She became known as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and Ava Gardner lived a glamorous lifestyle to boot. No stranger to lavish Hollywood parties and cocktail bars, Gardner endured troubled marriages to some of the most famous men in America, including Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra.
Yet her looks were also used to downplay her serious talent as an actress and Gardner was self-conscious about her skills throughout her life. She starred in some of the biggest Hollywood films of her generation and has rightly earned her credit as an actor in more recent decades. Here are 42 facts about the legend of the screen.
1. Best of the Best
Ava Gardner’s career was a bit of a slow starter until she hit her big break with The Killers in 1946. After that film though, Gardner shot to the top of Hollywood. After an award-winning career, Ava Gardner was awarded spot number 25 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 25 Greatest Female Stars of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
2. Worth a Thousand Words
Ava Gardner’s rise to fame was something of a serendipitous affair that all started thanks to a portrait. When visiting her sister Beatrice in 1941, her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr, wanted to get a picture. Tarr was a professional photographer and he decided to hang the portrait up in his studio. After getting a bunch of attention from mostly male clients, Tarr sent Gardner’s picture to MGM studios.
The rest is history—say cheese!
3. I Want to Break Free
After finally finishing her 20-year long contract with MGM studios, Ava Gardner celebrated by grabbing a co-starring role in the apocalyptic sci-fi romance On the Beach with Gregory Peck. The film was a hit and drew rave reviews not only for the performances but for the importance of work about nuclear end-times during the Cold War.
As far as freelance choices go, Gardner couldn’t have chosen much better.
4. Putting Your Name on It
On the Beach was filmed in the Berwick, Australia, which was then a suburb of Melbourne. It was still a relatively new place at the time of filming so, in honor of their illustrious guests, Berwick city council decided to name some of their new streets after the stars of the film. Ava Gardner was one of those stars lucky enough to have her name immortalized there, having a street named after her.
5. A Closer Look
Stanley Kramer had a heck of a time trying to finish On the Beach because the local residents of couldn’t keep away from the Hollywood stars that had descended on their coastal region. Onlookers at the beach would often crowd in close to look at the beautiful Ava Gardner, which also meant they ended up getting in the shot. Unpaid extras, right?
Well, not quite—On the Beach is about a nuclear apocalypse, so there’s not supposed to be anyone else on that beach!
6. Who’s the Lucky Guy?
Given her status as one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and stunning women, Ava Gardner’s attraction to some of the biggest leading men was hardly a big surprise. She was married three times to three different stars. Two of those men, Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, were also products of the Classic Hollywood studio system.
In between those leading fellas was the famous jazz bandleader and clarinetist Artie Shaw.
7. Do a Little Dance
Always the showman, Mickey Rooney certainly gave Ava Gardner a first impression to remember. As she recalled to her ghostwriter Peter Evans, Gardner met her first husband while he was performing in drag as the Brazilian dancer Carmen Miranda. “Complete with false eyelashes, false boobs, his mouth smothered in lipstick,” the icon recalled to Evans of that fateful night when she was still just a star-struck teenager.
8. Southern Girl
Although she became well known for her glitzy and bohemian lifestyle in Hollywood and Europe, Ava Gardner came from humble roots. In fact, she was a farm girl growing up! Heralding from Grabtown, North Carolina, Gardner grew up on a tobacco farm and it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Her father died when she was still in her teens, which in part gave her the push to pursue an acting career in Hollywood.
9. Putting Your Name on the Map
Marketers had a rather audacious idea to promote the 1957 romance adventure The Little Hut. The film starred Ava Gardner alongside David Niven and Stewart Granger. They played three seafarers shipwrecked on a tropical island. Film producers purchased a small island in Fiji and named it Ava Ava. A contest was then created to lease the private island to the lucky winners.
The film was…less memorable than its marketing.
Battling several illnesses after a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking, Gardner became a recluse in her final years. She lived in London for the final decade of her life with only Carmen Vargas, her housekeeper, and a Welsh Corgi named Morgan as her companionship. When Gardner died of pneumonia in 1990, she ensured that Carmen and Morgan weren’t left out in the cold.
Carmen went to work with Gregory Peck, who was a long-time friend of Gardner’s, and Morgan came waddling along with her.
11. Papa’s Girl
Based on coincidence more than anything else, Ava Gardner has been in all three of the biggest productions based on stories by Ernest Hemingway. The first was her breakout hit The Killers in 1947. This was followed by The Snows of Kilimanjaro in 1952 and The Sun Also Rises in 1957, where she played the famous Lady Brett Ashley.
12. From Here to Eternity
Ava Gardner met Frank Sinatra when she had just married Mickey Rooney. Fast forward to the beginning of the 1950s—Gardner had dumped Mickey and was now married to Sinatra. But Sinatra was not in the best of shape at this point in time—he was flat broke! Gardner even had to pay for his plane tickets to Africa when she was shooting Mogambo in 1953.
13. What’d She Say?
When Ava Gardner was first hired on by MGM Studios in 1941, producers were quite clear that it was for her looks. They immediately realized that Gardner needed some help when it came to delivering her lines because her deep Carolinian drawl was almost impossible for them to understand! Gardner worked with a speech coach for the first few years of her contract.
14. Femme Fatale
Ava grabbed headlines for all the wrong reasons in 1951 when she married Frank Sinatra. Frank had left his wife Nancy and their children to be with Ava, which drew harsh criticism from all different corners including the Roman Catholic Church of which Sinatra was a member. The press had a field day: headlines frequently depicted Ava as a femme fatale who ruined a perfectly good marriage.
Because obviously Frank Sinatra couldn’t be blamed for any of this…
15. Godless Goddess
Despite playing a major role in the 1966 Biblical epic The Bible: In the Beginning, Ava Gardner actually identified as an atheist. Of course, she couldn’t be very forthright about these views at the time, lest she be deemed un-American or, worse, a Communist! She was much more clear about her views in her later autobiography Ava: My Story.
16. Pen Pals
After starring in a string of adaptations based on Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, Ava Gardner became good friends with Papa in the late 1950s. Gardner even stayed at Hemingway’s villa in Cuba for a short time. It was there that she learned to love bullfighting and, more particularly, bullfighters. Through Hemingway, she met the world famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, with whom she carried on a brief but intense love affair.
17. Ghosting Writers
When Ava Gardner approached Peter Evans to ghostwrite her autobiography it seemed like a perfect match for her to get her story of Classic Hollywood cinema to the masses. After several good interviews and meetings with Evans, Gardner learned that he had been sued by her ex-husband Frank Sinatra. Since Sinatra had been “the love of her life,” Gardner grew to distrust Evans and soon ended the working relationship.
Evans’ version of the book was never published, but he did compile his notes and recordings. Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations was published by Evans in 2012.
18. She’s Got the Chops
MGM studio executives really only considered Ava Gardner for her looks and didn’t think she actually had any talents, whether in acting or singing. Although it took her a while to pick up steam, Gardner eventually gained the attention of the critics for her abilities as an actor. In 1953 she was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards for her role in Mogambo.
Although she lost out on the award to Audrey Hepburn, Gardner did end up winning some awards in her career. She was awarded the 1964 Prize San Sebastián as best actress for her role in The Night of the Iguana.
19. Tough Choices
During her marriage to Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner became pregnant twice. Being a mother and a Hollywood star didn’t exactly go hand in hand. In fact, MGM Studios had fairly strict rules against their stars having babies. Without any future security for her career, thanks to the cutthroat world of the studio system, Gardner ended up aborting both pregnancies.
20. High Flyer
Amongst one of the more famous and, erm, eccentric of Ava Gardner’s romantic entanglements after her divorce from Frank Sinatra was with the millionaire businessman, aviator, and film producer, Howard Hughes. Gardner could attest to the whispered stories floating around America about the eccentric recluse. While she maintained a soft spot for the guy, Gardner also knew that he was just about the strangest man that she had ever met.
21. Generational Beauty
Ava Gardner’s reputation as being one of the most beautiful women on the planet presents a pretty tall order for anyone who has to play the figure in a biopic. Naturally, director Martin Scorsese turned to his own, contemporary “Most Beautiful Woman” award winner for his 2004 Academy Award-winning film The Aviator. He had to find somebody who could live up to the reputation.
In Scorsese’s pic, Gardner was played by Kate Beckinsale, who was voted “Sexiest Woman Alive” in 2009.
