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The Religious Affiliation of
great American actress
From: Roland Flamini, Ava, Coward, McCann & Geoghegan: New York, NY (1983), page 26:
Her [Ava's mother] nature was rather joyless, burdened by money worries and by her austere Scottish Baptist background. Her husband of twenty years, Jonas Bailey Gardner, was... [an] Irishman who rarely smiled. He lived in unrelieved tension between passionate appetites and puritan inhibitions... he was strict to the point of oppression with his teenage daughters...
From: Charles Higham, Ava: A Life Story, Delacorte Press: New York, NY (1974), page 2:
In 1902 Jonas [had] married Mollie Baker [Ava Gardner's mother]... Although Jonas was a Roman Catholic, the Baker family would not permit Mollie to sign the agreement to raise the children in the Catholic faith as required by the Church in mixed marriages. The Gardner children grew up attending Baptist services, while Jonas lapsed into indifference.
Smithfield [North Carolina]... Ava Gardner was born on Christmas Eve, 1922... She was the last of seven children of a... farmer named Jonas Bailey Gardner... He was bigoted, particularly against blacks, a devout Irish Catholic, and the fourth in a line of tenant farmers... His wife was Mary Elizabeth (often called Molly)... a puritanical hater of sex, she was born of a stern line of Scottish Baptists, and there was iron in her pinched soul...
Higham, page 5:
Books were no part of the texture of their life: only the Bible stood on the shelves, and it was not until Ava was 16 that she was permitted to read any novel not assigned in school.
...for the Gardners, there were Sunday morning services at the small Baptist church in Brogden, Christmases with the whole family gathered round, and long winter evenings with Jonas Gardner telling stories... It was an intensely happy family life until the Depression...
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, Bantam Books: New York, NY (1990), pages 21-22:
I was growing into adolescence in Newport News, and I have to say that Mama was not very helpful to a teenage girl. We may not have been very deeply into religion, but into sex we were not at all. Nothing was ever talked about; Mother never ever told me anything... The subject was forbidden...
Higham, pages 7-8:
Next came my baptism. It was considered very fashionable by all the girls at school; you simply had to do it. With my body changing the way it was [with puberty and the onset of her menstrual period], I was worried about the ceremony, so I went to see the parson. He wasn't in, so I confided my dilemma to his wife, and she--and I'll never forgive her--said in a lordly fashion, "Oh, don't worry, dear. God will take care of everything."
God didn't take care of anything.
Unlike North Carolina, where baptisms often took place in a river near the chapel, our local Baptist church came complete with a sort of deep concrete bath behind the pulpit. That location meant, however, that everyone in the congregation could have a super view of what was going on. I was put in a thin shift and dunked deep under the water. When I came up, the fabric had turned sheer and stuck to me in such a way that my whole body was plainly revealed, and what seemed like a thousand shocked eyes were staring at me.
I felt humiliated, totally ashamed. It was the worst experience I have ever had in my whole life. I hated religion for having exposed me in this fashion. and when I went around to this same preacher and asked shyly if he might perhaps come and talk to Daddy, because he was very lonely, he never did. Maybe we weren't good enough Christians for that.
So Daddy just lay there and slowly died.
At 16... she [Ava Gardner] was a beautiful, leggy brunette in constant demand for dates. But under her mother's cold grip she seldom went out. And when she did, she clung to her virginity... While her mother was matron at the teacherage in Rock Ridge near Wilson, she went to the Atlantic Christian College at Wilson, a co-educational institution...
Flamini, page 33:
[page 8] At 17, Ava was a subdued, suspicious, and nervous girl: her mother's baby. She was simple, easy, raw. She had little poise, so self-conscious that she would have been a disaster at a sophisticated party. She had grown up too fast, and she was terrified of her own sexual attraction.
