SMITHFIELD -- The Ava Gardner Museum tells a story juicy enough to be its own Hollywood tale - a local woman's journey from obscurity to fame, failed marriages, eyebrow-raising love affairs and a reminder that no matter where the world takes them, some people never really leave home.
The tribute to the famous actress from Johnston County features paintings, posters and costumes from some of the nearly 50 movies she appeared in, along with displays that take visitors from her birth in 1922 to her death in 1990.
Some museum visitors want to know about Gardner's roots in Johnston, where she was born into a poor family of tenant farmers in the Brogden community, seven miles east of Smithfield.
Others want to know details of Gardner's marriages to actor Mickey Rooney, musician Artie Shaw and legendary singer and actor Frank Sinatra.
But a lot of people probe for more personal details about the star.
"They always ask what were her measurements - how tall was she, what was her shoe size?" said Donna Bailey-Taylor, a member of the museum's board of directors.
For the record, the petite Gardner had an 18-inch waist and wore a size zero dress by today's standards, according to Sarah Owens, a docent at the museum. She was 5 feet, 6-1/2 inches, and she wore a size 6 shoe.
Gardner lovers and movie buffs can find all this at the Ava Gardner Museum.
But for a long time, Smithfield didn't have a place to honor its golden daughter.
A formal tribute to Ava goes back to 1978, when Tom Banks, arguably the star's biggest fan, set up a display of all things Ava at the Smithfield library. Two years later, he turned the old teacherage in Brogden where Gardner had lived with her parents and siblings into a museum.
Banks first saw Gardner when he was a schoolboy in Wilson.
The Gardner family left Johnston County for Newport News, Va., in 1935, when Ava was 13. When her father died a few years later, she moved with her mother to Rock Ridge, near Wilson.
The adoration begins
It was in Rock Ridge that Banks told Gardner she was pretty.
"She kissed Tom on the cheek and said, 'You're my boyfriend now,' " Bailey-Taylor said.
But Gardner didn't stick around long. During a visit to New York in 1939, Gardner had her picture taken by her sister Beatrice's husband.
Executives from MGM saw the photos and fell in love with Gardner's face. In 1941, at the age of 18, she signed a seven-year movie deal and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood. She earned $50 a week.
The bosses at MGM didn't like Gardner's thick Southern accent, so she spent much of the early part of her career in the film company's photo studio. She appeared regularly in newspaper and magazine ads.
She eventually began to star in movies, including "On the Beach" and "The Night of the Iguana."
When Banks found out his childhood crush had made it big, he began to collect Gardner memorabilia. After he died in 1989, his wife gave the collection to the town of Smithfield.
Starting in the early 1990s, the Ava Gardner Museum was housed in a few different storefronts in downtown Smithfield. It finally settled on East Market Street in 1999, the year Hurricane Floyd tore off the museum's roof.
She never saw museum
But the group's leaders got plans back on track, and what has evolved is a museum that draws 12,000 visitors a year from North Carolina and beyond.
Gardner never got to see the original tribute to her. She went to the Brogden museum once during a visit home, but it was closed, said Mary Edna Grantham, 75, Gardner's niece, who still lives in Smithfield.
Gardner didn't care much anyway about the hoopla surrounding her, Grantham said.
"She said, 'I lived it, so I don't need to see it,' " Grant ham recalled.
But lots of people want to delve into Gardner's life. Bridget and Vinny Maida of Arnold, Md., recently visited the museum during a trip to see their son in Jacksonville.
The couple, both 57, said they were curious about where she came from.
"I think we're intrigued by her," said Vinny. "To me, it's the country-girl-to-riches cliché."
They also wanted to learn more about Gardner's marriage to Sinatra, whom she called "Francis."
Every fall, the Smithfield museum hosts an Ava Gardner Festival; the theme this year will be Gardner's relationship with Sinatra.
The museum also tells stories of the rest of Gardner's love life - how she was feverishly pursued by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes and later had an affair with a Spanish bullfighter.
To escape the paparazzi after her divorce from Sinatra in 1957, Gardner moved to Spain and spent her final years in London, where she died of pneumonia at 67.
But Gardner always came home to visit, Grantham said.
"She wanted to get away from that and get back to her roots," she said.
Story comes full circle
Gardner's final resting place is near where her story began. She was buried in Sunset Memorial Park in Smithfield.
Her life may not have turned out the way she thought it would as she grew up on Grabtown Road in the Brogden community, but the beauty didn't seem to have many regrets.
Perhaps she said it best herself: "You know, if I had my life to live over again, I'd live it exactly the same way. Maybe a few changes here and there, but nothing special. Because the truth is, I've enjoyed my life. I've had a hell of a good time."
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