22. Lasting Legacies
Although Gardner kept in contact with some of her ex-husbands throughout her life, especially Frank Sinatra, the wounds opened during those marriages ran deep. After her death in 1990, Gardner was buried back in North Carolina. The private ceremony was only attended by a handful of close friends and family, none of which were her ex-husbands. All three men refused to go to the funeral.
Ava Gardner was still married to Frank Sinatra when she wrapped up shooting The Barefoot Contessa, one of her most well-known and loved roles. Sinatra was even given a statue of Contessa as a gift, which he promptly and proudly displayed in his backyard, even after he and Gardner were separated. When Sinatra eventually remarried to Barbara Marx, he was, unsurprisingly, made to take down the effigy to his ex-wife.
24. Candid Camera
Ava Gardner’s marriage to Frank Sinatra, who left his wife and kids for the star, kicked up quite a dust storm that was solid gold for the tabloid writers. But gossip could quickly turn into something else during that time. For example, one of the key tabloid figures covering the Gardner-Sinatra affair was Hedda Hopper. Along with her gossip columns on Hollywood stars, Hopper was also a deeply conservative figure who often reported celebrities to Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities.
This, of course, never happened to Gardner or to Sinatra, but Gardner was a strong Democrat and met with several Communists when she was married to jazz musician Artie Shaw.
25. Textbook Stuff, Really
When Ava Gardner was married to jazz bandleader Artie Shaw, she was introduced to an intellectual group that was entirely new to her. Shaw was friends with a number of the intelligentsia, particularly writers. At some of these literary soirees, Gardner met rather distinguished guests. One time she even met medievalist and author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien—except she had no idea who he was or what he was famous for.
There was no love lost, though: the feeling was mutual, as Tolkien had no idea who Gardner was either!
Clark Gable did not get along well with John Ford when they made the 1953 adventure film Mogambo, in part because of the way the director treated Gable’s co-star and long-time friend Ava Gardner. Turns out Ford actually wanted to cast Maureen O’Hara for Gardner’s role, but was pressured to change his mind by MGM Studios, who were trying to meet contract demands.
Ford was frequently nasty to Gardner on the set and during takes.
27. Putting on a Show
After working up a sweat all day shooting Mogambo, Ava Gardner naturally wanted to cool off and get cleaned up. So she would bathe in a canvas tub that was filled each day by a young local boy. The British Colonial government was not exactly thrilled with this behavior as they felt that her lack of clothing in public was immoral.
Gardner took note and responded in her own unique way: she made sure British officers were around whenever she took off her clothes to get in the bath!
28. Slipping and Sliding
One of the most comical scenes in Mogambo involves a baby elephant knocking Ava Gardner into a mud puddle. But this was apparently purely an accident. The elephant was not supposed to knock Gardner over and she was not pleased about it. She called for the crew to help her out of the mud but because John Ford wasn’t precisely fond of Gardner, he ensured that nobody came to her aid.
Quite nasty, but it got the laughs!
29. Some Like It Hot
Ava Gardner was still quite young when she met her first husband, Mickey Rooney. It was with Rooney that she first started drinking with other Hollywood stars. Rooney could be a mean drunk, as Gardner recalled later in her life, but so could she. Gardner often teased the inebriated Rooney about his height whenever he became angry.
Unsurprisingly, the marriage didn’t last too long.
30. Pulling Off the Stunt
No longer the Hollywood It Girl she was back in the 1940s and 1950s, Ava Gardner sought some new career challenges in the 1970s. In fact, she really wanted to prove her meddle in more ways than one. While filming the 1974 disaster flick Earthquake, Gardner shocked director Mark Robson when she demanded that she perform all her own stunt work!
All of the action sequences are the real deal—that’s Gardner dodging those falling blocks of concrete and rebars.
31. On Holiday
By the time the 1970s rolled around, Ava Gardner had earned enough stripes to pick and choose her roles as she wished. Having come through the hard way, with the Hollywood studio system often forcing her into unpleasant working conditions, Gardner started to pick her roles based on location. When she agreed to play Remy in the disaster movie Earthquake, her primary reasoning was the fact that it was being shot in Los Angeles.
By that time she had already moved to London and was missing that California sunshine.
32. Double Standards
Ava Gardner knew all of the tired tropes lodged at women in Hollywood by the time she starred as the main romantic partner to Charlton Heston in Earthquake. But the disaster film presented a new set of prejudices to the actor. Filmgoers and reviewers frequently commented that Gardner was far too old to believably play Heston’s lover in the movie, and instead more likely resembled his mother.
