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Places to Visit in the States: The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina

The Ava Gardner Museum: Smithfield, N.C.

The Ava Gardner Museum

The Ava Gardner Museum

My rating for this tourist attraction

Museum Information

Hours of operation:

Monday-Saturday 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Sunday 2:00 pm-5 pm

Entrance Fee:


Sr's, students, military=$6

Children age 6-12 = $5


325 E. Market St.

Smithfield, NC 27577

# 919-934-5830

Visiting the Ava Gardner Museum

I never really followed Ava Gardner's career...I was more a Hepburn fan-either one of the ladies. However, when I discovered that there was an Ava Gardner museum within a short drive from my home I decided to investigate.

My nephew and I took the drive on a Sunday morning and arrived shortly after they opened. Other than holidays, the museum is open seven days a week. J is not interested in Gardner, but he enjoys a good road trip and obliged me while I slowly moved through the exhibits taking photos and jotting notes.

The museum is quite small, with a gift shop that adjoins the lobby, an auditorium room, which shows a biographical film about Ava, and memorabilia exhibited in display cases. I was very interested in the gowns Ava wore in some of her productions, and the personal pieces of artifacts with a posting of its history. Some of the artifacts included dishes from her home in London, a record with the song Frank Sinatra wrote for her, and some of her gifts to Sinatra: a jewelry case and a watch.

The walls were adorned with either photographs of Ava, or old movie posters. Another wall exhibit held a display of the awards she had won, such as the Box Office Blue Ribbon Awards.

The museum can be easily completed within one hour, including watching the biographical piece. J and I spent more time touring due to my note taking. It is an interesting tribute to one of Hollywood's legendary stars, but even more delightful if you happen to be an Ava Gardner fan. Fan or not, there is no disputing Ava Gardner's natural beauty, despite the Hollywood glam.

The museum is one of the highlights of Smithsfield, North Carolina, and I would recommend a visit if you happen to be in the area. It is located southeast of Raleigh, in Johnston County. I rate this tourist spot a 5, because they have done an excellent job bringing in items that belonged to the family, and personal items from Ava's collection. The staff is friendly and helpful; the little gift shop is quaint-J and I bought a small jar of 'Moonshine' Jelly for a reasonable price; and the exhibits are well displayed.

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Location of the Ava Gardner Museum

Ava's early years

Ava Gardner was considered one of the hottest female stars in Hollywood at the height of her career. The green eyed beauty is listed #25 in the American Film Institute's list of Greatest Female Stars.

Born on Christmas Eve, 1922 in Grabtown, North Carolina, (a small town near Smithfield), Ava was the youngest of seven children born to Mary Elizabeth, ('Mollie') and Jonas Bailey Gardner, who were cotton and tobacco farmers. When the Gardners lost their land they found other jobs. Jonas worked in a local sawmill and Mollie began cooking and cleaning for a boarding school for teachers of Brogden.

At age thirteen, Ava moved with her family to Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie managed a boarding house. When Jonas died of bronchitis in 1938, the family soon returned to North Carolina.

While Mollie opened a boarding house for teachers in Rock Ridge, Ava attended Rock Ridge High School. After her graduation in 1939, she attended secretarial school at the Atlantic Christian College.

Larry Tarr's Photo of Ava

Larry Tarr's Photo of Ava

Book about Ava's life:

How Ava Gardner was discovered by Hollywood

The story of Ava's Hollywood screen test is nothing short of a Hollywood movie itself. Ava went to New York to visit her sister, Beatrice, and her brother-in-law, Larry Tarr. Tarr was a professional photographer and offered to take some portrait photos of Ava. He displayed the photos in his office window and they were noticed by a young law clerk, Barnard Duhan.

Duhan hoped to get a date with her and asked Tarr's receptionist for her number. He posed as a Hollywood talent agent, but when he was turned away he made a comment that her photos should be sent to Hollywood.

From that remark, the Tarr's sent her photo profolio to the MGM New York office where Al Altman, the head of the talent department, set up a screen-test. Once in New York, Altman had such a difficult time understanding Gardner due to her heavy southern accent, that he only directed her to perform a simple walk to a table holding a vase of flowers.

Although Altman thought she was one of the most beautiful women he had met, he was not hopeful that her test went well, but was surprised with the final results. He sent the screen test to Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, who agreed to offer her a standard contract.

