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A Life in Movies
By Kendra Bean
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Ava is an illustrated tribute to a legendary life. Authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski take a closer look at the Academy Award-nominated actress’s life and famous screen roles. They also shed new light on the creation and maintenance of her glamorous image, her marriages, and friendships with famous figures such as Ernest Hemingway, John Huston, and Tennessee Williams.
From the backwoods of Grabtown, North Carolina to the bullfighting rings of Spain, from the MGM backlot to the Rome of La Dolce Vita, this lavishly illustrated biography takes readers on the exciting journey of a life lived to the fullest and through four decades of film history with an iconic star.
TENNESSEE WILLIAMS ONCE SAID OF AVA GARDNER, "When I think of her, I think of a sort of poem or koan: Laughter through tears. Sex and sweetness. Hugs and second helpings. A steady shoulder. My beautiful, ballsy friend." During her own lifetime and beyond, the pervasive narrative, both factual and mythologized, has largely focused on Ava's private life—the men, the booze, the restless and at times self-destructive attitude that made her the subject of global tabloid scrutiny. In truth, there were many Avas: the public Ava, the "love goddess," the glamorous film star; the private Ava, shy, independent, impulsive; Ava, the loyal, discreet, and giving friend.
Ava was more than a movie star—she became a legend in her own lifetime, known the world over for her earthy sensuality that sizzled on movie screens. She had an alluring magnetism that seduced many famous men, leading to short-lived marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, with whom she carried on a turbulent lifelong romance.
Beyond the legend, she was a very real person. To many people around the world, she was a dear friend who is cherished and remembered with great love to this day. Fame came relatively easy to the green-eyed daughter of a tobacco planter from North Carolina. At age nineteen she secured a contract with Hollywood's biggest studio, getting her big break a few years later playing the sultry femme fatale in Robert Siodmak's 1946 film noir classic The Killers. But as a true product of the Hollywood star system, she was given little credit for her abilities and even less encouragement to grow as an actress. When MGM's hold on her became too oppressive, she fled to Europe, becoming much like the free-spirited, glamorous, Hemingwayesque expats she portrayed in films such as The Snows of Kilimanjaro and The Sun Also Rises.
Ava never believed in her talent, and she never gave her career in movies much thought. Yet for someone who remarked, "I was never really an actress. None of us kids who came from M-G-M were. We were just good to look at," she left a rich and often underrated screen legacy. In a career that spanned nearly half a century she worked with many now-legendary directors and traversed film genres, appearing in noir, westerns, costume dramas, romantic comedies, musicals, and, later, even blockbuster disaster films and horror.
Although Ava blazed through life, leaving an indelible mark on film history, few items remain in the way of personal papers, save for a posthumous ghostwritten autobiography. In order to piece together the rich tapestry of her life, we consulted archives, libraries, and museums in countries around the world. What emerged was a chorus of different voices, each illuminating a different aspect of her complex persona. Scattered throughout various collections were also snippets of Ava's own voice. Letters to author Henry Miller at UCLA; to her friend Robert Graves in Oxford, England; to George Cukor at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles revealed a curious, intelligent woman of varied interests and a ribald sense of humor. "It's too bad that the silent pictures went out," Cukor wrote in one of his letters to Ava. "You'd have had a great career as a title writer. Not 'Came the Dawn…' but real comical stuff. Why did you keep this special talent of yours hidden from me?"
It was not our goal to write a definitive biography. Rather, our book aims to challenge the well-worn perception of her life and work by bringing together a new narrative perspective with the largest collection of photographs ever assembled in an Ava biography. "As an actress, she was much better than she thought she was. She had no vanity about her talent," said her dear friend Gregory Peck. "The Edna St. Vincent Millay verse might have been written about Ava—'Her candle burns at both ends. It will not last the night. But oh my friends and ah my foes, it sheds a lovely light.'"
—KENDRA BEAN and ANTHONY UZAROWSKI,
London, May 2016
Daughter of the South
THE TOWN OF LIPHOOK, NEAR PORTSMOUTH IN THE SOUTH of England, was teeming with people from London's film world in early June 1955. In residence were the cast and crew of Bhowani Junction, MGM's lavish Eastmancolor film set in India. The company had taken over a stretch of the Longmoor Military Railway in order to stage one of the film's key scenes. At the bottom of an incline, a group of train carriages was carefully arranged and set on fire to look like a horrific accident—the product of eight weeks' worth of preparation from the art department. Director George Cukor was busy setting up a shot, yelling his commands over a loudspeaker to two hundred extras strewn about on the ground, covered in fake blood, bandages, and prosthetic wounds. Lunch would be announced soon, but one more take had to be completed first.
