Ava G. and Newport News

Published 10:11 pm Tuesday, July 5, 2016

I’ve often visited Newport News and have always enjoyed myself. In this story, though, there is, to put it mildly, some negativity about the city. They are only the opinions of the subject of the story, not mine.

The subject, as you will soon see, is a “tell-it-like-it-is” actress with connections to both Newport News and Northeast North Carolina.

The lady would be a rarity in show business today, having become a headliner even though she knew no one in the business to help her climb to the top.

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Ava Gardner got her start after her brother-in-law, a professional photographer, put a picture of her in his shop window. A representative from a major studio saw it, and she wound up with a contract with MGM.

Gardner was born in poverty in Grabtown, N.C. There is a museum in Smithfield, N.C. filled with memorabilia about this major star.

Eventually, the family moved to Newport News where her father believed he could make more money.

To put it bluntly, she didn’t like it. Her father died there. “He was put in a public ward in a town he hated,” she said. “Nothing good ever happened to us in that g– d– town.”

She added: “I hated school. Newport News was my first high school. The girls were smart and into nice clothes. Some of them seemed to have new outfits every week. I wore the same skirt for a whole g– d– year.”

She started taking secretarial courses in town, later finishing at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C.

“The most beautiful animal in the world,” as she was known, had a problem with her strong accent. She was often the subject of unkind remarks about her speech. She once tried out for a high school play and was rejected. Later, of course, she was an Oscar nominee.

Momma G. ran a boarding house, so they were able to put some meat on the table. Once Hollywood beckoned, the slices of meat thickened.

Ava had a trio of famous husbands. Mickey Rooney (she “out-talled” him), Artie Shaw (he “out-intellectualized” her) and, of course, Frank Sinatra. Other suitors came and went, and there were a slew of them.

Her most important contact was Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. He was a rock-ribbed Republican, and, according to biographer, Peter Evans, “if you voted the wrong way or went to the wrong rally, he would make your life miserable.”

Ava the rebel campaigned for ultra-liberal Henry Wallace when he ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket.

“Did I get a lecture,” Gardner once recalled. “Mayer’s idea of a Red was anybody who was not an out-and-out Republican.”

To make matters worse, her closest friend since childhood was African-American.

Gardner was lovely to look at and a fine performer, even when stuck in a host of B movies. Was she thrilled? Nah.

“I never liked acting,” she said. She liked many of the directors and performers with whom she worked. She disliked George C. Scott, who, she said, had beat her; and Bogart was on the list of folks she disliked. Nor did she like Hollywood, itself. “I saw through all the phoniness, all the crap.”

Reading Peter Evans’ biography of the dark-haired beauty is tough if you’re touchy. Her language, some would say, was atrocious. Anyway, it’s safe to say, she was one of Hollywood’s greatest screen goddesses.

And, no, she was not a spokesperson for Newport News.

To lighten up, here are a few weird, but true facts.

  • Most interesting, locally, is this: Until 1796, there was a state in the U.S. called “Franklin.” Today, it’s known as Tennessee. Bet your history teacher didn’t know that — not even those in the Franklin school system.
  • Another item of local interest is this: Peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite.
  • A mole can dig a tunnel 300 feet long in just one night.
  • The average person has more than 1,400 dreams a year.
  • In space, astronauts cannot cry. There’s no gravity, so the tears can’t flow.
  • Owls are the only birds that can see the color blue.
  • It’s against the law to slam your car door in Switzerland.
  • The elephant is the only mammal that can’t jump.

Until next time, so long, lovely people, especially you — er, Newport News-ites. Or, is it Newport Newsians?

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.