It was from her mother that she learned the lack of commitment to sexual existence that infuriated many men who loved her. An odd, disconcerting chastity lay at the very heart of her seemingly passionate character. Her mother taught her that she must love a man with such absolute devotion that he would not want to look elsewhere--yet taught her also to far sex... Ava was at 17 the victim of very American feelings: puritan romantic yearning... Her conflicting emotions set the tone of her entire career: on one hand a desire for the romantic excitement of stardom, bred early by her furtive reading of fan magazines, and on the other a puritanical disgust at the cheap sentiment and sexual squalor of the screen, the sordid flesh-market of Hollywood; later, a scorning of the power and success that stardom so easily brought, and yet a horror of the possibility of being penniless...
Helped by her brother Jack, who owned a diner in Smithfield, [Ava] enrolled in the coeducational Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, studying business education and secretarial science...
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 25:
In the summer of 1940... She saw the newly released Gone With the Wind. She also read Margaret Mitchell's colossal novel--by her own admission the first book she had ever read outside of school requirements, for only one book had ever crossed the Gardner's threshold in Boon Hill and that was the Bible.
...my rascally brother Jack... came up with a surprise... "You're going to round off your education with a year at the Atlantic Christian College in Wilson. And I'm going to pay for it."
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 49:
...Mama, bless her, still ruled my life with the strictness of a mother superior in the Carmelite order... My upbringing was totally Victorian; I grew up an old-fashioned, God-fearing girl, taught that marriage and motherhood were honorable achievements. And Mama was the eternal watchdog, intent on seeing that I stayed honorable until the bitter end.
I must have been seventeen. It was New Year's Eve and I had gone to a dance with a neighborhood boy I liked very much and had dated before. By the time we got back to the house and stood under the blazing porch light, it was one o'clock in the morning. As we said good night at the door, he took my in his arms and kissed me. It was a gentle kiss, not passionate, and I responded in kind.
We hadn't been there for more than two seconds before Mama crashed through that screen door like a bull out of a trap. Honest to God, I thought she was going to kill us both. That boy was scared... She chased him back to his car and then came back yelling at me, "It's disgraceful! How could you do it? I will not have my youngest daughter behaving in such a wanton manner."
...Later on I thought: Gee, a kiss on the porch after a New Year's dance. It wasn't like we'd been sneaking around in the bushes, or even been necking in his car. But as I've said, Mama was pure Victorian, and when you see some of what's going on these days, maybe her ideas weren't all that bad.
But no matter how much fun I was having [while dating Mickey Rooney], I was not going to bed with any man until I was married to him. Sex before marriage was definitely out; in Mama's terms, even a couple of kisses before marriage was a kind of prostitution. I was a very old-fashioned girl, as Mickey found out after a couple of wrestling sessions in the back of his car.
Flamini, pages 47-48:
At first Mickey [Rooney]'s dominant urge was sexual, and there would be wrestling bouts in the back of the Lincoln on the drive home from a date. Ava had no interest in "going all the way" with Mickey, and perhaps the memory of her mother's disapproval stiffened her resistance. Mickey would drop her off at her apartment, often departing in a huff. But the next day there would be roses by the hundreds, or sprays of orchids to apologize and make up. Ava's resistance only served to increase his ardor, and he began to propose marriage.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 52-53:
Mickey [Rooney] and I were married on January 10, 1942, in Ballard, a town near Santa Barbara... Presbyterian minister Reverend Glenn H. Lutz... conducted the services...
Higham, pages 27-28:
The wedding over, pictures taken, Mickey and I got into the getaway car that was to whisk us to our intimate honeymoon retreat near Monterey--and Les Petersen got in with us. What the hell Les was doing with us only [studio boss] L. B. Mayer could possibly know. actually, I know exactly what he was doing there. He was personally responsible to Mr. Mayer for keeping the name of Andy Hardy [Mickey Rooney's TV character] pure and unsullied. And as Mickey loved booze, betting, and girls... that was quite a job, and I have to add that I forgave dear Les completely for what he had to do...
