Ava Gardner’s ascension into stardom is the stuff of Old Hollywood discovery story legends.
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.
Though she never considered herself to be much of an actress, Gardner managed to break out of the typical starlet image and would go on to star alongside some of the industry’s most accomplished actors. 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.
Despite the fame, Gardner always remained true to her roots and never took Hollywood seriously. “What I’d really like to say about stardom,” she once quipped, “is that it gave me everything I never wanted.”
From her humble beginnings on a North Carolina farm to her rise as “the most irresistible woman in Hollywood,” here is a look at Gardner’s most talked about moments - and her most stylish.
Ava Gardner’s early life
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, on Christmas Eve in 1922. The youngest of seven children, Gardner’s father, Jonas Gardner, was a tobacco sharecropper, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth Gardner, worked as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers.
At age 12, Gardner’s family moved to Newport News, Virginia after her mother and father were both left unemployed during the Depression.
“It was a struggle for them, but they got by and I always felt loved,” Gardner said of her parents in recordings for a memoir, Ava Gardner The Secret Conversations. “In the summertime, I went barefoot, that was what farm kids did,” she recalled of her childhood. “Of course, we were poor. It was the Great Depression, everybody was poor.”
Gardner would later move back to North Carolina after her father’s death in 1938, where she enrolled in secretarial classes at the Atlantic Christian College before a photograph changed the course of her life.
From secretary school to the silver screen
Gardner’s older sister, Beatrice, was married to the son of an owner of a chain of photography studios in New York. He kept a portrait he had taken of Gardner displayed in the window of his Fifth Avenue store, and in 1941, the photo was spotted by an office boy who worked at the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios in Hollywood.
Hoping to get a date with Gardner, he called her brother-in-law pretending to be an MGM scout.
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. Despite her heavy southern accent that the actress later said was “incomprehensible to anyone who lives more than two whoops and a holler outside the state of North Carolina,” Gardner was asked to do a screen test.
A few weeks later, MGM offered her a seven-year contract, and she headed to Hollywood with her sister by her side.
Her big break
After mostly being cast in minor, uncredited roles for the first five years of her contract, Gardner’s breakthrough role came playing femme fatale Kitty Collins in the 1946 film The Killers. Adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s short story by the same name, The Killers would be the first of three movies based on the author’s work that Gardner would star in (she also appeared in The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952 and The Sun Also Rises in 1957).
Though she didn’t believe she was a talented actress, Gardner would go on to work with some of Old Hollywood’s most renowned directors and actors.
Notably, she starred alongside Gregory Peck in three films total and Humphrey Bogart in 1954’s The Barefoot Contessa, in which writer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz is said to have based the title character on Gardner herself.
She also appeared in three films with Clark Gable (whom she noted was her childhood hero), including 1953’s Mogambo. The film would earn Gardner an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and it would introduce her to co-star and lifelong friend, Grace Kelly.
“On Gracie’s birthday, we got a bottle of champagne...and had a little party out in the tent,” Gardner recalled of their time shooting on location in Africa in her autobiography, Ava: My Story.
“Later, we did the same thing for mine. And after that, no matter where in the world I was, every year a birthday present would arrive from [her]. She never forgot, and every year at Christmas, she sent a handwritten card,” Gardner said. “She was a great lady and also great fun.”
Hollywood’s most glamorous star
Though she was a self-professed “tomboy” growing up, Gardner’s striking beauty was what brought her to Hollywood at age 18 - and it was something that she seemed unable to escape even after she retired from the silver screen.
Her bone structure and green eyes helped define her as a natural beauty, as did Gardner’s legendary ability to still look fresh-faced after a night out drinking.
“I could dance all night, go straight to the studio at six. After a nap in hair and makeup and a glass of champagne, I’d be ready for my close-up at nine, thank you Mr. DeMille,” she said in Ava Gardner The Secret Conversations. “I don't know how I did it.”
Gardner’s photogenic face meant that she was a favorite of the studio’s when it came to promotional photo shoots, something which largely occupied her earlier years at MGM. It also influenced the roles she was cast in on-screen (take, for example, the 1948 film One Touch Of Venus, where Gardner played the statue come to life).
Gardner worked with some of Hollywood’s (and the fashion world’s) most famous designers, who would dress her on-screen and off. Micol, Zoe and Giovanna, the Italian sisters behind Sorelle Fontana would design a reported 26 gowns for Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. For the film's New York City premiere in 1954, Gardner wore one of their creations as well - a $1,000 silk dress embroidered with semi-precious stones and pearls.
Howard Greer designed several pieces for Gardner over the years, most famous of which was her nontraditional gray and pink wedding dress when she married Frank Sinatra.
In the film Mogambo, designer Helen Rose was behind Gardner’s sophisticated wardrobe (she would also later design Grace Kelly’s wedding dress when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco).
And in 1957’s The Little Hut, Christian Dior designed the actress’ wardrobe - the last project he would complete before his death.
While her looks landed her the opportunity of a lifetime in Hollywood, they would also come to plague her. Unable to shed the many headlines declaring her “the most irresistible woman in Hollywood,” or “the world’s most beautiful animal,” Gardner was defined by her looks even after she retired from making films.
“Actors get older, actresses get old. Ain't that the truth,” she said. “But life doesn't stop because you're no longer a beauty, or desirable. You just have to make adjustments. Although I'd be lying to you if I told you that losing my looks is no big deal.”
Off-screen, Gardner’s tumultuous love life and short-lived marriages drew attention from the press. “I gave it a shot three times, but none of them stuck,” Gardner said of her marriages. “I tried to be a good wife. I tried to be any kind of wife; the plain fact is, I just wasn’t meant to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.”
When she was 19-years-old, the newly signed MGM starlet married Mickey Rooney in 1942 (much to the dismay of the studio’s founder Louis B. Mayer).
“I was just famous for being the first Mrs. Mickey Rooney - ‘arm candy’ they’d call me today,” Gardner said of her first marriage. “Mickey Rooney was the biggest star on the MGM lot.”
The two divorced after a year of marriage, in large part due to Rooney’s infidelities, and by 1945, Gardner had married bandleader, Artie Shaw. Similarly, Gardner’s second marriage ended after a year.
Gardner’s last and most famous marriage was to singer Frank Sinatra. The couple married in 1951 when Sinatra’s career had completely stalled. With Sinatra dropped from his record and film contracts, Gardner noted that his fans and friends had largely abandoned him, too.
“That’s when I saw through those people. I saw through Hollywood,” said Gardner, whose box office appeal continued to climb. “Naive little country girl that I was, I saw through all the phoniness, all the crap.”
The relationship was rocky from the start, with Gardner citing their similarly fiery personalities as the source for many of Sinatra’s and Gardner’s arguments. “We were fighting all the time. Fighting and boozing. Breaking up, getting together again,” she said. The two would separate in 1953, eventually divorcing in 1957, though Gardner and Sinatra stayed in touch for the remainder of her life.
Gardner spent her later years in Knightsbridge, London. She suffered two strokes which left her partially paralyzed in 1986, and passed away a few years later on January 25, 1990.
In Smithfield, NC, the Ava Gardner Museum was founded in 2000, featuring personal and professional jewelry, costumes and memorabilia that belonged to Gardner.