Thomas Wiseman observed the action. The Austria-born British journalist was young but already had ample experience dealing with high-profile film people as author of the showbiz column for Lord Beaverbrook's Evening Standard. When reflecting recently on how different it was speaking with celebrities over a half century ago, he said, "I can tell you that in the fifties major stars were much more accessible than they are now. I would ring up someone I wanted to interview, without going through a PR person, and arrange for us to have lunch."
At the top of the incline stood the film's lead actress, surrounded by makeup department personnel, awaiting her cue. One of the makeup women used a large silver can to douse the star with glycerin—"Only stuff that shows up like sweat on screen. Terrible stuff," the actress said. A male colleague dirtied her already filthy sari in blood "correctly pigmented for Eastmancolor." Wiseman noted the actress's beauty and the stick of chewing gum in her mouth—a gift from her older sister in America—that hinted at her detachment from the controlled chaos surrounding her.
This was Ava Gardner, at that time known in the press as "the world's most beautiful animal," or in Wiseman's words, "the Aphrodite of the atom-age." After fourteen years under contract to Hollywood's largest movie studio, she had forty-two short and feature-length screen appearances under her belt (Bhowani Junction would be the forty-third) and was now reportedly earning six figures per film. The salary alone spoke volumes about her position on the roster at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But one didn't need to know the specifics of Ava's contract to understand her popularity with filmgoers around the world. Her films were often well received by audiences, if not always by critics, and since the early 1940s her personal life had provided titillating copy for publications ranging from the Los Angeles Times to Esquire magazine.
Ava Gardner epitomized international celebrity, but as many journalists already knew—and as Wiseman would discover during their interview—she wasn't a typical film star. For one thing, she didn't exactly like her job. Whereas many of her peers may have been happy to bend and yield under the iron fists of studio bosses in exchange for a shot at fame, Ava had been in the business long enough—and had become successful enough—to bluntly voice her opinions on the trappings of the film world. She wasn't in it for the craft, she admitted. Acting talent was one thing she was sure she didn't possess. "I don't enjoy making films," she told Wiseman. "I just enjoy making money." Nor did she find other actors particularly appealing on an intellectual level, instead preferring to associate with writers, musicians, bullfighters, directors—men who could stimulate her brain, if not her body.
She counted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves, Tennessee Williams, George Hoyningen-Huene, and John Huston as friends. Still, she never could understand why other people found her fascinating.
"Perhaps we're not so interesting to ourselves," Wiseman noted Ava as saying. "I'm a simple girl, a farmer's daughter. I can't think where I got the bad blood—the bad blood that got me into this business."
AVA LAVINIA GARDNER, A SELF-PROCLAIMED "WAY AFTER thought" that her parents needed "like a hole in the head," was born in a two-story, five-bedroom clapboard house in Johnston County, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve, 1922. Studio publicity would later claim she was from the town of Smithfield, as her true birthplace, the community of Grabtown, was so small and rural that state mapmakers didn't bother to include it. Her parents, Jonas Bailey Gardner and Mary Elizabeth Baker (known to friends and family as Molly), were both approaching middle age when their youngest came along. They had already experienced their fair share of tragedy and hardship, having borne six previous children and burying a baby son, Raymond, after a freak home accident in 1911 that involved a dynamite cap and a blazing fireplace.
Although there was nothing at the outset to suggest that Ava would one day become one of the most famous women in the world, a look into the Gardners' past reveals some interesting characters. Her family had been in the United States since before the country's foundation, with more than one member playing some type of role in the broader context of shaping the nation. Several branches of Gardners (sometimes spelled "Gardiner") sailed over from England in the mid-seventeenth century and settled in the New England area, including the branch to which belonged George Gardiner, a pastor's son who entered into a common-law marriage and fathered seven children with divorced mother of two Herodias Long-Hicks. Herodias was a Quaker convert whose outspoken, dissident religiosity led to trouble. She and her first husband, John Hicks, had been denied a place in the Puritan church at Weymouth, Massachusetts. On May 11, 1658, Herodias, accompanied by friend Mary Stanton, carried her baby sixty miles on foot from Newport, Rhode Island, to deliver a religious speech in her former town of Weymouth. There they were seized, brought in front of Governor John Endicott in Boston, and whipped before being thrown in jail for two weeks. The incident did little to curb Herodias's unconventional ways. Unhappy with her choice of partners, she entered into adulterous relationships and took three husbands altogether. That two marriages ended as a result of divorces rather than widowhood was unheard of for a woman in her time.
A family connection between Ava and Herodias would certainly make for an interesting story, and many family trees on genealogy sites such as Ancestry.com link Ava's ancestors with the rebel Puritan. However, murky disparities among the dates and birth locations of Herodias's offspring and those of Ava's traceable relatives suggest they may not have been related after all. Ava's branch of the Gardners appears to have settled a bit farther south, in the Westchester area of New York, then New Netherland colony, before branching out to nearby New Jersey, where they stayed until the mid-nineteenth century. War records show that Thomas Gardner, Ava's great-grandfather six times removed, was a wagon master responsible for delivering clothing, food, and munitions to soldiers in New Jersey during the American Revolution. His son Benjamin enlisted as a young teenager and served under the command of two different captains as both a drummer and fifer in the New Jersey Militia. Though not positions directly involved in combat, fifers and drummers were essential to Revolutionary armies, as the instruments were used to signal between company leaders and soldiers.
It was Benjamin's son, Thomas, who moved the Gardners to North Carolina, settling in Edgecombe with his wife, Nancy Poteet, sometime around 1790. With tobacco and cotton booming in the agrarian South, Thomas established himself as a planter. How many acres he possessed remains unclear, but he seems to have been successful enough to pass the business on to his male children. The 1830 North Carolina census shows that Thomas's son William (Ava's great-grandfather) was prosperous enough to employ six free colored persons and three slaves—a woman of about twenty and two young girls under ten—possibly all from the same family. By 1860, William was sharecropping on a 1,600-acre plot in Wilson County, 516 acres of which he owned. His son David helped with labor; notably, there were no longer any slaves in residence, suggesting either a moral change of attitude on William's part or a monetary setback.
The family trade continued down through two more generations, but the level of prosperity declined in the early twentieth century, as it did for many farmers of the same position. Cash crops that had once been responsible for a great deal of wealth in the South began failing to produce adequate returns even before the stock market crash of 1929 sent the United States spiraling into the Depression. According to former Wilson County journalist and Ava Gardner biographer Doris Rollins Cannon, Jonas Gardner's financial situation took a turn for the worse around 1915. Jonas and his brothers, who lived nearby and helped farm the family plot, could no longer pay their landlord. They were forced to sell and become tenant farmers. To make ends meet, Jonas took on a variety of odd jobs, including running a local store and operating a sawmill.
Things were invariably difficult from a financial perspective and would remain so. Running water, indoor plumbing, and electricity were luxuries the Gardners could not afford. Such details of Ava's childhood bring to mind documentary images of sharecropping families taken by Life photographer Dorothea Lange while on assignment in the rural South during the Depression: weariness and poverty mixed with dignity. Much to Jonas and Molly's credit, their children never seemed to suffer. Ava admired her parents' fortitude and later resented reports that she had grown up on the lowest rung of the financial ladder. Lawrence Grobel recalls Ava telling him, "We were poor but I wasn't aware of it, because everyone else was poor. But it was wonderful, because we were loved."
When Ava was three years old a fire tore through Jonas's cotton barn and destroyed what was left of his livelihood as a sharecropper. Though the blaze was likely sparked by accident when son Jack carelessly discarded a lit cigarette, the tears that ran down Jonas's face as he watched his modest crop go up in flames left a lasting impression that Ava carried with her throughout her life. Broke and nearly destitute, the Gardners badly needed a reprieve from their misfortune. It came in the form of a job offer, not for Jonas but for Molly, who was asked to run the teacherage, a local boardinghouse for single female teachers at the elementary school in nearby Brogden.
Simultaneously looking after the teacherage and a toddler—not to mention Inez, Jack, and Myra, who, though older, had not yet left the nest when the family moved to Brogden—was not always easy for Molly. Like any child growing up in the countryside, Ava acquired her fair share of bumps and scrapes, and occasionally her wild streak caused her to run into more serious mishaps. "She was a lively kid, real cute," sister Myra said in 1954. "She was a healthy child, but something was always happening to her. When she was about a year old, she got a hold of a can of lye. Mother caught up with Ava just as she was putting some of the lye into her mouth." Had Molly not quickly intervened with a homemade antidote—scrubbing Ava's mouth with vinegar and making her drink an egg white—the future film idol's life may have ended long before it had a chance to take off.