Accompanied by her older sister, Beatrice, Ava went to California in 1941. She would be earning a weekly wage of $50 and the initial contract would last for seven years. Once she was in Hollywood, the studio quickly connected her with a speech coach to teach her how to annunciate more clearly due to her heavy southern accent.

A list of some of Ava's Movies:

The Killers, ('46)

The Hucksters, ('47)

Show Boat, ('51)

The Snows of Kilmanjaro, ('52)

Mogambo, ('53)

The Barefoot Contessa, ('54)

Bohowani Junction, ('56)

The Sun Also Rises, ('57)

On the Beach, ('59)

55 Days at Peking, ('63)

The Night of the Iguana, ('64)

Ava's Movies

It was after some 25 small parts, including nonspeaking roles and walk-ons, before Ava got her big break in 1946. The movie was The Killers, based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway. The leading man was Burt Lancaster, cast as 'The Swede'-his screen film debut. Ava played Kitty Collins and when it was all over her career was well on its way. The film was selected for preservation in 2008 in the U.S. National Film Registry.

Ava's film career spread over fifty decades and included both screen films and television. She was cast with many of Hollywood's best leading actors, such as Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas, Fred Astaire, Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn.

Gold Plated Derringer

Gold Plated Derringer

Fun Facts about The Night of the Iguana

The Night of the Iguana was filmed in Mexico in 1963. The cast included Ava Gardner, Richard Burton, Sue Lyon, Deborah Kerr, and James Ward. Elizabeth Taylor was also there, but not as a cast member. Taylor came along to keep her jealous eye on Richard Burton. To relieve the tension between Taylor and Burton, director John Huston gave each cast member, as well as producer, Ray Stark, and visiting guest, Ms. Taylor, a gold plated derringer and five gold bullets. The bullets were actually empty-all powder was previously removed and the name of a cast member was inscribed on each bullet.

All in fun, the joke was effective and the tension had been broken.

A relative gave the Ava Gardner Museum her gun in 2011, and her bullets bore the names: Burton, Taylor, Lyon, Kerr, and Stark. It is one of the more interesting exhibits at the museum.

Ava's Awards

In 1953, Ava was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a leading role for her role as Honey Bear Kelly in the movie Mogambo. Here are additional awards and nominations:

1953-Second Place in the NYFCC Award, (New York Film Critics Choice), for Mogambo.

1954-Won the Box Office Blue Ribbon Award for the movie Knights of the Round Table.

1957-Nominated for the BAFTA, (British Academy of Film and Television Awards), for Best Foreign Actress in the movie: Bhowani Junction.

1958-Seventh Place in Nomination for a Golden Laurel Award as Top Female Star.

1960- Won a Box Office Blue Ribbon Award for: On the Beach.

1960-Nominated for the BAFTA for On the Beach.

1960-Won the Star on the Walk of Fame Award for Motion Pictures.

1964-Won a Box Office Blue Ribbon Award for: Seven Days in May.

1964-Won a San Sebastian International Film Festival Award, (Spain), for Best Actress: The Night of the Iguana.

1964-Nominated for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association Award: The Night of the Iguana.

1965-Nominated for BAFTA award for: The Night of the Iguana.

1965-Nominated the Golden Globe Award for: The Night of the Iguana.

1966-Won the Box Office Blue Ribbon Award for: The the Beginning.


Exhibit of Gardner's Awards

Exhibit of Gardner's Awards

Ava and Frank

Their wedding day.

Their wedding day.

Ava and Frank in a happier moment

Ava and Frank in a happier moment

Ava's Marriages and Relationships

Mickey Rooney was contracted by MGM studios and that is where he met the gorgeous Ava Gardner. MGM had a clause in their contract that forbade the actors to marry one another, but Ava and Mickey received permission from the head of the corporation: Louis B Mayer. On January 10, 1942 Rooney married the young 19 year old Ava. She divorced him a year later.

Ava's second marriage, age 21, was to the jazz musician and bandleader: Artie Shaw. Again, the marriage lasted for just a year.

In her third, and final marriage, Ava fell in love with Frank Sinatra. Although they had a tumultuous marriage, he called her 'Angel' and he was the love of her life. They remained friends for the rest of their lives. It was during her marriage to Sinatra that Ava had two abortions. Her reasoning was that they were not able to handle the responsibilities of a baby.

