Drive down I-95 through North Carolina and you can’t miss the signs.
No, I don’t mean the South of the Border billboards.
The signs that beckoned to me were the Ava Gardner Museum signs. What the heck was a museum devoted to an elegant lady of film doing in North Carolina? I had to find out.
The movie star who once loved Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra is the star of a modest museum in the little town of Smithfield, N.C. She lived in a town nearby with the unlikely name of Grabtown. How she transformed herself from little country girl with a thick Southern accent and exceptional face to international movie star is told here in rooms filled with her movie costumes, photographs, a sweet biopic, mementoes and personal possessions.
I never stay for the movie but this time I did. It features family members, as well as a tribute from Ava’s first husband, Mickey Rooney. It’s a remarkable story. Let’s call it a cinematic love letter. In fact the whole museum pays loving tribute to her.
The costumes drew me first. And hers were spectacular. I couldn’t keep my eyes off a cape she wore in “The Barefoot Contessa” and the black gown with the impossibly narrow waist from “The Great Sinner.”
Her three marriages each get a mention but among the biggest displays is one about Ava’s marriage to Frank Sinatra at a time when he was a down-and-out entertainer. (I can’t remember a time like that, but my father remembered.)
The museum also houses a collection of portraits painted of Ava by Bert Pfeiffer, a fan who never actually met her. She kept three of his works in her house.
I knew some of her films but most I did not. Learning more about Ava Gardner’s life and movie career made me want to know more and see more of her work. A visit takes about an hour or so. Combined with lunch — we ate at the funky Simple Twist down the street — it was a nice break from our travels down the interstate.
ⓒ Text and photos by Mary K. Tilghman