censors completely cut it to ribbons. If the discarded strips of George Cukor’s almost three hour tour de force are still lying on the floor somewhere, possibly an authentic reissue would give Ava her posthumous Oscar. As, I understand it, there are two schools of acting: “be yourself” or “be the character.” Ava was, of course, the be yourself kind, and when she had the confidence and was allowed the freedom, she did it beautifully, as in Mogambo, her one Oscar nominated role, where she and director John Ford made peace and did some good work. Even by her own admission, she was plagued by stage fright and for that reason never did “live stage” which is said to hone one’s talents.
Probably more than most divas, Ava kept close ties to home, particularly her North Carolina extended family. She often returned through the Raleigh-Durham airport under cover of jeans, pullover, and dark glasses to visit her roots. Another compelling, though rarely noted, feature of her life was her enduring tie to liberal politics. She always opposed racial prejudice and discrimination, and supported progressive issues from the beginning, including her attendance at a dinner in Raleigh in support of Henry Wallace’s 1948 presidential bid. A few years later, in California, she introduced her then husband Frank Sinatra at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson.
Ava never lived in the U.S. after the mid-50’s and eventually moved from Spain to London, her hard partying flame having burned out, becoming a gentler soul yet still doing credible acting after other female Hollywood comets had flared out. She was remembered fondly by most who knew her from family to co-stars as generous, friendly, and unpretentious.
So, never having made the pilgrimage to the Ava Gardner Museum, I finally drove to Smithfield to see it. It’s a fitting contrast to see this museum in an otherwise non-fantasy setting. Smithfield and Johnston County are as neat and orderly and everyday working examples of Americana as one might find. Really, Smithfield is a very pretty, well-kempt town. The museum means more if you’ve seen the movies, and know a bit about Ava. But, as a unique experience, or even an introduction to her, I would really recommend it. I’m not sure that any other diva has a dedicated museum.
If you see only one of her films, watch Show Boat, a 60-year-old masterpiece that more than stands the test of time. It’s Oscar Hammerstein’s first libretto and lyrics, and a landmark pivotal point in musical drama that deals with real life. If you see two, watch Night of the Iguana, which still provides a little light at the end of the tunnel for those who have ever thought they couldn’t make it through the night. If a third, maybe On the Beach, her first picture after escaping the indentured servitude of the MGM studio. For a vision of the fabled glamour, try The Barefoot Contessa or Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, which has now been reissued in HD.
As I left the museum, I thought I would look for the country house where Ava was born. She never actually lived in Smithfield, but on a farm a few miles to the southeast, a location called Grabtown. After a couple of wrong turns I finally arrived at the home her father had built fulfilling his dream to be a country farmer, only to lose the farm and then the house in a series of economic setbacks. I parked on the side of this country road, took a quick snapshot and admired the house imagining her as an adventurous toddler climbing precariously on the porch roof from a second floor window.
Within a minute, a Johnston County deputy sheriff had pulled beside me to inquire about my intentions. Again, I was reduced to weak-kneed and silly as I explained that I was ogling Ava Gardner’s childhood home, which he of course knew. Flustered, I drove away.
Still, I was determined to see the rest of the story, so I drove down the road to the place the Gardner family moved after losing the farm house. It was now a residence, but had been a teacherage, or a dorm that housed public school teachers. Ava’s mother had become the cook there, and her father a general all purpose maintenance man. The school, now demolished, was next door. Standing in the middle of the road taking a photo, I was again passed by the same deputy sheriff. He didn’t stop, but I was getting nervous about this surveillance of a simple movie fan.
The countryside didn’t look much different from how it must have appeared in 1920. I passed a lush tobacco field, and thought, got to get a photo of that. So, I turned around to get the best angle with the sun behind me. Again, the deputy passed me. Beginning to perspire now from more than the heat, I thought, better get out of Johnston County before you make headlines. “Ava Gardner Fan Caught Snooping around Grabtown back roads.” Only later did I learn of the recent notoriety of the Johnston County Sheriff and his over zealous vigilance of local behavior.
But, just as I turned to hightail it for the Wayne County line, I saw what I thought might be the clue to the whole story, the Primitive Baptist Church founded in 1806, not two minutes down the road from the teacherage. Got to get one more picture. Only then did I understand the collision of cultures in which Ava lived as a kid, she and her mother sneaking off to the movie house in Smithfield to see Clark Gable (whom Ava later ironically co-starred with,) only to return home to live in the shadow of the stern eye of the Primitive Baptist Church. To this day, the cultures still collide, which may partly explain both Ava’s world wide odyssey, and the deputy sheriff on my case.
Three books tell most of the story, each from a different perspective. In Ava’s own words, with an editing collaborator, is Ava, My Story. A very interesting short book of childhood and hometown stories is Grabtown Girl by Doris Rollins Cannon. The one book with the most information, the one you will never find for sale in the museum is Ava Gardner, Love is Nothing, very skillfully written and thoroughly researched by Lee Server.
Check out Bill Phillips’ blog: North Carolina People & Places.