She was born in Johnston County in the red-dirt heartland of North Carolina, beyond Smithfield, at the western bend of the old Grabtown Road. The baby was delivered from her mother at ten o’clock that December 24, 1922, healthy, noisy as hell. In the morning family and friends gathered around a candlelit Christmas tree and cheered the new arrival and everyone had a look at the infant girl and listened to her yell. Two cakes—one chocolate and one white coconut—were baked to honor a twice-blessed day—a Christmas/birthday ritual forever after. Though one cake was intended to honor the baby Jesus, the girl would come to think of them both as tribute to her alone. They named her Ava Lavinia Gardner, the first after a beautiful maiden aunt, and the second because it sounded so pretty.
Her people were from the Piedmont plateau, the wide central strip of rolling hills between the Allegheny Mountains and the low-lying coastal plain and wind-whipped barrier isles to the east. Her bloodlines were a composite of the Piedmont’s migrant herds: English, Irish, Scotch-Irish, a drop or two of French Huguenot. They had come to North Carolina over the previous century and a half, come down the Pioneer Road, down the Great Valley Road in the era of European settlement of the Carolina backcountry that started in the 1750s. Few whites lived in the region before that time. Neighboring Virginia and South Carolina were settled and prospered, but North Carolina long resisted greater colonization due to its hazardous Atlantic harbors and the lingering stigma of Roanoke Island, the death-cursed lost colony where English America had falteringly begun. The land was as it had been since its creation, granite mountain, forest and foothill, ancient seabed plain, home to wildlife and for ten thousand years to scattered tribes of Amerindians: the Bear River, Cape Fear, Catawba, Cheraw, Cherokee, Coree, Chowan, Eno Hatteras, Kajawee, Meherin, Nachapunga, Neuse River, Occaneechi, Pamlico, Saponi, Secotin, Sissipahaw, Sugaree, Tuscarora, Waccamaw, Wateree, Waxhau, Weopomeoc. A young London-born naturalist and Crown surveyor named John Lawson would make the first formal exploration of the interior lands, traveling far along the upper reaches of the Neuse and beyond, visiting the tribal settlements and recording the unspoiled terrain and abundant natural resources. He would publish an avid account of his experiences in a volume titled A New Voyage to Carolina, producing much interest in the forgotten colony and helping set off a wave of migration to inland North Carolina that would last for more than a hundred years. Now arrived newcomers by the thousands from Virginia, Pennsylvania, England, Wales, Ireland, half a million from the ports of Ulster alone. The wilderness was cleared for farmland, the hills and valleys echoed with English drinking songs, Scottish reels, and Goidelic hymns, and the Native American tribes were all but eliminated by war, smallpox, and syphilis. Some years after the publication of A New Voyage to Carolina, and in thanks for spreading the good word about their homeland, some Tuscarora Indians would find John Lawson and stick his body full of sharpened splinters of kindling and set them on fire.
The backcountry settlers were scattered across a rural landscape in a region without cities and only primitive transportation routes before the railroad came, limiting trade with the outside world. The residents of the Piedmont were simple farmers, most of them, working fifty acres or less. They were known as plainspoken, self-reliant, ornery, blessed with an innate suspicion of government, politics, and religion (at least until the irresistible hegemony of the Baptists). On the subject of slavery—the explosive national issue that would one day be settled in an apocalyptic conflict, state against state—North Carolinians of the central and western counties were widely if not deeply ambivalent. Few farmers in the region owned slaves—few could afford to—but the wealthy planters who did owned enough to bring the black population in the Piedmont up to 30 percent and the culture of slavery thrived openly. In Smithfield, the county seat, there was a large slave market (not far from the present site of the Ava Gardner Museum) where as many as three hundred humans were sold on the block in a single day. “Dey uster strip dem niggers stark naked,” said former slave Josephine Smith of Johnston County recalling activities in the Smithfield market, “an’ gallop ’em ober de square so dat de buyers could see dat dey warn’t scarred or deformed.” Family on Ava Gardner’s mother’s side were slave owners, with modest stock, at the time of the Civil War; her mother’s mother, Elizabeth Forbes Baker, then of Edgecombe County, was willed the ownership of two adult slaves in her father’s possession—“1 woman Maryann and 1 man Jim”—though with the outcome of the war she was not to collect on this inheritance. A flesh-and-blood link with the time of slavery remained well into the twentieth century. Growing up in Johnston County in the 1920s and ’30s, Ava Gardner would cross the path of many an elderly African American who had been born and sold as human property.
North Carolina seceded from the Union in 1861, giving some 150,000 troops to the Southern cause, one in three never to return alive. A farmer from Wilson County, James Bailey Gardner was among those North Carolinians who would wear the Confederate gray and he would be one of the lucky ones who came back alive and unharmed. He was a farmer, as his father had been before him, working a parcel of land his father had cleared in western Wilson County. Since 1853, James Bailey had been married to Peninah Batts, a planter’s daughter, whose American roots went back nearly two hundred years to the first Atlantic colonies. Their union would be blessed with seven offspring before Peninah’s untimely death in 1867. That same year Gardner claimed a new bride, the teenage Mary Dilda, twenty-two years his junior. With her his issue would grow by another half dozen: Cynthia, Benjamin, Charles, Warren, and in 1878, Jonas Bailey, and two years after that their last, a daughter named Ava Virginia.
James Bailey Gardner was a disagreeable man, prone to black moods, drunkenness, and violence, increasingly so as the years went on. He was a chronic imbiber of moonshine, and when his black moods and his corn liquor converged he was a menace to all. At those times it was the designated job of the youngest child, Ava Virginia, to run into the house and find the old man’s gun and hide it. Gardner and his second family lived on the farm his wife had inherited from her father, and the main cash crop there, as on any farm in the Piedmont that could sustain it, was tobacco, the bright-leaf tobacco that grew best—and for a time almost exclusively—on the rolling red-clay hills of north-central North Carolina. Tobacco had been grown in the region for hundreds of years, but it was only in the 1830s that the secrets of bright leaf had come to be known, a male slave of Catawba County credited as the first to create the flue-cure process that began a revolution in the tobacco industry. Carefully cured, the golden leaves of the Piedmont were so mild that their smoke could be inhaled and held deep within the lungs, thus delivering to the bloodstream a quicker and more addictive nicotine kick. The worldwide cigarette industry—and habit—was born, and quality “yellacured” bright leaf became about the most desired vegetable on earth. Its cultivation remained specialized and painstaking, however, and while the heirs of Washington Duke and others made incalculable fortunes from processing and selling Piedmont tobacco, they would leave the growing to the small farmers who did the difficult and dirty work for far more moderate profit.
Tobacco farmers passed their skill from father to son, and James Bailey’s son Jonas had begun to learn the intricate cultivation of the bright-leaf plant by the time he could walk—the long process from January to late summer, seeding, plowing, cropping off, killing out, grading, sometimes literally making your bed in the barn with the tobacco so you could watch the temperature in the furnace all night long, and finally in August or September preparing the big juicy golden leaves for market. Given his father’s penchant for disappearing off the farm after every drunken dispute, usually holing up for days at the house of one of his older children, Jonas had run a good portion of the farm from the age of ten or eleven. He had little formal schooling, but he was a very learned farmer and he could tell you the story of twelve kinds of dirt just by running them through his fingers.
He was long and lean, hawkish and handsome with green eyes and a cleft chin, brown-skinned on his face, neck, and forearms from the years spent working outdoors. He was a good man, temperate, loyal, hardworking. In his early twenties he found a girl, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Baker, from Saratoga in Wilson County, the daughter of David and Elizabeth Forbes Baker, a red-haired, red-faced Scottish father and a mother who had died when her girl was very young. Molly was pretty, with dark eyes, skin as white and smooth as cream, and a soft rounded figure. She had a strongly maternal nature, ached to produce children, and was a diligent homemaker and a glorious cook. In January 1903, Jonas and Molly were married in the parlor of the Baker house in Saratoga.