On the whole, life at the teacherage progressed as pleasantly as the circumstances allowed. Ava was a near-constant presence at the Brogden School. Early family photographs show a cherubic four-year-old with golden curls serving as the mascot for a class of fourth graders. She was soon attending classes herself. Of the boarders at the teacherage, Ava was particularly fond of her first-grade teacher, Maggie Williams, a married woman who was allowed to live at the house on account of her husband serving a prison sentence for murder.
One year after the US government passed the Eighteenth Amendment instating their "noble experiment" of Prohibition, David Marshall Williams was involved in an illicit but widespread trade: bootlegging alcohol. He operated a whiskey distillery near Godwin in Cumberland County that was raided by police on July 22, 1921. As Deputies Al Pate and Bill West and Sheriff N. H. McGeachy approached the scene, Williams and other unseen employees hiding out in the surrounding woods opened fire. Deputy Pate was shot in the waist, the bullet hitting a major artery and killing him instantly. Williams was indicted on first-degree murder charges. His defense team attempted to spare him the electric chair by having him plead guilty by reason of insanity. They presented to the judge and jury a letter written in 1919 by Williams's brother, Reverend J. Mack Williams, attesting to the former's mental instability. It read, in part, "He has what is called paranoi[a].… He has an insane delusion of being a bandit and killing someone, and if he is not restrained in some way the result in two or three years can almost be predicted." Williams maintained his innocence, but after a mistrial was declared he agreed to take a lesser charge of second-degree murder and was sentenced to thirty-three years of hard labor at Caledonia Prison Farm. He was paroled on a governor's pardon after serving eight years. He went on to become famous for inventing the M1 carbine rifle and for being played by Jimmy Stewart in the MGM film Carbine Williams.
It is unclear whether Ava actually met her favorite teacher's notorious husband, but a 1951 article in the Deseret News reported that Ava used to "play around the machine shop at [Williams's] farm." The scenario fits even if the story itself is dubious. As a child Ava was a self-professed tomboy, preferring to play baseball with the local boys and running around barefoot with her older brother Jack and his friends, who taught her how to smoke and chew tobacco and steal watermelons from the neighboring farms. It was also from the older boys that she gained her famously colorful vocabulary. Biographer Lee Server quotes Ava's neighbor and schoolmate Clarence Woodell describing another incident from Ava's younger years: "I remember one time she climbed the water tower out back of the school, maybe six feet up and hanging off a little ladder. You just didn't see many girls doing things like that in those days." "We were nothing if not game," Ava would say of her childhood "gang."
There was one unfortunate aspect of Southern living that seemed to have little effect on Ava's upbringing or her moral character. Segregation and racism were rife in the South during Ava's formative years, but throughout her life she displayed a refreshing lack of prejudice and went out of her way to show support for the black community. As a child she was taught the value of human decency. Blacks were to be respected and treated equally. In Brogden the racial divide, at least in the Gardner household, appears to have been blurry. However, weekend outings to nearby Smithfield brought the unfair treatment of blacks into focus. Ava was likely aware that her pale skin afforded her privileges and opportunities denied to her black friends. When at the local picture house, she could—and often did—sit in the balcony, a space reserved for blacks, without recrimination. Such a situation would have caused trouble had she invited a friend to sit with her down below. Then there was Shine, a black boy a few years older than Ava who came into town every year at the beginning of the tobacco-planting season, around January, and left when it was over in August. The Gardners gave him lodging at the teacherage, and he helped the planters in the fields cultivate crops and prepare cotton bales for auction. Ava, Shine, and Ava's cousin, Al Creech, formed a close-knit trio, playing around the farm after a hard days' work. It was like that every year until Ava turned ten and Molly began to suspect that Shine may have developed feelings for her youngest daughter that went beyond friendship. At the end of that season, Shine left Brogden and never came back.
The local Baptist church was another favorite haunt. On Sundays Ava would tag along with her mother's kitchen helper, Elva Mae, to Tee's Chapel Church (now called Tee's Chapel Free Will Baptist Church) in Grabtown, where the impassioned sermon and the gospel music sung by the Holy Rollers would set her spirit alight. Her participation in religion would wane as an adult, but those Sunday mornings at Tee's served as the inspiration for her lifelong love of music and dancing.
