Ava Gardner may still be the most beautiful woman to ever work in Hollywood. For good or bad, her beauty got her noticed –by studio heads, directors, co-stars, husbands, lovers, and fans– even if it did overshadow her work as an actress. But while she may never have been taken very seriously as a performer, her career afforded her the chance to travel the world and live a glamorous life that was far removed from her humble origins.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born December 24, 1922, in Grabton, North Carolina. Her father was a farmer who struggled to make ends meet, a task made even more difficult by the fact that Ava was the youngest of seven children. She wore hand-me-downs and often went barefoot as a girl. When her father died, her mother was forced to work in a boardinghouse and Ava committed herself to becoming a secretary, but as so often happens with Hollywood stories, fate intervened. A brother-in-law who ran a photography studio in New York hung her picture in his studio window. When it became clear that her stunning beauty was attracting attention, he took more photos of Ava and sent them off to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM liked what it saw. In 1941 the studio awarded Ava a seven-year contract and her movie career was born.
The war years were filled with small roles in films like “Kid Glove Killer” (1942) and “Hitler’s Madman” (1943). But while audiences hadn’t yet caught on to Ava’s lively beauty, Mickey Rooney did; they married in 1941, only to divorce in 1943. She had another brief marriage with a celebrity, this one to the bandleader Artie Shaw, that ended in 1946. But with the end of her second marriage and the end of the war, Ava hit the jackpot. In 1946 she appeared opposite Burt Lancaster in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers” (1946) and, with another major role in “Whistle Stop” (1946), Ava Gardner became a star.
Through the late 1940’s and mid-1950’s Gardner was one of the most sought- after actresses in Hollywood. While her critics grumbled about her limited range (a charge she modestly had no interest in denying), her fans enjoyed her in a variety of films including “The Great Sinner” (1949), “Show Boat” (1951), “Mogambo” (1953), and “The Barefoot Contessa” (1954). In 1948 she also entered into her third –and most stormy– marriage, this one to Frank Sinatra. They broke up and got back together many times, finally divorcing in 1957.
After her split with Sinatra, Ava became somewhat disillusioned with Hollywood. She moved to Europe and took on fewer roles, appearing in films like “On the Beach” (1959), “Night of the Iguana” (1964), “Seven Days in May” (1964), and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” (1972). She died in London on January 25, 1990, of pneumonia. And, fittingly for a woman who had lived such a glamorous life, her last creative act was completing her autobiography: “Ava, My Story.”