Amidst a sea of blonde-haired bombshells, Ava Gardner stood out as one of Hollywood's true screen sirens, with her legendary beauty and rollercoaster love affairs. The stunning green-eyed brunette was often described as having the face of an angel and the body of a goddess, best known for playing Mara Vargas in "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954). The role that launched Gardner's career, however, was that of ultimate femme fatale Kitty Collins in Ernest Hemingway's "The Killers" (1946). What was infinitely more interesting to fans, however, was her much chronicled off-screen life in which the wild child did what she wanted when she wanted; others be damned - whether it was dating married men, openly courting bullfighters or throwing back whiskey shots like a man. Her complicated, passionate relationships opposite a wide spectrum of Hollywood's leading men fascinated the public the most - from her odd hook-up with the diminutive king of the box office, Mickey Rooney, to living under the thumb of Svengali husband, bandleader Artie Shaw. But it was her tumultuous union to crooner Frank Sinatra which brought the actress the most chronicled pain and pleasure of her life, leading to obsession, abortion and suicide attempts. The fact that Sinatra could never control his real-life barefoot contessa would haunt him until the day he died, making the Sinatra-Gardner union one for the ages.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born Dec. 24, 1922 in Brogden, NC to parents Jonas Baily, a Catholic of Irish American and American Indian (Tuscarora) descent, and Molly, a Baptist of Scots-Irish and English descent. The Christmas Eve baby was the youngest of seven children: Raymond, Melvin, Beatrice (a.k.a. "Bappie"), Elsie Mae, Inez, and Myra. The Gardner household was literally dirt poor, and after losing their property that included a small tobacco farm, Jonas was forced to work at a sawmill while Molly worked as a cook and housekeeper at the nearby Brogden School in order to support their large family.
At the age of 13, Gardner moved with her family to Newport News, VA, and a short while later, to the Rock Ridge suburb of Wilson, NC. Sadly, in the midst of the Great Depression, her father passed away in 1935 from bronchitis. The future movie star attended high school in Rock Ridge, where she graduated in 1939 before attending Atlantic Christian College in Wilson to take secretarial classes. Never book smart, Gardner was quite the tomboy as a young woman, choosing to run around barefoot through the fields with boys, over playing with dolls and experimenting with makeup. She discovered her inner glam goddess, however, during a trip to New York when she was 18. While visiting her beloved older sister Beatrice in the city, Gardner posed for a portrait for Larry Tarr, a professional photographer who also happened to be her sister's husband and who thought his sister-in-law possessed a great natural beauty. The photo ended up in the front window of his studio in Fifth Avenue, marking the beginning of Gardner's career as a photographer's dream subject.
Gardner would have settled on working as a secretary back in her quiet Southern hometown, but the universe had a much different plan for her. In 1941, the photo displayed in her brother-in-law's studio caught the attention of Barnard "Barney" Duhan, a Loews Theaters legal clerk who often worked as a talent scout for MGM. After her sister and Tarr sent in her information to the studio, Gardner soon found herself doing a screen test for studio head Louis B. Mayer, after which he supposedly commented: "She can't act. She can't talk. She's terrific. Sign her." The dark-haired beauty promptly left school, heading to Hollywood that same year - with Beatrice en tow as chaperone - to jumpstart her acting career. Although her Southern accent was charming, the studio decided Gardner still needed a voice coach to diminish her Carolina drawl, giving the starlet the Dream Factory makeover others had undergone thousands of times before.
In no time at all, Gardner began appearing in a variety of films; most being unremarkable B-grade quality during her early years at the studio. MGM signed the actress to a seven-year contract and she made her film debut in "Fancy Answers" (1941). Despite her limited acting ability, there was no denying the camera loved her and she stood out like a klieg light just walking around the lot - home already to the likes of Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr - no slouches in the beauty department. It was on just such a stroll in 1941 that the studio's then biggest star, Mickey Rooney, caught a glimpse of Gardner and fell head over heels in lust. Though the couple looked rather ridiculous together, with the 5' 6" Gardner - who defined the term "out of his league" - towering over the 5' 3" Rooney, the superstar would not be deterred in his quest to bed and marry the starlet. More flattered than in love, Gardner accepted his marriage proposal and the couple were married on Jan. 10, 1942, despite L. B. Mayer's disapproval. Once settled into the supposed wedded bliss portrayed in Photoplay magazine, Rooney continued to live life as a bachelor, partying and carrying on while his 19-year-old bride sat at home, crying on Bappie's shoulder. The couple divorced a mere 17 months later.
Now free to play the field and ardently pursue her career out of Rooney's considerable shadow, Gardner began making small strides on screen, including bit parts in such forgettable fare as "Maisie Goes to Reno" (1944) and "She Went to the Races" (1945). MGM even gave her her first starring role in "Whistle Stop" (1946), but it made little impression on audiences. Sadly, with the exception of a few select roles, it would be her love life which would hold more fascination than anything she did on the silver screen. And it was not just actors who were enamored with Gardner's voluptuous curves. Billionaire and recluse Howard Hughes - who collected women like trophies - pursued the star, culminating in a battle royale in which she famously conked him on the head with a heavy candlestick, knocking him out cold. Despite the violence and her refusal to be yet another of his conquests, the two remained close friends for the rest of his life. More disastrous emotionally to Gardner was her second marriage to bandleader Artie Shaw, the legendary "King of Swing" who was married eight times between 1932 and 1957. Gardner was his sixth wife amongst a group of women that included actresses Lana Turner, Doris Dowling and Evelyn Keyes. The marriage lasted exactly one year, partly because he was very critical of her lack of education, thus allowing him to play the Svengali, molding and shaping her like a pet project. They divorced in 1946, the same year Gardner was about to leave her thoughtless exes and mediocre film roles in the past for much greater glories.
