The first challenge upon my arrival in Smithfield, North Carolina was figuring out how to get to the Sunset Memorial Park. I was happy to get off the extremely hectic Interstate 95 and to be heading west, following Market Street through town. Although the GPS told me I had arrived at my destination, I could not see an entrance through the trees that bordered the cemetery. I passed the North Carolina Historical Marker standing guard between the cemetery and the road, so I knew I was close to my destination.
I found a place to turn around and drove back towards Smithfield and pulled off the edge of the road at the historical marker and read it. The marker was for the actress buried a short distance away – Ava Gardner. Note: When the state historical marker was dedicated in 2015, it was dedicated by Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Stepping through the line of trees, I scanned the cemetery and saw the entrance on the opposite side of the cemetery. Carefully pulling back onto West Market Street, I turned onto NC-210 – as soon as I turned onto NC-210, I had to make an immediate turn to enter the cemetery.
While I had directions to the resting place of Ava Gardner, it turned out I did not need them. The location of Ava Gardner’s grave is well-marked. At the first intersection, a glance to the left revealed the walkway that led to her family plot. I parked near the first intersection I came to and got out of the vehicle. I followed the walkway into the field of stone and was soon at the site of the Gardner family.
As I approached the family plot, the first stone that I noticed did not belong to Ava. The stone, located next to the walkway, was a small statue of a winged angel holding a scroll. The stone, which was the most decorative of the stones in the family plot, belonged to Raymond Gardner. Raymond was Ava’s older brother who had died years before Ava’s birth. Raymond was just two years old when a dynamite cap exploded near him, killing him instantly.
Passing Raymond’s stone, I could see Ava’s marker next to the walkway. Before I stopped to pay my respects to the late actress, I noted the stone next to hers marking the grave of Jonas “Jack” Gardner. This was Ava’s brother who served as a Representative for the North Carolina State House of Representatives from 1971-1977.
I paused at Ava’s stone to pay my respects to the actress. The small, flat stone is marked with her name, birth date and date of death. Nothing else on the simple stone would suggest that she was a famous actress. The plain stone fails to celebrate her fame.
Ava Lavinia Gardner was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, on December 24, 1922, the seventh child of Jonas and Mary Gardner. When Ava was two, the family was forced to leave their farm and her father became a sharecropper and her mother ran a boardinghouse. The family had financial hardships; when Ava was sixteen her father died, placing more burden upon the family.
At the age of eighteen, Ava’s life would change. She had been studying to be a secretary when her brother-in-law sent her picture to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gardner’s dark hair and green eyes convinced MGM to give her a screen test and they soon signed her to a seven-year, fifty dollar a week contract. Gardner received acting lessons from MGM, especially with speaking due to her thick Southern accent. From 1941-1945, Ava appeared in numerous small roles, most of which went uncredited.
In 1941, besides arriving in Hollywood, Gardner met Mickey Rooney. After a whirlwind romance, the two wed in 1942. The marriage lasted a mere two years. Gardner would remarry in 1945, taking bandleader Artie Shaw as her second husband in a marriage that lasted less than a year.
In 1946 she had her break-out year. That year she appeared as Kitty Collins in The Killers and with that role, Ava became a star. She would appear in movies like Show Boat and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In 1953, she appeared in Mogambo, which earned her the only Academy Award nomination she received.
During the late 1940s, Gardner met and fell in love with Frank Sinatra. After Sinatra left his wife, the two married in 1951. It was due to Ava’s connections that Sinatra gained the role in From Here to Eternity, the movie that revived his career. From the beginning, their marriage was extremely volatile and the two fought, separated, and reconciled until they finally divorced in 1957. Despite their separation, Sinatra and Gardner remained close friends until her death.
Note: Sinatra’s separation and eventual divorce from his first wife was something many Hollywood gossip columnists attacked. Hollywood, the Roman Catholic Church, and his fans were upset and angry he would leave his wife for Ava. One of those Hollywood gossip columnists who led the attack on Sinatra’s divorce from his first wife was Hedda Hopper. More about Hedda can be found here: Hedda Hopper.
In 1958, Gardner left MGM, but continued to appear in numerous movies, including On the Beach and The Sun Also Rises. In 1964 she appeared in The Night of the Iguana, based on the play by Tennessee Williams. Her performance gained her a nomination for a Golden Globe Award and BAFTA for her lead role. She would continue acting with one of her last performances coming in 1985 on the television drama Knotts Landing.
In 1986 while living in London, she suffered two strokes that ended her acting career. On January 25, 1990, Ava died of pneumonia at her London home – she was sixty-seven years old. Her body was returned to North Carolina, where she was buried with her family.
I finished paying my respects and walked back to the vehicle, leaving Ava to eternally slumber with her family in the coastal hills of eastern North Carolina, far from the maddening world of Tinseltown.