The suite in the hotel was great: huge fireplace... a big bedroom... But by now I was cooling very rapidly this honeymoon deal. I realized that it was a bit late for the bride to default, but I wanted to keep the moment of truth off as long as possible.
Drinking seemed to be the only way of doing that... no one felt less inclined to honeymoon activities that night than I did. Nothing to do with Mickey. I loved him, but I needed time to think this thing through. I had been brought up my Mama, after all, and I had not been briefed about this next bit. This business of sex was going to ruin the entire marriage...
Let me say at this point that I approve highly of the physical side of relationships between male and female. Not only does it make the world go round, it's marvelous. In that respect all my three marriages were perfect; I loved each one of my husbands just as much when I left them as I did when I married them . . . .but that honeymoon night in the Del Monte Hotel I just wasn't ready.
Oh, it worked all right, and I was agreeably surprised. Even when next morning... Mickey was out of bed and heading for the golf course.
1942... The wedding [of Ava Gardner to Mickey Rooney] took place on January 10, almost exactly six months from the day that Ava came to Hollywood... The wedding was performed by the Rev. Glenn H. Lutz... who is now Presbyterian minister in Las Vegas...
Flamini, pages 52-54:
[page 28] Once alone with Mickey in their suite, Ava was terrified. She felt all of her mother's horror of sex welling up in her. Mickey, despite his experience with women, was equally terrified... Awkwardly, clumsily, as he confessed later, Mickey began to make love to her, and he gradually overcame her shyness. But it was only when... that he learned the incredible truth: the beautiful woman he held in his arms was a virgin.
They [Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner] were married on Sunday, January 10, 1942... the couple drove into Santa Barbara, picking up their marriage certificate without leaving the car. From Santa Barbara they made their way to a small white Presbyterian church in Ballard, tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains. No one appears to have attached much importance to the fact that Ava had been raised a Southern Baptist and Mickey was a Christian Scientist.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 135:
The wedding was performed by the Reverend Glenn H. Lutz, a rotund, cheerful churchman...
...the wedding... Despite considerable experience with women, Mickey proceeded with uncharacteristic shyness. Ava may have felt her mother's stern moralism welling up and was equally terrified. She was also a virgin.
Overcoming her shyness, Ava proved more than a match for Mickey. Overwhelmed by her ardor, Mickey got up in the middle of the night and wrote letters to his parents and friends.
"Ava," Bappie [her sister] said in her dark-brown North Carolina Baptist Belt voice that fortunately nobody understood except me...
Flamini, page 63:
 ...Ava received news of Mollie Gardner's [her mother] death following a long fight against breast cancer... The paper mentioned that Ava was to attend her mother's burial, and when the funeral party arrived at the small Baptist graveyard a sizable crowd was waiting.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 1:
I was born Ava Lavinia Gardner on Christmas Eve 1922 in Grabtown [near Smithfield], North Carolina... how about having to live through childhood with my birthday and Christmas Day being just about simultaneous celebrations? That meant I'd like as not be fobbed off with one present instead of two I just knew I deserved. And the news got worse. It appeared that there was this whole other person, Jesus Christ, whose birthday a lot of people tended to confuse with mine. I was personally outraged. It was a long time before I forgave the Lord for that.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 8-9:
...music, especially movement to music, became a great passion with me. One of my greatest joys was the Holy Rollers [Pentecostals]. My parents' sedate form of religion didn't appeal to me, but Elva Mae, the sweet little black girl who helped Mama out in the kitchen, used to take me to the services at the Tee's Chapel. And I just fell in love with the singing and the preaching and all the rest of that good old-time religion.