Loaned out to Universal for the Ernest Hemingway-adapted noir film "The Killers," Gardner - breathtaking in her iconic black satin gown - purred and sparked with co-star Burt Lancaster, owning every scene she was in. Her onscreen presence was powerful, yet she also exuded a hint of vulnerability which caused men to fall head over heels for her and women to relate to her. Now a full-fledged star, she delighted audiences with her role as love interest to MGM's "King," Clark Gable, in "The Hucksters" (1947), as a goddess come to life in "One Touch of Venus" (1948) and the exquisite Julie LaVerne in the musical "Show Boat" (1951). But by this time, it was her real life that again fixated. Gardner had found the love of her life in crooner-turned-actor Frank Sinatra, who, at the time of their first meeting, was on a downward career spiral. In fact, she was the bigger star, but that was the least of their problems. Sinatra, who was still married to wife Nancy and had two children with her, was unable to get a divorce due to his Roman Catholic upbringing. So Gardner was not unexpectedly labeled a homewrecker and Sinatra's goodwill within the public continued to slip. The scandal put an expected strain on their relationship early on, but after Sinatra was granted a legal separation in 1951, he and the woman he nicknamed "Angel" married 72 hours after the separation went into effect.
While she was at her career peak, Sinatra was considered a has-been in Hollywood circles, so when a role in the prestige project "From Here to Eternity" (1953) came up, Gardner helped her husband land it - specifically, the role of doomed soldier, Maggio, for which he would win an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and set him on the path to legend. She became pregnant during their marriage, but the actress underwent an illegal abortion because she claimed they simply were not able or ready to take care of a child, later admitting she did it because she "hated Frankie so much" and wanted his "child to go unborn." To say the couple had a tempestuous union would be an extreme understatement. Sinatra's intense jealousy and mistrust of his wife, coupled with Gardner's substantial drinking habit, eventually lead to the actress' third failed marriage. At one point, Sinatra was so obsessed with his wife and wrecked over their fights that he would threaten to kill himself. Gardner would receive phone calls and a gun shot would go off mid-sentence or his cronies would find him with the gas on and his head in the oven. Whether these were serious attempts, no one knew for sure, but one thing was certain - Gardner had a hold of Sinatra like no woman ever had or would again. Despite the couple separating in 1957, they remained good friends for the rest of her life. In fact, Sinatra never stopped loving or obsessing over his ex-wife, even well into his later years.
Despite, the off-screen drama, Gardner maintained a solid acting career and pursued roles that attempted to vanquish the notion of her as a "femme fatale" - ironic, since she appeared to be just such a woman off-screen. Her performance opposite Clark Gable in the 1953 film "Mogambo" earned Gardner an Academy Award nomination, followed by a pivotal role in "The Barefoot Contessa," where her real life habit of walking around barefoot mirrored that of the character she played, opposite a miscast Humphrey Bogart. She also received critical praise for the films "Bhowani Junction" (1956), "On the Beach" (1959) and "The Night of the Iguana" (1964). In fact, it was her work on "Iguana" which garnered the often critically dismissed actress the best reviews of her career, as she washed off the makeup and allowed her true, vulnerable self to shine through. A longtime friend of author Ernest Hemingway - who could match him drink for drink - she acted in two more Hemingway films outside of "The Killers" - "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952) and "The Sun Also Rises" (1957).
After her third and final marriage ended, Gardner became fed up with Hollywood and moved to Spain. She became a fan of the country's culture, especially bullfighting and flamenco dance. The country fell in love with her, too. In the summer of 1998, a bronze sculpture of the actress was erected in her honor in the picturesque village of Tossa de Mar, Spain, where she filmed "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" in 1951. After 10 years in Spain, Gardner moved to London, England where she was able to slow things down. Her life had been a rollercoaster ever since she was discovered by MGM, and she continued acting up until her health weakened - no doubt brought about by living fast and hard for decades. In fact it was her bad habits more than anything else which contributed to her increasingly haggard appearance in which she looked much older than her age. Because of this fact, as well as her displeasure with an industry which turned its back on older screen sirens, she had smaller roles during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the size and quality of the parts, she still had an undeniable onscreen presence. Gardner even appeared in five episodes of the TV show "Knots Landing" (CBS, 1979-1993) as Ruth Galveston. Her final film was the TV movie "Harem" (ABC, 1986); that same year, she suffered two strokes that left the actress partially paralyzed and bedridden. She would, in fact tell old friends like Gregory Peck and ex-husband Mickey Rooney that she often contemplated suicide post-stroke, frustrated at the loss of independence which had defined her all of her life.
In 1990, an unrepentant Gardner wrote an autobiography titled Ava, My Story before dying of pneumonia - a result of having smoked all her life - on Jan. 25, 1990. Sinatra - who had quietly paid for Gardner's medical expenses while she was alive - also paid for her funeral, despite being married at the time to wife, Barbara Sinatra. It was a final tribute to the woman who had inspired his song "I Am a Fool to Want You." She was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield, NC, next to her parents and other family members. The Ava Gardner Museum opened in 1981 with the most extensive memorabilia collection dedicated to the movie star. Even in death, Gardner's legend continued to loom large. Marcia Gay Harden effectively essayed the actress in the 1992 miniseries, "Sinatra" (CBS), and in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic, "The Aviator" (2004), British actress Kate Beckinsale portrayed Gardner. On playing such an interesting real-life woman or "broad" as she was affectionately called by her many male friends, Beckinsale described the star as feisty, fiery, warm, deeply feminine, and tough. "She had a very unique spirit and I really found that appealing."