They were opposites in many ways. Molly warm, outgoing, and emotional, Jonas introspective and shy of strangers. But they loved each other, and that love would last with few interruptions till the day that each one died. Nine months and some days from the hour of their nuptials a daughter was born, Beatrice Elizabeth, followed, at nine- and twenty-four-month intervals, by two more girls, Elsie Mae and Edith Inez.
Soon after his wedding Jonas began to search for land, a place to farm that would be his own, that he could cultivate and make flourish and that would become his legacy to his family and to those who came after them. He found such a place in the area of Boon Hill to the west of Johnston County, making a down payment for the purchase of two large parcels of rural land southeast of the town of Smithfield.
For three years he traveled to and from the homesite, building the wooden frame house where his family would live. He hauled the wood and he dug the well and he dug the outhouse. In 1907 they moved in, Jonas, Molly, and the three little girls. The house was on the old back road that ran through the area known as Grabtown. The derivation of the nickname is now only speculation: Some say it was after the way the local kids always hungrily “grabbed” at a traveling peddler’s gewgaws from the outside world. Their excitement was understandable: The residents, the children especially, lived in a near-complete isolation. Smithfield, the county seat, was just eight miles away, but it could seem like a hundred when bad weather turned the dirt road into mud. It was a region of modest family farms, the poorer ones no better than small clearings in the woods. Many in the 1900s still existed outside the cash economy, growing what they lived on. Some farmers owned their land, passed down over generations, but many were tenant farmers, kicking back a portion of their crops in royalties and fees to the landowner; mortgaged landowners like the Gardners worked to pay the bank and hoped for profits or at least enough to make ends meet. Like all of the greater Brogden area, Grabtown had no running water or electricity (and none to come until the 1940s). Children attended a little one-room schoolhouse along the road until it closed with the opening of the Brogden School a mile away. Like much of the American South, Johnston County was racially segregated. The black sharecroppers and fieldworkers had their own neighborhoods, their own churches and schools. Racialist views were common enough in the county, but among many of the struggling rural farmers there was said to have been a live-and-let-live attitude toward the black minority, with less of the overt antagonism and sense of entitlement of whites in the eastern counties where blacks in fact outnumbered the whites by a considerable margin.
On December 5, 1908, Molly Gardner gave birth to her fourth child, the first to be born in their new home, and the first boy: They named him Raymond. A family photo shows a delighted, sandy-haired kid in a straw hat. One early winter morning, two-year-old Raymond was standing near the warming fireplace amid the hustle and confusion of a new workday. A stray dynamite cap from the supply Jonas kept for use in clearing boulders had fallen in transit through the front room and been brushed into the roaring fireplace. The cap ignited in the flames. The explosion hit Raymond in the face and chest. He died on the way to the hospital in Smithfield.
The brutal random death of their baby boy would leave a permanently unhealed wound in the hearts of Jonas and Molly Gardner. Jonas was a practical man whose only propensity for the occult was an unswayable belief in the Farmer’s Almanac, yet he would sometimes in the years ahead come to think that a darkness had entered their lives with Raymond’s dying and remained, a black cloud of hovering bad luck. The farm would fall prey to natural disasters and to man-made ones as well. His land would not remain his own.
Pregnant at the time of Raymond’s death, Molly would give birth to a second boy, Jonas “Jack” Gardner, and four years later in 1914 another daughter, Myra, their sixth child—and, they assumed, with growing conviction as the years went by, their last.
At first they all called her “Liz,” in deference to Aunt Ava, her father’s unmarried sister who had come to live with them in Grabtown. She was made much of and spoiled by everybody. She was a beautiful baby, everyone said so, though for a time she was curiously deficient in hair; at last, in her second year, she began to sprout a layer of soft blond curls. She was a restless child, no sooner placed in her crib than she was standing at the bars and demanding to be let out. She was walking at eight months, ready to see the world. She once climbed through an open second-floor window and was on her way into midair when her brother, Jack, caught her by the drawers at the last instant.
Though her later success in Hollywood would bring the stretch of land called Grabtown a degree of lasting fame, Ava’s time there was brief. When she was not yet three, the family was forced to move on. Jonas could not make the farm thrive, expenses always increasing, profits always slim, and now the whole region plagued by an economic downturn. Jack’s liability for property destroyed in a fire (sneaking a cigarette, he’d dropped a match and burned the seed barn to the ground) didn’t help much. What options there might have been ran out suddenly and the house and the land were lost.
Someone at the county school board came to the Gardner family’s aid with a well-timed offer that combined employment with a place to live. Down the road in Brogden next to the new redbrick schoolhouse, the old school—the clapboard building a few steps away—was being used as a dormitory for the young lady teachers. In recent years Johnston County had begun an ambitious program to consolidate and raise the standards of primary education in the rural districts. Modern, multistory buildings were being constructed in a number of communities across the county, in many cases replacing primitive one-room schoolhouses where country children learned the “three Rs” and often not much else. For each new school the county supplied certified schoolteachers and provided “school trucks” to transport the children. The upgraded facilities had proved controversial: Some farmers and backwoodsmen suspected any intervention at all by government outsiders, even if they were only as far outside as the county seat, and the construction of one of the new brick schools, at Corinth-Holder, was delayed by local saboteurs who blew it apart with dynamite. The school at Brogden, happily, opened without incident. The faculty was by edict made up of unmarried (white) women, and the county provided them room and board at a Teacherage, a secular novitiate where they could live safely and away from temptation. The Gardners would manage the Brogden Teacherage and be given a portion of the house for themselves, with Molly serving as cook and housekeeper.
Molly took to the job at once. With her domestic skills and maternal warmth, she made the boardinghouse into a home, not just for her family—her husband and son and the girls—but for the young ladies who lived there with them, some very young and away from their own mothers for the first time in their lives. For a while Jonas Gardner sharecropped, working a landlord’s farm. He hoped to turn things around for himself and regain some portion of his own property, a dream that would not come true. The makeshift job and lodgings they shared at the county’s expense drifted into an unplanned permanence. They would stay for nearly ten years, and the Teacherage would be the setting of Ava Gardner’s young life, the big clapboard house, the school, and the fields and orchards and dirt roads of Brogden.
Of her earliest years at the Teacherage she would remember mostly her mother and the whirl of excitement around Molly’s long day of work, cooking and cleaning from early to late, moving through the halls and from room to room, never at rest, Ava toddling behind, trying to keep up, a hand on her mother’s apron. She would remember the wonderful smells and tastes in her mother’s kitchen, something steaming, baking, or frying, it seemed, every hour of the day. She would remember the lady teachers who shared her home, another whirl of activity in the morning, the floorboards creaking as all of them went from bedrooms to bath to dining room, getting themselves ready for school in the morning; and then all of them together again from the late afternoon, generating quieter sounds, relaxing on the porch or in the parlor in the evening, working on their school papers, reading books and newspapers, chatting together. The young lady teachers doted on Ava, talked with her and played with her and held her on their laps, many of them looking at her longingly, daydreaming of being finished with their single, working lives and having husbands and children of their own.
When she was old enough she went to school in the redbrick building across the lawn, joining a hundred or so kids who arrived each morning from all over and poured out of the school bus in screaming droves. Knowing all the teachers for so long and living right next door reduced the trauma of leaving her mother and going among the strange children. It was odd fun to be at school with the ladies and see them made up for classes and behaving with such formality—she’d seen them at home for so long, chattering and running around in their bathrobes, their faces smeared with cold cream. Her favorite teacher was Mrs. Williams, who taught her to read and write. Ava would remember a sweet, tolerant woman, who ran her classes with a “wonderful serenity.” Maggie Williams had the distinction of being the only married teacher at Brogden, an exception made because her husband was to be away for a very long time, in prison for murder. (Many years later, in 1952, his curious life story became the subject of a movie, Carbine Williams, filmed at MGM, Ava’s place of employment by then, with James Stewart in the title role and Jean Hagen playing Maggie.)
