Remembering Ava Gardner

Movie posters recall Ava Gardner's varied roles in the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, N.C.

Movie posters recall Ava Gardner’s varied roles in the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, N.C.

Welcome to the Ava Gardner Museum.

Welcome to the Ava Gardner Museum.

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.

A photo of the newlyweds, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

A photo of the newlyweds, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.

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.

Some of Aunt Ava's personal items.

Some of Aunt Ava’s personal items.

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 cape and shoes Ava Gardner wore in "The Barefoot Contessa."

The cape and shoes Ava Gardner wore in “The Barefoot Contessa.”

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

This display recalls Ava's work with Gregory Peck. Lucky girl.

This display recalls Ava’s work with Gregory Peck. Lucky girl.

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