Appropriately described as the Earthly femininity for her screen presence, Ava Lavinia Gardner was born on 24 December 1922, in Grabtown, New Carolina. She was the youngest of the seven children born to Jonas Bailey Gardner, a poor tobacco farmer and his wife Mary Elizabeth (née Baker). She was close to her father, whom she lost at the age of 13 and after his death, the family moved to Rock Ridge, where her mother was engaged to run a boarding house for teachers. Gardner attended the high school in Rock Ridge and graduated from there in 1939. After that, while she was attending secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, her sister Beatrice, nicknamed Bappie, invited her to New York for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1941. Until that time, Gardner was something of a tomboy and had no dream or intention to become an actor, but during that time, a simple incident changed the course of her life.
By that time, Ava had grown into a striking natural beauty and her brother in law, Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, was stunned by her looks. He did not miss the opportunity to click photographs of his sister in law and displayed on of them in the front window of his Fifth Avenue photographic shop, which was spotted by Barnard Duhan, a man from Loew's Incorporated, a subsidiary of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He tried to get Gardner's number from the shop, but was rebuffed by the receptionist. However, as Larry came to know about his intention, he sent a number of her pictures to MGM's New York office. Shortly after that, Gardner, who at the time was a student at Atlantic Christian College, travelled to New York with her big sister to be interviewed by Al Altman, head of MGM's New York talent department.
Ava was called for a screen test, in which no attempt was made to record her voice, because nobody could understand more than a couple of words of what she said, due to her pure Southern accent. Though the test detected no star potential in her, as she could not sing or act or talk, MGM Studio Chief Louis Mayer thought she was terrific and instructed to get her signed. In fact, during those days, the film studios used to keep pools of talentless pretty girls under contract, as show pieces to entertain the visiting VIPs and for walk-on roles. Accordingly, Ava Gardner was also signed to a seven-year contract with MGM in the summer of 1941, starting at $50 a week. It was part of the regular grooming programme of the studio, which she did not like. However, careful coaching and guidance in acting, poise and elocution by the studio, gradually transformed the unsophisticated and shy country girl into one of the most notorious and glamorous movie sirens of Hollywood.
However, before getting a good break, Ava Gardner met a fellow MGM contract player Mickey Rooney, who was at that time more famous than Spencer Tracy, bigger than Clark Gable and six inches shorter than Ava. With his thick, red-blond wavy hair, crinkly Irish green eyes and a grin that was definitely not innocent, Rooney was catnip to the ladies. However, he was completely carried away by the unearthly beauty of Ava, became obsessed and began proposing to her on a regular basis.
Eventually, Ava gave in and when they married on 10 January 1942, Ava was still a virgin. Subsequently, she privately confessed that through Rooney she discovered that she enjoys sex. However, a week or so after their honeymoon, Ava woke up in the middle of the night with terrible abdominal pain and her appendix was operated in the Presbyterian Hospital. After three weeks she came home and in the first night she found evidence that Mick had been screwing somebody in their conjugal bed.
Nevertheless, despite the humiliation of knowing Mickey was cheating on her back, Ava still wanted him to want her. In the end, she started throwing a few curves of her own. After making love, which they never stopped doing, she would say things that she knew would hurt him. Even, she taunted him about his height. She used to tease him by saying that she was tired of living with a dwarf. One day, a completely drunk Mickey took out a little notebook, containing the numbers of the girls with whom he was involved and ignoring her presence, started reading off their names to his friends and saying how great they were in bed. She kicked Mickey out the same night and amid debris of public brawls, they were divorced on 21 May 1943, largely due to Rooney's serial adultery and rumours of Ava's unbridled conjugal demands.
By that time, though Ava Gardner already made a stir in Hollywood by scandals, her career was not going anywhere. Under the said circumstances, Ava married Jazz musician and bandleader Artie Shaw on 17 October 1945, who had previously been married to Lana Turner. Artie was an intellectual and always had his nose in a book. He was a man of dominating character, who always used to put Ava so much down that she almost completely lost her confidence. One day, when he caught Ava reading 'Forever Amber', one of the bestsellers of the day, Shaw became furious, snatched it out of her hands and tore it to shreds. He also uttered that he would not have a wife, who reads that rubbish. Finally, the marriage ended within a year and they divorced on 25 October 1946. Ridiculously, after their divorce Artie Shaw married Kathleen Winsor, the writer of Forever Amber.
