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WHILE DRIVING along Interstate 95 in North Carolina, I did a doubletake when I spotted a tiny sign on this busy north-south corridor to the sun belt. The sign, outside a little town called Smithfield, said: Ava Gardner Museum.

A museum celebrating a former Hollywood goddess in the middle of tobacco country? It's not that strange if you know Gardner's background. She was a Tar Heel, a native North Carolinian, the youngest of seven children of a tenant farmer who raised crops near this town of 11,000. Gardner's first home had no electricity.

Despite her world travels--she maintained a residence in Spain and later in England--Gardner never forgot her roots, humble though they were. When I turned off and visited the museum, Doris Cannon, its chairman emeritus, told me the actress kept coming back all her life. She liked to kick off her shoes, let down her hair, and wander barefoot without makeup among the roses in her brother's yard.

Gardner, who died in 1990 at age 67, chose to be buried in her family plot in historic Smithfield. In the Civil War's final days, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who burned his way through Georgia, camped near this 235-year-old town about 25 miles southeast of the state capital at Raleigh.

The Gardner museum, which recently moved into new quarters formerly occupied by a karate studio, lies on the main drag in downtown Smithfield about one mile west of I-95 Exit 95. It charges $5 admission ($4 for seniors and $3 for teens). You can get more information by calling (919) 934-5830 or visiting the museum's website (www.avagardner.org).

"I think she would be very proud of the museum," said Billie Stevens, the director. "It's tastefully done. It has become a wonderful tribute to her. The town is proud to have a museum in her name."

It all started when Gardner gave 12-year-old Tom Banks a playful kiss when she was a secretarial student. He never forgot her. Years later, when he spotted her picture in a newspaper, he started collecting memorabilia of her career. It became a lifetime hobby.

In the early 1980s, Banks, who became a psychologist, bought a boarding house that Gardner's parents ran near Smithfield. There, Banks and his wife operated his own Ava Gardner Museum during the summers. When he died in 1989, Mrs. Banks donated the collection to Smithfield.

Today, the Gardner Museum claims that its expanded collection is the most extensive for a single movie star. There are wall panels depicting her life, original movie posters from her 61 films, costumes and clothes from her personal wardrobe. Also on display are leather-bound scripts, photos, portraits, personal letters, and newspaper clippings about her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. A mini-theatre seating 60 shows a 15-minute video capsulizing her career.

Each year, about 6,000 visit the one-story museum. One of them was Gregory Peck, who co-starred with Gardner in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" (1952). Another was Rooney, who said he fell in love with Gardner the first time he saw her. Now 80, Rooney said the visit saddened him because it brought back many memories. He spent 45 minutes at the museum with his eighth wife, Jan, a singer, with whom he has been married nearly 30 years.

Museum officials have started a drive to get the U.S. Postal Service to issue a commemorative stamp with Gardner's picture on it. Why does she merit a stamp? Her fans say her fame far exceeds that of most movie actresses. She is one of the few stars to appear on the covers of both Time and Newsweek, says the museum's Cannon. Other superstars like Humphrey Bogart and Boris Karloff are already on stamps.

One of Gardner's childhood letters displayed at the museum shows that she dreamed of going to Hollywood as early as age 13. Writing to a girlfriend, she said: "I hate school worse every year, and I still have three years to go....I remember we always talked about what we wanted to be. You wanted to be a teacher, and me a movie star. But I know I can't. So I have about given up."

That changed in 1939. Her oldest sister, Beatrice, married a photographer, Larry Tarr. He took a portrait of Ava at 16 and put it in his studio window in New York. The photo captured her classic beauty--the arching eyebrows, high cheekbones, cleft chin, and dark green eyes. A passerby saw it and suggested Tarr send it to Hollywood. He did.

Two years later, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed Ava Lavinia Gardner (her real name) to its standard seven-year contract--even though she had no professional acting experience, and, in fact, had even failed to win a major role in any of her high school plays. Her voice was too soft to carry beyond the front rows, friends said.

For four years, she got only walk-ons or bit parts in B-movies. Meanwhile, she took acting and elocution lessons to neutralize her Southern drawl. A turning point came in 1946. Universal borrowed her to play opposite Burt Lancaster in a dramatization of Hemingway's short story, The Killers. Critics were impressed with Ava's screen presence, her sensuous, sloe-eyed beauty, and understated acting style.

Her career took off. She became her era's glamour queen, playing opposite such leading men as Clark Gable, Richard Burton, and James Mason. Her pictures included hits like "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" (1951), "Show Boat" (1951), and "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954). She was never considered an accomplished actress. In fact, most fans remember her chiefly for her looks. Nevertheless, she got an Oscar nomination in 1953 for her part in "Mogambo" opposite Gable. Hemingway said Gardner was the only one who played his characters the way he had envisioned them.

Yet, through her long career, there was an undertone of a life unfulfilled. Soon after she came to MGM, she married Rooney. She was only 19. The marriage lasted a year and a few days. Shaw, the band leader, was her next husband. Their marriage in 1945 broke up in just over a year. Sinatra, Ava's third husband, left his wife of 12 years for her. He and Gardner were divorced five years later in 1956, unable to survive the pressures of two high-powered careers. Gardner never married again. Later, she would say Sinatra was the love of her life. She had no children.

Gardner never cared for the Hollywood scene. She once said she would have traded her screen career "for one good man I could love and marry and cook for and make a home for, someone who would stick around for the rest of my life. I never found him."

In 1978, the North Carolina country girl returned to her hometown for the 50th anniversary of her alma mater, Rock Ridge High School. The show of affection for her was warm enough to melt an iceberg, said Dewey Sheffield, her local escort. Her remarks touched hearts....She recalled with great fondness the people she knew, how proud she was to have come from such a community, and how grateful she was to always be known as a Tar Heel.

But away from Smithfield, she lived the life of a reveler, frequenting the nightclub circuit and drinking heavily. In later years, Gardner stayed in her elegant apartment near Hyde Park in London and in her villa in Madrid where she went to the bull ring and was linked romantically with a succession of toreadors.

However, her last years were lonely. She suffered a stroke in 1986. Pneumonia plagued her thereafter. Four years later, she died from the condition.

Obituary writers described her as a celluloid goddess who bridged the years between Rita Hayworth and Marilyn Monroe. However, Gardner's choice of a burial site was not Hollywood but her tiny Southern hometown, a choice that was not unexpected in Smithfield.

"We have a saying in North Carolina," said Sheffield, her escort for a day. "I am a Tar Heel born. I am a Tar Heel bred. And when I die, I'll be a Tar Heel dead."

By DAVID ZINMAN 2001 of TheColumnists.com

The columnist:

David Zinman is a former reporter for Long Island Newsday and the Associated Press bureau in New Orleans. He's the author of 50 Classic Motion Pictures and The Day Huey Long Was Shot.

He recently wrote "Strom in Limbo," a play about the life and after-life of the late Strom Thurmond. The controversial South Carolina Senator, who died in June, 2003, served a record eight terms and lived to be 100. Zinman previously co-authored a play about the assassination of the Louisiana Kingfish and three related one-act plays called "Games of Life."

He's a graduate of Columbia University and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Now retired, he divides his time between New York and Conway, South Carolina, the hometown of his wife, Sara. In Conway, he writes a column for the Horry (County) Independent. Zinman was a first prize winner in the 1998 competition of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The Zinmans have twin grandchildren--Matthew and Samantha--and a third grandchild born in 2002 named "Ava".

Thanks to Mr. Zinman for his permission to include his column about Ava Gardner.
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