Ava Gardner dated Howard Hughes (this was after she had divorced Mickey Rooney). Higham, page 48:
It would start with everyone quiet and reverent. The preacher would warm up with a few quotes from the Bible. Then, out of nowhere, he'd catch fire and give everyone hell. I'm here to tell you, there ain't much forgiveness in that old-time religion. That particular savior was a mean son of a bitch. If you sinned, honey, he was going to get you, no doubt about it. "All of you down there in this congregation is sinners," the preacher would thunder. "And no sinner's going to escape hellfire and damnation. No sirree, no sirree." [More about this.]
...Though it didn't appeal to me, my parents' religion must have helped them when it came to the real tragedies of their lives. But even religion was not enough to help Mama get over something that happened twelve years before I was born, something that I'm sure left its tiny mark on me. [The first-born son of Ava's parents was killed when he got into the dynamite caps stored in the house - dynamite that was used to clear rocks and tree stumps on the farm.]
"But when she began to lose her interest in Hughes sexually. It was a familiar pattern with her. In the first place, she wasn't in love with him at all... Her essential remoteness, that 'hollow feeling' at the heart of the relationship, drove Hughes crazy, just as it did Mickey. They began to have the most terrible quarrels. He gave her a brand-new Cadillac, then took it back when she broke a date with him."
While dating Howard Hughes, Ava Gardner had an affair with Philip Yordan. Higham, page 51:
Noah Dietrich says: "He had her watched 24 hours a day by Mormon bodyguards, a night man and a day man. He always felt Mormons were more reliable than anybody else. For a while, she behaved. But soon she became restless..."
...a tough Jewish writer called Philip Yordan. Today a millionaire wheeler-dealer in film properties, for many years one of the highest paid Hollywood writer-producers, in 1945 Yordan was a poverty-stricken beginner.
Ava Gardner's friend Arlene Dahl describes Ava. From: Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 112:
One game [Ava] did not play was the couch game. She never had to and she never did. She was not promiscuous. She was true--true blue. When she was married, she was married. She didn't fool around; there was never any scandal about her. She was exactly the opposite of the roles she played. She looked like a femme fatale and she wasn't. She was really sweet and dear and lovely.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 115:
Before shooting could begin [on One Touch of Venus], however, a statue of me as the Anatolian Venus had to be created. Sparing no expense, Universal commissioned sculptor Joseph Nicolosi to do the job. And that's where the crises began. Most Venuses I'd seen in art books were nude or had a magically clinging drape low on the hips, and Mrs. Nicolosi clearly had the same idea... Nude? Me? Not even MGM had that in their contract. Bare my breasts? What would Mama have thought? Jesus, I had a hard enough time with two husbands and one boyfriend. No one darted into bed faster than I did. I had a fine time with sex, but the thought of exposing my body was something else again. I guess my mother's puritanical zeal had left some marks on me after all. [She eventually posed topless for the sculptor.]
Higham, pages 76-77:
Ava became pregnant [by actor Howard Duff, in 1948] and decided to have an abortion. She went to... doctor in Beverly Hills... He botched the job, not completely removing the fetus. The aftermath was appalling. Her womb was so badly cut that it probably would have been very difficult to have any children. The event so traumatized her that she never fully recovered from the shock, and never had a child.
Higham, pages 125-128 describes details about Ava Gardner filming Ride, Vaquero on location in Kanab, Utah with co-star Robert Taylor.
Flamini, page 112:
For some time [Ava Gardner] had been pursued by the prestigious, much-loved Charles Feldman, who specialized in women clients. Feldman was top-drawer Hollywood, a good-looking man whom his friends called "the Jewish Clark Gable." His wife, Jean Howard, was the only woman over whom L. B. Mayer as known to have lost his head. When Jean married Feldman, L.B. attempted to blackball all his clients and tried to get other studios to do the same. By then Feldman represented such a large slice of Metro's talent that had the order been obeyed the studio would have ground to a standstill.
