SMITHFIELD, North Carolina—Many men loved Ava Gardner, but it’s doubtful if any of them adored her as much as the 12-year-old boy she kissed in a school playground one afternoon in 1939. The girl who would become the Hollywood goddess of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s was still the girl from Grabtown, just outside Smithfield, in those days. She was 17 and taking a secretarial course. Tom Banks was 12.
Donna Bailey-Taylor takes up the story: “Tom and his friends used to tease Ava, calling her their ‘girlfriend.’ One day she chased them and planted a big kiss on his cheek. “The next year…he saw in the newspaper that she had a Hollywood movie contract. He began collecting production stills, newspaper clippings, anything and everything to do with her.”
Bailey-Taylor, executive director of the local visitors’ bureau, says that schoolboy collection turned into a lifelong obsession for Tom Banks. Throughout his college days, a stint in the U.S. Navy and during his career as a school psychologist in Florida, he collected everything he could on his idol. He got to know her and she gave him clothing and props for his collection, which was stored in a private museum here in Smithfield.
After Banks died in 1989 his wife donated the collection to the town, which converted a downtown building into the Ava Gardner Museum. Thousands of items—costumes, jewellery, posters, paintings—are on view in the 465 square metres of exhibit space. Visitors first view a video, which tells how Gardner, the daughter of a poor tobacco farmer, loved to run around barefoot. (Ironically, one of her greatest roles was the titular Barefoot Contessa.)
The trip from Tobacco Road to Beverly Hills began when her brother-in-law, a professional photographer, put her picture in a display at his New York studio. Someone from Hollywood spotted it and soon she had a contract—paying $50 a week—with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After 15 forgettable movies, she hit the big time as femme fatale Kitty Collins in The Killers in 1946.
Photo stills document her three marriages: to Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra. All ended in divorce, but Sinatra still loved her: a marker tells us that after she died, in 1990, and until his death in 1998, he had a red rose placed on her grave every week.
She never remarried but she didn’t lack male company. She moved to Spain where she seduced matadors and threw drinks in the paparazzis’ faces, and then to London, where she died.
Other stops on an Ava Gardner trail include the Teacherage, a one-time boarding house for single schoolmarms, where her mother was cook; the Howell movie house where she first saw Clark Gable, in 1932’s Red Dust, never thinking she’d grow up to co-star with him when it was remade, as Mogambo, in 1953; the two-storey farmhouse in Grabtown where she was born; and Sunset Memorial Park, where she is buried in the family plot.
For more information on the Ava Gardner Museum visit its website at avagardner.org.
For information on travel in North Carolina visit the North Carolina Department of Commerce, Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development website at www.visitnc.com.