At school there was a brief portent, a glimpse of future events in miniature, her acting debut, and a lead role no less, as the narcoleptic fantast in the school production of something called A Rose Dream. It had less to do with any instinct for performing on the girl’s part than it did with her glowing prettiness and how everyone knew that she would look wonderful under the lights on the little Brogden school stage. At five and six she was already attracting attention for her appearance. Her hair was long, blond, and curled in those early years, oddly almost unique among her classmates—a photo of the children in her class posing together at the school shows row upon row of girls with dark hair and the popular but severe Colleen Moore cut (after the silent movie gamine, a short, straight bob with bangs) surrounding little Ava and her untamed golden locks.*
School captivated her in the beginning. She was filled with curiosity for the knowledge contained in her schoolbooks and in her teachers’ words, exploring the new worlds of history, geography, literature. She was a smart little girl, her teachers said. She studied, asked questions. But the time would come by the fifth or sixth grade when her excitement for learning would fade, replaced by new interests and urges. The gaps in her knowledge and her lack of education were things about which she would feel great regret and embarrassment in her adult life.
In the summers she helped her father with the tobacco crop. She would remember standing barefoot in the fields of tobacco, picking off worms, hauling the heavy leaves, helping to hang them out to dry and tie them together in great bundles. She would remember how the sticky black sap oozed from the tobacco and coated your hands and everything stuck to them like to flypaper, and you couldn’t get them clean till you washed them with a lye soap that was so strong it could take your skin right off. Rough work for a little girl and sometimes dangerous (nearly losing an eye once when her sister swiped at her with a hoe), but she enjoyed being outdoors—in the field you didn’t have to keep your hair combed and your shoes on your feet—and she loved being near her father, collecting an occasional word of praise. Jonas spoke so tersely that just to hear him say, “Good morning, Daughter,” thrilled her no end.
“She thought of her childhood as a very happy time,” said Spoli Mills, Ava’s close friend for the last thirty years of her life. “It was a time when she had her mother and father together, and she adored them both. And they gave her, I think, a great deal of freedom. Not in the way of being unconcerned but in letting her think for herself, make up her own mind about things. She never had any racial prejudice, for example, not at all.”
Her memories of those times would be mostly fond, of a Tom Sawyerish childhood: barefoot days, hot summers, the swimming hole in the woods, her friendship and adventures with a black migrant worker named Shine, the nights camped out with her father as they nursed the curing tobacco. She grew up under opposing influences—within the Teacherage the warm femininity and domesticity of her mother and the dignified, disciplined lady boarders; and outside, the allure of mischief, dirt, and adventure. It seemed clear early on which influence had the stronger pull. “She was a real tomboy back then,” Clarence Woodell would remember. He was a neighbor and a classmate in Brogden. “She liked to act just like the boys did,” he remembered, thinking back to a time nearly eighty years before. “You know, shoot marbles and climb trees, get down in the dirt. I remember one time she climbed the water tower out back of the school, maybe sixty feet up and hanging off a little ladder. You just didn’t see many girls doing things like that in those days. She was the prettiest thing and sweet when you got to know her, but she was a little tomboy, oh my. Feisty. If you were playing and said something she didn’t like she came right at you; didn’t matter if it was somebody bigger, she wasn’t afraid.”
Her immediate hero was her scrappy brother, Jack, and some thought she was trying to emulate him, the boy who’d burned down the seed barn, who was always finding trouble, and who once as a youngster had a business peddling a near-lethal version of moonshine whiskey until his father caught him (in later life Jack became a politician). At school she made friends with sweet, smart girls like Clara Whitley, but on the weekends she would tag along with Jack and with some of the toughest of the local farm kids. They mucked around, smoked cigarettes (fresh tobacco rolled up in a piece of newspaper), broke a few windows, stole watermelons in harvest season (not an easy crime for a little girl to commit, with Piedmont watermelons sometimes weighing twice what she did). Boys taught her a rich vocabulary of four-letter words and obscene phrases, and she enjoyed using them as often and as inappropriately as possible (but never around Mama). She loved the way they gave a “satisfying jolt” to a conversation, making her daintier classmates at school drop their jaws when out of her little-girl mouth would come the words “goddamn,” “shit,” or “fuck.”
She had a natural-born laziness. She loved to sleep late, hated to do the daily chores her mother gave her, always slipped away when she was supposed to help with the cooking or wash the dishes. She loved having nothing to do but lie across the porch steps and chew gum and play with her dog and daydream, or gorge on one of her mother’s succulent Southern dinners. When she did rise out of her happy indolence it was often to seek out excitement, emotional release. Her family’s Baptist church was too sedate for her, and she liked to go sneaking into one of the passionate Pentecostal assemblages where the preacher shouted and the people would begin to shake and cry and dance in the aisles. She’d wait for the feeling to come and shake her up like that, too, and she would raise her voice to an angry God and shout and sing wildly with the other sinners.
Ava loved music of any kind and responded deeply to it. She loved to dance, feeling the rhythms of the music deep in her bones, and she ran to music wherever she heard it playing. There were guitar pickers and fiddle players to be heard on many a front porch in those days, putting out the old Southern melodies and folk songs. And there were the songs of the black laborers heard from the fields, their sinuous laments. If she came near a radio or a record player she was thrilled. Wind-up phonographs could play the thick black platters they sold at the store in Smithfield: “Lovesick Blues,” recorded over in Asheville, North Carolina, or one of the new “hillbilly” stringband recordings coming out of Winston-Salem, not far away. There was a piano in the parlor of the Teacherage, and if anyone got near the keys the girl was sure to be there to gyrate to the sound. Teenage Myra Gardner was once awarded a series of piano lessons, and Ava was so eaten with jealousy that her sister would learn the secrets of making music before she did that she angrily ran up to the piano and bit a chunk out of it. She could find a beat in anything, and even “Nearer My God to Thee” might be accompanied by Ava’s shimmy.
She discovered the movies when she was eight or nine. The talkies had come in by then, and a teacher with an automobile began taking Ava and her mother into Smithfield on the weekends to see pictures at the new stucco art deco movie theater. They were soon movie mad like everyone else. Ava loved romances and high adventures, the beautiful sad face of Greta Garbo and the working-girl struggles of Joan Crawford, and if she liked a picture a lot she would beg her mother to sit through it twice. Ava’s and Molly’s instant favorite was Clark Gable, when they saw him in Red Dust, the steamy melodrama of lust and rubber—years later a bittersweet memory for Ava, who would know Clark so well and remake the picture with him; she’d go back in her mind sometimes to that Saturday coming out of the old Howell Theater with her mother and think of Mama’s pleasure and the unimaginableness of the future that was to be. She did for a while nurse a daydream of becoming a movie star, a common fantasy for American girls in the 1930s, but one to which she gave some elaborate consideration. When she saw the Bing Crosby film Going Hollywood late in 1933 it seemed to her like a dream snatched from within her own head. There was her own future as she imagined it: Marion Davies as a starstruck fan who breaks into pictures, becomes famous, and winds up with the love of a famous sexy crooner. She went with the black girl who worked for her mother, and for some time afterward they enacted scenes from the movie. “I was Marion Davies and Bing’s part was taken by the colored girl,” she would recall. “We were acting this thing for weeks!”
