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In the end, Ava Gardner said that she was tired of living. Struggling against lung disease and the partial paralysis that was the legacy of her 1986 stroke, the woman whose mesmerizing looks and public life once defined the term screen goddess spent her last weeks inside the sumptuous flat off Hyde Park, London, where she lived with her longtime housekeeper, Carmen Vargas, and her beloved Welsh corgi, Morgan. Exasperated with her failing body, she took little interest in food, and for the first time in her life, she stopped fighting. Plagued by a limp and a weakened left arm, she suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move, until Vargas returned. When old friend Sydney Guilaroff called from Los Angeles on Jan. 20, the once fiery Gardner sounded weak and dispirited. "I feel as if I have pneumonia again," she said. "I can hear the water in my lungs." Then she told him, "I don't want to live anymore."

Less than a week later, Ava Gardner, 67, died quietly in her canopied Chippendale bed. After bringing in Ava's breakfast tray on Jan. 25, Vargas came back in mid-morning to find that she had stopped breathing. Sobbing, Vargas called Gardner's physician and close friends Paul and Spoli Mills, who rushed over from their flat across Hyde Park. "It was very simple: She'd gone to sleep after breakfast, and then she died," said Paul.

To her friends, it seemed ironic that death took Ava so easily; a lusty, vital creature who had seized life by the cojones, she might have been expected to go out fighting. When the news reached actress Kathryn Grayson, a friend since their days at MGM, "I was furious," says Grayson. "Furious at her for not fighting more. But I got over that. Everyone who knew her well loved her, warts and all."

A siren who was wildly insecure about her looks, a star who swore she couldn't act, Gardner had always been a study in contradictions. To the moviegoers entranced by Ava during World War II, she was sensuality itself. But while part of her was the flamboyant temptress whose beauty cowed even Elizabeth Taylor, another part was a country girl who went barefoot, took seconds on fried chicken and disliked anything that hinted of pretension. A loner who felt miscast as a movie queen, she learned to drink her liquor straight—not because she liked the taste, but because alcohol took the edge off her shyness. Addicted to stormy relationships, she was a quick-tempered scene maker who fought and made love with equal fervor. In her later years, she began saying that she would have traded her film career for "one good man I could love and marry and cook for," but friends doubted that she could have made it as a hausfrau. Says Kitty Kelley (who wrote about Ava's entanglement with Frank Sinatra in her controversial 1986 Sinatra bio, His Way): "Ava Gardner probably represented more tempestuous passion and sex appeal than one marriage could ever contain."

On Jan. 29, Ava Lavinia Gardner Rooney Shaw Sinatra was buried in Smithfield, N.C., the rural town she had left behind half a century ago. It was a scene that to some seemed eerily reminiscent of the rain-soaked funeral in The Barefoot Contessa—the 1954 film in which she played a hardscrabble beauty who transformed herself into a star and was shot by her embittered husband. Under rainy morning skies, about 50 relatives and a few friends gathered beneath a canopy at Sunset Memorial Park—a drab field bordered by a cluster of trailer homes—where Ava's rose-covered cherry coffin was to be buried in the family plot. Outside the roped-off grave site several hundred fans and townsfolk huddled under umbrellas, straining to see whether any of Gardner's Hollywood friends had come to pay their respects. (In fact there were no sightings, but the 3,000-odd visitors who streamed through the Underwood Funeral Home earlier had whispered about the wreath whose card was signed "With my love, Francis.") Spoken by Rev. Francis C. Bradshaw, the brief eulogy focused on Gardner's small-town background. "She was no saint," he said, "but [her relatives] talked about her authenticity, her genuineness, her wanting to be strictly who she was."

Long after the service ended, the curious continued to cluster around the graveyard; afterward many drove to the boardinghouse once run by Ava's mother, Mary Elizabeth (Mollie). Now the memorabilia-stuffed Ava Gardner Museum, it is a monument to the star who began her career in A Rose Dream—the operetta presented by the first-grade class at Brogden School in 1929.

Like most of Ava's kin, Bill Grimes never appreciated the story—ground out by the MGM publicity mill—that his aunt was a sharecropper's daughter who made good. Nine years her junior, Grimes remained close to Ava even after she left Smith-field, and he claims that she hated being typecast as a hollow-eyed striver from the hookworm belt. Says Grimes (owner of an auto parts shop in Smithfield): "Those stories really depress all of us here, and they depressed Ava sometimes." By community standards, he says, Ava's father, Jonas, was "better than well-to-do" when his last child was born on Christmas Eve, 1922. Not only did he have the deed to the tobacco-and-cotton farm that he worked with his wife, but he also owned a sawmill and a country store with a marble soda fountain. And while the family lost their land when the Depression hit, they were never dirt-poor, says Grimes.

As the youngest of seven, Ava had more in common with her nieces and nephews than with her older siblings. "She was a tomboy back then," says nephew Al Creech, who was born to her sister Elsie in 1925. "We'd play marbles, and she could hold her own. In the summer we'd use mattresses as trampolines, until our mothers caught us.".

If young Ava harbored notions about becoming an actress, she never spoke about them to her family. In a letter written to a girlfriend when she was 13, however, she confessed that Hollywood made an early imprint on her. "I always wanted...be a movie star," she wrote. "I still do, but I know I can't so I have about given up hope."

