A museum in her hometown pays homage to the star in all her complexity — larger than life, lusty, and lonely in the end.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE H aving written about the witches in Salem earlier this week, I’ll turn to a woman who was simply, stunningly bewitching. Ava Gardner (1922–1990) was one of the biggest stars in movies. The Barefoot Contessa, Show Boat, Mogambo, The Sun Also Rises, and Night of the Iguana are some of her biggest hits, but her life offscreen was as cinematic, with an X rating. She’s also, as far as I can tell, the only big Hollywood star with a museum dedicated to her life. Fresh from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where I wrote about tight, fanatical Puritans, I went south, on American Airlines, not a broomstick, to visit the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, N.C.
It’s a great place. It’s thorough, with good production values, not more hagiographic than it needs to be, and a place that art curators should visit. I liked the Peabody Essex show but felt a curatorial reticence that’s common these days. The subjects never came to life. I’ll admit that they were dealing with tightly wound Puritans, farmers working backbreaking labor, and scrawny teenage girls — entirely unattractive people.
Still, Satan, trial after trial, bravery, betrayal, and poor wretches dangling from a noose — that’s high drama. The Salem actors are long dead, with no movies and certainly no cheesecake shots. All we have are artifacts, anecdotes, lots of preconceptions, and the written record. Making them come alive to us, and making them relevant, is a tough but doable task, but it takes a willful abandonment of academic circumspection. Unless that happens, the figures become cardboard cutouts.
The Salem show seemed clinical. The trials and charges were remarkably short on sex but were hot in other respects. I said I would have gone Grand Guignol and let it all hang out. Instead, the museum took a safe route.
What if Ava Gardner had strolled into Salem in 1692? You wouldn’t have had to hang anybody because the whole town would have dropped dead. One look at that face, those boobs, and Cotton Mather himself would have done the Macarena.
Curatorially, the Ava Gardner Museum excels in every respect, in part because it takes a larger-than-life, indeed unique, figure, what MGM called “the world’s most beautiful animal,” and presents her coherently and intellectually, not analyzing her or treating her like a test-tube object. We get voluptuous and multifaceted Ava, with no apologies. The museum didn’t need to bring her to life but, rather, cut her down to size, a trick in itself. Gardner was the least bland person on earth. She had a luminous, hot charisma. Packaging all that sex, ambition, booze, and manipulation in a setting meant to educate isn’t easy.
It does it through vignettes covering the key moments in her life, from growing up, her three husbands, her movies, and her years as an international celebrity based in Europe. There’s a perfect balance of well-written wall text and big, illuminating photography. She was a movie star and a compelling beauty, and the museum chose its images well to serve as equal narrative partners to the text and the objects.
Why Smithfield? Gardner was born and raised there, the daughter of a tenant farmer father and a strict but loving mother who managed the Teacherage, a boarding house for unmarried young teachers. Gardner went to Hollywood at 18, got an MGM contract and, within months, married Mickey Rooney, the studio’s biggest and most lucrative star. The marriage lasted a year. Gardner herself was a heavy-hitter star before too long, married and divorced Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, had a dozen affairs, lived for 30 years in Madrid and London, but never stopped loving her old, rural Southern home. Her brother and sisters and their families mostly stayed local. When Gardner died, she was buried with her parents.
The museum dates to the late 1970s with a small installation at the Teacherage. Since 2000, it has been in the center of Smithfield on Main Street, across from the City Hall. It’s an entirely local conception, conceived by a town booster who in 1978 wrote a story called “Isn’t It Time Smithfield Saluted Ava?” for the local newspaper. Volunteers and local collectors went to work, motivated by civic boosterism and an honest affection for Gardner, who neither forgot her roots nor regarded them with anything less than love and pride.
The visit begins with a well-done 18-minute video. Gardner, we learn, was the baby of a big family, born in Grabtown, a rural outpost of Smithfield. Having just finished a secretarial course in 1940, Gardner went to New York to visit her recently married sister. Her brother-in-law was a professional photographer, took a photo of the already strikingly beautiful Gardner, and displayed it in the window of his shop. An MGM talent scout saw it. Within weeks, she was under contract and in Hollywood, with her sister as a chaperone.
In the video, we follow her marriages through plenty of colorful vignettes. Mickey Rooney, for instance, met her when she visited a set where he was filming, dressed to look like Carmen Miranda. It was lust at first site for the horny, 5-foot-2 megastar Rooney, who made Ava, after five dates, the first of his eight wives. The experience dazzled Gardner, a small-town Southern girl with great beauty and an indecipherable drawl. She and Rooney went to FDR’s 60th-birthday party in the White House. They shagged con brio. Gardner, though, wanted to stay home and make fried chicken while Rooney wanted to party. Rooney was also a male slut. They divorced the day her mother died.
