Note: I've often visited Newport News and have always enjoyed myself. In this story there is, to put it mildly, some negativity about NN. They are only the opinions of the subject of the story. It is not a writer's job to be selective, especially when quoting someone. It is his job to be honest in his reporting. That said --- .
This go-'round I am writing about a bee-yu-t-ful lady who has ties with Northeast North Carolina - and - Newport News.
The subject, as you will soon realize, is a 'tell-it-like-it-is' actress who had connections with the above mentioned locales. The lady is almost a rarity in showbusiness today, having become a headliner even though she knew no one in the business, had no relatives who could help her climb to the top. You can look at today's big names and you will find that most of them had family members who opened doors for them. She was one of the exceptions.
This lady got started because 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 - bingo - she wound up with a contract with MGM.
Ava Gardner -- that's the lady. She was born in poverty in a town with the colorful name of Grabtown, N. C. There is a museum of sorts in Smithfield, N. C. filled with memorabilia about this major star. That's the North Carolina connection. Eventually, the family moved to Newport News where her dad felt 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.
She was blunt, to say the least, in discussing NN: "Nothing good ever happened to us in that g. damn 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. damn 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 - often the butt of jokes. (My wife has a similar problem, and her in-laws picked on her - y'all). Another problem - she 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 Progresssive Party ticket).
Ava remembers - "did I get a lecture. 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 an African-American lady.
The actress was not only lovely to look at - she was also a fine performer, even when stuck in a host of grade-B movies. Was she thrilled? Nah. "I never liked acting." She liked many of the directors and performers with whom she worked. She disliked George C. Scott who once 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 Mr. 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 li'l ole Newport News - actually, a rather nice town which I've often visited.
* * * *
Now, from Gardner to gardener. Guy said he was not a born gardener, explaining, "I once killed a century plant when it was six."--If God intended us to rest on Sunday, why did He create weeds?--Oh, a weed is a plant with nine lives--oh, give the weeds an inch, they'll take a yard.
Until next time, so long, lovely people - especially - er 'Newport News-ites'. Or, is it Newport Newsians?
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