Ava Gardner

On this date in 1922, actress Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in Grabtown, N.C., the last of seven children born to her Irish Catholic father (a tenant farmer who died when she was 16) and a Scottish Baptist mother. Biographer Charles Higham wrote this of the family, “Books were no part of the texture of their life: only the Bible stood on the shelves, and it was not until Ava was 16 that she was permitted to read any novel not assigned in school.”

She grew up attending Baptist services and enrolled for a year at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College), affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Visiting her sister in New York City in 1939, she caught the eye of a photographer with ties to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Two years later she signed a seven-year contract with MGM for $50 a week and married Mickey Rooney. She soon divorced him and then married bandleader Artie Shaw (1945-46) before marrying Frank Sinatra in 1951. They divorced in 1957.

While she had relationships with other men throughout her life, including Howard Hughes, John Huston and Ernest Hemingway, she never again married. She never had children and ended at least two pregnancies with abortions.

Gardner’s acting career expanded from small, walk-on roles to starring with Clark Gable in “The Hucksters” and “Mogambo.” In between she had a leading role in the musical “Show Boat.” Gardner exuded “sultry” as a femme fatale in her four-decade film career. She was nominated once (in 1953) for a Best Actress Oscar as Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly in “Mogambo,” losing to Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Gardner’s only Golden Globe nomination, in her last major leading role in a critically acclaimed film, was for 1964’s “Night of the Iguana,” won by Anne Bancroft for “The Pumpkin Eater.”

Religion never played a positive role in her life, according to biographers and Gardner herself, in her autobiography Ava: My Story. Her friend Zoe Sallis, who met her on the set of “The Bible” when Gardner was living with Huston in Puerto Vallarta, said Gardner always seemed unconcerned about religion. When Sallis asked her about religion once, Gardner replied, “It doesn’t exist.” Gardner ended her acting career on the small screen with several TV roles in the mid-1980s. She suffered a stroke in 1986 and was plagued by lung problems before dying at home of pneumonia at age 67. (D. 1990)

PHOTO: Gardner as Julie LaVerne in “Show Boat” (1951); public domain photo

Freedom From Religion Foundation