movie icon Ava Gardner


Early Life

Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, on December 24, 1922. She was her parents' seventh child. When Gardner was 2 years old, she and her family were forced to leave their tobacco farm. Her father then worked as a sharecropper, while her mother ran a boardinghouse. The family always struggled financially, a situation that worsened when Gardner's father died when she was 16.

Gardner was studying to be a secretary when her photographer brother-in-law sent pictures of her to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. A striking beauty with dark hair and green eyes, Gardner's photos convinced the studio to give her a screen test. This led to her signing a seven-year, $50/week contract with MGM in 1941 when Gardner was 18 years old.

Hollywood Career 

Upon her arrival in Hollywood, Gardner was put into the MGM studio system to learn how to be an actress. Her thick Southern accent made speech lessons a required part of her training. Gardner was shy and intimidated by the process of appearing on camera, and, thusly, would sometimes drink beforehand to calm her nerves.

Limited to bit parts at first, Gardner slowly worked her way up to larger roles. But it wasn't until she was loaned to Universal Studios to appear as seductress Kitty Collins in 1946's The Killers that Gardner became a star. That success led to the actress landing better parts in movies like The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). She also appeared in Mogambo (1953), a role that earned Gardner her only Academy Award nomination.

Even as her acting career developed, Gardner's beauty was always a large part of her appeal. For her role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), as a dancer whose rags-to-riches story echoed Gardner's own, MGM touted her as "The World's Most Beautiful Animal."

Off-Screen Life and Loves  

Gardner's life in Hollywood was also busy off-camera. She met actor Mickey Rooney on her first studio visit in California. Rooney, then at the height of his career, ardently pursued her. As Gardner, heeding her North Carolina upbringing, was determined to remain a virgin until marriage, they wed in 1942, after first receiving permission from MGM. The two separated a year later, amid Gardner's accusations that Rooney had been unfaithful.

With the end of her first marriage, the down-to-earth Gardner's reputation for drinking, smoking and partying grew. She also became close with playboy Howard Hughes . Although Gardner refused to sleep with Hughes, she remained an object of fascination for the reclusive man for years. Gardner had another short marriage, from 1945 to 1946, to bandleader Artie Shaw. During their time together, Shaw tried to mold Gardner, who was already insecure about her lack of education, with suggested reading lists.

Gardner rarely shied away from romantic entanglements, and her partners ranged from co-stars to Spanish matadors. Her real-life femme fatale reputation peaked when she became involved with singer Frank Sinatra , whom she considered the love of her life. After Sinatra left his wife to be with Gardner, the two married in 1951. Unfortunately, their passion often boiled over into jealous fights, and the two separated and reconciled several times before finally divorcing in 1957.


Life After MGM

Gardner left her MGM contract in 1958 but continued to appear in movies, including On the Beach (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1964). Gardner received fewer job offers as the years passed, working only sporadically.

After living in Spain for several years, Gardner moved to London, England, in 1968. She remained close to Sinatra, who called her hospital room after her 1986 stroke and later helped with her medical bills. Gardner died from pneumonia in London on January 25, 1990, at the age of 67. She was buried next to her parents in North Carolina.


  • Miss Gardner's third marriage, to Frank Sinatra in 1951, was one of the most publicized Hollywood unions of the time. (
  • In a 1986 book, ''His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra,'' Kitty Kelley attributed the following quotation to the actress: ''You start with love, or what you think is love, and then comes the work. (

    The Wild Life and Many Loves of Ava Gardner

    Lee Server's Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing is stacked with juicy anecdotes about the classic Hollywood screen siren, from a dalliance with Fidel Castro to her blunt assessment of Frank Sinatra's manhood.

    From the Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.

    Born in North Carolina, the often barefoot and always brash movie star Ava Gardner was, in the words of second husband Artie Shaw, “the most beautiful creature you ever saw.” She was also, according to costar Deborah Kerr, “funny and rich and warm and human.” But Gardner also had a wandering spirit, with a reckless streak and an insatiable appetite for booze and boys that would often lead to the most glamorous sort of disaster.

    In the engrossing Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing , biographer Lee Server documents a life filled with lust, love, and late-night shenanigans. There was her long entanglement with a snooping Howard Hughes, as well as flings with bullfighters, Robert Taylor, Mel Tormé, David Niven , John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, an abusive George C. Scott, and an unsuccessful attempt to lure Robert Stack into a foursome (he suddenly got a stomachache).

    And then there was her beloved Francis Gardner's third husband, Frank Sinatra. Their fights were legendary (Sinatra once threw a douche bag filled with water at her and pal Lana Turner), and their make-ups loud. When asked why she stayed with the 119-pound Sinatra, Gardner once replied “Well, I'll tell you nineteen pounds is c@@@.” This straightforward, sassy broad would challenge and terrify both men and women her entire life including supposed tough guy Robert Mitchum, her former flame and costar. Years after their on-set affair, Server writes, a friend would tell Mitchum that Gardner was arriving shortly. “Ava Gardner! No, no don't tell her I'm here!” Mitchum apparently replied. “If I get together with Ava, I'm done for.” After reading Server's book, it's easy to understand why.

