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Published July 26th 2022
Hollywood Glamour in the Heart of the South
At first glance, Johnston County and all its small towns are your typically beautiful, lush, slow-paced, southern communities. The people are polite and love to tell the stories of their town's histories and the surrounding locales. They are all seemingly interconnected, and it's fascinating to hear the stories passed down through the years - sometimes centuries. But a more recent discovery in the town of Smithfield may be of interest to those of us who are old Hollywood film buffs.
In the 1940s, one seemingly plain local was scooped up by Hollywood and would become one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood history. That plain local was Ava Gardner.
She grew up watching Clark Gable movies with her mother. When she finally got to Hollywood, she got to do a remake of one of his original films in real life. She was in heaven since he was her idol.
At one point, she went to New York to visit her sister, where her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr, a photographer, took her portrait and displayed it in his studio window. Barnard Duhan (a legal clerk) passed the studio, saw the portrait, and said, "Somebody should send her info to MGM." Tarr immediately did. That was the beginning, and her career lasted well into the 1980s.
During her career, she was nominated for numerous awards for best actress, including an Academy Award, several BAFTAs, and multiple Golden Globes. While she was a fantastic actress, she was also known for her humanitarian work. She was a member of the NAACP and contributed to underserved communities of color. After her passing, she also generously directed that all future funds earned go to non-profits and charities that advance medical research and animal welfare.
After three marriages - one to Mickey Rooney, one to Artie Shaw, and finally one to Frank Sinatra - Gardner remained in Hollywood for ten years, then left and moved to London, where she remained for the rest of her life. Upon her death in 1990 from pneumonia, she was returned to Smithfield, North Carolina. Her grave is beneath the stately magnolias of Sunset Memorial Park.
Smithfield has also dedicated a lovely museum to her — the Ava Gardner Museum - containing all things Ava. It is truly incredible. Upon entering, you are greeted by a massive photograph of her in pose - one of her publicity shots. It's quite beautiful and indicative of the time. The museum contains clothes, costumes from her movies, personal effects, books, hair accessories, and jewels, and her films are also playing in the back. It's a true example of Hollywood glamour, but it comes from a small town in North Carolina. Go. You know you want to.