SMITHFIELD, N.C. – Expectations for small-town museums often are understandably low, but expect to be impressed at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield. It delivers the ultimate small-town-girl-who-hit-it-big story in a prominent location on Smithfield’s main street.
One of Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies starting in the 1940s was able to keep her real name. Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in 1922 in Grabtown, a rural community east of Smithfield, which itself is about 30 miles east of Raleigh. No two ways about it, Gardner was a country girl – and one who never forgot her roots.
Ingenious promotion by her brother-in-law, a professional photographer in New York, put her image in front of MGM executives. Soon enough, Gardner was on the big screen alongside actors such as Clark Gable, Richard Burton, Humphrey Bogart and Gregory Peck.
She starred with Grace Kelly and Clark Gable in 1953’s “Mogambo,” which was a remake of a 1932 film, “Red Dust,” that had starred Gable and Jean Harlowe – in the role Gardner played. Gardner and her mother had watched “Red Dust” at the Howell Theatre in Smithfield. She was the heroine in two movies based on Ernest Hemingway’s novels, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Sun Also Rises,” and later became friends with Hemingway.
One of the illuminating museum displays is a chatty letter Grace Kelly wrote to Gardner. The envelope was addressed simply to Miss Ava Gardner, Grand Hotel, Rome, Italy.
Gardner made headlines as well as movies. Upon arrival in Hollywood at age 18, she had a one-year marriage to Mickey Rooney and another short marriage to bandleader Artie Shaw. She and Frank Sinatra were married from 1951-1957 in what People Magazine deemed one of the “Romances of the Century.” She never remarried after they divorced.
Even as a star, she maintained close ties to Smithfield, treasuring quiet, non-Hollywood visits. She died in 1990 and came home to Sunset Memorial Park on U.S. 70.