north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



Marker Text:

      Born on December 24, 1922, Ava Lavinia Gardner spent most of her childhood in the rural Johnston County community of Grabtown. In 1935, the Gardner family moved to Newport News, Virginia, where her parents secured work at a boarding house. Following her father’s death in 1938, Gardner and her family returned to North Carolina, settling in the Rock Ridge community in Wilson County. Gardner graduated from Rock Ridge High School the following year and attended secretarial school at Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College).

      Her big break came after MGM received portraits of Gardner from her brother-in-law, a professional photographer in New York City. Following a screen test, the studio signed her to a seven year movie deal for $50 a week, prompting Gardner to relocate to Hollywood at age nineteen. She had a number of small roles or obscure performances preceding the debut of the critically acclaimed film The Killers in 1946, in which she portrayed femme fatale Kitty Collins. A string of box office hits followed, including most notably One Touch of Venus (1948), Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), Show Boat (1951), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Sun Also Rises (1957), and The Night of the Iguana (1964).

      In March 1954, Gardner attended the 26th Academy Awards, having been nominated for Best Actress for her role as Eloise “Honey Bear” Kelly in Mogambo (1953). Her co-star, Grace Kelly, was also nominated, in the best supporting actress category. Kelly walked away with an Oscar, but Gardner lost out to newcomer Audrey Hepburn, who took the award for her performance in Roman Holiday. The nomination in 1954 proved to be Gardner’s only shot at an Academy Award.

      In total, Gardner appeared in sixty-seven films. During her lifetime, she had high profile relationships with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Howard Hughes (rumored), Frank Sinatra, and a Spanish bullfighter named Luis Miguel Dominguin. She settled permanently in London in 1968, where she remained until her death in 1990. As per her wishes, her remains were returned to North Carolina for burial with her family at Smithfield’s Sunset Memorial Park. The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, just a mile from the cemetery, showcases the actress’s fifty-year career

Doris Rollins Cannon, Grabtown Girl: Ava Gardner’s North Carolina Childhood and Her Enduring Ties to Home (2001)
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story (1990)
Ava Garnder Museum
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north carolina highway historical marker program

Ava Gardner

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources