Ava Gardner. The name is synonymous with mid-century elegance and beauty. The starlet appeared in over fifty movies; her dark curls, dimpled chin, and chartreuse, shining eyes defined an era of beauty, and her clipped, polished voice an era of accent-less Hollywood. Few guessed that beneath those elegant vowels and cadence lay a Carolina accent as sweet and lolling as a hound pup.
Gardner was a gift to the world, born Christmas Eve of 1922, the youngest of seven children. She was from her first breath a North Carolinian, delivered on the family farm in Grabtown, a rural settlement a few miles east of Smithfield, which itself was a small town thirty miles southeast of Raleigh. The large family squeezed out a meager existence in the purely Carolinian trade of tobacco and cotton farming. When their land and buildings, including the barn and cotton gin, were caught in a blaze in 1924, the family moved to Smithfield. There her parents operated a teacherage, a boarding house for young, female educators; her mother was the cook and adoptive mother for the ladies, her father the caretaker.
The Depression took the lifeblood of many businesses, including the teacherage, prompting the Gardners to try their luck in the larger city of Newport News, Virginia. Here too they oversaw a boarding house, this time for shipyard workers, but when her father died in 1938, the Gardners felt the tug of “home” in North Carolina.
They resettled in the Rock Ridge community near Wilson, some thirty miles east of their old home. Mrs. Gardner returned to operating a local teacherage, while Ava enrolled in Rock Ridge High School. Despite the precarious financial situation of the family, her mother refused to let Ava seek work, instead insisting she prioritize her education. And so in 1939 Ava graduated from Rock Ridge and made plans to attend Atlantic Christian College and their secretarial program.
In the summer between her graduation and enrollment, Ava ventured north to New York City to spend some time with her sister, Beatrice “Bappie” Gardner, who was nineteen years her senior. The trip was an opportunity for young Ava to reconnect with her sibling and her husband, Larry Tarr, a professional photographer and the proprietor of his family’s photography studios. It was this connection that would propel Ava from modest Southern belle to starlet.
During her visit, Tarr arranged a photo session with seventeen-year-old Ava. The photos turned out so well that he installed one in the studio’s window as a testament to his photographic talents. The mesmerizing image wooed not investors but a would-be beau. Barney Duhan, a young errand boy for Lowe’s Theatres, was so taken by Ava’s portrait that he entered the studio and attempted to wheedle the model’s phone number. The secretary saw past his ruse—he had claimed he was a talent scout for MGM—but one of his lines struck at her heart and the heart of Tarr himself: “Someone should send her info to MGM.”
Tarr had his team work through the night to reproduce the images of Ava, and the next day he delivered them to MGM. Within weeks, Ava received the call of which every young actress dreams: MGM wanted her to come in for a screen test.
What makes the tale of her fortuitous rise to fame particularly interesting is that Ava was not, in fact, like “every young actress.” Shy and humble, Ava had never dreamed of becoming an actress. She had never acted in a school play and harbored no ambitions of moving to the big city and taking the world by storm. But her aspirations and dreams all changed when her fate was decided by a photograph.
Ava took leave from her schooling at Atlantic Christian College to return to New York City, where she stood before the representatives of MGM. The city boys first asked her to speak, but were shocked by her thick Carolina drawl. They amended their plans and asked her to simply walk before the camera.
In 1941, at just eighteen, Ava Gardner signed a seven-year film contract with MGM and moved to sunny Los Angeles to begin what would be a wild, tumbling ride in show business. But before that ride could begin, MGM had one order of important business: lessons with a speech coach to subdue that languorous Carolina timbre.
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