Ava Gardner’s Journey From Farm Girl to Hollywood Icon

In 1985, Ava Gardner and two of her sisters attempted to visit the Ava Gardner Museum, near the farm where she was born in Smithfield, North Carolina. Unfortunately, it was closed. “Ava responded with, ‘I know what’s in there. I lived it,’” Angelica Henry, the museum’s current manager, tells Closer exclusively. “She never stepped foot inside.”

The youngest of seven children, Ava spent her earliest years on a tobacco and cotton farm in what was then known as Grabtown. “If you’re going to be poor, be poor on a farm,” said Ava in her 2013 memoir The Secret Conversations, noting that even though their home lacked indoor plumbing, there was always food on the table. “It was a struggle for them,” she said of her parents, Mary Elizabeth, known as Molly, and Jonas Gardner, “but they got by, and I always felt loved.”

Disaster struck in 1925 when a fire broke out in the barn. “Jack, Ava’s older brother, snuck a cigarette,” explains Henry. “As he attempted to put it out — in an attempt to not get caught — the cotton fibers caught fire. Nothing was salvageable.”

Ava was only 3, but recalled that tragic night vividly. “I remember the flames. I remember Daddy crying,” she said. Her family had no savings and no backup plan. “We were broke, really and truly broke, not just poor, out on the sidewalk broke.”

An offer for Molly to take over a “teacherage,” or boardinghouse for female teachers, arrived just in time to save the family from homelessness, but it wasn’t an easy life. “She washed sheets, cleaned toilets, scrubbed the floors, and cooked three meals a day for about 20 boarders,” said Ava, who did ironing for their lodgers to make pocket money.

​How Ava Gardner Went From Farm Girl to Hollywood Icon

Ava grew up a tomboy. She helped in the fields and went barefoot in the summer. “I could climb any tree a boy could climb and higher too,” she said. “I could run as fast as any of them and cuss even better.” She never gave a thought to her clothes until she started high school in Newport News, Virginia, where her mother found a new boardinghouse job. “I hated school,” Ava said. “The girls were smart and into nice clothes…I wore the same skirt for a whole goddamn year.”

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

She was 18 and taking a secretarial course when her life changed. Her older sister’s husband took a photo of Ava and displayed it in the window of his family’s photo business in New York City. It attracted attention and eventually landed Ava a meeting at MGM Studios. “I had never figured on being a movie star,” Ava said. “But Mama was all for it. The idea of me being interviewed by MGM was the greatest thrill of her life.”

For her screen test, Ava wore a borrowed pair of her sister’s heels and a print dress her mother had picked up for $16. “I had convinced myself that I wouldn’t hear from them,” said Ava, who was offered a seven-year contract. “But I do remember my heart was thumping when I read the letter asking me to come to Hollywood.”

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