Molly had thrived at the Teacherage. Much loved by the lady boarders, generations of them as the years went on, she treated them as warmly as her own children. Ava’s daddy had not fared so well. Jonas had given up the dream of regaining his land, his dream of a legacy for his family. He had taken various jobs through the years, but farming was what he knew and all he wanted to do. The years of sharecropping had meant dawn-to-dusk work and little to show for it. As the 1920s came to a close, tobacco farming was no longer the sure, steady business it had been ten and twenty years before. As the cigarette business had grown more competitive and the desire for greater profits increased, the companies in the big cities—where they could no more grow the bright leaf than they could smoke the red dirt in which it prospered—had repeatedly lowered the price they would pay for the “yellacured” crop. The farmers, with their special skills, who had nurtured the prized tobacco for the better part of a year, would go begging for a decent price at the auction house; oblivious to their potential collective power, they took what they could get. At one auction Jonas Gardner attended the price the buyers offered was one penny more per pound than it had been thirty-odd years before. Some farmers could not afford to go on when even subsistence living was uncertain (in the same period, falling prices would cut cotton farming in Johnston County by half). Conditions would only become worse with the ravages of the Great Depression. Jonas Gardner, like many rural farmers, blamed many of the country’s problems on the malevolent schemes of the wealthy manufacturers and speculators. He did not have the temperament to indulge in angry political bluster even if he had been articulate enough to do so, but he would follow with stoic, bitter interest the events that came to pass on Wall Street in 1929 and the black tide of economic disaster that rolled across the country in the years to follow. Other farmers may have expressed their frustration and resentment more aggressively: In 1932 two of Smithfield’s tobacco warehouses were burned to the ground under suspicion of arson. In the autumn of 1932 Johnston County would vote overwhelmingly for Franklin Roosevelt in the presidential election, desperate with the hope of reforms and relief to come for the beleaguered farmer.
Help did not come in time to save the Brogden Teacherage. In the fall of 1934 the Board of Education, suffering from reduced revenues, determined that the county could no longer afford the luxury of providing a boardinghouse for its teachers; with thirty days’ notice the ladies would have to find meals and respectable lodging on their own. The Teacherage would be closed down indefinitely. The Gardners were out of a job and a home. They had no savings, and Jonas’s uncertain income could not be depended upon to support them.
Molly had an old friend who now ran a boardinghouse up in Newport News, Virginia. There were many such places there, catering to the shipyard workers and the merchant seamen. The friend knew of one that needed a manager, and perhaps when they came there Jonas might find work in the shipyard.
And so they left Brogden, left Johnston County, and left the state of North Carolina, where they had all lived their entire lives.
Ava was leaving her whole world behind, friends and familiar surroundings, heading off to a strange place and unknown prospects, but she did not complain or cry about the move. She had seen it at first as a great adventure. Newport News was not New York or New Orleans or Hollywood or other places she had heard about and wanted to see, but it was the world beyond the mud roads and farmhouses of Brogden. When they rolled out of Johnston County, she looked at the road ahead and not behind at the scenes of her past.
Newport News was a noisy, intimidating place after bucolic Brogden. The Gardners’ new home was a run-down house on West Avenue in a harsh neighborhood near the docks. In place of the genteel ladies of the Teacherage there were sullen stevedores with red eyes, stale clothes, and stale breath. School was no longer the inviting brick building with her mother’s kitchen always within view and the teachers all friends from her parlor. In Newport News on the first day the teacher teased her about her country drawl, and the children mocked her backwoods background.
“The teacher said, right in front of all the people, ‘What does your father do?’” Ava would recall. “I said, ‘A farmer.’ Some big horrible jerk laughed. My eyes filled with tears.”
The self-confidence of the adventurous country girl drained away. A painful shyness began to inhabit and to inhibit her. She huddled in her seat at school, afraid to be noticed, afraid to speak and let them hear her accent and see the teacher’s disdain and the other kids laughing. At Brogden the children were all farm kids, and there were few great economic differences between them. But at Newport News she was conscious of the gap between herself and many of the other children, whose parents came from different walks of life. It was painful to go among the girls at school, Ava in her mostly homemade wardrobe, the others in their store-bought outfits in the latest styles. Her own school clothes numbered two, the way she recalled it, “one always in the wash while the other was on my back.” She would remember wearing her coat indoors when she could so that no one at school would see she was always wearing the same skirt. She felt isolated, demeaned. “Mother told me that clothes don’t make you beautiful,” she would recall, “but at that age you need material things to make you feel secure.”
Along with the social pressures causing her anxiety, there were physical and emotional changes to be dealt with—sprouting breasts, menstruation, romantic impulses, each stage of maturation carrying its own enigmas and embarrassments. Matters weren’t made easier by the awkwardness that her parents showed around the subject—anything to do with sexuality had always been forbidden and fraught with discomfort in the Gardner household. In her parents’ shame-filled view of sex, a woman could be only one of two things, “a prude or a prostitute.” When her first period arrived and the flowing blood had her on the edge of panic she turned for help not to her mother but to the hired woman who did the sweeping-up.
She charted her body’s developments—widening hips, pubic hair, a bustline—with a mixture of awe and dread. Others were noting the changes too, and she was increasingly sensitive to such scrutiny. Her baptism at the local church became a ritual humiliation when the pastor submerged her in the concrete bath at the altar before the entire congregation and she saw the water turn her baptismal shift transparent. She nurtured a distaste for the church from that time (organized religion would come to have little place in her adult life). At home there was more discomfort, covetous looks from her mother’s boarders, “revolting old men” as she remembered them, disgustingly flirting with a thirteen-year-old girl. She felt ashamed of where she had to live and the men there lying around with their rank smells and with their ugly alligator eyes following her, and she felt she could never invite a friend home to visit her in such a place. Trying to cope with the murky facts of life left her in a tizzy. “Even before I knew what sex was, I was afraid of it,” she would remember. “I had a child’s normal curiosity about ‘it’ but every time the subject came up in conversation with other girls I felt I should hide my head and not listen. If I did listen I went home with guilt complexes tearing at my mind.”
But what to do? She grew prettier every year, and boys grew more alluring. She would see them at school or on the street looking her over and smiling, and she would want to smile back and then become afraid and want to again and not know what to do. She was fourteen and wanted to talk to boys and know what they thought of her and know what they were like. But she worried about what her mother would say and worried about what the boys would want to do with her. One day it happened: She had a date. It happened so suddenly she was not sure it had really occurred. He was a good-looking football player three years older than she was, and when he came up to her in the hallway at school and asked her out she impulsively—“in one second I was in love”—said yes. The hours before he arrived to pick her up she spent sick with fear that her mother would see him or that he would see the men who lived there in her home. They went out for hamburgers and Cokes. She was a nervous wreck. “Couldn’t open my mouth,” she would remember. “A bump on a log. Bored him to death.” He took her home early and never spoke to her again. Other boys tried flirting with her, but she was plagued by insecurities. She was dying to go to the school dances but couldn’t bear to be seen in her poor clothes when all the other girls would be dressed in their finest.
She suffered through the years at school in Newport News—“I hate it more each day,” she wrote to her friend Clara in 1936—and with the seedy conditions at home, surrounded by the lecherous longshoremen, she felt a tremendous relief when her mother agreed to let her go away in the summers, to stay with her sister Inez and family in Raleigh and then for many weeks with Elsie Mae and her family at their home back in Brogden. She felt instantly more comfortable on her old home soil. The change seemed to happen as she crossed the state border from Virginia, the feelings of shame and self-consciousness left behind like a larval enclosure. By the time of her second summer in North Carolina she had blossomed to startling effect. As a little girl her looks had often drawn compliments, but the person who returned to Johnston County that summer was a young woman glowing with beauty, with a radiance to her eyes and smile and flesh; in alliance with the ripe contours of her body the effect was both lovely to look at and unsettlingly erotic.
The transformation of the tomboy from the tobacco fields did not go unnoticed at her seasonal homecoming, and that summer would become for her a kind of unofficial down-home debut. M. W. “Mokie” Stancil was a Smithfield boy who knew her during those teenage visits. “She was a very attractive young lady,” Mokie Stancil would remember. “Y’know, in those days—you don’t know this—but in those days girls just weren’t nearly as attractive. They didn’t have all this eye makeup and things they have today. And Ava was attractive without having all that stuff. There wasn’t anyone in these parts had anything like the look she had. So pure, her skin so beautiful and smooth and such. She was a really beautiful girl then, she was fourteen, fifteen.
“She wasn’t a person of any depth or any consequence to talk to at that time,” Mokie recalled. “She had some small talk, that was all, and she had a sense of humor. But she was a very attractive person. You were pleased to have her along with you. We’d get together at someone’s house in those days on a Friday and Saturday night. We had what we called our crowd, all the same age, but Ava was a couple of years younger. We sort of adopted her.