Frank Sinatra left his long-time life Nancy Sinatra in order to be with Ava Gardner. Flamini, pages 152-154:
After the breakup of her marriage, Nancy Sinatra... became a recluse, retiring into her Beverly Hills home, seeing only a few relatives and friends, and lavishing attention on her three children.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 125-127:
She refused to agree to Frank's repeated requests for a divorce, partly on moral grounds as a practicing Roman Catholic and also because she remained convinced that he would one day come back to her. She perceived him as a man possessed by some private demon and she prayed for him daily at mass in her parish Church of the Holy Savior on Santa Monica Boulevard...
Frank continued to have free access to the children. Indeed, Nancy encouraged his visits, knowing that he adored them and hoping that the strong family ties would act as a form of exorcism and bring about the miracle of reconciliation. Sinatra often stayed to supper, which Nancy cooked...
Ava always knew when Frank had been visiting his family. It was not difficult: a vicious black mood enveloped him and he criticized everything she said and did.
It was the turbulence of a Catholic conscience in full cry. But Ava, whose two previous marriages were now completely forgotten, never understood the depth of Sinatra's inner torment. Like most Catholics contemplating divorce in the 1950s he was feeling the heat of widespread disapproval. Public criticism did not deter him. What was unnerving was that friends, relatives, priests and conies whose love and respect he prized were urging him to give up Ava and go back to Nancy; their argument was always the same: was it really worth breaking up the family?
[page 154] ...The Legion of Decency warned MGM that Ava was skating on thin ice and risked a boycott of her movies. Then at the height of its power as the nation's watchdog of movie morality, the Legion of Decency had banned films for less...
[page 155] It was one of the most tempestuous love affairs Hollywood had ever witnessed, by turns magnificent and petty, tender and vicious, and always furiously paced. It would be inaccurate to say that they found happiness in each other. But what was happiness? A dog asleep in the sun? Frank and Ava could go from ecstasy to despair in a single encounter...
Frank was filming Meet Danny Wilson... and a constant procession of priests and psychiatrists visited the set trying to dissuade him from divorcing Nancy. Sometimes Frank's children would appear for lunch with their father, accompanied by a priest from the Catholic Counseling Service.
We [Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner] became lovers forever--eternally. Big words, I know. But I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love... one or two people tried to warn me about him. Lana Turner was one. She had been one of Artie Shaw's wives, and she'd had a very serious affair with Frank a couple of years before me... Though he was shuttling backward and forward between her bedroom and Nancy's [Frank's wife], trying to equate obedience to Catholic doctrines with indulgence in his natural inclinations, divorce plans were all set up and wedding plans had been made.
Frank Sinatra took Ava go his parent's home. Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 151:
Then Lana woke up one morning, picked up the newspaper, and red that Frank had changed his mind and gone back to Nancy for good. It was the old Catholic arrangement: wife and family come first...
...I told Lana gently that Frank and I were in love, and that this time he really was going to leave Nancy for good. If I'm in love, I want to get married: that's my fundamentalist Protestant background. If he wanted me, there could be no compromise on that issue.
...Now, nearly forty years later, I can be fairly rational about this, even smile ruefully at all the fuss. Then, however, I was deeply hurt and upset. All I had done was fall in love. It was, unfortunately, with a married Catholic man...
[page 127] In the next few weeks [after Nancy Sinatra announced that she and Frank were formally separated, and Ava's affair with Frank Sinatra became more public] I was receiving scores of letters accusing me of being a scarlet woman, a home wrecker, and worse. One correspondent addressed me as "Bitch-Jezebel-Gardner," the Legion of Decency threatened to ban my movies, and Catholic priests found the time to write me accusatory letters. I even read where the Sisters of Mary and Joseph asked their students at St. Paul the Apostle School in Los Angeles to pray for Frank's poor wife.
I didn't understand then and, frankly, I still don't understand now why there should be this prurient mass hysteria about a male and female climbing into bed and doing what comes naturally. It's blessed in weddings, celebrated in honeymoons, but out of wedlock it's condemned as the worst of sins.
