North Carolina Minute: The little girl from Grabtown

Published September 1, 2022

By J. C. Knowles

It was Christmas Eve 1922. The place was Grabtown, just outside the town of Smithfield. The event was the birth of a little girl to a farming family in Johnston County.

While still a little girl, the father lost the family farm. There were some family problems and poverty was setting in. The little girl's mother moved to Smithfield and opened a small boarding home for school teachers. 

Growing up was not easy for this little girl. As a teenager she wanted to drop out of school because she had to wear the same sweater to class every day. She did, to her credit,  finish high school and enrolled in Atlantic Christian College (now Barton College) in Wilson.

While attending college she made several trips to visit her sister in New York City. On one such visit her brother-in-law, a photographer, took a picture of her and posted it in the window of his studio on 5th Avenue. From that photo her life took a turn to stardom. It would bring her fame and fortune. It would also see her marry three of America's heart-throbs. 

By now you may be asking "who is this girl from Grabtown?" This plain Jane from Johnston County? Well, the marquee on Broadway said it all: "The snows of Kilimanjaro" starring the beautiful Ava Gardner. Although she had no acting ability, she had the looks and that beauty captured Hollywood and the world. It didn't take her long to add talent to her beauty and she soon became a leading lady all over the world. 

Ava Gardner married Mickey Rooney in 1942. After a short marriage she divorced Rooney and married the great band leader, Artie Shaw. That union only lasted a short time. In 1951 Ava married Frank Sinatra. That marriage also lasted only a few years. 

Ava Gardner, the little girl from Grabtown, died January 25, 1990 and was buried in Smithfield - the place she always called home.