In "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean," Paul Newman builds a shrine in the form of a tiny town and saloon dedicated to Lillie Langtry, as portrayed by Ava Gardner. According to legend, the colorful 19th-Century justice of the peace fell in love with a photograph of the English actress.

In fact, "The Jersey Lily" never made it to Langtry, Tex., but at the end of the movie, Gardner appears briefly in the saloon in a climactic, ethereal sequence shot through a heavily filtered lens.

In much the same way, the real Ava Gardner never set foot in the Ava Gardner Museum in this tiny North Carolina town. The closest she got was when she sat in the driveway in front of the old wooden dwelling in 1984. It's not a fancy place. No air-conditioner or dehumidifier and the floors creak. Everything is displayed on card tables and wooden trellises that are worse for wear. The actress declined to go inside to see the memorabilia.

"I know what's in there," she told a reporter, "I lived it."

On the left side of the town's lone intersection--between a burned-out, red brick school building and Curley's Gas and Grocery--is a two-story, white clapboard house. "The Teacherage," reads a sign outside the dwelling, where Ava Lavinia Gardner lived from 2 until she was 13, helping her mother run the modest boardinghouse and picking tobacco for pocket money.

But for eight weeks each summer, the house becomes the Ava Gardner Museum, a monument built by fans--and one in particular.

Nearly half a century ago, a group of rambunctious boys, including 10-year-old Thomas M. Banks, used to tease a ravishing, 17-year-old student at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C., as she waited for the bus to take her home.

"She'd chase us," Banks recalled. One day, "She caught me. She didn't know what to do with me, so she gave me a kiss on the forehead. She knew I had a crush on her. I was a little skinny kid in short pants. She's very magnanimous."

Ultimately, Banks married a librarian from Pittsburgh, moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., and went into practice as a clinical psychologist, but he never lost touch with Gardner or slackened in his collection of memorabilia of her career. By the late 1970s, the collection included 25 scrapbooks, 10,000 photographs, hundreds of magazine covers and movie posters (some in foreign languages), videotapes of most of her 40 movies and two of her shoes from "Barefoot Contessa."

In 1978, as part of his regular canvassing for material, Banks wrote to the local paper in Smithfield, N.C., the market town that dominates the farm area near Brogden. He wanted to know if the Smithfield Herald had any photographs of Gardner. By coincidence, the day before his letter arrived, a staff writer had done a column on the actress and her roots.

Doris Cannon recalled in the article that as a 12-year-old in the North Carolina mountains she learned that Ava Gardner came from just outside of Smithfield, a "marvelous" distinction: "So you can imagine my puzzlement when years later I came to live and work in a place called Smithfield and found not one sign anywhere noting that Ava had put the town on the map. . . .

"I'm saying it's past time for Smithfield to stand up and say, 'Hey, everybody, Ava Gardner grew up here!' It's time to get this feather in the town's cap out from under the sweat band and up in the breeze where it can be seen.

Sister Elsie left the "Teacherage" in 1979 to move into town with her son. When Cannon heard that the local fire department wanted to burn it down for practice, she contacted Banks, who agreed to buy it and create the museum. Ultimately, he spent an estimated $60,000 to buy and improve the place.

He agreed to come up each summer from Florida, around the 4th of July, and open the museum to tourists for a few weeks. No admission is charged and no souvenirs are sold.

"I don't think Ava would like it," Banks said, if the museum was at all commercialized.

"It's strictly nonprofit," said Cannon. "We don't want any flashing neon signs, nothing Hollywood."

Inside the museum, there are seven complete mannequins and three half figures, each with distinctively arched eyebrows, green eyes and a chiseled chin. They wear costumes from "The Great Sinner," which had its 1949 premiere in Smithfield; "My Forbidden Past," on which Banks worked briefly as a publicist in 1951, and "They Went to the Races" in 1945. En route from Florida are more recent costumes from TV movies, as well as stills from Gardner's recent unsuccessful pilot, "Maggie."

More touching are photostats of Gardner's birth certificate and a 1936 handwritten letter to her best friend, Clara Whitley, in which she repeats her ambition to be a movie star. "I still do," she writes, "but I know I can't so I have about given up hope."

Gardner has been in St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica for the past seven weeks, being treated for viral pneumonia. According to her physician, Dr. William Smith, her condition is "good." A decision will be made next week regarding her release.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World