Every room had a cross or a resident Jesus Christ; there seemed to be a cross on everything, because Dolly [Frank's mother] was deeply into the Catholic faith. And of course Dolly had to tell me all about Frank...
While married to Frank Sanatra, Ava Gardner's career was in high gear. At least twice she became pregnant and had an abortion because she didn't want having a baby to interrupt her career. Throughout her life Gardner often said she wanted to have children, but although she was married three times and was pregnant multiple times, she never had children because she terminated all of her pregnancies by getting an abortion. Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 184-185:
I felt the time just wasn't right for me to have a child. With that decision made, the most agonizing I'd ever had to face, I went to see my director. Jack Ford [John Ford, a Catholic] tried desperately to talk me out of it.
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 145:
"Ava," he said, "you're married to a Catholic, and this is going to hurt Frank tremendously when he finds out about it."
"He isn't going to find out about it, and if he does, it's my decision."
"Ava, you're giving yourself too hard a time. I'll protect you if the fact that you're having a baby starts to show. I'll arrange the scenes, I'll arrange the shots. We'll wrap your part up as quickly as we can. Nothing will show. Please go ahead and have the child." [She had an abortion, and later another.]
In the breaks during filming of The Bribe, Charles Laughton, one of my costars, used to take me aside and read me passages out of the Bible, then make me read them back with the right cadences and stresses. He was a brilliant classical actor absorbed by his craft and loving it. And he was the only one in all my film years who took the time and went out of his way to try and make an actress out of me.
Gardner describes her movie Bhowani Junction, set in India in 1947. Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 213-215:
With the fight of India's soul between the peaceful Congress party of Gandhi and the violent and provocative Communists as background, the character I played, Victoria Jones, returns home to the railway junction of Bhowani Junction... I'm an Anglo-Indian [her character in the movie, that is], a half-breed or cheechee, in the local slang... Bhowani Junction is really the story of how my love for three men mirrored India's struggle... First on my list was fellow Anglo-Indian Patrick Taylor... However, I can't get used to Patrick's anti-Indian feeling, and next I become involved with Ranjit Kasel, a Sikh who longs for a fully independent India. I was always amused that with eight hundred million Indians around, MGM went and employed a ...damn Englishman... in the role. But he did an excellent job, and, after all, they hadn't cast an Anglo-Indian in my part, had they?
Many pages describe the filming of The Bible, in which Gardner played Sarah. Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, pages 213-215:
[Many more pages describe this film and the filming of it.]
...We filmed in the legendary Shalimar gardens, which were supposed to give a hint of the beauties of paradise and the world to come, and the government also agreed to reopen an exquisite Sikh temple for the first time since the Muslims had taken over Pakistan. The government even allowed some one hundred Sikhs to cross the border and participate in the filmed ceremony in which Victoria and Ranjit were to be received into the Sikh faith. People told us it was probably the first time in history that the temple had been opened to non-Sikhs
Filming The Bible wasn't John Huston's idea. Big as he thought, even he couldn't come up with a picture that included Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, Noah's Ark, Abraham and Sarah, not to mention the creation of the whole... world. Only the Italian producer Dino De Laurentiis thought big enough for that, or had the nerve to rent a sign on Broadway, a huge thing that extended for an entire city block and grandly announced that "Dino De Laurentiis has reserved this space to announce the most important movie of all time."
Ava Gardner, Ava: My Story, page 290:
Dino's ideas, however, didn't always pan out exactly as he'd planned them. He'd originally envisioned two six-hour films, costing a total of ninety million dollars, with four, maybe five directors assigned. What he ended up with was one normal-sized film with one larger-than-life director, John Huston.
Afterword: On January 25, 1990, Ava Gardner died of pneumonia... just a month past her sixty-seventh birthday... Burial took place in Smithfield, North Carolina, on January 29. As she expressly stipulated, Ava was buried in the Gardner family plot, laid to rest among the people she knew and loved best.
Webpage created 20 June 2005. Last modified 20 June 2005.
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