by Chip Ainsworth
The cold air chased me south from New York into Pennsylvania and on through Virginia into North Carolina. “We had snow here last week,” exclaimed Sarah Edwards. “We haven’t had snow in 15 years.”
Edwards was speaking from behind her desk at the Ava Gardner Museum in downtown Smithfield, a Tar Heel town of about 13,000 that’s located a few miles west of I-95. I’d pulled in once before but the museum was closed. Now I was back to get a glimpse into the life of the woman who became the flame who “taught Frank Sinatra how to sing a torch song,” as his band arranger, Nelson Riddle, once described her.
The museum attracts about 12,000 visitors a year — mostly seniors but also “a lot of younger people interested in Old Hollywood,” said Edwards. Admission is $6 and patrons can buy a variety of souvenirs from Ava Gardner post cards to five-ounce jars of regional delicacies like sweet potato butter and moonshine jelly.
Gardner was born in 1922, the youngest of seven children, to Mollie and Jonas Gardner, a tenant farmer who tilled the tobacco and cotton fields a few miles outside of town. It was at the Howell Theater on Third Street in Smithfield where Gardner fell in love with the movies when she saw Clark Gable in “Red Dawn.”
Despite her stunning looks, she may never have made it to Hollywood if not for a chance trip to New York City to visit her sister when she was 18 years old. Her brother-in-law was a photographer, and he did a portrait of Gardner that included a snapshot of her wearing a straw hat and smiling dreamily into the camera. He put it in the window of his Fifth Avenue shop where it was spotted by an MGM employee. The young suitor wanted nothing more than a date, but the encounter led to a screen test and Gardner was signed to a seven-year contract by MGM for $50 a week.
After a few bit roles and poster poses, she hit stardom in 1946 when she starred opposite Burt Lancaster in “The Killers.” Her career spanned 63 movies and she graced the covers of “Time,” “Look” and “Elle.” Born with the perfect stage name, publicists tried passing her off as having the given name of Lucy Johnson.
In some ways she was the typical Hollywood starlet. Her marriages to actor Mickey Rooney and bandleader Artie Shaw lasted only a year, and though she was married to Frank Sinatra for five years, emotionally they were hooked forever. “They couldn’t live with each other, or away from each other,” said Edwards, “and they were always making each other jealous.”
Although she stayed close to her family, Gardner never had children. “She had dogs. Those were her babies,” said Edwards. The first was named Rags, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi that was given to her by Sinatra. After Rags came Rags II, and then Morgan.
Among the memorabilia at the museum is a French silk dress that was a gift of Howard Hughes, a wristwatch she’d given to Sinatra and china place settings from her home in London.
A copy of the family Bible is near the museum’s front entrance, but Ava Gardner was no prude. At 5-foot-7 with an 18-inch waist and size-two figure, she was the pinup girl of an entire generation.
“I don’t remember how many swimsuits I wore out,” she once said. “I shot enough sultry looks to melt the North Pole.”
A lifelong smoker, she died of pneumonia in 1990 at age 67 in London. The week after her death, People Magazine put her on the cover and called her “The Last Goddess.” She’s buried in a cemetery outside of Smithfield because, said Edwards, “She always wanted to come home to Mommy and Daddy.”
The day she died, Sinatra’s daughter Tina found her father slumped in his room and crying. The woman who lit his torch was gone.
A few miles farther down the highway, a billboard for a different sort of museum led me to the home of the late General William C. Lee, considered the father of American Airborne. “General Lee established, deployed and trained the 101st Airborne,” said tour guide Gloria Gulledge, a retired history teacher. “The Airborne shortened World War II by at least two years.”
The Second World War was well under way and the Armed Forces had no interest in “vertical envelopment” as paratroop deployment came to be called. Lee felt otherwise after being stationed in Germany between wars and seeing Hitler’s Luftwaffe dropping paratroopers on training missions, but he had a hard time convincing his commanders. “He was told that no American soldier would ever jump out of a plane,” said Gulledge. “They told him it wasn’t necessary.”
Then came the day that Franklin Roosevelt’s military aide called and ordered the go-ahead. A highly trained tactical commander, Lee had only 27 months to get his fledgling paratroopers ready for the invasion of Europe. He accomplished the assignment but the prepping process took its toll and he suffered a heart attack weeks before the invasion. Instead of flying over France with his men, Lee was back in the United States, in bed at home listening to the broadcast from Europe on a short-wave radio. As the troops jumped out over the French countryside, they delivered a tribute to their absent commander by yelling, “Bill Lee!”
He died four years later, at age 53.
The Lee homestead is located two blocks from the center of downtown Dunn, a handsome, two-story Greek brick revival structure with sandstone steps leading up to the museum’s front entrance. Inside are World War II artifacts from all sides, including various weaponry like the German MP 40 “Schmeisser” that was capable of firing 500 rounds a minute, a Japanese 8mm Nambu handgun and the U.S. M-1 Carbine, of which over 6.25 million were produced from 1942-60.
On an upstairs wall is a white cotton Japanese scarf embroidered with the red rising sun and bordered by the handwritten prayers and well wishes of Japanese family and friends of the soldier who owned it. An American paratrooper donated the scarf to the museum. He retrieved the scarf after killing the soldier in a gunfight during which he was wounded. In another room is a Nazi infantry battle flag that was taken from a building in Waldheim, Germany, three months after D-Day by a dentist-turned-paratrooper.
There was much else to see. Museums, after all, are the closest things we have to time machines.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sports columnist.