“In those days there was a pavilion out at the lake, Holt Lake, where they had a jukebox, and we all went out there to listen to some music and to dance, and Ava came with us. Boys and girls were there, and when Ava walked in everybody just stopped dancing and just looked at her, she was so pretty. They just stopped, I remember, and then the music stopped and no one fed the jukebox right off, they just stood around looking at her.”
There were other nights at the Holt Lake pavilion, and Mokie remembered how the boys would crowd around Ava, lining up to dance with her as the jukebox played Tommy Dorsey and then Artie Shaw and then Jimmy Dorsey. “Somebody would dance with her, and then somebody would break on in,” he remembered. “Nobody really had a conversation or found out much from her because there was always another boy behind him. She might ask the boy something about himself, and no sooner’d he try to answer than somebody’d tap him on the shoulder want to break in. I remember one of those boys crying to me that he didn’t think he was gonna ever get to dance with her, there were so many waiting.”
Boys wanted to take her out, and Ava’s mother didn’t think much of the idea, she and Ava’s sisters and brother, Jack, all fretted over it. In the end Jack said, “Mama, I’m watching her and nothing’s gonna happen to her, she’s a good girl,” and they thought it would be all right to let her go on one date since it was Smithfield and so long as there were chaperones and it was a nice boy. Mokie Stancil, who was a friend of Jack’s, went on a double date with his girl and Ava and the boy who asked her out. “And you could see she hadn’t done much dating before. And she was shy with someone she didn’t know. She was shy and he was shy and hardly a word was exchanged between them. He wanted to keep dating her, but she said to me, ‘I just don’t want to date him again.’ ”
But there were many others waiting. Ava’s mother remained very concerned and particular about whom Ava saw, and she told Mokie she was happy he was kind of looking after her daughter. As time went on he found himself with the job of screening the boys who asked Ava out. “The boys back then, we called them ‘wolves’ if they were fast, want to kiss the girl on the first date or something like that. And if she asked me about one of the boys here in town who was sort of fast with girls, I would tell her not to go with him. And o’ course this was all just between us or I would have been a dirt bomb with those boys. So she kept it strictly confidential, and it worked out fine.”
Boys who made the cut would submit to Mokie’s questioning. “I’d tell ’em you can’t try any of this kissing-on-the-first-date business ’cause she’s not going for that. And some of ’em said, ‘Can I hold her hand?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I think you can do that. Just don’t try to be too fresh with her ’cause she’s not gonna like it.’”
And there were boys who wanted a date but had a problem with their own mothers: “A lot of times the town people just looked down on some of those country people. I don’t think any of the boys ever made Ava feel like that, but some of the mothers of some of the boys might look a little askance at her, at their boy dating her, thinking that she was a little beneath them or something.”
Screening all those boys, Mokie sometimes thought that he would have liked to date Ava himself, but he had a girl and that would not have worked out at all, although one time at the lake his girl had to go back to town and Ava said, “How about we go on a rowboat? I’ve never been rowed around the lake.” And Mokie told her he would be glad to do it. And they rowed around Holt Lake on a warm blue-sky afternoon, an hour or two he had not forgotten in sixty-seven years.
“Those were good times in the summers,” Mokie Stancil remembered. “Nobody hated nobody, and everybody had fun and enjoyed life.”
Like his youngest girl, Jonas Gardner had not found much happiness living in Newport News. He had not fit in with city life. He was a farmer and that was all he knew, and now he lived in a boardinghouse in a city with ships. A sickness came upon him. Perhaps it had been there even back in Brogden, just a plain smoker’s cough then, and nothing he would ever have given a second thought. It had gotten worse in Virginia and never gone away, a heavy, choking cough that brought up thick viscous scrap from deep in his lungs. Like any sensible male Jonas hated doctors, and for many months he made do with bottles of drugstore cough syrup. He caught a chest cold in the winter, and the sickness in his lungs got very bad. When he went into the hospital and the doctors found a serious infection in his bronchial tubes, there was no money to keep him in the hospital for as long as he needed. He returned home, and Molly cared for him in their room on the second floor of the boardinghouse. It started to seem as if he would never get better. Sometimes it went on all day and all night, the strangled, agonized coughing. Molly had to move him to another room so the boarders could sleep. She had to work and take care of the house and nurse him. It wore her down. Once Ava saw her break down and cry, the only time she could remember seeing her mother like that, just crying from weariness and hopelessness. Ava would come home from school each day and sit beside her father as he lay propped up in bed and read him the newspaper. He liked to hear about politics and listened with pleasure when she read to him the latest doings of his man, President Roosevelt. He called her “Daughter,” as he always did, in happiness or in consternation, his only name for her since she’d been a little girl. Sometimes he would just look at her and hold her hand and tighten his grip when she smiled at him. Pain would come to him with the hard, deep cough that felt as if his insides were being flayed, but he would never complain or curse his fate to anyone. It would be many years later that Ava would look back at that time and really comprehend what she had witnessed, her father’s modest and undefeated courage in those worst months of his illness. And she would come to remember with a terrible regret her own sometimes selfish thoughts and behavior as she sat at her father’s bedside wanting to be out with her friends and she would think of the things not said then that should have been said and the moments thrown away that could never be regained.
He was buried in Smithfield, in the Sunset Memorial Park cemetery at the edge of town. Family comforted the mother and daughter, urged them to stay on awhile, but Molly told them that the house on West Avenue had to be managed; Ava had to get back to school. Molly forced herself to be strong. You could not fall apart—you had to hold on, keep going, and survive. Molly went back to her cooking and her chores and taking care of her boarders. She tried to go on. But nothing could be the way it used to be. She had always treated the scruffy, lonely men who lived there just as she had the bright young lady teachers at Brogden, with kindness and concern, whether they deserved it or not. But try as she did, her enthusiasm for her work had drained away. She felt useless, vulnerable. Jonas was no longer in the house, but she still felt his suffering every day. “My mother never got over his death,” Ava would say years later. “She was never the same person again.”
Molly and Ava would sit together in the evenings, and Molly would ask her if she was happy, and Ava would not know what to say, afraid to make her mother feel worse. But Molly did not want to stay where they were anymore, and Ava agreed with her that North Carolina was their real home and that maybe the time had come for them to go back.
That summer of 1938 Molly heard of a job opening down in Rock Ridge, a small town with surrounding rural community in Wilson County, thirty miles or so to the northeast of Smithfield. The situation was just about identical to the one she’d had at Brogden; she applied and was hired, and late in the summer Molly and Ava moved into the Teacherage adjacent to the fifty-year-old brickwork Rock Ridge School.
The school opened in the fall, eleventh grade for Ava, graduation year back then. She went not knowing what to expect; it was North Carolina and it was Rock Ridge, only a short ride from where she was born, but she was a stranger again, everything new. That first day, though, a teacher she knew from the boardinghouse made her welcome at once, and best of all she had her meet one of the other girls in that graduating class, a genial and beautiful girl named Alberta Cooney. “The teacher, who was a favorite of mine, introduced us,” Alberta Cooney would say, sixty-four years later, “and asked me to show her around and introduce her to some of the classmates. First thing I saw was how pretty she was. Then she spoke, and she had a very husky voice, and I thought she had a cold. And I didn’t realize that was her natural voice. And a lot of people who met her would say, ‘Oh, do you have a cold?’ But that was how she spoke. We talked some and I showed her around, and we found that we got along and had things in common and just became the very best of friends.”
The two girls had a special bond right off: Alberta had lost her father, too. “You had to take it one day at a time,” Alberta would remember telling Ava. “That was all you could do. She was handling it well, but she spoke of him often. She said she loved her dad very much, and she missed him a lot.”
