After a lifetime of smoking and hard living, she suffered from emphysema and, in 1986, suffered two strokes that left her paralyzed and bedridden.
As sparkly as her life would become, it had a most spartan start.Her father, Jonas Gardner, was a hard-up tenant farmer.The Dutchman was starstruck after seeing Ava in the 1948 movie One Touch of Venus. Ava personally chose three of them to hang in her home in London, where she fled to escape the media gossip and glare.For the rest of his life, he painted his own interpretations of the star’s likeness: Ava with neon lipstick. • • • It was in London where the shining star the world knew as Ava Lavinia Gardner withered up and flickered out.She transformed herself into a Hollywood starlet, a crooner’s wife, and a legacy. Then it hits me: How did Mickey Rooney, all 5 feet 2 inches of him, end up with her?
Those eyes, those exotic, made-for-stardom eyes — the way they slit lustily for the lens, the way they’re crowned by devilishly perfect brows — can do strange things to a mere mortal man. They could well be sizing you up and saying, “Go ahead, big guy, I dare you to make a move.” And would you just look at that black satin dress?
Nobody could much understand her, and, bless her heart, she was just plain awkward on screen. Early on, Ava had only bit parts in movies, but this bombshell of a farmer’s daughter soon made a big blast with the biggest box office star at the time — a short 21-year-old with a golly-gee face and goofy voice. He may have been far from a hottie, but he had quite the reputation for his sexual exploits, and he honed in on Ava Gardner with an animalistic fervor. Men, regardless of their money and might, pursued her at their own peril. Not bad for a girl who grew up eating her mother’s fried chicken and saying “y’all” down on Grabtown Road.
Consider the intense courting from eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. • • • Of course, she came back to Smithfield every now and again, for Christmas and family get-togethers.
“It’s like a parent watching a child at a recital, that same feeling.” And the scandals? “And all this ugly talk and chat that went on …” Her voice trails off before closing this conversation topic with resolve: “She didn’t learn that around here, I’ll tell you that.” The woman of flawless physical beauty had her high-profile flaws, yes, but she will always be a point of pride for Smithfield.
Here on East Market Street, next to the library and across from Town Hall, is the Ava Gardner Museum, which opened in its current location in 2000 and draws some 12,000 visitors each year.
The word “beautiful” isn’t bold enough to encompass Ava Gardner.