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Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina

North Carolina

“To Frank and desert nights, Ava”

So reads the inscription on the gold watch given by his second wife Ava Gardner to her third husband Frank Sinatra.  The “desert nights” is most likely a reference to their time at his home in Palm Springs, California.

Two things are surprising about the gift and the sentiment:  First, she usually called him Francis, and was the only woman besides his mother to do so.  And second, she gave it to him roughly three years after they divorced.

Today the Lucien Piccard watch is one of many artifacts on display at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, near the spots where the film star was born and lies buried.

If you’re intrigued by Ava Gardner, Hollywood history, or tales of star-crossed lovers, the Ava Gardner Museum is a fine place for you to spend an hour or so.  My own interest in the Museum stems mainly from the fact that Frank Sinatra has been my favorite singer since college, when I listened to his albums in my dorm room.  I’ve wanted to visit the Museum ever since I first spotted its sign on I-95 years ago while heading to Charleston, and so I made the time to do so during my recent road trip from Fort Lauderdale.

Hollywood Relics

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One of the central exhibits features a striking silk satin cape, embroidered with gold thread and brass sequins.  Ava Gardner wore it in publicity shots for The Barefoot Contessa.

Perhaps the most surprising thing at the Museum is a gold-plated Derringer pistol.  On the Puerto Vallarta set of The Night of the Iguana, Director John Huston gave identical guns to the movie’s volatile stars, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Sue Lyon, and Richard Burton, as well as to producer Ray Stark, and to Elizabeth Taylor, who was there to keep an eye on Burton, her fifth husband, during their first marriage.  Huston included bullets inscribed with cast members’ names, though not his own.  But he did have the gunpowder removed.

“the on-again, off-again marriage of the century”

But the Museum’s most poignant items regard Ava Gardner’s ill-fated relationship with Frank Sinatra, like her demo copy of his never-released “You’re My Thrill”, which he recorded for her in 1949, the year they began their affair.

Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw, her second husband, had been divorced since 1946.  Sinatra was still married to his first wife, the former Nancy Barbato.  They divorced in 1951.  She never remarried.  He married Ava Gardner nine days later.

Her film career was strong.  His was ailing.  She helped him secure his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity.

They were very much in love.  They were also both passionate, jealous, and legends in the none-too-stable entertainment industry.  And they couldn’t make what she called “the on-again, off-again marriage of the century” work.

“When you have to face up to the fact that marriage to the man you love is really over, that’s very tough, sheer agony,” she wrote in her autobiography Ava:  My Story.

They announced their separation in 1953, two years to the date after his first divorce.  Their own wasn’t final until 1957.  She never remarried.  He did, twice.  But they never lost their passion for each other, and would briefly reconcile from time to time.

In 1959, he flew to Australia to be with her while she was filming On the Beach.  “What’s six thousand miles when you’re still in love?” she wrote; “we wanted to talk, to look at each other, to be together. … And with only two nights, we didn’t even have time to have a fight!”

He sent a big bouquet every year on her birthday.  She kept the flowers, faded and dead, on her dresser, until the next year’s fresh blooms arrived.

In 1986, she had two strokes while living in London.  He flew her to Los Angeles to see a specialist.

She died four years later, at the age of 67.  He sent yellow roses to her funeral with a simple note,

“All my love, Francis”

What to Know before You Go to the
Ava Gardner Museum

The Ava Gardner Museum is located at 325 East Market Street, Smithfield, North Carolina.  Paid parking is available on the street and in a lot behind the Museum.  There is a short introductory video and a small gift shop.  Allow 45 to 90 minutes.

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