Ava invited Alberta over to the Teacherage for lunch. “Ava’s mother gave me a piece of cake she had baked, and she served whipped cream on it and I had never had that before! She was the best cook. But Ava thought my mother was the best cook, too. . . . We used to spend the weekends with each other. I would go to her house, and she would come to my house. The Teacherage was right on the same street as the school, and they had an apartment, a kitchen, a living room, two bedrooms that I can recall, and we would sleep in one and her mom in the other bedroom. Her mother was such a loving person. When I stayed the night there she’d always come and tuck us in and kiss us good night. And I was not used to that. My mother loved me, I know that, but it just didn’t happen in my house. I had never been kissed good night by my mom.”
Alberta Cooney lived out in the countryside at Spring Hill. She felt abashed the first time she brought Ava out to visit, what was she going to think—it was real simple living then, no inside plumbing, and not even an outhouse. But Alberta relaxed soon enough—Ava was more country than she was. “Ava had to go to the bathroom, and my stepfather drove up while Ava was outside doing her business, and she just popped right up when she saw him and shouted ‘Hey!’ and then popped back down. We all laughed. She was just a plain old country gal. Soon as she came to our house she was always barefoot. In the summertime as soon as she got off the bus at my house she’d take off her shoes and put them in the mailbox. Not me; I never went barefoot, but she did. Our street was not paved at that time and she just loved it, the dirt and the grass in her feet. We would walk down to my uncle’s house; they had babies, and she loved to play with the babies. And every time she took her shoes and stuck them in the mailbox till she had to go home.”
Ava and Alberta went on double dates together. Ava enjoyed going out, but she never ended up with a steady boyfriend in high school. Alberta believed that many boys were standoffish around Ava because she was so good-looking. And if Ava didn’t intimidate them, then her mother did. On New Year’s Eve, when she saw Ava and her date come home from a school dance and the boy gave Ava a hug and a brief kiss, Molly came charging out, chased the boy back to his car, and then followed a mortified Ava into the house, shouting imprecations in her ear. It was Molly’s blind spot, the one subject that made her lose her temper and her common sense. With Jonas gone, she felt an even stronger compulsion to guard her daughter from temptation. “If you know a man before you’re married,” she told her more than once, “I’ll see you in your grave.”
“She would say to me that her mother tried to make her terrified of boys,” Ava’s friend Spoli Mills recalled. “She was very strict about that one thing. It was something a lot of mothers of that generation did. You know, keep close watch, make sure they don’t get into trouble.”
On that New Year’s Eve, Ava said, she ran into the bathroom, scrubbing her face with soap, trying to “wash off the dirt I was sure I had contracted from that kiss.”
As a student, Alberta Cooney would recall, “Ava was about mediocre. Like me.” In class the two girls were easy to distract from their lessons, preferring to exchange whispered funny remarks or work on each other’s nails. Ava enjoyed singing, dancing, and music but at school showed no interest in the performing-arts programs—though once in English Lit. she did stand before the class with a few others and act a part in an old play. According to Alberta, “She just wasn’t so good. We all laughed at her, you know how kids will do.”
Neither girl had much of a plan for the future. One time they were double-dating and had the boys take them to a fortune-teller who operated on the outskirts of Wilson. The fortune-teller looked at her crystal ball and told Ava she was destined to go far away across the water. “We giggled about it,” said Alberta, “but I don’t think Ava gave it much thought. . . . We figured we might get jobs as secretaries. That was about all we could imagine.”
Graduation time was nearly upon them when the school burned down. No one was hurt, but it caused no end of confusion, finding temporary accommodations for the classes and then revising the graduation ceremonies. In the end they were held outdoors on the ball field on a hot humid day. The graduates sweated in their robes, and when they got up to get their diplomas the robes stuck to the chairs. Then came the time to hand out the annual “Superlative” awards that every senior class voted itself. It was widely understood that the “Most Beautiful” award was a two-girl contest, that it would have to go to either Ava or Alberta. It was hard for the two good friends, waiting to hear the announcement. In the end an extra award was created and Ava won Most Beautiful and Alberta Most Attractive. Ava said it was really a tie, but Alberta had always known she had never seen anyone prettier than her friend.
“The first time I ever met her I thought that. She would stay overnight with me, and this sounds sick, but she would stay overnight with me and I would wake up in the morning and I’d look over at her in the bed and I just never saw anyone so perfectly made as she was, just a beautiful young woman.”
One night in Rock Ridge there appeared a visitor from faraway New York City. She appeared out of the night like a glamorous phantasm, standing in the doorway of the Teacherage in a Broadway hairdo and neon red lips and wide-shouldered fox-collared coat and high heels and a fog of attar from the perfume counter at Macy’s. Considering the incongruity and extravagance of such a presence in the doorway of a boardinghouse in Wilson County, North Carolina, she might just as well have come from Oz, Glinda the Good Witch with a permanent wave.
Beatrice Gardner was the eldest of the five daughters, born late in 1903, the year in which Jonas and Molly were wed. Growing up, she had been known as a lively, smart, and sharp-tongued child. She was pretty like all the Gardner girls, although as a young woman Beatrice tended to give what she had an extra spin—the word to describe her would not have been openly applied in those days, but Beatrice was sexy. The girl had an independent streak, and at an early age she had eagerly gotten out of the house in Grabtown and put the tobacco fields behind her, moving to Smithfield and finding herself a job. In town she would meet a handsome law student named Bill Godwin and at the age of nineteen she married him, the same year that Ava was born. When Beatrice would come to visit her family the baby sister could never seem to get her name right. Ava called her “Bappie” and it stuck. It was Ava’s name for her forever after.
The marriage to Bill Godwin was not to last. There were accusations of infidelities. Divorce was not at all common in that time and place, and Godwin tried to patch things up, but Beatrice became determined to be free of him. The bonds were sundered and Bea, wanting to be away from the furtive looks of Smithfield gossips, left to seek her fortune elsewhere.* One day Beatrice would arrive in New York City, finding work as a department store salesclerk. Though her Carolina drawl drew a few cracks from her Brooklyn-accented coworkers in the handbags and gloves department (they nicknamed her “Dixie”), everyone soon warmed up to the ebullient Southerner. She came to feel right at home in the bustling metropolis, and in due time she shed her Piedmont style for the manners and dress of a sophisticated 1930s Manhattanite—or at least a drawling handbag shopgirl’s version of one. She met lots of men and fell in love with some of them, broke some hearts and had hers broken. One day at lunchtime she stepped into a portrait photo studio on Fifth Avenue, hoping to get a picture taken to give to a boyfriend who was going out of town. The photographer and manager of the place (one of several his family owned in the city) was a short, brash, fast-talking New Yorker named Larry Tarr. He took one look at Bea, and before she knew what was happening they were drinking cocktails across the street, and before she knew what was happening after that they were living together.
And now, after many years in New York, in a swirl of glamour, Beatrice/Bappie descended on the house in Rock Ridge, bearing presents and fabulous tales of life in the big city. She found her little sister even more beautiful than the last time she had seen her. Although Bappie was old enough to be Ava’s mother and they had never even lived under the same roof, the two had through the years formed a special bond that did not exist with their other siblings. Perhaps Beatrice, the daring divorcée who had gone off to live in exotic New York, sensed some common affinity for adventure or unconventionality in her youngest sister. Or perhaps, nearing forty and—unlike Inez, Elsie Mae, or Myra—childless, she simply saw in the girl the closest thing to a daughter of her own. She had often behaved as a self-appointed liaison between Ava and Molly, a generational intercept saving the pubescent girl from her mother’s decidedly antique country ways—as when Ava had first developed a need for a brassiere, and Bea swooped in with a new store-bought model before Molly could employ the rural method of binding the young ’un’s breasts with a diaper closed in the back with a safety pin.
Now, in Rock Ridge, Bappie came bearing presents from the Big Apple, and like Glinda awarding Dorothy the ruby slippers, she gave Ava a very special pair of shoes—made of lustrous green satin, they had been handcrafted for movie actress Irene Dunne (who had recently starred in the screen version of Show Boat) and had ended up being sold at a charity auction where Bappie had made the highest bid.
“Put those on, sugar,” Bappie said, “and maybe they’ll walk you right to Hollywood.”
