I can cross another thing off my list. I finally went to the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina, a place that has been on my agenda for quite a while.
When I drive south from my home to South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida, I always want to get at least five hundred miles in before stopping for the night. Smithfield is the first town after that mark, and over the years I have often found a hotel near Smithfield for the night.
The first time I found myself there, the spouse and I drove into town and found a surprisingly good restaurant downtown. At other stops in or nearby Smithfield, I sought out that eating place again. The restaurant was memorable not only because the food was much better than I had expected in this town of ten thousand or so, but also because one time after we had left, we went to our car and found a host of barbecue rigs set up in an adjacent park. These were not your backyard Weber grills, but the kind that attached to the back of a truck. I had only before seen such monstrous grills and smokers on television.
I quickly learned that the next day the annual Johnston County barbecue competition was being held and that I was witnessing competitive pit masters. (I recently saw a taste test of spiral hams on a cooking show. Johnston County Spiral Ham was considered by far the best.) The fifteen or twenty participants would smoke meat during the night, and their results would be judged the next morning. Many of them displayed trophies from previous competitions. I learned about a circuit that many of them traveled. They were friendly and talkative except for one man. He had nothing to say and bullied me away from what he was doing. He somehow thought I was going to steal his secrets. He eyed me as if I, the Brooklyn boy, was a spy for another participant.
I went to bed thinking that we might come the next day and taste the wares even though I am not much of a central North Carolina barbecue fan–I don’t like that vinegar base. It started pouring after midnight and was still coming down the next morning. I thought about how miserable the night must have been for all those nice, but competitive, people, but I decided to continue on without another visit to all those smokers.
Smithfield, however, always stuck in my mind primarily because going to and coming from the restaurant, I would see on a side street—I believe it was Third Street–the Ava Gardner Museum. The thought of a museum dedicated to the glamorous Ava Gardner in this dinky town amused me. I would joke about going there, but I only passed it in the evening when the museum was closed.
The recent trip south, however, had a different timing, and the spouse and I were going to pass Smithfield at noon. We decided to make the detour. The Ava Gardner Museum was now in a different location. It no longer on a side street but on the main drag. My memory was that before it had been in a slightly seedy building that had once been a house, but it was now in a modern facility. The museum seemed to be doing okay financially.
The museum itself was carefully and tastefully laid out with well-written, informative placards accompanying the displays of letters, posters, photographs, and costumes. I was never an Ava Gardner fan and knew little about her other than she had a striking face, a beautiful body, and had been married to both Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra, who remained a devoted friend even after their divorce. I learned that she had also been married to Artie Shaw, the clarinetist and bandleader. I only knew of Shaw because he was an amusing guest on late night talk shows, often talking about his many wives, and, at least according to him, his many more girlfriends. It was only because of these TV appearances that I recognized Shaw as I entered an Appellate Division courtroom one day to argue a case. He was there I heard to hear an argument about litigation stemming from one of his divorces. True to his image, Shaw was surrounded by stunning women. (I have no memory of what case I was arguing.)
From what I learned at the Ava Gardner Museum, Shaw tried to improve twenty-five-year old Gardner’s education in their year-long marriage, and as a result she took English courses at a Los Angeles college. This made me think about the trajectory of her life as I learned it at the museum.
She was born near Smithfield in 1922 to farmers who lost their property when Ava was young. Her mother then ran boarding houses, and her father died when Ava was fifteen. This was a poor family in depressed times. I wondered how many outdoor toilets she had used, and whether she had been behind a horse in a cart more often than in a car. I would not have been surprised that when she graduated from high school she had never been in an elevator or through a revolving door.
Gardner attended a local college for a year studying to be a secretary. During that summer, she visited her sister, who somehow had made it to New York. The story then goes that she had her picture taken, which was displayed in the window of a photographic studio. People noticed. Soon she had a screen test in New York. MGM signed her to a contract, and at the age of nineteen, she moved from little Smithfield to glamorous Hollywood.
Within a decade she was one of the screen’s major stars. Besides her husbands, she had a long-time relationship with Howard Hughes and was a close friend with Gregory Peck. Later in her life, she moved to Madrid where she knew Ernest Hemingway and had Juan Peron for a neighbor. At least according to the museum, however, she never forgot Smithfield and came back even after she had achieved international fame. She is buried in Johnston County.
(Concluded on March 16, 2018 )