Above all there was the cinema, that mechanical source of escapism where, for twenty-five cents, you could immerse yourself in the magic of the silver screen and forget your troubles, at least for a little while. During the Depression, millions of Americans went to the movies on a regular basis. Ava and her mother were no exceptions. She recalled riding into nearby Smithfield with Molly in a teacher's automobile to see Victor Fleming's steamy pre-Code adventure Red Dust. In 1932, there were two dedicated picture houses in Smithfield. The probable venue for this particular moviegoing experience was the Sanders Theater on East Market Street, operated by H. P. Howell. When the Sanders burned down in 1934, Howell built another cinema that bore his name and is still in operation today.
Red Dust is arguably the most memorable of the six films costarring blonde bombshell Jean Harlow and MGM's "King of the Movies," Clark Gable. Set on a rubber plantation in Indochina, the story focuses on a love triangle between a rough-and-tumble planter and two women—a tough-talking vagabond and an elegant married woman. Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times described it as "sexed to the limit" and "hardly" appropriate "for the youngsters." Perhaps Schallert was right, yet this film marked the beginning of what for Ava would be a long association with Gable. Ava came of age around the same time that Margaret Mitchell's wildly popular novel, Gone with the Wind, was published. She read the book in school, and like many girls and women around the world, she was drawn in by the complicated romance between Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara and swarthy Charlestonian rogue Rhett Butler. Ava was also swept away by Mitchell's romantic portrayal of antebellum plantation life, as far removed as it was from her own lived experience. Above all, she dreamed of one day meeting her own version of Rhett. When Gable came up for the part of Rhett in David O. Selznick's 1939 film version, Ava's crush was solidified, and she joined thousands of female moviegoers across the country in believing him perfect for the role. But for now, Gable and the world of the movies existed only on-screen.
IN 1935, WHEN AVA WAS THIRTEEN, THE GARDNERS WERE forced to find a new solution to their economic problems. The local school board decided to close down the teacherage, and Jonas could not support the family on his own. To make ends meet, they packed up and moved north to Newport News, Virginia, where Molly was put in charge of a boardinghouse for dockworkers on West Avenue and Jonas worked in a sawmill. Newport News was a world apart from rural Brodgen, North Carolina. The construction of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway terminus in the late nineteenth century transformed what was once a small farming and fishing hamlet into an industrial city whose shipyard played a major role in the mining and export of coal from West Virginia. Ava had marveled at the paved roads and sidewalks in Smithfield, but Newport News had all of that and then some: public transportation in the downtown area, a brewery, fancy hotels, and four-story buildings.
Ava enrolled at John W. Daniel School, located at 222 32nd Street (now Christopher Newport University). Lucille Briggs lived near the boardinghouse in Newport News and recalled that Ava "was a rather shy person, on the quiet side. She didn't have a bubbly personality. She was the last one you'd expect to succeed." Ava never forgot the way her classmates at John W. Daniel School laughed at her when she was asked to tell everyone in her pronounced Tar Heel accent what her father did for a living. It was not just her accent that made her feel self-conscious. Despite her mother having steady work in caring for the male lodgers at the boardinghouse, the Gardners were still poor. Ava wore hand-me-down clothes while the other girls in school seemed to have a never-ending supply of new dresses and shoes. And although she settled in quickly and made friends, she felt embarrassed about her living situation and never invited any of them home after school or to spend the night on weekends.
Ava started ninth grade at Newport News High School in 1936 and fell in with a group of friends that included Lilly Bec Zehmer. They enjoyed roller-skating and riding bicycles around the city. "We used to walk to Newport News High School then, picking up people as we went along," Zehmer told the Newport News Daily Press. "She was one of the gang. We all liked her very much." On the whole, Ava kept her head down and stayed out of trouble, which would explain why Ethel Gildersleeve, the former dean of girls at Newport News High, didn't remember her. Zehmer recalled Ava's interest in singing, but as a student Ava neither failed nor excelled. Her letters back home to friends in Brogden illustrated her disinterest in academics: "I'm taking French & it's about to run me crazy, in fact everything I'm taking is because I still hate it all."
- "From the striking cover image to photographers' contact sheets, and even a late '40s selfie, many are rare and/or candid, going beyond stills and publicity photos, although those are well-represented too, and all are beautifully printed. Sinatra family scrapbooks and local NC newspaper files are just two of the sources tapped. I can't imagine how many hours research and permissions must have taken, and the results are spectacular...Whatever your current level of Ava awareness, there is an abundance of fascinating material in Ava: A Life in Movies to guarantee any reader's enjoyment and edification."—Paula's Cinema Club
- On Sale
- Jul 11, 2017
- Page Count
- 264 pages
- Running Press