    Meeting Mr. Right On her first day at MGM as a tongue-tied 18-year-old, Gardner was given a tour of the sprawling Culver City lot by studio PR man Milton Weiss. Weiss took her to the set of the musical Babes on Broadway, where an exuberant man performed “Mama, Yo Quiero” dressed as Brazilian star Carmen Miranda. “He was wearing at this time a spangled bra and skirt, a fruited turban, had rouged cheeks, and his lips bore a thick coating of red lipstick,” Server writes. “A famously short young man, he stood now on high platform heels favored by Miss Miranda.” Weiss had to whisper to a dumbstruck Gardner that this performer was none other than superstar Mickey Rooney, at 20 years old already a hard-living, wised-up “wolf, junior grade.” Even in the midst of performing, Rooney noticed the befuddled beauty and made a beeline for her in his clomping high heels. “Everything in me stopped,” he would write in his memoir I.E. “My heart. My breathing. My thinking.” Within months, they were married. “Don't let the little guy fool you,” Gardner later told movie star Ann Miller, per Server. “He knew every trick in the book.” Love at First Shot The legendary love story of Gardner and her inamorato Frank Sinatra began with a bang. According to Server, in the fall of 1949, the very married and very drunk Sinatra convinced an equally inebriated Gardner to leave a Palm Springs party hosted by studio head Darryl Zanuck with him. They sped into the night, until they reached the quiet town of Indio. After a sloppy make-out session, Sinatra brought out two guns and began to shoot out streetlights. A titillated Ava joined suit and shot out the window of a hardware store.

    The night ended with the pair brought into the station by armed cops, who were then paid off by the studio. When Gardner finally got home, she found her sister Bappie eating breakfast. “Ava,” Server writes, “told her she had been out with Frank Sinatra and they had had a wonderful time.” The Princess and the Goddess Gardner first met patrician Grace Kelly, the future Princess of Monaco, on the sultry, sexually-charged Kenyan set of Mogambo, in 1952. The outwardly uptight Kelly was initially appalled by Gardner and tag-along Sinatra's antics in the tent that cast and crew shared, telling one friend, “Ava is such a mess it's unbelievable.” But Gardner's free-spirited sense of fun soon won over Kelly, who also began a passionate affair with hard-drinking leading man Clark Gable. Soon, Kelly was trying to keep up with her costars though according to Server, “after a few drinks she usually ended up turning pink and running into the bushes to vomit.” The two beauties took a madcap trip to Rome, Kelly now suffering a severe case of hero worship. Gardner apparently insisted they visit a brothel, and an intrigued Kelly went along. “By the end of the tour,” Server writes , “the demure Grace Kelly had even found a boyfriend at one place and had dragged him into the backseat of the taxi for some heavy necking.” Gardner and Kelly would remain friends for the rest of their lives. The princess would even attempt to set up her friend with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who she claimed was a very “forceful lover.” Gardner was decidedly grossed out by Onassis, though; per Server, she “whispered to Grace that not even a good whipping could make her change her mind, and slipped away.”


  • Ava Gardner style file: From country girl to ‘the most irresistible woman in Hollywood’ - Evening Standard (


    • Spotted from her portrait, which was on display in a Fifth Avenue photo studio after a visit to New York, Gardner went from small-town southern girl to a silver screen star seemingly overnight.

    • Lauded for her striking beauty, which included a distinctive cleft chin and piercing green eyes, Gardner's career was largely defined by her looks - and the many headlines surrounding her love life.
    • She even earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role in the 1953 film, Mogambo, which co-starred Clark Gable and Grace Kelly
    • Believing the inquiry to be genuine, Gardner's brother-in-law sent Gardner's pictures to MGM's New York office, where she was later called in for an interview.

      Legendary Actress Ava Gardner Now Has A Bourbon Named After Her - The Whiskey Wash (


      • " Now a North Carolina distillery is set to unveil a bourbon named after her.
      • The new Ava Gardner Select Bourbon Whiskey, according to those behind it , is being produced by Seven Jars Distillery in partnership with the Ava Gardner Trust and Legacy Talent and Entertainment.
      • It is being released as a 101 proof whiskey, with 3,600 bottles being made available packaged in individual boxes, each bearing the image of Gardner in the role of Collins.
      • "The opportunity to work with the brand of a Hollywood legend like Ava Gardner is a dream come true for us," added Del Ratcliffe, Managing Partner of Seven Jars Distillery.

        Ava Gardner, Unapologetic Sexpot, Still Bewitches - National Review (


        • Ava Gardner, Unapologetic Sexpot, Still Bewitches
        • Ava Gardner (1922–1990) was one of the biggest stars in movies.
        • Fresh from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, where I wrote about tight, fanatical Puritans, I went (Photo courtesy Ava Gardner Museum) 
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