As the Ava Gardner Museum celebrated a meaningful end to Ava’s centennial year this fall, one of the many activities included a visit to Ava’s Grave. Here is what I wish I could say to her:


Rebecca Johnson behind an Ava fan

Author behind an Ava mask while attending the Ava Gardner Festival.

Dear Ava,

You know sometimes I think you are right here with us. There is so much I wish I could say to you about your fans, your legacy and your relevance today. I know I am not alone in my feelings, so I’ll share them here in this open letter as we conclude your centennial year together.

First off, I can’t tell you how much I always love visiting the town of Smithfield. Last year, in October of 2022, when I came to my first Ava Gardner Festival and we inaugurated your 100th birthday celebrations, I met a man named Marvin Underwood. Many of the kids around the area know him as the North Carolina “Fossil Man”—what a kind, generous soul.  He told me how you knew he couldn’t afford a coke and a hot dog when he was a boy, so when you arrived in town and saw him with his friends sitting on the curb "like little birds on a line” as you described them, you told him you were going to take him out to lunch.  What a treat! He was so grateful to you that he saved up for a year and the next time you were in town, he returned the favor.  There is just something about you that makes people respond—and it’s not just your beauty.  What do they say? “You get what you give?” That’s certainly true of you, Ava.

In fact, it makes it all the more understandable why Anthony Uzarowski, a very thoughtful gentleman who wrote a recent biography on you, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies said in an interview, “The one thing that really struck me is, no matter who we spoke to, whether it was Sinatra’s children or people who worked with Ava or her costars or her neighbors, everyone remembered her fondly and with love which is really beautiful and indicative of the kind of person she was.” Your Lewin technicolor green eyes drew us in, but it is who you are that makes us stay. It’s been ten decades so far and it will probably be ten more—plus some—before we can ever let you go. But then, I doubt that will ever really happen because in many ways, you are even more relevant today than when you were a box office hit.  Authenticity is never out of style. That’s why we still gather to celebrate you.  Not surprisingly, people come from as far away as Berlin and Australia for your festival. And then there’s Bill and Steve who come from perhaps not as far —Richmond, in fact— but I bet they would come even if they lived on the moon! Between you and me, Bill has sort of a Robert Taylor vibe and Steve is dashing in his Sean Connery beard.  Though Bill never hides his love for you like Robert did! Look how happy you make all of us!                                 

Ava Gardner Festival attendees        

The author, Rebecca, with Marsea, Bill, and Steve, fellow Ava Gardner Festival attendees.

Standing in your museum, it seems perfectly natural that the conversations often turn to making the world a better place, much like Steve and I discussed at the festival. We hear your whispers and the need for understanding. We know you yourself only saw people, not skin color or creeds or ideas.  You never saw anything but a fellow human being who deserved compassion and care.  You never saw barriers to kindness. These things are not only still alive and well in your legacy with the Ava Gardner Trust which still support charities like St. Jude’s children Hospital and the Queen Victoria Hospital in London, but in the attitudes and choices which defined you and still resonate with us today.

In an age where nearly everyone is a celebrity through social media, you serve as a role model of humility and self-effacing humor.  And when the paparazzi got to be too much and the very down to earth southern girl began to see through the shiny veneer of Hollywood, you forged ahead and created your own life; first in Spain and then in London (but of course, not without frequent trips back home to North Carolina to the rich farmland and the generous people who made you).  I think Dewey Sheffield, who you used to babysit, said it best when he stated that you reflected the North Carolina motto perfectly: “Esse Quam Videri” which means, “to be rather than to seem.” Though other-worldly on film, your feet were always solidly on the ground and you loved people, no matter how humble or great.

Ava Gardner Festival attendees in a group photo

Board members and Festival attendees enjoying the welcome reception.

It’s not that we don’t know your faults, we do, but they only make us love you more because we saw how you handled yourself in hard situations.  You were loyal and kind and remained friends with your three ex-husbands.  In fact, the only likely reason they were exes was because you could be nothing but your authentic self and you desired the kind of love you were willing to give—a loyal, true love.  You had lost your father only a few years before you left for Hollywood and only a year in as a starlet, you lost your mother.  You looked for that love in others and you gave it, full on.  In this world that is slowly draining of authenticity, you rise a hero.

Even Frank Sinatra, your third husband, respected you to the very last, sending you yellow roses every year on your birthday despite your divorce decades before.  Though the media wants us to believe he financially supported you in your late years, the wiser know you stood on your own two feet.  In fact, the only thing he paid for was an air ambulance after your stroke and that was only allowed after his pleading with you to come see a well-respected doctor in LA: proof that when someone finds a person who is truly authentic, kind and good—someone like you—they want to keep them around.

Rebecca Johnson and Phyllis at cemetery

Author Rebecca with fellow Festival attendee Phyllis at the Sunset Memorial Park where Ava Gardner is buried.

Well, again this year in 2023, we toasted you, celebrated you, and we still love you.  Your films are just the icing on the cake of who you were as a person (and yes, we ate your favorite coconut cake again at the Festival opening reception!).  We feel fortunate we can still be with you on the sidewalks of Smithfield and through the wonders of celluloid.  We walked to the Howell theater, where you saw Red Dust for the first time with your mom and where you both drooled over your favorite, Clark Gable.  We got to picture you looking up at the gorgeous linear Art Deco appointments on the outside of the building and imagine you in your saddle shoes, making the same trek we were, while completely unaware you would be starring in Mogambo with Gable, a remake of Red Dust, only two decades later. 

Ava 100 coconut cake

The coconut cake served at the Ava Gardner Festival.

We had a “weekend in the life” with someone we know would treat us to a hot dog and coke if we were hungry, too—someone who would dance with us if we were a disfigured soldier at the Victoria Hospital —someone who had such a fierce loyalty to not only herself but to those she loved that she forged her own, brave life where she felt she could live it best—but not without returning home now and then, as we no doubt will, to celebrate you again next October!

We love you, Ava.

Festival attendees gathered at Ava's grave

Festival attendees gathered at Ava’s grave.