The Hollywood actress Ava Gardner was born just a few miles east of Smithfield. And while she traveled the world and lived much of her later life in Europe, Smithfield remained her home.
The late actress is buried here, and the town is home to a museum that showcases her career.
But Gardner was beloved in other countries, especially Spain and in England, where she was living at the time of her death on Jan. 25, 1990.
This year, the English Heritage Foundation and the British Film Institute will honor Gardner.
On Nov. 4, the Heritage Foundation will install a Blue Plaque on Gardner’s apartment building at 34 Ennismore Gardens, which the actress called her “little London retreat.”
The plaque will be the latest in the collection of historical markers, which date back to the 1800s. In all, more than 900 plaques create a trail of fame across England. Among the honorees: Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, Richard Burton, Jimi Hendrix and Mozart.
To be eligible for a Blue Plaque, a person must:
▪ Have been dead for 20 years or passed his or her 100th birthday.
▪ Be considered eminent members of his or her profession or have made an outstanding contribution to human welfare or happiness.
▪ Have lived or worked in London for a significant period in time or importance.
▪ Be recognizable to well-informed passersby and deserve national recognition.
Gardner in London
Gardner lived in her London apartment from 1968 until her death in 1990, walking her dogs in nearby Hyde Park, said Deanna Brandenberger, director of the Ava Gardner Museum.
The homes of Ennismore Gardens, she said, have a long history, built in 1870 as part of the redevelopment of Kingston house, a mansion dating back to an 18th century duchess of Kingston.
As for the Blue Plaque, “it’s the oldest and most prestigious historical marker system in the world,” said Brandenberger, who began pushing for the honor for Gardner two years ago.
Gardner’s affinity for London, Brandenberger said, was born in 1951, when she stopped there on her way to Spain to film “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.”
“It was very green, and it reminded her of North Carolina,” Brandenberger said. “Smithfield would always be home to her, but she had become more cosmopolitan.”
Representatives of the Ava Gardner Museum will attend the unveiling thanks to the generosity of the Ava Gardner Trust, part of Gardner’s estate. Museum leaders are thinking about taking a small exhibit of museum artifacts with them.
“We’re still deciding on that,” Brandenberger said.
Separately, on Oct. 4, the British Film Institute will honor Gardner and the actor Kirk Douglas as part of the Institute’s Southbank program. Gardner played a supporting role alongside Douglas in the film “Seven Days in May.”
“It will be a big help for us in drawing attention to the Blue Plaque ceremony in November,” Brandenberger said.
Also, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Archive of Art and Design will have an exhibit in spring that include several of Gardner’s clothing items, Brandenberger said.
Gardner was more than a London resident, Brandenberger said. She provided financial support to the Animal Health Trust, a research facility and clinic, and to Queen Victoria Hospital, known for its treatment of burn victims.
Brandenberger hopes that Gardner’s philanthropy and life in London will spur support in Smithfield. She said the N.C. Division of Tourism has a satellite office in London that is helping her use the London events to bring attention to North Carolina and Smithfield.
“Even through these events in London, Ava is still giving back to this community,” Brandenberger said. “We’re going as ambassadors to Smithfield and North Carolina to bring awareness to the people over there.”
Brandenberger said the Animal Health Trust and Queen Victoria Hospital are working with her to promote the museum in Smithfield.
“We’re now working together much more closely and helping each other,” she said. “We’re all on the same team, and we’re more connected in promoting each other.”
During a recent visit to London, Brandenberger said, she picked up several strategies for new exhibits and museum practices for Smithfield’s Ava Gardner Museum.
“This is going to be really great for us to bring attention to Ava again and to make sure she stays relevant,” Brandenberger said. “And people from England vacation in the U.S., so we hope to bring more awareness that her museum is here and it’s the biggest and best collection of her life’s memories.”
The museum, which struggles financially, is also hoping the London events will bring more monetary support.
“People all over the world love Ava,” Brandenberger said. “But we need support to keep her alive in the hearts and minds of people around the world. We’re hoping placing her in the spotlight again, even far from Smithfield, will help us do that.”
For more information on the Ava Gardner Museum, go to www.avagardner.org. For more information on the Blue Plaques, go to www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques.
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett