Although I’ve lived less than an hour’s drive from her hometown for half a century, I had been to the original Barefoot Contessa’s stomping ground only once until recently.
I refer to Ava Gardner, the stunningly beautiful Smithfield girl who made it big in Hollywood. If ever there was a face that could have launched a thousand ships, hers was one.
I went to Smithfield to do something I hadn’t done for years – sit for a radio interview. At least a year ago, I promised my niece, Lynn Snow, whose friend Mike Evans works at station WTSB, that I’d oblige. My daughter, Katherine, visiting from Florida, accompanied us.
Also, I was promised lunch at Linwood Parker’s White Swan restaurant, known for its superlative barbecue.
It was a day made for the gods, warm, clear but with a hint of autumn in the air.
As we sat around a long table in the White Swan, I reveled in the relaxed, friendly companionship of what I call “the real people,” easygoing, unpretentious folk full of good will and colorful stories.
For example, retired Smithfield teacher Charlie Wilson whipped out his iPad to show us a photo of his family’s marble mausoleum. It has four names on it – Wilson’s and those of his three deceased dogs, Hope, Heinz and Xavier. Several of Wilson’s favorite quotes are also there, including “Try to live a life so that even the undertaker will be sad when you die.”
The White Swan lived up to its reputation. Linwood explained why, in his opinion, Eastern barbecue is better than the western (Lexington) variety in North Carolina’s ongoing barbecue war.
“Years ago, when people started moving west in their oxen-dawn carts, it took so long they forgot the recipe for barbecue,” he said.
“When they reached their destination, the only kind of hogs they had were piney wood rooters that fed off acorns. So, their hog meat was green. They just added a lot of catsup to it to cover up the green color.”
At the radio station, we were graciously hosted by owner Carl Lamm.
Lamm, a member of the N.C. Broadcasters’ Hall of Fame, is an icon of the radio waves, having been on the air for 67 years.
After Evans, a former N&O employee, introduced me to listeners, Lamm asked me questions about my experiences in the print news arena.
Asked to review some of my favorite assignments, I included one that occurred on my first job in Burlington.
A big feed mill was located in the heart of town. One night, the huge tank holding the molasses that went into the feed, sprang a leak. Next morning, one of the town’s main streets was flooded by thousands of gallons of the sticky stuff.
It took the Fire Department a day or more to wash down the sticky mess. For a while, Burlington was regarded as the sweetest town in America.
After the interview, we visited the museum memorializing Ava Gardner.
Gardner was just a sharecropper’s beautiful daughter until she was discovered by MGM after her photographer brother-in-law posted portraits of her in his New York City studio.
She starred opposite such greats as Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. She was the frequent houseguest of Princess Grace in Monaco and a confidante of Ernest Hemingway.
Considered by many as the most beautiful woman in the world, Gardner was unlucky in love. She married Mickey Rooney, bandleader Artie Shaw, and singer Frank Sinatra. All three marriages ended in divorce, two lasting less than a year.
Eventually, she fled to London to escape the emptiness of her life in the tinsel town. She died there of pneumonia at 67, pretty much alone. She is buried, according to her wishes, alongside her parents in Smithfield, the town that, in her heart, she never left.
My daughter bought a small box of stationery featuring photos of the actress and listing some of her observations on life.
Gardner probably spoke for many Hollywood stars when she said, “What I’d really like to say about stardom is that it gave me everything I never wanted.”
As we drove home, I remarked that going to Smithfield was like going home to Surry County. I can pay the town no higher compliment.