Ava Gardner

One of the most beautiful women ever to step in front of a camera, the star of 'Showboat' and 'Mogambo' endured tempestuous off-screen unions with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.


Born in North Carolina, Ava Gardner was the youngest of seven children. Her parents were poor cotton and tobacco farmers. At the age of 13, Gardner moved with her family to Virginia, where her mother managed a boarding house for ship workers. However, her father became ill during this time and died when Ava was 15.

The family returned to North Carolina following his death and Gardner attended high school, graduating in 1939.

Ava Lavinia Gardner caught MGM's eye as a beautiful teenager, and was playing bit parts in films by the time she was 20.

She landed her first starring role in 'Whistle Stop' (1946), then made a splash that same year in 'The Killers', co-starring with Burt Lancaster. She then appeared in 'The Hucksters' (1947), 'One Touch of Venus' (1948), 'East Side, West Side' (1949), 'Show Boat' (1951) and 'Lone Star' in 1952.

But it wasn't until 1953, when John Ford cast her in 'Mogambo', with Clark Gable, that her true talent emerged, gaining her one Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

After this, she enjoyed roles in 'The Barefoot Contessa' (1954), 'The Little Hut' (1957), 'On The Beach' (1959), 'The Angel Wore Red' (1960) and 'Seven Days in May' in 1964.

Her performance in 'The Night of the Iguana' (1964) also received rave reviews and won Gardner a BAFTA and Golden Globe award nomination.

Her marriages were even bigger news than her films. After brief marriages to Mickey Rooney and bandleader Artie Shaw, her marriage to Frank Sinatra was the most famous and the longest-lasting, from 1948 to 1957.

She married Rooney on 10 January 1942 when she was 19 years old. They divorced in 1943. Her second marriage to Shaw was also short, lasting from 1945 to 1946.

Sinatra left his wife Nancy to marry Gardner, leading to criticism from gossip columnists, the Catholic Church and his fans for leaving his wife for a femme fatale. Their marriage was tumultuous with Gardner falling pregnant twice and having an abortion both times, stating MGM had penalty clauses for stars who had babies. They divorced in 1957 but remained good friends for the rest of her life.

It all became too much for her, especially when she continued to have trouble getting quality parts, and she moved to Spain in the late 1950s, making most of her films in Europe after that. Roles over this period included 'The Bible: In The Beginning' (1966), 'Mayerling' (1968) and 'The Ballad of Tam Lin' in 1970.

She later moved to London, where she lived until her death.

Her beauty remained her most enduring asset, even at fifty. In 1974, she appeared in 'Earthquake', playing Lorne Greene's daughter, in spite of the fact that she was only six years younger than him at the time. She appeared in other film such as 'The Sentinel' (1977) and 'The Kidnapping of the President' (1980) before turning to TV work.

In 1985, she starred in the TV shows 'AD' and 'Knots Landing' before the film 'Long Hot Summer'. Her final film was an undistinguished 1986 made-for-TV effort, called 'Harem'. She spent her final years living in her apartment in London.

After two strokes in 1986, which left her partially paralysed and bedridden, Frank Sinatra paid her medical costs. Her last words were 'I'm tired' to her housekeeper Carmen.

She died of pneumonia at the age of 67, shortly after completing her autobiography 'Ava: My Story'. After her death, Sinatra's daughter found him slumped in his room, face wet with tears, unable to raise his voice above a whisper. She had been the love of his life.

Gardner also declared in her own autobiography shortly before her death that Sinatra was also her biggest love. She is also thought to have inspired his song 'I'm a Fool to Love You'.

She is buried at the Sunset Memorial Park in North Carolina, beside her parents and brothers. A museum was opened in her honour in the town of Smithfield.