Burt Lancaster starred with her in their first hit, The Killers. A judicious use of film clips tell us that Gardner lost her accent but who among her fans really listened that closely? She was rivetingly gorgeous, feline, and I don’t mean puddy cat. I mean tigress. Arlene Dahl, Janet Leigh, Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, and Mickey Rooney reminisce. It’s beautifully produced and sets the stage.
The museum has an effective balance of wall panels, again, beautifully produced, and objects including the family Bible, her scrapbooks, dresses, quotes, a monitor with rolling film clips, and objects she owned, along with photographs of her London living room. I’m judgmental, and I judge a person by, among many things, his or her china. Hers was Royal Copenhagen Flow Blue, a nice, elegant pattern. It’s a cool pattern. Gardner supplied enough heat on her own.
Gardner’s central romance was with Sinatra. They were married for seven tumultuous years, and each professed to love each other long after their divorce in 1957. Each marriage is covered, but it’s a family museum. The juicy bits, like her sex life with Rooney or her critique of Sinatra as a lover, are left to Gardner’s interviews elsewhere and books about her and Sinatra.
The introductory film has a nice Gardner line from The Killers delivered to the prizefighter played by Lancaster when she learns what he does. “I don’t like two men fighting. . . . I find it very disturbing.” A man and a woman fighting, and fighting hard, was a staple in her life. Gardner had a long affair with George C. Scott, and they beat each other, but hers was self-defense. She knocked Howard Hughes out once during their 20-year, off-and-on affair. Luis Miguel Domenquin, Spain’s most famous bullfighter in the 1950s, and Gardner were a couple for years. “I had a fierce wolf in a cage,” he said.
She was “insatiable in the feathers,” she acknowledged, at one point wearing randy Mickey out in a contest between two gargantuan appetites. After they divorced, she married Shaw, who admired her undeveloped intellect and wanted to develop it. Gardner felt he was condescending. She took classes in 1945 at UCLA. That marriage lasted a year, too, but Gardner had a taste for the life of the mind.
Ernest Hemingway adored her, as did John Huston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and John Ford, three of her directors. Was she a good actress? “Good enough” is the answer. Often, as in Night of the Iguana, she played her bawdy self. In Show Boat, she played the alcoholic mulatto Julie LaVerne, who, like Gardner, was a sexpot with a lonely end. She played a tragic star in The Barefoot Contessa, too. She and Clark Gable acted together in four movies. The two had a natural chemistry, and that helped her acting. The museum presents her as earthy, direct, and honest. I don’t think she knew how to pretend.
Gardner was a star and a diva. She also knew how to win a tussle with powerful men. Louis B. Mayer, the master of MGM and, consequently, Gardner’s top boss, taught her how to manipulate others. She trusted no one except her maids. For all her beauty, she was insecure. She was also, for all her liaisons, a faithful wife. On the movie set, she was thoroughly professional. The museum delivers on her complexity.
Gardner escaped Hollywood life by the early 1950s, when she became a major star. She was one of the first big Hollywood beasts to act in films shot on location in Europe. The Sun Also Rises was filmed partly in Spain. Gardner moved there and stayed for nearly a decade. In 1968, she moved to London, where she lived in Belgravia until she died, not broke but, as she said after she had a stroke in 1987, “close to finding there’s no corn in Egypt.” She felt she’d made an enormous mess of her life. She was certainly hard living. Born a country girl whose early life followed the rhythms of farm life, she became nocturnal. Booze was a problem.
Her social circle in both Madrid and London was far more cosmopolitan than anything she would have had in Hollywood. She wanted that. There were long passages of time when she lived as Greta Garbo did in New York: quietly, privately, in a social milieu that had nothing to do with her fame as a star, much less a sex symbol.
The museum isn’t a marketing stunt for Smithfield. It’s a serious place. It highlights Gardner’s life there and love of her first home, but that’s accurate. It’s a museum about a person first and film history second, but the film history component is good.
I left feeling I knew and liked Gardner. I felt that, if she walked in the museum, I could have a cup of coffee with her. She was a down-to-earth Southern girl her entire life, so charm and warmth came naturally. The museum is curated so effectively and accessibly, though, that we feel we have the basis for a long, lived-in friendship with Gardner. Smithfield is about 45 minutes from Raleigh. It’s a must-see museum for anyone fond of old movies and stories of self-made, larger-than-life women.