In honor of her 90th birthday, today we will pay a visit to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina. Born in nearby Grabtown on Christmas Eve 1922, Gardner’s family were poor tobacco farmers who lost their property when she was still young. It did not look like a bright future for the teen, becoming a secretary was the only means of success at the time for a woman. But luck was on her side. Her brother-in-law, a professional photographer, put Ava’s portrait in the window of his studio on Fifth Avenue in New York City, which caught the eye of someone from MGM, and the rest is Hollywood history. There’s a famous quote from Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, who said: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific!”
Fanboy Tom Banks began collecting memorabilia and opened a museum dedicated to her life in 1978. With over 20,000 pieces in the collection, there are personal photographs and mementos, costumes like the black velvet dress from The Great Sinner with a seemingly impossible 19-inch waist, various items from Ava’s homes in London and Madrid and a 14K solid yellow gold watch Ava gave to ex-hubby Frank Sinatra. Not sure if her other exes Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw got watches too, but hey, they got to nail Ava, which we know is a very important issue…ain’t that right, Frank?
But probably the weirdest part is that Tom Banks has some competition in the number one fan department. Yes, Dutch artist Burt Pfeiffer had such an intense infatuation with Ava Gardner that he painted a portrait of her every year from 1948 until his death in 2001. All of his paintings hang on the walls of the museum, and one in particular features a mouse crawling up the actress’s sleeve. Is that mouse actually Burt? Weird.
Anyway, the gift shop sells paper dolls, t-shirts, wine bottles, bumper stickers, shot glasses and a hand fan featuring a die-cut glamor shot of Gardner (I want that last one just because it’s so freakin’ ridiculous). And the Ava tour doesn’t end with the museum, there’s the annual festival (now in it’s 8th year), and stops to see her birthplace and grave in Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery. So if you find yourself driving southeast of Raleigh and think there’s nothing to do, well, you’re wrong. My visit to the James Dean Museum in Indiana proves that the middle of nowhere is somewhere, at least for people who like dead movie stars.