Ava would take them from their box and unwrap them and gaze at the fabulous movie-star footwear; later she would carefully rewrap them and close the box and then place them out of harm’s way on the top of the tall dresser in her bedroom. Despite what Bappie said, Ava thought they were far too special for her ever to put them on her feet. There was also the fact that she hated wearing shoes.
If Ava had felt any sense of achievement on her graduation from high school it faded fast, soon replaced by feelings of aimlessness and boredom. She looked for a job without success. The Great Depression still hung over the region, and there had never been many opportunities for women in the best of times. Alberta and another classmate had gone off to Washington, D.C., to find work as secretaries. Another friend—who had wanted to go on to college and learn a profession but had no money for it and was discouraged by her parents—found a job at the local five-and-dime. For most of the girls Ava’s age in that time, in that part of the world, the course of your life, even if you pretended for a little while to have some control over it, was preordained—a man to be found, marriage, home, kids, grandkids, death, all of it in the same county.
She had little else to do that summer but help her mother at the Teacherage, something she never did with great enthusiasm. She hated the domestic chores that were her mother’s life (with the exception of ironing clothes, which she found satisfying, therapeutic, a task she continued to enjoy even years later when there were maids and personal assistants at hand). She learned how to cook some of her mother’s dishes almost as well as her mother did—her fried chicken with all the trimmings best of all—but Ava had none of Molly’s devotion or discipline in the kitchen. She would cook up some food, leave a great mess everywhere, then slip away when it came time to clean or do the dishes.
Her social life was active, if demure. Molly had reconciled herself to the fact that her daughter was reaching marrying age and had to be available to meet the right fellow when he came along. Which didn’t mean, though, that she couldn’t continue to instill the fear of God in Ava about sex. She remained a vigilant presence even when her child was alone with a guy in the front seat of his car. Ava saw other girls kissing up a storm with their dates—right in front of her for everyone to see, but she held back, terrified of getting a reputation, of Molly finding out.
To this becalmed setting one day came a letter from New York City. Bappie wrote that she was lonely and invited Ava to come visit. To tempt her—as if she needed tempting—Bappie told her she might find a job in the city as there were hundreds of them advertised in the papers. With Molly’s permission reluctantly given, Ava packed a bag and took the bus to New York. As it turned out, there were not so many jobs available after all, but for a couple of days she made the rounds of employment agencies. “I didn’t land anything except aching feet,” Ava said.
Larry Tarr made much of Bea’s nearly seventeen-year-old sister. “She was such a beauty,” he would recall years later. “Skin like peaches and cream, those green eyes and that little cleft chin. And I never saw a happier kid.” He had his camera out during much of her stay, eagerly trying to capture her glowing looks on film. She would be plopped in a chair at the end of the day, exhausted, she remembered, and Larry would be buzzing around her with his big Speed Graphic saying, “I want to take your picture just that way, with your eyes half shut,” and the pop of the flashbulb nearly scaring her to death every time. He took some formal portrait shots, too. They decided a pretty studio portrait of Ava would make a nice gift to bring back to her mother. She wore a sleeveless print dress she borrowed from Bappie and a straw bonnet with a ribbon tied under her chin. She smiled at the camera with a sweet yet guarded smile. It was the photo that would change everything.
Back in North Carolina, brother Jack, who was doing well as a businessman in Smithfield, decided to do his bit to help his little sister find a career. Jack said if she enrolled herself in the secretarial course at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, he was willing to bankroll her tuition. So she went back to school, in the autumn of 1940, learning to speed-type and take shorthand.
Atlantic Christian was a small but well-appointed college with an assortment of campus activities and social events. Ava’s physical appearance again did not go unnoticed. She was voted Campus Beauty and found many male admirers (and among the coeds pockets of simmering enmity). For a brief while she dated the son of Atlantic Christian’s president, Steve Hilliard. Nan McGlohon, for many years the wife of Loonis McGlohon, the North Carolina musician and composer, would recall double-dating with Loonis, Hilliard, and Ava; she remembered a quiet, very beautiful girl with a gorgeous face, and quite oblivious to that beauty and the strong effect it had on people. You found her pretty or you didn’t, but it wasn’t something in which the girl herself seemed to show much interest. One night they were out together and Ava was encouraged to enter a Cotton Queen beauty pageant being held in Tarboro. “Loonis played for the pageant,” Nan McGlohon recalled. “And Ava didn’t even get an honorable mention. And the little girl that won that night . . . it was just pitiful. She must have known one of the judges. But Ava didn’t give losing the contest a thought because Glenn Miller and his band were playing over in Wilson that night at the Center Brick Warehouse, the tobacco warehouse, and she didn’t care about the contest—she just wanted to go and hear Glenn Miller and dance.”
Another night, another boy, another dance hall, this one over in Rocky Mount. An imported swing band played loud up on the stand, and the hall was filled with frenetic young people. Ava’s arrival had its usual palpable effect on the stag line. A date, if he had any sense, took her to the dance floor fast and got in a few spins before the competition moved up. One of those who wanted a dance with Ava that night was a tall, self-assured man in his midtwenties, a wealthy man-about-town from Goldsboro named J. M. “Ace” Fordham.
“I thought she was pretty, and any girl who was pretty was all right with me,” Ace Fordham recalled, sixty-three years later. “She had a fellow took her there, a large fellow, larger than I was, and I’m six foot. I don’t know if he didn’t like me or he did; I wasn’t worried. Down here if somebody breaks on you you don’t say a word you just give up the girl and go on and break on somebody else. You don’t do that in New York, do you? Well, it used to be that way here. I haven’t been to a dance in a long time.”
Ava was a good dancer, Ace Fordham remembered, knew all the tunes. “She was a real jitterbug. She told me she was going to college at ACC—A Country College, we used to call that. And I said I’d like to see her again, and I told her more or less I’d be calling her. She was living with her mother then, in a house close to Wilson, where they took care of the teachers. They had a two-room apartment, and the teachers lived upstairs. It was not a first-class house by any means. Her mother was a very nice woman. Ava and her mother got along beautifully. On our first date we went to the Paramount Theater in Goldsboro. To the movies. We saw a Mickey Rooney picture.”
When they got back to the Teacherage that night, Fordham walked up on the porch with her to say good night. “She was about to go inside, and then she said, ‘I bet you can’t do this!’ And she bent over backwards on the porch and put the palms of her hands on the floor behind her. Stretched all the way back and put her hands on the floor. I call that double-jointed. Not many people can do that.”
Ava and Ace saw each other again and then began going together all the time. Fordham could offer her many new experiences, took her horseback riding at his ranch on the lower Neuse River, took her flying. “I’d been a pilot since 1935. We rented a plane out at the Rocky Mount airport, a five-seater, and I flew her around for about an hour. I think it was her first time in the air. Was she excited? She didn’t get excited about anything. I remember she asked me to buzz over the college.”
They had been going together awhile, and Ava wanted to visit her sister in New York, so Fordham agreed to take her in his car and spend a few days. They took turns driving, a twelve-hour ride in those times before the Interstate. In Manhattan, Fordham got a hotel room and took Ava to stay with her sister. Fordham found Larry Tarr to be all he had ever heard about “nervy” New Yorkers. “The first thing, he made some remark about my coat being too short. He told me I was out of fashion. My coat was from Edwards Young Men’s Shop back home.”
They went out every night, to restaurants and nightclubs, stayed out late, the later the better Ava liked it—New York was an all-night town, just the idea of which thrilled her. They went to the racetrack. She was so pretty she caught attention wherever they went, sometimes unwanted attention: At the track she was felt up by a pair of turf bums; her violent response sent them running in fear. At a restaurant she went to with Ace and her sister, she saw Henry Fonda sitting five tables away; he was the first movie star she had ever seen. “I’ve got to get his autograph,” she said, and when she went to his table Fonda’s glamorous female companion reacted to Ava as if she were the star. “Sweetie, you’re so pretty you should go to Hollywood,” the woman told her. Bappie and Larry Tarr thought the same thing. They watched in amusement and amazement the impact the girl had—she created more stir than two Henry Fondas. Years later Tarr told a reporter, “We kept saying to each other, ‘We gotta do something about the kid.’ ” But what to do? Ace Fordham said he had a friend who had backed a movie one time (“and lost his shirt”) and now worked in the theater, and he gave him a call and told him about the real pretty girl he knew who ought to be in the movies. The friend said, “Forget it. Pretty girls are a dime a dozen.”