On the other front, after five years of bit parts, mostly unaccredited, Gardner was borrowed by an outside studio for her first leading role, as George Raft's sultry squeeze in a minor noir thriller Whistle Stop (1946). Her performance in the film gave her the opportunity to come to prominence for the first time, when MGM loaned her to Universal Pictures for the film noir classic The Killers (1946), in which she played a devious seductress, the femme fatale, opposite screen newcomer Burt Lancaster. After its release, the film earned a positive reviews and was lauded for the acting. As Ava Gardner excelled in the role of the femme fatal Kitty Collins, she was promoted as the ‘World’s Most Beautiful Animal’ and was offered better roles at MGM and other studios like, The Hucksters (1947), One Touch of Venus (1948), The Great Sinner (1949), Show Boat (1951), The Snow of Kilimanjaro (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953). During the filming of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) in Spain Ava had a fling with the bullfighter Mario Cabré, who played her lover in the picture. He was a handsome devil and a drunken Ava Gardner had a one night stand with him.
Gardner believed that she is a director’s actor and indeed, her skill as an actress was best revealed when she worked under top directors. Her gutsy characterization in John Ford’s Mogambo (1953), opposite Clark Gable was highly appreciated. The film, highlighted by a hilarious scene in which she tries to feed a baby elephant and a baby rhinoceros, earned her the only Academy Award nomination for the Best Actress. Her performance in Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa (1954), the story of a gipsy dancing girl discovered by a film director, played by Bogart, turned into a Hollywood legend. However, perhaps she made her best screen performance in George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction (1956), where she played the role of a half-caste Anglo-Indian heroine torn between the two cultures and multiple lovers.
After her successful performance in The Sun Also Rises (1957) and On the Beach (1959), Ava Gardner was billed between Charlton Heston and David Niven in 55 Days at Peking (1963), set in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. However, she played her last major leading role in the critically acclaimed film The Night of the Iguana (1964), for which she was nominated for a BAFTA and a Golden Globe Award. In Seven Days in May (1964), she played a former love interest of Burt Lancaster, who could have been instrumental in Kirk Douglas's preventing a coup against the President of the United States. She appeared in a number of disaster films throughout the 1970s and made her last appearance in Regina Roma (1982).
Ava Gardner had a friendly relationship with Howard Hughes a businessman and aviator from the 1940s, which lasted into the 1950s. She maintained in her autobiography that she was never in love with Hughes, but he was in and out of her life for about 20 years. Her third and last marriage was to singer and actor Frank Sinatra, which lasted from 1951 to 1957. Sinatra was blasted for the marriage by the Roman Catholic Church, the gossip columnists, the Hollywood and even by his fans, as he left his wife Nancy for a femme fatal. During that time, Sinatra was completely broke. Gardner used her influence, particularly with Harry Cohn, the co-founder, president and production director of Columbia Pictures Corporation, to get Sinatra cast in his famous film ‘From Here to Eternity’, which won the Oscar and revitalized Sinatra's acting and singing careers. But, their marriage was tumultuous. During their marriage, Gardner had to abort twice, as MGM had a penalty clause about their stars having babies. However, despite their divorce, Gardner and Sinatra remained good friends for the rest of her life.
After her divorce with Sinatra, Gardner headed for Spain in 1957 and made friendship with the famous writer Ernest Hemingway, who five years earlier influenced producer Darryl Zanuck to cast Gardner in his Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952). While staying with him in his villa in Havana, Gardner once swam naked in his pool. After watching her naked swimming in the pool, Hemmingway reportedly ordered his staff not to empty the pool. Through him, Gardner was introduced to bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominquin, who consequently became her lover. The episode was later remarked by Gardner as utter madness.
Gardner moved to London in 1968 and spent her last 22 years with her longtime housekeeper Carmen Vargas and her beloved Welsh Corgi pet, Morgan. In 1986, she suffered two strokes, which left her partially paralyzed and bedridden. Although Gardner could easily afford her medical expenses, Frank Sinatra wished to pay for her visit to a specialist in the United States, and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically-staffed private plane.
A week before her death, she suffered a bad fall, while alone in the house and lay on the floor, as she was unable to move, until her housekeeper returned. She died of Pneumonia at the age of 67, on 25 January 1990, at her London home and was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolina.