DG MARTIN COLUMN: The most beautiful North Carolinian

Published 10:51 am Monday, June 3, 2024

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I confess.

I have a special interest in North Carolina women who have somehow gained national attention for their talents or notoriety.

D.G. Martin

Most recently I have written about the musician and composer Rhiannon Giddens and U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, both of whom have gained much attention.

Last week The New Yorker republished a 2013 story by David Denby about Ava Gardner, the lovely movie star who grew up in North Carolina.

According to the article, “When she was young, she was the most beautiful woman in the movies, more beautiful than Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe — both of whom were better actresses.”

Denby wrote, “Ava Gardner, with her thick black hair, bowed lips, cleft chin, and green eyes, wearing a scarlet necklace that matches her lipstick, and a white peasant blouse pulled off one shoulder. Admiration struggles against disbelief: how could anyone look that good?”

Gardner was born Dec. 24, 1922, near Smithfield. She died in London at 67 years of age on Jan. 25, 1990.

She grew up poor. Her father was a struggling tobacco farmer who lost his land and became a sharecropper.

Her mother ran boarding houses and the family struggled to help make ends meet.

How did a poor teenager from rural North Carolina in and near Johnston County get to Hollywood and become one of the greatest movie stars?

Denby writes that “in the spring of 1941, when Gardner was eighteen and enrolled in a secretarial course, she visited her older sister, Bappie, who was living in New York. Bappie’s husband, a photographer named Larry Tarr, made a portrait of Gardner.

Wearing a print dress and a straw hat, she looks like the prettiest girl at the county fair.

“Tarr put the picture in the window of his studio where an office boy from Loews, M-G-M’s parent company in New York, saw it and, hoping for a date with Gardner, presented himself to Tarr’s receptionist as an M-G-M employee. He never got the date, but the portrait made it into the right hands, and, in short order, M-G-M gave Gardner a screen test, followed by a seven-year contract, starting at fifty dollars a week.”

A publicist named Greg Morrison was on hand when Gardner arrived in Los Angeles. Years later, he summed up the moment.

“She’s 17 or 18 with one pair of shoes, cardboard suitcase, leaving everybody in her life to enter the MGM University. They teach her to walk, talk, sit, sleep, shave her legs, shake hands, kiss, smile, eat, pray. Short, but good legs, great shoulders, thin hips, fix the toes, do the hair — clean it, but don’t touch the face.

“Everybody and every camera is drawn to that face. The town is jammed with pretty [women], but not like that — the eyes, the mouth, are from another world. She becomes the ‘armpiece du jour,’ learns what they want. Learns how to do it without giving her soul away and learns everything but how to Act. In her whole sh**kicking, barefoot life she never really learned to pretend, nor did poverty give her much humor, certainly none about herself.”

She conquered Hollywood, marrying fellow stars Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.

She did not forget Johnston County, creating excitement when she came back home, especially when she brought a husband or other Hollywood celebrity with her.

Even though she never learned to pretend the way most actors did, she became a great star. I still remember some of her films, including “The Night of the Iguana” and “Seven Days in May.”

If you want to know more about Gardner, the place to go is not Hollywood, but Smithfield where the Ava Garner Museum entertains its visitors with the story of this most beautiful North Carolinian.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”