Gregory Peck became one of Ava's dearest and long time friends. They co-starred in three movies together and after Ava's death, Peck provided a home for Ava's housekeeper and dog.

Ava had a two decade friendship with the idiosyncratic Howard Hughes. Hughes showered Ava with birthday and holiday gifts throughout the years, begging her to marry him, however, Ava remained just friends.

She moved to Spain following her divorce from Sinatra and became friends with Ernest Hemingway who nicknamed her: 'Daughter'. Fascinated with bullfighting, she met Luis Miguel Dominguin, a professional bullfighter, who became her lover for many years. She also had a boyfriend, Benjamin Tatar.

Song: I'm a Fool to Want You

Ava and Gregory Peck

Friends, but never lovers.

Friends, but never lovers.

Gifts to husband: Frank Sinatra

The museum houses over 20,000 pieces of personal and historical information. One showcase that stood off by itself held a square jewelry box on one side; on the other was Frank Sinatra's watch, which Ava had given to him with the inscription: To Frank and desert nights.-Ava.

One of the things that Sinatra did was he wrote a song for Ava, along with Joel Herron and Jack Wolf. It was recorded once in 1951, and again in 1957.

Ava's final years

Following her divorce from Frank Sinatra, Ava moved to Spain and lived there for ten years. She then moved to London. Due to her years of heavy smoking Ava was diagnosed with emphysema in her later years. She also had an auto-immune disease, possibly lupus.

In 1986 Ava experienced two strokes and became paralyzed on one side of her body. She became bedridden and depressed, fatigued and weakened. Sinatra paid for her medical expenses and insisted she see a specialist. She died in 1990 after complications from pneumonia.

Gregory Peck took Carmen, her housekeeper, and her pet dog into his home following her death. Her body was brought back to North Carolina and is buried in Sunset Memorial Park Cemetery, along with other family members. The cemetery is located in Smithfield, North Carolina.

Ava's Fashion Exhibits

Throughout the museum there were carefully placed displays of some of the clothing Ava wore. A few were from favorite wardrobe pieces, such as the designer dress given to her by Howard Hughes as a gift. This beautiful orange silk dress was donated to the museum in 2011.

An exquisitely embroidered cape was worn as a promotional piece to advertise the movie: The Barefoot Contessa. It was made from silk satin and embroidered with gold threads.

A full length black gown from the movie: The Sinner shows off what her tiny waste looked like. It measures 18 inches.

A knee length dress with a shawl came from the movie: East Side West Side.

And of course, the beautiful red 'belle' gown from Show Boat was on display.

The Barefoot Contessa: Fashion Statement

The front of the embroidered cape.

The front of the embroidered cape.

The back of the cape.

The back of the cape.

The always glamourous, Ava Gardner. She was born on a tobacco farm, but died after a long and unbelievable career, as a leading lady.



Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on April 22, 2013:

Hello Stessily, so good to hear from you. Thank you for your input about my trip to the Ava G Museum. Like you, I remember her distinctly in that movie and loved seeing one of her costumes displayed in the museum. I also was captivated by the handwork on the cape displayed. Take care.

stessily on April 20, 2013:

Denise, The Ava Gardner Museum sounds interesting. Your travelogue is captivating, including the mention of a bored nephew who nevertheless enjoys road trips and who also apparently was cooperative about your enjoyment of a museum about a time which probably seems quite distant to him.

Ava Gardner was unforgettable as Julie in "Show Boat." I remember seeing that film in my teens at a musical retrospective, and I have never forgotten Ava's portrayal.

Gregory Peck's kindness about Ava's longtime housekeeper and her pet dog must have given great peace of mind to Ava. It's such a loving gesture of deep friendship.

I thoroughly enjoyed my vicarious trip to Ava's museum.

Kind regards, Stessily

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on February 05, 2013:

Ha ha, Barb. I live in my jeans and sweatshirt! But, yes, the clothes caught my eye first, especially that gorgeous embroidered cape. Thanks for stopping by.

Barb from Tennessee on February 05, 2013:

Very interesting! What a beautiful lady! I would love the fashion exhibits, even though I live in my yoga pants most of the time. A girl can dream!

