Ava Gardner

Screen Legend and Iconic Party Girl

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Ava Gardner is #25 on the American Film Institute list of the greatest female screen legends of classic American cinema and she is often referred to as one of the most glamorous actresses to have ever grazed the big screen. Her marriage to stars like Mikey Rooney and Frank Sinatra made headlines just as much as her legendary beauty. 



Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on December 24, 1922 in North Carolina. She was the youngest of seven kids – with two older brothers and four older sisters. Their parents Mary Elizabeth and Jonas Bailey of Scottish and Irish ancestry were rather poor sharecroppers. Unfortunately, the family lost the land they worked when the kids were still young and mother Molly took on a job as a cook and housekeeper in a boarding house for teachers, which also provided room and board for the family. In 1931, when Ava was 9 years old, the school closed and the family had to move to Virginia, where Molly would manage a boarding house for ship workers. When Ava was 15 years old, her father died of Bronchitis. Thus, the family moved back to North Carolina where Ava would finish high school and attend secretarial classes for a year. 

Unlikely start

While following her courses, she visited her older sister Beatrice in New York. Beatrice was married to professional photographer Larry Marr who had his studio on Fifth Avenue. He offered to take the girl’s portrait as a gift for their mother Molly. The result was so great that he put the photograph in his shop window to showcase his work. 

This very photograph attracted Barnard Duhan, who was working for Loews Theatre. Duhan actually was a sketchy figure who would use Loews subsidiary MGM as a lure for girls posing as a talent scout. He saw the photograph of Ava in a window and asked in the studio for her number. They did refuse to hand it out. Eventually, he gave up, but did say that somebody should send her information to MGM. And they did. Thus, a short while later, 18-year-old Ava travelled from North Carolina to MGM’S East Coast Office in New York City. They made a screen test with her – but did not record her voice. Because she had such a strong Southern drawl that nobody understood her anyways. Louis B Mayer’s reaction to her reel: „She can’t sing. She can’t act. She can’t talk. She’s terrific!“ And thus she exchanged her home for Hollywood at the age of 22 with a standard studio contract in her pocket and her sister by her side. 

Hollywood career

Upon her arrival in Los Angeles, she was ordered a speech trainer as well as a singing teacher to get rid off her southern accent. She started as a walk-on in a Norma Shearer movie and acted for five years in mostly uncredited bit parts until she played glamorous femme fatale Kitty Collins in Mark Hellinger’s film noir „The Killers“ alongside Burt Lancaster in his film debut.  From then onwards she appeared in numerous high-profile movies – amongst them „Show Boat“, „The Snows of Kilimanjaro“, „Mogambo“ alongside Clark Gable and Grace Kelly, „The Barefoot Contessa“ and „Nights of the Round Table“. As she projected an image of sophistication and glamour, she was often cast to portray noble women. For her role in 1964’s „The Night of the Iguana“ Gardner received a nomination for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress as well as for a BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. 

Apparently, in 1966 she wanted to play Mrs. Robinson in „The Graduate“ and contacted Mike Nichols. But, although it is about an older woman, a mother seducing a younger man, Nichols wanted to cast a younger woman – to clarify: Ava Gardner was 44 years old back then, Anne Bancroft who pocketed the role was 35. 

In the 1970s, Gardner mainly appeared in disaster films which were all the range back then like „Earthquake“ in 1974, „Cassandra Crossing“ in 1976 and City on Fire in 1979. Her last movie was „Regina Roma“ in 1982. After that, she primarily acted on television – including a guest part in „Knots Landing“ in 1985.

So, in short: She had a great career at MGM, but from a theatrical point of view, she did not have the successes, trials and errors as some other great names of that era. And her talent, in the beginning masked by insecurity was only later recognized. Her lively and deep portrayal of complex women on the screen made her a legend. 

In 1968, Ava had relocated to London, where she lived until 1990. She moved there, first and foremost to undergo an hysterectomy to keep herself from the uterine cancer that had killed her mother. But she stayed because of the distance to Hollywood, which she enjoyed. For work she travelled, but always came back. She died there at age 67, of pneumonia and fibrosing aleovitis. Her body was brought back to the US and interred next to her siblings and parents in Smithfield, North Carolina. 

Personal trouble

What is most remarkable about Ava Gardner’s career, as you can hear from Louis B. Mayer’s comment: She was not a great actress in the beginning – she was not chosen for her acting talent. She was chosen by MGM to become a contract actress because she was the perfect raw material to mould a glamorous star from. From speech trainer and acting coach to skin and hair treatments, clothes, make-up and roles – as one documentary about her life says: They changed everything about Ava stopping at surgery, which they never forced on her. They moulded Ava into what they thought a glamorous star looked like and what the public wanted. What the real Ava wanted and who the real Ava was did not concern them. 

Another hit for her self-esteem during Show-Boat: She trained long and hard to sing and had acquired a beautiful singing voice. Nevertheless, as in those days, everything had to be flawless and perfect, they dubbed her singing with a professional singer’s voice – adding to her insecurities. 

Ava Gardner also never believed herself to be a good actress – as she put it: „Us kids at MGM just had to look good.“ 

This augmented her self-doubt. Ava Gardner had very low self-esteem and the studio system enforced her feeling that she was not okay the way she was, that she needed to be changed. She would turn to alcohol to numb this feeling and to loosen up. During filming of ShowBoat she would sneak in booze to the set and have little drinking parties. 

Party Girl

Actually, one of the things that Ava Gardner is known for is her love for alcohol and partying. She lived for the nights, the clubs and the booze – and the men if they were there. Her movie „Night of the Iguana“, which was filmed in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was one of those movies that was basically filmed around Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Williams being drunk half the time. Director John Huston did not get bothered – maybe he joined in the drinking. Budd Schulberg recalled about that time: „(…)you couldn’t believe they were making a movie.“

Escape to Europe

When she filmed Mogambo or any other movie far away from Hollywood, Ava began to loosen up, to become more herself. Basically, the farther away she got, the more herself she could be. That’s why she relocated to Europe, to Madrid, Spain, to be exact in 1955. 

Ernest Hemingway and Juan Perón were two of the gentlemen she encountered there. 

Exiled Argentinian dictator Juan Peron lived below Gardner’s apartment in Madrid. At first Ava, Peron and his second wife Isabel got on well – until the Perons couldn’t stand Ava’s partying anymore and complained. Ava on the other hand send her dogs, corgis, to annoy the poodles of the Perons. Peron asked Franco, who actually was the the man in power in Spain and had given asylum to Peron, for help. Franco send guards to arrest Gardner – but, as she was having a party with American pilots at that very moment, they left to avoid international tensions. 

The other gentleman she met in Spain was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had a tremendous influence on Ava’s life. First, because she starred in three film adaptations of his novels: The Killers in 1946, which was her breakthrough role, „The Sons of Kilimanjaro“ in 1952 and „The Sun Also Rises“ in 1957. These were also the roles that Ava excelled in because she felt such a strong connections to the female characters that Hemingway created. The first two movies were shot before Ava got to know Hemingway – and „The Killers“ was Hemingway’s favorite movie adaptation as he generally disliked how Hollywood treated his work. It was in 1955, when Ava relocated to Spain and had entered into a relationship with bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin that she met Hemingway. It was in the hospital, where Dmoinguin had brought her because of kidney stones. He stayed by her side all the time – except for the one time he went and came back with his close friend Hemingway. Hemingway was amused and impressed by the way Ava handled a conversation on the phone the moment that he entered her room – apparently she used very colorful language that seemingly got by unnoticed by the nuns of the hospital that were present. That is the beginning of Ava’s friendship with Hemingway that would last until 1961, when Hemingway died from suicide.

Ava’s own words from her autobiography about how they met: “Though I obviously wasn’t crazy about the circumstances, I was delighted to meet Papa and absolutely floored that he’d take the time to visit me in a hospital. I just adored the man; I idolized him, in fact, and we became friends from that moment on.”

Ava not only spend time with Hemingway in Spain, but also in Cuba, where Hemingway had a Finca that he often travelled to. These two really liked each other and thought highly of each other. 

