Ava Gardner: The Centenary of a Legend

“I was never really an actress,” Ava Gardner remarked in a 1985 American TV interview, in her classic (and not always understood) candor. “None of us were. Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Van Johnson, and Mickey Rooney. We were good at looking at.”

Ava, with her green eyes and black hair, was considered one of the most beautiful stars revealed by Hollywood, having started working in films at the age of 19, without any training or aspiration, and only stopping when she died, at 67 years, of pneumonia, in his flat in London. At the time, it was a recurrent disease that she had been fighting for several years, even after the stroke she suffered in 1986.

With a filmography of more than 60 titles, Ava was never considered versatile, but her beauty and magnetism were undeniable, even in times when she lived alongside legends like Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, or Lana Turner. Fame piqued her interest in fans and her eventful love life made history. She dated the millionaire Howard Hughes (she is played by Kate Beckinsale in the biopic The Aviator), was married three times (Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra) had romances with bullfighters and other actors and was Ernest Hemingway‘s muse. A fascinating life, and even more interesting because Ava didn’t hold her tongue: with profanity and a unique sincerity, she was the synonym of authenticity, something “dangerous” in a woman of her time.

Born in a small town in the southern United States, Ava Lavinia Gardener grew up on a farm in Smithfield, North Carolina, having been born on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1922. The youngest of five children, she had a very poor childhood. Her dreams were simple: getting married and having children, working as a stenographer. But a visit to New York with her sister changed everything. Her brother-in-law was a commercial photographer and took several portraits of her. One caught the attention of a headhunter who sent a copy to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. It didn’t take long for her to be called in for a test and hired.

On a salary of $50 a week, she took diction classes to lose her accent and acting classes while working as a model. Her first film was in 1942 and continued with small roles until 1946 when she starred alongside Burt Lancaster in the noir classic The Killers. The world fell in love with Ava in the role of Kitty Collins, a seductive and relentless woman, forever associated with her image.

Films such as A Touch of Venus, where she was dubbed singing the classic Speak Low, Show Boat (where she was dubbed again when she sang Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man), passing through The Snow of Kilimanjaro and Mogambo, were great successes. Her most famous film was The Barefoot Countess, but it was Mogambo that earned her only Oscar nomination and an unshakable friendship with Grace Kelly.

Insecure as an actress, Ava liked the nightlife in Los Angeles: drinks, parties, and music were part of her routine. Married Mickey Rooney at just 19 years old and separated in less than two years. The marriage to Artie Shaw was also short (only one year), with the actress ending the relationship after a nervous breakdown. However, it was the great passion of Frank Sinatra that became a legend in Hollywood.

Although they crossed paths at parties, their relationship only began in 1950, when the singer’s career was in decline, as was his first marriage. The chemistry and intensity of their love led to extremely public fights and reconciliations, with the two marrying in 1951 after he managed to divorce Nancy, his childhood sweetheart. Ava and Frank were married for 6 years and it was for her that he wrote the classic I’m a Fool To Want You, immortalized in the voice of Billie Holiday.

The fragile marriage came to an end when art became reality. Recording The Sun Also Rises, where she played the impetuous Lady Brett, a seducer of bullfighters, who actually fell in love with one. Even though divorced, she and Sinatra remained friends (according to her biography, with occasional encounters for the rest of their lives. “In bed, we never fought”, she explained in the book). After him, she never married again.

Drinking never stopped her from working, but she herself acknowledged in her biography that it harmed her appearance and health. Gradually, she accepted to do more work outside the United States, due to the tax advantages and ended up moving to Europe, dividing her time between London and Madrid. When she needed money, she wrote her book (“It was either that or sell my jewelry and I’m attached to them”, she said at the time), but little by little she became isolated and avoided being photographed.

“I was a victim of an image,” she said in an interview. “Because I was promoted as a sort of siren and played all these sexy girls, people made the mistake of thinking I was like that off-screen. They couldn’t be more wrong,” she added.

One of the most famous actresses of her time, Ava loved to sing. On her centenary day, here is our tribute to her. And the scene does not have a record of her real voice.

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