I had never given much thought as to who the prettiest woman I had ever seen was until last Wednesday when I took a trip to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, N.C. After thinking about it a bit, I have finally concluded that Ava Lavinia Gardner is or was the prettiest woman I have ever seen. Now there are those of you who are going to say that my devotion to North Carolina is going to cloud my judgment just as it does with BBQ and there may be some truth to this point of view. But keep in mind as with BBQ that I said Ava Gardner was the prettiest woman I had ever seen not that she necessarily was the prettiest woman you had ever seen. There's a lot of difference because each of us have personal likes, preferences, attractions and yes, memories.
As a result of my trip to Smithfield, I have now become something of an expert on Ava Gardner. Well, not really but I probably know more than most about this North Carolina native who later became a Hollywood super star. She was born in 1922, 7 miles east of Smithfield and was the youngest of 5 daughters. She lived in Smithfield from the ages of 2-13 when she and her family moved for a short while to Newport News, Va. She later returned to N.C. where she graduated from Rock Ridge High School, the same high school attended by former governor Jim Hunt.
She was discovered when her brother-in- law who was a professional photographer in New York City placed a photograph of her in his NYC studio window. A representative of MGM saw the photograph and had AG to Hollywood for a screen test. As they say, the rest is history.
AG was married to Micky Rooney for a little over a year in the early 40's, was married to band leader Artie Shaw for about the same period of time, also in the 40's and to Frank Sinatra for about 5 years in the 40's and 50's. She had no children and remained friends with all of her ex-husbands. One of her quotes about her ex-husbands I like is "I didn't understand them and I know they didn't understand me."
Over her career, AG appeared in either 53 or 61 movies, take your choice. I can substantiate both figures. The discrepancy may come about because the Hollywood folks originally wanted to change her name and, in fact, did so. AG objected to this and finally prevailed but there are movie posters that exist with the changed name on them. She appeared with the leading men of her time such as Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable and others. The most prominent movies in which she appeared were " The Sun Also Rises", "The Snows of Kilanmanjaro", "A Touch of Venus" , "The Barefoot Contessa" and "Showboat."
AG had a reputation for being a party girl and when Roddy McDowell (National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor) was photographing her later in life, he said to her, "You really are pretty." She replied, No, I'm not pretty now but back when I would work all day and party all night for 3 days, come in and shoot on the 4th day and still look good, I was pretty." She was pretty to me up until her death which was on Jan. 25th, 1990. She had suffered a stroke 4 years earlier and lived as a recluse in her London apartment for 4 years before dying of pneumonia. She didn't want anyone to see her during the last four years because she lost the use of her left arm after the stroke. A real oddity is that one of her neighbors in London was Juan Peron, the deposed ex-dictator of Argentina and husband of Evita. AG loved England because she was not regarded as a celebrity there and could lead what might be called a "normal life."
There is an interesting story behind the creation of the Museum. AG attended Atlantic Christian College ( now Barton ) for one year after graduating from high school. A group of young boys around 12 or 13 used to ride their bicycles over to the college to see the pretty girls and eventually referred to them as their sweethearts. One day AG chased one of the boys down and kissed him on the cheek. Can you imagine the embarrassment he suffered in front of his peers? That boy whose name was Banks later became a physician and began collecting anything he could get his hands on pertaining to Ava Gardner including the house in which she lived from the ages of 2-13. The collection grew to contain more than 100,000 items. When Dr. Banks had a heart attack and died in the old museum in 1989, the collection was left in the hands of his widow who then donated the collection to the Town of Smithfield. The museum moved into its current quarters last year. An artist in Spain apparently was taken with Ava's beauty and painted a series of portraits of her. He only painted one a year. Dr. Banks heard of these portraits and along with his wife went to Spain to see them. He was so impressed that he purchased 26 of the portraits and brought them back to Smithfield. He had them photographed and sent the photographs to Ava Gardner and told her she could have one of her choice. AG wrote back that she didn't want one from the group but that she did want three. The three portraits which are world class, in my opinion, all hang together in the museum and the artist continues to paint one a year to this day.
I asked the Director of the Museum what one item would she try to rescue from the museum if it were to catch on fire. She paused and gave the question some serious thought. Finally, she said the full length black cape at the back of the displays. I asked if AG had worn this in a movie and she said that it had not been in a movie. It was a part of her personal wardrobe but looks like the kind of thing a queen would wear. I couldn't disagree with the Director's choice.
I asked if any movie stars had visited the museum and the Director said that Micky Rooney had toured the museum in private two weeks ago along with his eighth wife and son. Old Micky has bounced around but he's been with this one for 30 years. He said touring the museum made him sad but that he was glad there was a museum for AG because she deserved it.
One thing I almost forgot. When Ava Gardner died in 1990, Frank Sinatra paid to have her body returned to Smithfield and sent a wreath of flowers which read to the effect, "All My Love, Francis." How odd, when you consider that my first name is Francis. Is this what they mean when they refer to "poetic justice." I don't know and I think I'm getting a little out of my league by using terms like that.
The day in Smithfield was wonderful. It is no longer the sleepy agricultural town that I knew as a kid. It is now a bustling community with vitality of its own plus it serves as a bedroom community for the Research Triangle area. I was able to locate the area where a tractor trailer loaded with dynamite exploded in World War 11. Most of the people I talked with had never heard of what we thought was a major catastrophe at the time.
Fortunately, the White Swan and its fine BBQ is still there. I won't go into detail about the White Swan because older Smithfield residents have mixed feelings about the man who was once known as the biggest bootlegger on the East Coast. If only those cabins behind the restaurant could talk, we would really have a story or two, or three or four....................................