According to Hemingway’s biographer, A.E Hotchner, Hemingway said, “[Ava] was the only woman who could out drink me. She could party all night at flamenco bars and go straight to the studio and look beautiful – and then do it all again the next night. No one could keep up with her.” Hemingway also told Harvey Breit, the American poet and close friend of his, that “[Ava had] two sides to her personality. She could be sweet, attractive, witty, and good fun. She also had a sharp tongue and could be an absolute devil. She suffered from a sense of inferiority and reacted violently to anyone who joked about her.”

Ava was absolutely shocked and saddened by Hemingway’s passing as they had formed a very unique, non-romantical, non-sexual bond overt the years and had kept in lengthy mail contact when not being together in person. 


Hemingway was one of Ava’s most treasured friends, but there are many more friendships that marked her life: 

Grace Kelly – Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly met on the set of Mogambo on location in Africa. At first, Grace Kelly wasn’t too fond of Ava Gardner and her wild ways of drinking and care-free partying. But, in the end, it helped Kelly to loosen up and start an affair with Clark Gable. When touring Rome, these two were flirtatious and carefree and enjoying life. A life-long friendship resulted from these early days in the Congo. Grace Kelly even tried to hook up Ava with Aristotle Onassis, but Ava found him gross. 

Mearene (Rene) Jordan – Ava Gardner had an assistant, as most Old Hollywood stars did. Her name was Maerene Jordan, called René. The first question Gardner asked her was whether she knew how to mix a Martini. As René said no, Gardner apparently laughed and showed her. From then onwards these two were inseparable. It’s probably the most long-lasting, intimate and close relationship that Ava had in her life. 

Howard Hughes – Crazy avaiator and Hollywood eccentric Howard Hughes had a huge crush on Ava and did make advances often. He was basically obsessed with her. Ava never fell for him and never thought much of the whole thing. But he did make her mad and they had fights, even physical ones. 

Gregory Peck – Ava starred with Gregory Peck in three movies, the Great Sinner in 1949, The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952 and On the Beach in 1960. After her death, Peck took in her beloved housekeeper Carmen Vagas and her corgi Morgan. They referred to each other as „great old pals“. As René puts it in her autobiography (Living with Miss G): “Gregory Peck also recognized Miss G’s immense potential and tried to encourage her to believe in her talent and work at it. She never did. She lacked that ambition and lacked that confidence. She made her mark because she was always playing herself, her natural self.” And in the words of Gregory Peck himself in Ava’s autobiography -„Ava: My Story“: „(…)she herself was not overly ambitious about becoming a great actress. Yet she did constantly improve and at her best I think she could certainly be counted among the better actresses on the screen.” What Peck admired about Ava: “What I liked about Ava was that we had so much in common it was like we were young people from the same hometown. We both were products of middle-class, small American towns where everybody knew everybody, and it was on that basis that we struck up an immediate friendship. Ava was also outspoken, and there was something refreshing about that because sometimes she’d be outspoken when other people would be afraid to. That to me shows a strength of character and the kind of grass-roots, middle-American honesty she has.” Despite the adoration and the deep friendship these two shared, they were never romantically involved. 


Her good looks obviously attracted a lot of men and Ava Gardner married three times. 

Her first love and husband was fellow MGM star Mickey Rooney. It was actually on the first day that Ava was shown around the MGM lot that these two met and Rooney fell for her the very minute he saw her and wore her down until she gave him her number. The same happened with his marriage proposal – initially, she said no but he asked so many times that she finally said yes. As they were both under contract with MGM, Louis B Mayer had to give his blessings – which he did, but fearing for Mickey Rooney’s popularity, they had to marry way upstate in a very small ceremony. They divorced already one year later

Then, Gardner fell in love with bandleader Artie Shaw, who had previously been married to Gardner’s good friend Lana Turner. Ava Gardner risked her career living with him without a marriage certificate – the clean-cut, goodie-two-shoes-image of MGM’s stars was threatened. Finally, in 1945, Shaw and Gardner tied the knot – but divorced only one year later again. One of the reasons were the difference in intellectual interest. Shaw wanted Gardner to educate herself and read Schopenhauer and philosophy. And, apparently, Shaw caught Gardner reading „Forever Amber“ by Kathryn Wilson and threw the book across the room as it was mainstream. Irony being: Shaw later got married to Wilson that very year. 

Her most talked-about relationship was with husband #3: Frank Sinatra! Sinatra was married to Nancy when they met, but they fell fast and hard for each other and had a relationship nevertheless and they got married in 1951, when Sinatra finally left Nancy for her. The marriage was tumultuous. Times got tough, when Sinatra’s career was declining and he even struggled to book a nightclub gig. Ava used her influence and got Sinatra a part in „From Here to Eternity“ in 1953, which revived his career. Ava did become pregnant – a dream she had dreamt for a long time, to become a wife and mother. Nevertheless, she got an abortion without Sinatra’s knowing because of the MGM contract clauses about pregnancies. Ava and Frank suited each other well – hey both liked to party, they liked to drink, they both had a temper … and they were both incredibly jealous. It was an explosive cocktail that finally led to their divorce in 1953 – although both would claim for the rest of their lives that the other was the love of their lives. As a niece of Ava would later say: They couldn’t live together nor stay apart. They stayed friends until Ava’s death. Frank Sinatra called her right after her stroke in 1986 and footed her medical bills. 

He also helped her with a relationship that was anything but great with „The Bible: The Beginning“ co-star George C. Scott. As per usual, Ava fell fast and hard and during filming they two began an affair. But passion turned to violence and Ava found herself badly bruised and hurt with broken bones. Ava’s assistance had called Frank when she didn’t hear from Ava for quite a while knowing that Ava and Scott were together in Connecticut. Two hours after the call, Ava returned home. Low self-esteem lets you do and endure crazy things. 

When Ava moved to Madrid, Spain, right after the break-up from her marriage with Sinatra, she launched herself into the Spanish lifestyle and into the love of bullfighting – something she shared with Ernest Hemingway. She will in love with Luis Miguel Dominguin and had an affair with him for a couple of years – and got to know Hemingway through him. 

One of the men that Ava Gardner tried to win over was Fidel Castro. Ava Gardner was politically very outspoken and a liberal Democrat – so much so that her first husband Mickey Rooney would call her a „red“. In 1959, when Castro was still seen as a liberator, Ava, then aged 37, met Castro at t eh Havana Hilton in Cuba. And they got along very well. Too well, actually. Castro’s mistress and translator Marita Lorenz, was highly jealous and tried to keep Ava from Castro. Which ended in Gardner calling Lorenz „a little bitch“ and slapping her in the face. Castro decided that this was too much scandal and got rid of Ava by fixing her up with an aide who had the order to satisfy her in a suite at the National Hotel, compliments of Cuba“. It sounds so dramatic and fabulous at the same time – I cannot say with certainty that is how it went down but her biography by Lee Sever says so. 


Ava Gardner’s style is much more than just her clothes. It was her fun and adventurous way to see the world, to meet people, to have fun and be fun. 

Although her choice of clothes both on and off set have made a lasting impact on fashion. Ava chose figure-flattering, tailored clothes and gowns and sophisticated casual wear as staples. Her black dress from „The Killers“ counts amongst the most iconic black dresses and inspired subsequent costume and fashion designers. She influenced fashion by appearing on over 250 magazine covers worldwide, amongst them Look, Elle, Time, People and Vogue.

She was a strong person, very athletic, who enjoyed being active and outdoors. She engaged in sports up until her latest years in London, when she still walked several miles a day to keep fit.

Most of all, Ava Gardner is remembered by family, friends and fans for her humanity, her respect for everybody, her open-mindedness and unpretentious ways of seeing and meeting the world, the people. Brought up in the segregated South, she would become one of the most outspoken people to embrace people of all ethnicities and races, her closest friend throughout the years being her assistant of color, René, she helped wherever and whenever she could, got to know her neighbors and believed in being there for each other and helping each other. She was also inspired by the Gypsies in Spain – she even spent the night with René in one of their caves, drinking, being and singing. She loved the community and the free spirit. She was a role model, not in the sense of achieving the perfect figure and the perfect manicure, but in the sense of how to show up as a human being and how to lead an independent and self-reliant life. Ava called the shots, she created her life – and despite broad assumption, she was the one financing all her husbands throughout their marriage. 

So, Ava Gardner’s style is as much about designer tailor-made clothes as it is about an open-mind, unpretentiousness and being a human being in a community and in one world with others. Definitely a style icon to imitate. 

With all my love!




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