“[There are] countless small shrines in the hometowns or the adopted towns of native sons and daughters who went away to become famous, though some of the stars are barely remembered today. These museums are mostly special for their focus and usually reflect an undying care for their subjects by true keepers of the faith….
“In 1996, the little town of Smithfield, N.C., bought the extensive collection of Ava Gardner memorabilia from a childhood acquaintance of the actress, who lived for about 10 years of her childhood in the rural eastern North Carolina town. A movie siren of the 1940s and 1950s who was married for several tumultuous years to Frank Sinatra, Gardner died in 1990.
“ ‘There is no question that part of having the museum is economic development, bringing people to our town, at least for a little while,’ said Todd Johnson, the museum’s executive director. ‘But movie channels like Turner Classics now give another generation a sense of who Ava was, so I think people enjoy having a museum to see her things.’ ”
Most recently the Gardner Museum has installed a “Hemingway’s Heroine” exhibit, showcasing her roles in three movies based on Ernest Hemingway’s fiction.
I do wish the museum had been able to assemble its souvenir hand fans without stapling Ava’s classic countenance.
“The recent visit of Mickey Rooney to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where I am stationed, is an event I shall always remember, even though he left my morale just where he found it. Young Mr. Rooney dropped in more or less under the auspices of the U.S.O. His arrival was breathlessly awaited and, though my buddies and I were naturally not permitted to leave our duties to greet him at the railroad station in the adjacent town of Fayetteville, we heard later that enough affectionate townsfolk had tried to pull his clothes off to make the reception a success.
“After that orthodox beginning, his visit became rather strange, for a movie star. His manager, a ubiquitous gentleman who seemed to be under the impression he was escorting the Holy Grail, somehow persuaded the camp authorities that his lively cargo’s cruise around the post should not be chronicled by the local press. At this the press became highly indignant. One correspondent, denied the privilege of speaking directly with the great man, reported uncharitably that Rooney’s face, off the screen, was as green as his suit….”
— From “Andy Hardy Comes to Camp” by Pvt. E. J. Kahn Jr. in The New Yorker (June 13, 1942)
According to the recent “The Life and Times of Mickey Rooney” by Richard A. Lertzman and William J. Birnes, Rooney put on a much more winning performance in a sidetrip to meet the mother of Ava Gardner, to whom he was secretly married.
“Mickey Rooney has made a TV spot urging support of the Bakkers, the former PTL evangelists and proprietors of the collapsing Heritage USA….
” ‘Won’t you call Jim and Tammy now?’ Rooney says. ‘They need your friendship’….
“What you get for the price of your long-distance call is a two-minute recorded message from the Bakkers talking about their hopes and dreams — and troubles.
” ‘Do you really want PTL back?’ asks Tammy…. ‘I really don’t want to go back,’ he replies. ‘The Charlotte Observer has attacked us for 15 years straight. To go back there is going to be hell. We know that.’ ”
— From the Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1987
The entreaties by Rooney and the Bakkers would prove futile. Less than a month earlier, a federal grand jury had convened in Charlotte to begin considering a wide range of fraud charges against Jim Bakker that would send him to prison for four years.
Rooney, Ava Gardner’s last surviving ex-husband, died Sunday at age 93.
In addition to the previously mentioned “Uncle Joe” Cannon (1923), Henry L. Stevens Jr. (1932) and Frank McNinch (1938), these Time magazine cover subjects are among those with various degrees of rootedness in North Carolina:
Wallace Wade, Duke football coach (1937). The cover line, noting the South’s newfound football prowess, was classic Timespeak: “Southward the course of history takes its way.”
Ava Gardner (1951).
Billy Graham (1954). Graham would repeat in 1993 (“A Christian in Winter: Billy Graham at 75”), in 1996 with son Franklin Graham (“The Prodigal Son”) and in 2007 (“The Political Confessions of Billy Graham”).
Althea Gibson, tennis player born in Silver, S.C., and reared as a teenager in Wilmington (1957).
Bowman Gray, chairman of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (1960). Check out the illustration.
James Taylor (1971).
Sam Ervin (1973). The first of more than two dozen Watergate covers in coming months.
Jesse Helms (1981). “To the right, march!”
Stanley Pons of Valdese, supposed “cold fusion” discoverer, with colleague Martin Fleischmann (1989). “Fusion or illusion?”
Elizabeth Dole with Hillary Clinton (1996). “Who would be better First Lady?”
Michael Jordan (1998). “We may never see his likes again” — followed a year later by “The world’s biggest superstar calls it quits.”
John Edwards with John Kerry (2004).
“They used to write in my studio bios that I was the daughter of a cotton farmer from Chapel Hill. Hell, baby, I was born on a tenant farm in Grabtown. How’s that grab ya? Grabtown, North Carolina. And it looks exactly the way it sounds.
“I should have stayed there. The ones who never left home don’t have a pot to pee in, but they’re happy. Me, look at me. What did it bring me?”
— Ava Gardner, quoted by Rex Reed in “Ava: Life in the Afternoon” (Esquire magazine, May 1967)
Among the disappointed underbidders at the recent Debbie Reynolds memorabilia auction was the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield.
According to Donna Bailey-Taylor, acting director, the nurse’s uniform Gardner wore in “The Sun Also Rises” fetched $2,500 (plus premium), $1,000 past the museum’s limit.
The museum had already returned to the Reynolds collection several items on loan from “Show Boat” and “Mogambo.” “Our appeal to Debbie was that we would care for and showcase these two iconic movies’ artifacts for visitors to enjoy,” Bailey-Taylor says, “but alas she was not inclined to donate or sell to us privately.”
A second Reynolds auction is scheduled for December, and the museum hopes to bid again. Want to pitch in? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Addendum: This Virginia Postrel column marveling at Marilyn Monroe’s 22-inch waist led me to ask Bailey-Taylor about Ava Gardner’s.
“We have measured some of her costumes at the museum, and we can verify that
her waist was 19 inches in her costume from ‘The Great Sinner’ [made in 1949, when she was 26]…. It’s a stunning black velvet dress with whalebone corset sewn in — I’m not sure how she sat down in it. It must have been very uncomfortable.”