Routinely ranked among the most beautiful women in all of Hollywood history, Ava Lavinia Gardner was Hollywood royalty almost from the beginning. Unusually gorgeous, even amidst a town filled with some of the most beautiful people in the world, her beauty would ultimately prove to be her greatest asset and also the biggest obstacle to her success as an actress. That inherent talent would also contend with a highly publicized love life, involving some of the the most desired leading men and influential power brokers in the world. Ava's powerful personality and fierce independence would undermine her relationships with all these men in the end, meaning that by the time her race on this Earth was run, she would depart almost completely alone.
Ava got her start in this world on Christmas Eve, 1922 in Johnston County, North Carolina, already proving herself extra special right from the beginning. Born to poor share cropper parents raising that state's signature crop of tobacco, she grew up about as far from the bright lights of Hollywood as one could get in depression era America. She spent the majority of her life a poor farmer's daughter, though after loosing her father at the age of 15, she and her mother would carry on the best they could, running a boarding house and barely eking out a living. It wasn't until the age of 19, when Ava took a fateful trip to NYC to visit her older sister, that her beauty would literally change her life forever.
Ava's rise to stardom is the classic Hollywood tale of unlikely discovery. During her trip to visit her older sister in the Big Apple, Ava's beauty would draw the eye of her sister's husband, a photographer with a studio in the city. After posing for a portrait shot, which he then put in his store window, her lovely face would again draw attention, this time from a legal clerk for Lowes Theaters, who used his distant connection to the movie business as an means of impressing the ladies. Though unable to actually seal the deal with Ava, his interest did inspire her brother-in-law to get her a meeting with an actual MGM talent scout, who gave 19-year old Ava her first screen test. Completely unimpressed with her performance and unable to understand her thick, southern drawl, Ava's beauty was enough to get her screen test seen by studio head Louis B. Mayer, who responded via telegram by saying "She can't sing, she can't act, she can't talk. She's terrific!" And thus her Hollywood career began.
Quickly making her way to Hollywood with stars in her eyes, Ava would soon realize the downsides of being a young actress in Hollywood. Getting herself a voice coach, she would tame her native North Carolina accent. The studio contract system would prove to be a much tougher nut to crack for Ava. Most actors in Hollywood during this time were the virtual property of the studios they signed with, forced to submit themselves and their careers to the will of studio execs. Ava was no exception to this system. With no choice but to abide by a studio more interested in her looks than her talents as an actress, Ava's first decade or so in Hollywood would see her hamstrung by eye candy roles in several forgettable B-movies MGM would produce throughout that time. This early lack of faith in her ability as an actress would plague her with self doubt for much of her career to follow.
As a result of MGM's bias against Ava, some of her first successes as an actress while under contract to MGM would happen via other studios, to which she would occasionally be loaned out. One of these loan outs to Universal, for the 1946 Burt Lancaster noir thriller THE KILLERS, would be Ava's breakthrough performance. This would lead to follow up successes in other high profile movies along side some of Hollywood's biggest leading men. Hit movies like 1951's SHOW BOAT with Clark Gable, THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO with Gregory Peck and THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA with Humphrey Bogart, would prove Ava's viability as a major Hollywood player. They would also see her through her 17-year long ordeal under MGM's contract, which despite her successes, still insisted on keeping her from many of their more juicier parts right up until the end.
As a free agent, Ava would go on to more great successes, infusing many of her roles with her own brand of sultry, sassy sex appeal, intensified by her delirious good looks and a practiced, provocatively smokey voice. This intense sex appeal would be one of the hallmarks of her career and her public persona. It would also drawn in some of Hollywood's most eligible bachelors - a few of whom would eventually wed her. The first in this illustrious group was young Mickey Rooney. Amazing to think that Mickey was ever young, but in the early 40s, Ava and Mickey were but mere infants who jumped at the opportunity to get hitched. He being 21 and she 19, the marriage was not surprisingly doomed to failure. Being the sort of lady not accustomed to pulling punches, Ava would later sum up her relationship with Mickey by remarking "he may have enjoyed the sex, but [goodness knows] I didn't.". She would remain mostly unattached throughout the rest of the 40s, with the exception of a brief marriage to band leader Artie Shaw. Her highly publicized on-again-off-again relationship with aviation tycoon Howard Hughes would keep her quite occupied romantically for the rest of the 1940s.
It wasn't until the early 1950s that Ava would meet her next husband and the self-confessed love of her life, legendary crooner Frank Sinatra. Their relationship would start out rocky and stay that way for most of its 6-year run. Sinatra's decision to leave his wife for Ava was grounds for much dissent from the Catholic church, which publicly derided him and their relationship. Such anger would prove to be the least of their problems, as their opposite personalities often caused terrible rifts between them. This situation was further complicated by Sinatra's failing career during this time, although it was Ava's influence that got him his comeback role in the film FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which made him a star once again. Their marriage would be over by 1957. Though not done with love, this would be Ava's last marriage.
The late 1950s and 1960s would see Ava move to Spain, where she would strike up friendships with the likes of Ernest Hemingway and many bullfighters, for whom she had a special attachment. This time would see her enter into her 4th decade on Earth and a somewhat slowed career, though she still continued to give many memorable performances during this time. Her roles in THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY would earn her award nominations and acclaim. Financial troubles eventually forced her to leave Spain and settle in England, where she would spend the rest of her life. The 1970s saw her falling back on the lucrative disaster movie genres popular in that decade, which were known to mine former Hollywood greats to add luster to their their movie marquees. A brief sojourn into TV movies and soap operas in the 1980s would follow.
Unfortunately for Ava, a lifetime indulging in her childhood cash crop, tobacco, would leave her severely ill later in life. Suffering from emphysema and lupus for years, a massive stroke in the mid 1980s left her paralyzed over much of her body. She would spend the rest of her life bedridden, looked after by her loyal housekeeper Carmen and her Corgi Morgan. Though her ex-husband Frank Sinatra would make every effort to help treat her illnesses, paying for a live in staff of trained medical practitioners, she would eventually succumb to her illnesses by the early 90s, passing away at the age of 67.
Tragic endings aside, her bigger-than-life career as one of Hollywood's most enchanting beauties endures long after her passing. Being a born and bred southern belle made her a woman of intense fortitude and iron will, which she successfully transmuted to the screen in more than a few performances. Though often plagued by uncertainty and doubt, thanks to the early emphasis placed on her looks over her talent, she never once threw in the towel or gave in to the prejudices of others. She remains a legendary leading lady of the silver screen and one of it's most breathtaking beauties.