One night in 1963, when Frank Sinatra Jr. was hiding out in Madrid, Ava Gardner called his hotel room.
“Oh Frank, it’s Ava; I want to pick you up and bring you to my house,” Sinatra Jr. recalled her saying.
At the time, the 19-year-old son of the world’s most famous singer had been chased across the Atlantic by rumors that he had staged the kidnapping to gain publicity for his singing career.
For days, Sinatra Jr. drifted through Europe’s capital cities, friendless and infamous and hounded by the tabloids. Gardner, his one-time stepmother, though never a mother figure, called to offer him a night of peace.
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She pulled up with a screech of the tires of a black Lincoln Continental with California plates. She drove barefoot, with a white T-shirt knotted at the bottom and without a spot of makeup.
“She was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived,” Sinatra Jr. said.
When Smithfield’s Ava Gardner Museum thought to honor Johnston County’s biggest star with a roadside marker, it called on Sinatra Jr. to help out. Gardner was married to the elder Sinatra from 1951 to 1957, and Sinatra, Jr. said most of his memories of the movie star are those of a little boy. But in a ceremony following his recent concert in Durham’s Carolina Theatre, Sinatra Jr. remembered Gardner as someone who showed him a kindness when no one else would.
Gardner starred in dozens of movies over a four-decade career, but Johnstonians remember her simplicity and country roots. She died in London in 1990 at the age of 67, but while living abroad, she would still call friends in Johnston County to have hushpuppy mix shipped to her.
“She was an exceptional beauty who was often seen in the garden barefoot,” said Deanna Brandenberger, executive director of the Ava Gardner Museum. “She lived an unconventional life.”
Her reputation, though, was a complicated one. Sinatra Jr. said Gardner was constantly criticized and chastised by the public, most likely for the perception that she broke up his parents’ marriage.
“She was downright maligned,” he said. “Unfairly so.”
Brandenberger said that later in life, Gardner sought kindness in the world most of all. Paraphrasing from Doris Cannon’s book on Ava Gardner, Brandenberger said she represented the fulfillment of the quiet dreams that people, often small-town folk, feel they can’t pursue.
“She was a beacon of hope, someone from the most modest backgrounds, a Tar Heel country girl,” Brandenberger said. “She is the jewel of Johnston County and was larger than life.”
Gardner’s highway marker, which Sinatra Jr. helped dedicate after his concert, is located on West Market Street near Sunset Memorial Park, where she is buried.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson