In January 1990, my heart was full, and I was brimming with excitement. I had recently spoken with my Aunt Ava about a trip she was planning to make home to North Carolina. Despite the difficulties she had traveling since suffering a stroke in 1986, Ava was very optimistic and eager to stay with me in my new house since all her sisters in Johnston County had passed away. From my home she would go to Winston Salem to spend a few days with her sister Myra before traveling to Los Angeles to spend several weeks with her other sister Beatrice (Bappie). She was in good spirits and looking forward to leaving the London winter behind to reconnect with her family. This phone conversation was happy and all positive, and she seemed better than I had sensed in many months.
Ava at her London flat in the 1980s with her housekeeper and close friend Carmen Vargas.
On the morning of January 25, 1990, I was showering and getting ready for work when the phone rang. My husband answered and came into the bathroom to get me. “You better wrap up in a towel and take this call. It’s from London,” he said. My heart skipped a beat with the thought of hearing Aunt Ava’s voice.
I hurriedly took the call expecting to chat before work to finish arranging the details of her travel plans. When I put the phone to my ear, I instead heard the voice of Carmen, Ava’s dear friend and housekeeper. Carmen was hysterical and shouting, “Miss Ava, Miss Gardner is dead! Miss Gardner is dead!” My vision blurred, and my hearing dimmed with the shock of what Carmen was trying to tell me. I was barely able to hear Carmen over the sounds of buzzing in my ears. She was crying which made it hard to understand her. I finally got my wits about me enough to ask where she was. Carmen said she was in Ava’s flat and Ava was in her bed. I asked if anyone else was there. Without saying anything more, Carmen handed the phone to Franka, the haute couture designer who was Ava’s close friend. We briefly spoke, but she knew nothing more, so I asked to speak with any emergency medical people who were in the residence. Franka gave the phone to Dr. Jeremy Russell who verified for me that Ava had indeed passed away.
Later, I asked Carmen to recount the specifics of that morning. Ava had finished her breakfast tray before telling Carmen she was tired and wanted to stay in bed a while longer. Carmen removed the tray and took a pillow from the bed which she placed in the clothes dryer to make it warm. When she returned to place the warm pillow under Ava’s left arm, which was paralyzed from the stroke, Ava was gone. After learning all of these details, I asked Carmen why she had called me first with the news rather than Aunt Myra or my dad, who was Ava’s nephew and very close with her. She told me that Ava’s address book was open to the page with my number, and she knew Ava would want her to call me. I believe Ava was planning to call me that day with her travel plans since the address book was open to my number. Her death was not expected, not even by Ava.
Being stunned, that morning I could not cry. I finished dressing and called my dad with the unbelievable news. I asked him to please take over informing the family. He called Aunt Myra and Jess Morgan, Ava’s business manager, who needed to make the preparations for bringing Ava home. Before I could get my children off to school, I received a call from Aunt Myra. She had talked with my dad. She was angry and blasting the medical personnel in London who were taking care of Ava. She had just lost her husband, and this news was more than she could bear. After arranging with my staff to be away from the school where I was the Principal, I took time to be with the family and plan the funeral arrangements. For several days, I still could not cry. My emotions finally hit me when I watched a clip from Show Boat on the evening news. Only when I saw Ava standing on the wharf and waving goodbye to the show boat did the tears began to flow, and I finally realized she was really gone.
Ava Gardner’s sudden passing at the age of 67 made news around the world. Clips of Ava in the dramatic role of Julia LaVerne in the 1951 musical Show Boat were featured in some televised tributes.
Ava was always close to her family, and she came home about every two years to visit. She had made it clear to us all that, when the time came, she wanted to be buried in the Gardner family plot alongside her Mama and Daddy at Sunset Memorial Gardens cemetery in Smithfield, NC. This last trip home was not an easy one. It took several days with some mishaps along the way, but she finally arrived to North Carolina one last time.
Ava arrived to Smithfield’s Underwood Funeral Home in a stoic, masculine casket. It was narrow at the legs and broad at the shoulders. All of the family agreed that this would not do! She was transferred to a feminine, elegant casket more befitting her own tastes. The casket she arrived in was taken to a sawmill and turned into sawdust. The public was given a chance to view Ava’s closed casket. Hundreds of her fans and admirers lined up for blocks around the funeral home to pay their respects. The night before the service, the family gathered at the funeral home for a private viewing of Ava’s open casket.
Funeral program from Ava Gardner’s service featuring a tribute by Doris Rollins Cannon, author of Grabtown Girl. From the Ava Gardner Museum Collection.
The viewing room was filled with Gardner family of all ages – siblings, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, cousins, and some honorary family members. Everyone sat around in chairs and visited, sharing stories and memories of Ava. Each family group was given a private moment to individually view Ava and pay their respects. When my family unit’s turn came, I walked up to Ava’s casket with my husband and three small children by my side. She was beautiful in a soft pink gown with a high collar and long sleeves. The feminine, pastel color seemed to cast a celestial glow inside her casket. Ava looked so sublimely serene, and it was as if she was faintly smiling. She was wearing a cross and held prayer cards in her hands from Carmen. I leaned over the casket and gently kissed Ava’s forehead. Carmen burst into tears when she saw my display of affection to Ava. As my family walked back to our seats in the viewing room, I looked at my dad. His head was hanging down in his hands concealing his tears. He had not only lost his beloved relative but his childhood playmate and lifelong friend. As I looked at my dad, I felt the weight of his sadness, and I began to think about the gravity of my loss.
On a rainy day in January 1990, Ava Gardner was laid to rest alongside her beloved family, parents Jonas and Mollie and siblings Jack, Inez, and Elsie Mae.
Ava was the special person in my life, and now I had lost her. She had given me her name, asking my parents to name their baby “Ava” if I was born a girl. When I was little, I thought Aunt Ava was mine because we had the same name. She showered me with attention and mementoes of her affection – always sending cards, letters, clothes, dolls, toys, and jewelry. Whenever a new package with clothes arrived, I had to model them and take photos which were mailed to Ava. She often called on the phone, and I usually got to speak after she spoke with Dad. I loved her voice, and she always seemed eager to hear my childhood news. When she came home for visits there was always a flurry of activity getting ready for her arrival: mostly cooking and prepping sumptuous meals. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement. She was vibrant, adventurous, mischievous, and incredibly fun to be around. She could tell me the greatest stories about my Dad, and she kept all my secrets. As I grew older, our conversations matured. Through her guidance and example, I can say she truly shaped my worldview and influenced many of my life decisions.
A little dress, necklace, and bracelet sent to Ava Thompson from her Aunt Ava. The note inside the gift box said, “I hope you like this little pinafore.”
On the day of the graveside service, the family first gathered at my dad’s house. The family cars lined up to travel the few miles to the gravesite. It was misting rain which caused many to compare the graveside service to the opening scene in The Barefoot Contessa. Reverend Bradshaw delivered a very uplifting service which was just perfect. The thing I remember most was him saying, “Ava Gardner was no saint, but the world needs more like Ava.” To this day, I still agree with this sentiment. I think the world needs her genuine kindness, compassion, and charity. The world needs her acceptance of all races, ethnicities, and cultures. The world needs to emulate her love of learning, her open mindedness, and her positive attitudes and views. The world needs more individuals with her independent thinking, her witty sense of humor, and her fearlessness. Most of all, the world needs people who are joyful like Ava.
Arrangement of three intertwined pink hearts from Ava Thompson’s family created by award-winning floral designer Jody McLeod.
After the service, the family and a few close friends gathered for a meal. Shortly thereafter, I returned to the gravesite to view the flowers and have a quiet moment with Ava. The sun came out and it was a beautiful afternoon. The sun warmed the cold misty January day and my heavy heart. The sun brought a feeling of rejoicing for Ava, and I was reminded of a quote from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. Ava was “a thing free, a spirit that envelopes the earth and moves in the ether.”
Intertwined gold rings purchased by Ava Gardner as a gift for Ava Thompson when her daughter, Ava Malissa, was born. The rings symbolize three living generations of Avas in the Gardner family.
Most of the flowers had been taken by her fans and admirers. I understood that everyone needed some remembrance of her. My floral arrangement to Ava featured three intertwined hearts which referenced a beloved gift she sent me. When my daughter was born, the fourth generation Ava in the family, Aunt Ava sent three intertwined gold rings to symbolize three living generations of Avas. I put the rings away after the funeral and gave them to my daughter, Ava Malissa, when my granddaughter, Ava Isabella, was born, when again, there were three living generations of Avas.
“Thank you” notes sent to Ava Thompson from Ava Gardner’s sister Myra Gardner Pearce and floral designer Jody McLeod.
When Ava was laid to rest beside her parents and in the loving hearts of her family, she was home. As Kahlil Gibran said in The Prophet, “If in the twilight of memory, we should meet once more, we shall speak again together, and you shall sing to me a deeper song.”
To commemorate Ava Gardner’s centennial birthday, Ava Thompson worked with floral designer Jody McLeod to create a special arrangement in the style of what he made in 1990 for Ava’s funeral. Thompson, along with her daughter, Ava Malissa, and granddaughter, Ava Isabella, visited Ava Gardner’s grave to place the flowers for her 100th birthday.