Ava Gardner was born Christmas Eve, 1922, in Grabtown, North Carolina. She was the youngest of seven children to a lower-middle class farming family. With little luck harvesting cotton and tobacco, the family moved to a larger city in hopes of higher successes. In Newport News, Virginia, the family opened a boarding house to the many ship workers of the harbor town. Not long after, Gardner’s father fell ill with bronchitis and died suddenly. She was 15 years old. After his death, Gardner’s mother moved the family once again, this time to Wilson, Virginia, where they opened another boarding house. Gardner attended high school and was then enrolled in secretarial school. While studying in college, Gardner’s brother-in-law – a professional photographer – asked to take her portrait. Gardner’s undeniable beauty got her photograph a coveted spot in the window of his photography studio in New York City. The photograph caught the attention of one particular passerby who happened to be a Lowes Theater Legal Clerk and MGM talent scout. He immediately scheduled an interview for Gardner at MGM. Garder was pulled out of school and escorted to New York City by her older sister. Despite her think southern drawal, she was offered a standard contract with the studio and the rest is history.
Gardner was nominated for an Oscar in 1953 for her performance in Mogambo, directed by John Ford (though the award went to Audrey Hepburn for her debut performance in Roman Holiday). She won BAFTA and Golden Globe awards for her performance in Night of the Iguana (1964). Some of her most recognizable roles have been in films such as; Showboat (1951), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), On the Beach (1957).
Gardner also made headlines for her personal life, linked to some of the most recognizable figures of her time. Her first marriage happened just after her arrival in Los Angeles in 1942, to fellow MGM actor; Mickey Rooney. The marriage lasted only a year. In the mid 1940s Gardner began to associate with infamous aviator and producer, Howard Hughes. Though they were never married, the on-and-off relationship lasted nearly ten years. Her second marriage, which lasted roughly the same amount of time as her first, was to jazz musician, Artie Shaw. But her most involved and meaningful relationship was to Frank Sinatra, who she married in 1951. Sinatra and Gardner divorced six years later and she retreated to Spain to stay with her long-time friend Ernest Hemingway. While living in Spain, Garnder fell in love with a Spanish bullfighter named Luis Miguel Dominguin.
During her time in Spain, Gardner’s health began to suffer. A lifetime of smoking lead to emphysema and she had long suffered the disease known today as Lupus. But in 1986, she suffered a series of small strokes leaving her partially paralyzed and, therefore, confined to her home. Sinking further into medical debt, Frank Sinatra began supporting her, paying her medical bills and allowing a monthly stipend. She died in 1990 of pneumonia in London, England. She was buried in North Carolina next to her parents and siblings.
Ava Gardner will long be remembered for her deep sensuality and pithy character, bringing wit and intelligence to her roles and brightening the silver screen with her dark beauty. She is and will always be the ultimate femme fatale.