Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, NC

Last week we made a detour on our trip to the coast to visit the Ava Gardner Museum.   It’s one of those places that one passes by on the way to somewhere else, and the thought is always to perhaps stop, but then it never happens.  Well, this time we made it happen, and I was so glad to finally see this little gem of a collection of items that belonged to Gardner and her family.

Without a doubt, Ava Gardner was the most glamorous thing to ever come out of Smithfield, NC, a little farming community southeast of Raleigh.   I’d always had the idea that she spent her childhood planning her escape, but it turns out that her rise to fame was purely accidental.  After finishing school Ava was visiting with a married sister who was living in new York.  Her brother-in-law was a professional photographer and he put a portrait he took of Ava in his shop window.  This lead to her getting a screen test for MGM.

After receiving the film of the screen test, Louis B. Mayer congratulated the scout saying, “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, She’s terrific!”  Unfortunately, Mayer was correct when he said she could not talk, as her eastern North Carolina accent was so strong it took years of speech lessons to make her understandable to most people.

Ava’s first major role was in The Killers, in 1946.  Over the next 20 or so years she starred in numerous films for MGM, but she moved to Europe in 1968 and after that time acted mainly in made for TV movies and mini-series.  She had been married three times – to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra – but for most of her later life she just took lovers instead of messing with marriage.  She was a heavy smoker, and unfortunately developed emphysema.  In 1990 she died from pneumonia at the age of 67.

The Ava Gardner Museum began as the collection of Tom Banks, a man who met Ava when he was just a kid and she was attending secretarial school in Wilson, NC.  When he later saw her picture  in the paper and realized his friend was becoming famous, he began his life-long collection of Ava Gardner information and memorabilia.  After he died in 1989, his widow donated the collection to the town of Smithfield.  The museum’s permanent home was opened in 2000.

The collection contains quite a few movie costumes as well as some of Ava’s personal wardrobe.   It’s funny how there can be a little touch of old Hollywood glamour stuck in the middle of cotton and tobacco country.

This cape was worn by Ava for The Barefoot Contessa of 1954, but the footage of her wearing it was cut from the film.  It was designed in Rome by the Fontana Sisters.

It appears that the Barefoot Contessa did wear some shoes, including these pretty pink sandals.

This dress is from Ava’s personal wardrobe.  It was made from silk that her friend Howard Hughes somehow acquired for Ava during World War II.

In the background, the black gown is from the film The Great Sinner, 1949.  It was designed by Irene.

This jacket is also from The Great Sinner, and is made from a Victorian paisley shawl.  Irene: up-cycling pioneer.

The jacket as worn by Ava, with co-star Gregory Peck.

Some of Ava’s personal items.  You’ve got to love that plastic key chain!

This dress is from the musical, Show Boat, 1951.  The costumes were by Walter Plunkett.

As a teen, Ava was a great fan of Clark Gable, with whom she co-starred in Mogambo in 1953.   That super safari jacket?  Helen Rose.

This dress was one of my favorites in the collection.  It was designed by Helen Rose and worn by Ava in East Side, West Side in 1949.

Here are more of Ava’s personal items.  The boots are Gucci, as is the handbag, but the little evening bag looks to me to be Volupte.

In short, we loved this museum, and I hope you enjoyed a little taste of it.  Sometimes I get bummed when I read about all the great exhibitions in the big cities around the world, knowing that I can’t get to New York every few months so I can see them all.  But it does force one to search out the special museums that are among us, even in the most unlikely places.


Filed under Museums, North Carolina

21 responses to “Ava Gardner Museum, Smithfield, NC

  1. Oh, I am super jealous! This just seems like fun and pure torture at the same time! I think if I were to ever go I’d be arrested because I’d be trying to steal everything! Thanks for sharing such fab photos!


  2. So fortunate to have this fabulous little gem in NC. And so interesting to learn about Eva’s early life too. I had no idea she had to endure years of speech lessons. What an interesting life she had. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂


  3. …what a great museum, and your post is likely to be the closest i’m likely to get to it, a bit too out of the way for a visit from london. so thank you!
    and lovely images. one of my great disappointments visiting the christian dior museum in normandy recently was the strict ‘no photography’ rule.


    • I really hate it when museums do not allow photos. I do understand the objection to flash, which I’d never use in a museum, but digital cameras are so good that most take decent photos in low light. I also understand that many museums want to control the quality of images that show their collections. Still, I doubt that many photos of any museum visit will end up online!


  4. What a gem! The upcycled paisley shawl jacket is fascinating.


  5. Did you see the Pfeiffer portraits? They’re uh, quirky, to say the least.


  6. How nice! I’ve always thought Ava Gardner never got her due as an actress, perhaps better remembered for her personal life (that list of husbands alone). Two gems to check out: Bhowani Junction with Stewart Granger and The Flying Dutchman with James Mason. Thanks for your reporting on that little gem in NC.


  7. Susan

    What a wonderful museum!! Thank you for showing a little sample to us and trust me, if I ever get back to that part of North Carolina I will stop by and spend a good long time admiring all of her fabulous clothes!!


  8. Thanks for this–I’d love to visit this museum! Ava Gardner was such a beauty, and interesting, too–I read her bio a few years ago. Of all the items here the ones that are most making me salivate are those embroidered gloves and the Gucci boots (must be the season!).


  9. Thanks for this! I, too, have meant to stop here on my way down to the coast, but never have. That’s funny about her Eastern NC accent. I sure know about that, because my husband’s family is from “down east” and I can’t understand any of them! I love the shoes on the box next to the Gucci boots; do you know about them?


    • I know they are not Gucci. I tried to read the label on the insole but was unsuccessful. I actually meant to ask and then forgot.

      There was very little information on the displays telling about the designers of the items. I actually came home and looked up who did the designs for each movie.


  10. I have never even heard of this museum – and I will definitely be going to see it next time I am in the Triangle area! Thanks so much for this great introduction!


  11. You should. You can get there from Raleigh in much less than an hour if the traffic cooperates.


  12. Oh, thank you for sharing your photos of the costumes – they are amazing! I’m so glad the museum let you take them!


  13. Oh I just love visiting out-of-the way museums and costume exhibits! Such lovely items. Thank you for this post; I had no idea there was an Ava Gardner museum so far away from Hollywood and I might have never seen these had you not shared!


  14. I just visited the museum yesterday. It is only a few minutes off I-95 and well worth the visit. She was one of the most beautiful women ever in Hollywood. How many women could claim to have stolen the heart of Frank Sinatra?


  15. Pingback: Currently Reading – Irene: A Designer from the Golden Age of Hollywood; The MGM Years 1942 – 1949 | The Vintage Traveler

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