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on January 31, 2013:

Hi Dianne-The cape was my favorite piece of clothing, actually. That's the reason I took both a front and back photo, ha ha. It is a very interesting museum and I'm really glad that I took the time to travel down there to visit it. Thanks for your comments.

Dianna Mendez on January 31, 2013:

I did see Ava in a few of her movies, she was beautiful. Love the cape displayed here as well. This little museum, for the small entrance price, has a wealth of interesting knowledge and history. Enjoyed the post.

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on January 30, 2013:

Hi Ruby-thank you for your honest feedback. I never considered 'reviews' my niche, but I sure do enjoy visiting places and taking lots of photos, ha ha. I'm curious now, too about 'the last words'. I know they each loved the other even after the divorce. Certainly, a divorce doesn't mean the end of love. I'm really glad you really enjoyed this hub. Hugs to you.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on January 29, 2013:

This is one of my favorite hubs of all times. I loved Ava Gardner. She was a real holywood legend. I never missed seeing any of her movies. I really believe the love of her life was Frank, she just didn't want the hassel of his life style. I read that he was the last to see her in the hosp. before she died. I always wondered what words were spoken. Thank you for a beautiful hub. You have found your niche..More please...

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on January 29, 2013:

Hi Nancy-we did have fun. I actually withheld posting the photos of me posing next to her photos mimicking her pose, ha ha. Thanks for your comment.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on January 29, 2013:

This is so cool. It looks like you had lots of fun.

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on January 28, 2013:

Hello Travel_man-how are you, my friend? What a coincidence that you are collecting Classic Hollywood films. She starred in over 50, but some were just walk on parts. Thanks for your comments. Ha Ha, I wonder if there would be a museum! Funny!

Hi Sister-it is small, (relatively speaking, as museums go), in square feet and I am sure they are counting every little item-like a set of plates: '3', lol. When J & I went there did not seem to be that much in there. Not sure where the 20,000 pieces come from. I only recall her in Show Boat. I enjoyed that one and was very familiar with the songs. :)

I did read about how devastated Sinatra was. I think there's was a relationship like Tracy and Hepburn-can't live w/them...etc. He loved her to the end and vice versa.

Thanks for the feedback about the ending. When I saw that pose I knew immediately it had to have the 'final' curtain call, lol Thanks for your comments.

Danette Watt from Illinois on January 28, 2013:

My first impression was that this museum is small (in square feet) but to have 20,000 pieces of memorabilia is quite impressive. I didn't know much about her career or remember her in any movie except On the Beach. But I did recently hear on NPR that Frank Sinatra was crushed when they divorced. Voted up for an interesting piece. (and who would have thought that a little town in NC would be the home of a famous movie star and a museum in her honor).

I also liked how you ended the hub with that photo of her - reemphasizes her beauty.

Ireno Alcala from Bicol, Philippines on January 28, 2013:

Wow! What an acclamation and tribute to an American actress instilled with country girl's values.

And to think, I am collecting Classic Hollywood films that were remastered.

I wonder if HubPages writers will have a museum,too. (Lol)

I agree, Ava Gardner truly deserves such accolade.

Denise Handlon (author) from North Carolina on January 28, 2013:

Hi girishpuri-thank you for reading about Ava and sharing your thoughts. Many blessings to you.

Hi Pamela-I preferred to watch something with either Audrey or Katherine Hepburn in it. It was a fun afternoon, but my nephew was bored. Bored, but tolerant, ha ha. Thanks for the vote up.

Bill, I remember the first television we had was a black and white...that makes me near you...thanks for commenting. I won't tell a soul, hee hee. When you come over to see the bird sanctuary you can take that drive to the museum. :)

Hi SandCastles-I agree-G.P. was one classy and kindhearted man. BUT, it wasn't just her dog that he took in, that's the real amazing part of it, it was also her housekeeper. She didn't have any home to go to following the death of Ava and he gave her a place to live. Amazing, isn't it.

Hi Seeker7-thanks for your feedback. She was a real natural beauty, wasn't she. I would have to agree with you. Some have it, some try to get it...she definitely had it. Thanks for the vote up.

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on January 28, 2013:

What a fascinating hub! Ava Gardner is one of my Dad's favourite actresses! The museum sounds awesome and well worth a visit, even if, as you say, your not a particular Gardner fan. I have to say that even in the mega modern 21st century, Ava Gardner would still hold her own among today's beauties - and I think would beat most of them!!