The last night before they were to drive back to North Carolina, they were at a club to hear some music. Fordham and Ava were at the bar, and the bartender, taking a fancy to the good-looking girl, got schmoozing with the two out-of-towners. Ava told him, yes, she liked to sing, loved music, all the bands, and so on. As the talking went on the bartender told them that he knew a bandleader who was looking for a girl singer and that—well, if she had a voice half as good as she looked and if she was interested in something like that, being the girl singer in a hot swing band, how did that sound to her?
Ava, in her posthumously constructed memoir Ava: My Story—recalling slightly different circumstances, eliminating her wealthy boyfriend from the scene, and remembering the bartender in the conversation as the bandleader himself—reckoned that “the hope of my life was to stand in front of a big-band orchestra and have a crack at the microphone.”
Next day they waited in Bappie’s apartment for the guy to call, delaying their departure for home. “We waited,” said Fordham, “and he didn’t call and we were fixing to leave and get on the road when at the last minute he finally called and he gave her the appointment.” They went to an address, an office suite in a building in midtown, Ava, Ace, and her sister. Ace and Bappie sat outside while Ava was taken into the next room. In her memoir Ava wrote that she made a demonstration record, singing “Amapola” (a hit that year for Jimmy Dorsey) with a piano accompanist, and sending the record on to the bandleader, but Ace Fordham recollected it as more of a live audition, Ava singing for a few minutes while a couple of guys listened. “They had her sing a song. We sat outside, and we could just hear her through the walls a little bit. Then she came out, and we left there. She was very calm about it. She was always cool about everything she did unless you got her mad. She just said, ‘I think they’ll sign me up.’ But then on the drive back she said something like, ‘I hope I get it.’ So she wasn’t so sure.”
Back in Rock Ridge she waited for word from the bandleader telling her she was his new songbird and she was going on tour. She checked the mail each day. Nothing ever came.
But back in New York someone else had taken an interest in her.
Like the speck of grit, insignificant and unwitting, which in a chance encounter with the oyster makes possible the rarest pearl, so is the brief, random, and yet decisive appearance of Barney Duhan in the story of Ava Gardner. Although he would never know her, never even see her in the flesh but for a momentary introduction some decades later, his significance to the course of her life was such that without him little else in her future would have happened as it did, and the words on these pages, in the nature of commercial endeavor, would likely be about somebody else.
Barney Duhan worked as a runner in the New York legal department of Loew’s Inc., the worldwide theatrical organization and corporate parent of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture studio. Duhan had little interest in the picture business himself—he saw his future in the law—but he was not unaware of the allure of the movies to other people, especially females, and he was not above using his tangential connection to the fabled MGM to impress attractive young women. “I’m Duhan from MGM/Loew’s,” he might say to some lovely he would encounter. “Baby, have you given any thought to being in the movies?” It was a bit as old as Edison’s Black Mariah, but still very effective.
One day in late spring 1941, Barney Duhan was making his way down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue when his glance caught on an image he found arresting. It lay behind the display window of Larry Tarr’s photo shop, exhibited to the passing parade—artfully framed and matted, a blown-up print of the portrait photograph Tarr had taken of Ava as a gift for her mother, the black-and-white head-and-shoulders shot of the teenage girl in her print dress and bonnet.
Barney Duhan stood still amid the hustle and noise of the busy avenue, and for a moment or two he studied the girl in the photograph: the wide-eyed gaze, the lush dark curls, the full lips, the tentative Mona Lisa smile. He decided that this was a young woman he would like to meet. Exactly what happened after this, who did or said what, varies according to the teller of the tale. In Duhan’s version: “I was running late for a party, and thought what lousy luck it was with my looks and my income that I didn’t have a date for the party. I saw the picture and said out loud, ‘Maybe I can get her telephone number!’ ”
He called the shop from a corner phone booth.
“I’m Duhan from MGM/Loew’s,” he said, and I’m interested in that girl in the picture in your window. What’s her name and where can I find her?”
The person on the phone informed him that the girl had gone home to North Carolina.
Duhan’s ardor cooled. It might have ended right there. But Bappie and Larry Tarr, excited by a movie company’s supposed interest, pursued the connection. Tarr printed up his best pictures of the girl in his window. He packaged them nicely and he delivered them personally to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s office in Times Square.
After the excitement of her New York sojourn and the dashed dream of a job with a big band, Ava resumed an ordinary life in Rock Ridge—now more ordinary-seeming than ever. She would help her mother during the day—perfunctorily—and sit with her listening to the radio in the evening or sometimes go with her to the movies (singing cowboy Gene Autry was Molly’s new favorite).
She began now to contemplate the real, modest possibilities for her future. When she completed her courses at Atlantic Christian she could more than likely look forward to finding a job as a secretary. She could be a good one maybe. Her shorthand was 130 words a minute, her typing 60 to 65 per minute for accuracy. That was what it looked like she might do, she thought then, eight, nine hours a day of typing and dictation, five and a half days a week. What else was there? Marriage at last came up for consideration. Her high school best friend, Alberta, who had not seen much of her since graduation, remembered her coming by one night and telling her of a local boy she intended to wed. Was it a passing whim or something more serious—and who was her intended? Sixty-some years later Alberta could not recall. If it was Fordham, then the notion remained secret and one-sided. A friend of Ava’s spoke to him, slyly perhaps. “So when are you two going to get married?” Fordham replied, “We’ll see about that.” He never found out if it was something Ava had put her up to asking. “But back then I was young and I wouldn’t have married the Queen of Sheba. I was looking to know pretty girls but not to marry them.”
In that summer of 1941, as Ava pondered her future prospects, her mother began to show signs of chronic health problems. She suffered recurrent stomach pains, sudden vaginal bleeding. Stubbornly indomitable, she refused to seek outside attention for her ailments—she had never seen a doctor in her life for anything but to aid her in childbirth and once or twice when the kids themselves had been ill—she went on working without complaint, masking her pain as best she could with increasing doses of aspirin. Ava would later write that Molly and Ava’s older sisters shielded her from any details of Mama’s “women’s complaints.” It seems a curiously protective attitude toward a young adult, perhaps a convenient rationale for what might have been inattention to Molly’s growing ill health. Ava loved her mother with all her heart, but like many spoiled children she had always enjoyed receiving more attention than she gave, with little reflection or guilt.
In July a call came from Bappie in New York. She recounted for Ava the tale of the desirous messenger boy and the picture in the window and the photos sent to the movie company—it was all very fast and confusing over the crackling long-distance line.
“They want you to come in, hon.”
“They want to meet you!”
“Where Clark Gable works, baby!”
Another pipe dream, like the big-band job. Why go all that way for another disappointment? She could be stubborn when her feelings were hurt. But Bappie didn’t let up. Bappie said she had to get her be-hind up there to New York and not even think about letting a chance like this get away.
Molly agreed. Ava went to Ace Fordham and told him what was up. He thought again about what his friend in the theater business had told him about girls like her being a dime a dozen. “So I wasn’t too excited. I didn’t put much stock in her getting into the movies. She asked me did I want to go to New York again, and I said no.”
Ava went to Smithfield to catch the bus, sat by herself at the station with her suitcase. Ace Fordham figured he would be hearing from her in New York one day soon, saying, “Come and get me!” But he never did. “Maybe . . . I should have had an idea what would happen . . . as pretty as she was.”
The next time he saw her it was her picture in the newspaper, with the story all about the Tobacco Road girl who had made good.
Copyright © 2006 by Lee Server