Who Was Ava Gardner?
Ava Gardner signed a contract to be an actress with MGM in 1941, but it wasn't until her appearance in 1946's The Killers that she became a star. Gardner's off-screen life was often as dramatic as the roles she played, with marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. Gardner died on January 25, 1990, at age 67, in London, England.
Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, on December 24, 1922. She was her parents' seventh child. When Gardner was 2 years old, she and her family were forced to leave their tobacco farm. Her father then worked as a sharecropper, while her mother ran a boardinghouse. The family always struggled financially, a situation that worsened when Gardner's father died when she was 16.
Gardner was studying to be a secretary when her photographer brother-in-law sent pictures of her to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. A striking beauty with dark hair and green eyes, Gardner's photos convinced the studio to give her a screen test. This led to her signing a seven-year, $50/week contract with MGM in 1941 when Gardner was 18 years old.
Upon her arrival in Hollywood, Gardner was put into the MGM studio system to learn how to be an actress. Her thick Southern accent made speech lessons a required part of her training. Gardner was shy and intimidated by the process of appearing on camera, and, thusly, would sometimes drink beforehand to calm her nerves.
Limited to bit parts at first, Gardner slowly worked her way up to larger roles. But it wasn't until she was loaned to Universal Studios to appear as seductress Kitty Collins in 1946's The Killers that Gardner became a star. That success led to the actress landing better parts in movies like The Hucksters (1947), Show Boat (1951) and The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). She also appeared in Mogambo (1953), a role that earned Gardner her only Academy Award nomination.
Even as her acting career developed, Gardner's beauty was always a large part of her appeal. For her role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954), as a dancer whose rags-to-riches story echoed Gardner's own, MGM touted her as "The World's Most Beautiful Animal."
Off-Screen Life and Loves
Gardner's life in Hollywood was also busy off-camera. She met actor Mickey Rooney on her first studio visit in California. Rooney, then at the height of his career, ardently pursued her. As Gardner, heeding her North Carolina upbringing, was determined to remain a virgin until marriage, they wed in 1942, after first receiving permission from MGM. The two separated a year later, amid Gardner's accusations that Rooney had been unfaithful.
With the end of her first marriage, the down-to-earth Gardner's reputation for drinking, smoking and partying grew. She also became close with playboy Howard Hughes. Although Gardner refused to sleep with Hughes, she remained an object of fascination for the reclusive man for years. Gardner had another short marriage, from 1945 to 1946, to bandleader Artie Shaw. During their time together, Shaw tried to mold Gardner, who was already insecure about her lack of education, with suggested reading lists.
Gardner rarely shied away from romantic entanglements, and her partners ranged from co-stars to Spanish matadors. Her real-life femme fatale reputation peaked when she became involved with singer Frank Sinatra, whom she considered the love of her life. After Sinatra left his wife to be with Gardner, the two married in 1951. Unfortunately, their passion often boiled over into jealous fights, and the two separated and reconciled several times before finally divorcing in 1957.
Life After MGM and Death
Gardner left her MGM contract in 1958 but continued to appear in movies, including On the Beach (1959) and The Night of the Iguana (1964). Gardner received fewer job offers as the years passed, working only sporadically.
After living in Spain for several years, Gardner moved to London, England, in 1968. She remained close to Sinatra, who called her hospital room after her 1986 stroke and later helped with her medical bills. Gardner died from pneumonia in London on January 25, 1990, at the age of 67. She was buried next to her parents in North Carolina.
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