Gardner was only one year older than Heston…
33. A Cry for Help
Gardner’s marriage to Frank Sinatra was always a tumultuous affair, not least because of Sinatra’s erratic behavior and bouts of depression. As Gardner recalled to her ghostwriter, Peter Evans, later in life, Sinatra had a penchant for overdosing on a cocktail of drugs as a way of performing a “mock” suicide. He was constantly calling out for help and Gardner kept on answering that call.
The relationship was unhealthy for both parties and eventually, the two were divorced in the late 1950s.
34. Heavy Lifting
Gardner was certainly known for breaking one or two hearts in Hollywood, especially in her three marriages. But on the set of The Snows of Kilimanjaro, co-star Gregory Peck experienced a very different kind of pain with Gardner. In a scene where he is meant to lift Gardner up in his arms, Peck actually blew out his knee on the first take! He was bedridden for weeks.
35. Third Times a Charm
Never exactly known for her pipes, Ava Gardner was never the first choice for the MGM musical Show Boat. Judy Garland was, naturally, the first choice for the studio, but she had left her contract in 1951. Gardner wasn’t even the second choice, though, as that was Dinah Shore. Because of scheduling conflicts and other issues, the role eventually went to Gardner.
36. Solo We Can’t Hear You
Ava Gardner’s voice wasn’t up to scratch according to the producers of MGM Studio’s film adaptation of the musical Show Boat, so they had Annette Warren dub her voice into the recorded versions of Gardner’s songs in the movie. Gardner wasn’t really all that happy about it, but couldn’t complain about the cool $140,000 she earned for the role.
She did in fact record to songs in the studio—they just never made the final cut of the film.
37. Just Read the Lines
While filming the Biblical epic The Bible: In the Beginning, Ava Gardner, who played Sarah in the film, frequently voiced her opinion that the stifling dialogue that she was made to read sounded horrible and that the film would benefit from more natural sounding lines. Given that the film was at the end of a long line of Hollywood Biblical epics, director John Huston was having none of it.
They had a style! The Bible had a style! So Gardner was made to read the parts as directed, much to her chagrin.
38. That’s Acting!
The two women who starred in The Snows of Kilimanjaro from 1952 encountered a bit of a “trading places” moment. In the film, Ava Gardner plays a reserved homebody while Hildegard Knef plays the woman with a bohemian, happy-go-lucky lifestyle. Things were quite the opposite in real life, though. Gardner was well known for her lavish lifestyle full of parties, drinking, and men.
Knef, in contrast, had endured Nazi Germany and Soviet occupation of East Germany before making it in Hollywood—she was known as a much quieter and down-to-earth person.
39. Rough Treatment
The honeymoon phase of Ava Gardner’s marriage to Mickey Rooney came to a crashing end in rather harsh circumstances. Gardner had to spend several weeks in a Los Angeles hospital after she woke up with a terrible pain in her stomach. Three weeks after her appendix was removed, Gardner excitedly returned to the Westwood apartment she shared with the diminutive comic only to find that he had been having affairs the entire time she was in the hospital!
40. Guns Go Off
At the very worst of Frank Sinatra’s behavior during their marriage, Gardner was afraid of what was going to happen next. She recalled in her autobiography how one night she was awoken by a gunshot coming from the living room of her and Sinatra’s house. She feared the worst, that Sinatra had finally come good on his threats of self-harm.
When she walked into the next room, she saw Sinatra sitting in his underwear, laughing at the pillow that was still smoldering from the exit wound of a bullet.
Although Ava Gardner divorced Frank Sinatra in 1957, the two remained lifelong friends. When Gardner became bedridden after two strokes towards the end of her life, Sinatra even insisted on paying all of her medical expenses, including a flight back to see a specialist in America. She never made that flight, unfortunately, but Sinatra’s love for Gardner was present until the very end.
42. Tragic Endings
In 1990, at the age of 67, Ava Gardner died of pneumonia after years of ill health due to two strokes she suffered in 1986. She had fallen in the front hall of her London apartment when nobody else was home and laid there for several hours. Gardner was only discovered when her housekeeper Carmen returned from a shopping trip.
Her dying words were rather poignant: “I’m so tired.”