Remembering Ava Gardner: Hollywood’s American Dream

Ava Gardner’s friend Dirk Bogarde said, Ava Gardner was “essential to the Hollywood myth about itself.” For a large part of the 40s and 50s, Ava Gardner was Hollywood’s biggest femme fatale both on and off-screen.  But her place in Hollywood’s hallowed history couldn’t have been predicted: she was born in Grabtown, North Carolina, in a house with no electricity, running water, or indoor bathroom. Though she was always picked last for school plays, she was beautiful, and she sent her photo to the New York MGM office in hopes of getting seen. 

They called her in, and signed her to a seven-year contract. She spent a while doing pin-up shots, like every aspiring actor in Hollywood at the time. Her breakout role came in 1946 with “The Killers,” a film noir based on a Hemingway short story. And, well, Gardner killed it. 

Her talked-about role made her a regular in the gossip columns too, and the newfound fame pushed MGM into casting Gardner in everything. Between 1948 and 1952, she appeared in 13 films. She then endure a tumultuous marriage to Frank Sinatra before divorcing him and moving to Spain, which she’d fallen in love with during the filming of The Barefoot Contessa. There, she became friends with Ernest Hemingway, who introduced her to various bullfighters. As the legend goes (according to Anne Helen Peterson’s fabulous account): Gardner accompanied Hemingway to his villa in Cuba, where she swam in the pool. Hemingway told his staff, “The water is never to be emptied.” 

Ava made a mark wherever she went, and though she died on January 25, 1990, her seductive, on-screen power still stands. Click through our slideshow above for Ava’s most sizzling looks, and read Anne Helen Peterson’s full history of Ava’s loves and life on The Hairpin.


Grace Kelly: A Woman of Ambition

Rita Hayworth, “The Epitome of Glamour”

Unpublished Photos of Barbra Streisand


Ava Gardner in a studio portrait, circa 1960 Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

As Lady Brett Ashley in 'The Sun Also Rises', 1957.  Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Wrapped in a white fur stole, circa 1955. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Looking sly, circa 1955.  Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

At the premiere of "The Barefoot Contessa." Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

With Humphrey Bogart in 1954. Photo by Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

In classic gab (and fanny pack?), circa 1950.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Being fab in the 1950s. Photo by Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Circa 1955. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Happy. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images