Hope was in short supply in the years after Ava entered high school. Jonas succumbed to a lung ailment in 1938, and when Mollie took over a boardinghouse in Rock Ridge, N.C., she put her daughter to work in the kitchen. Money was scarce, and while Ava was already a beauty, she was forced to wear hand-me-downs that drew ridicule from classmates. Shy, lonely, she was ruled with a strong hand by Mollie, who was a devout Baptist. According to Jane Ellen Wayne, author of Ava's Men, published in 1989, Mollie was so protective that she chased away every male who dared approach. By Wayne's account, Mollie once followed Ava when she drove with a suitor to a nearby lake. Dragging her daughter from the car, she delivered a blistering lecture and then marched her home. Later, Ava remembered, "Nobody wanted to take me out. No boy looked at me."

In the summer of 1940, Ava was allowed to visit her married sister Beatrice in New York City, and the trip altered her life. Struck by his sister-in-law's unspoiled beauty, Beatrice's husband, commercial photographer Larry Tarr, persuaded her to pose for a series of portraits. After he placed one shot in the window of his studio, it was spotted by a messenger from MGM who presented himself as a talent scout. Tarr saw through the ruse, but he eventually sent another group of photos to the talent office at Metro.

Eager to see the 18-year-old in the flesh, MGM's scouts invited her to come to the New York City office for a screen test. As Wayne reported it, the head of the talent department noted that Ava's performance was dreadful but that the girl "took our breath away." Said he: "She was clumsy and uneasy, but we all wanted to go to bed with her. What a woman!"

There was indeed a breathtaking lushness about Ava: luminous skin, languid eyes, and lips by Botticelli. Her hourglass figure made time seem to stop for most men. On Aug. 23, 1941, she arrived in Hollywood with Beatrice, who had volunteered to serve as her chaperon. Given a seven-year contract by MGM, Ava soon discovered that studio head Louis Mayer was at least as demanding as her mother had been: Like other starlets in his stable, she was placed in the hands of calisthenics instructors, hairdressers and diction coaches and forbidden to leave the city without permission. Compelled to pose for endless pinups, she was given walkthrough parts in pictures like Calling Dr. Gillespie and Kid Glove Killer. Years after, she said, "I had no experience and knew f—- all about anything, but I had no doubt that I'd be a movie queen."

And while she wasn't a smash on the screen in the beginning, she was a major success with Mickey Rooney—the 21-year-old who was one of Metro's hottest properties. When they met on the studio lot, he was dressed in a Carmen Miranda costume, complete with platform shoes, and she was wearing a red coat and a blue ribbon in her hair. "She was the loveliest lady I had ever seen," says Rooney.

Besotted with the 19-year-old, Rooney pursued her relentlessly. After a six-month courtship, the two were wed in a quiet ceremony near Santa Barbara. Sixteen months later, the marriage was over. According to Ava, she and Mickey were too immature for the roles of man and wife. "I simply didn't fit into his world," she said. "He had already been through it all, and I hadn't even begun my career."

Over the next two years, she slogged along in films in which she was mainly ornamental. She found her escape in romance: After a dalliance with millionaire Howard Hughes, she married bandleader Artie Shaw in October 1945. A strong-willed intellectual with four marriages behind him, Shaw, then 35, worshiped Ava's body. "She was a goddess," he says. "I would stare at her, literally stare, in wonder." Her mind, it seemed, was another matter. Mocking her for being a lowbrow, Shaw sent her to a psychoanalyst who "made me crazy," as she put it later.

After her 1946 divorce from Shaw, Ava began to concentrate on her career. Teamed with Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr in The Hucksters, she received good reviews but retained her fragile self-image. "Ava wouldn't even go eat in the commissary because she was so scared to walk in and see Lana Turner and Greer Garson," says actress Arlene Dahl. "She said she'd rather crawl under a rug than climb down some stairs into a party."

For all of that, Ava learned to hold her own in a love affair. In the late '40s she met Sinatra and immediately recognized him as her Rhett Butler. Says Dahl: "She told me that she never loved another man as much as she loved Frank."

Their courtship was an exercise in glorious excess: It took two years for Sinatra to extricate himself from his first marriage, and the press trailed the two from Las Vegas to Mexico to Madrid. The Sinatras retained few secrets after they wed on Nov. 7, 1951: They drank hard, fought with abandon and sustained a sexual tension that was palpable even in photographs. When Sinatra went to shoot a movie in Escorial and Ava stayed 25 miles away in Madrid, he called her one night while a group of friends were having a nightcap in his room. Over the phone, Sinatra crooned to his wife for almost an hour. After he was finished, there was a knock at the door and in swept Ava, wearing only a mink coat with a negligee beneath. As soon as Frank had started singing, she had grabbed a taxi and driven through the night to be with him.

With Frank's career in a decline and Ava's on the rise, the battles grew more barbaric. She called him a gangster; he attempted suicide. And while the marriage lasted only two years, the passion never waned. Says Kitty Kelley: "No one ever loved a woman the way Frank loved Ava Gardner. She was his female counterpart—mercurial, volcanic, jealous. They just couldn't live with it."

Ava never married again, but she retained her appetite for domineering partners. "She loved macho men," says Dahl. "She loved them because they knew who they were and were so positive and strong. She admired what she didn't have." In Spain, where she lived after the mid-'50s, Ava threw herself into front-page affairs with matadors, including famed bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin. Intoxicated by Spanish culture, Gardner learned flamenco dancing and tried her hand at fighting bulls. In 1961 she embarked on a yearlong affair with Claude Terrail, a world-class playboy and owner of the Paris restaurant La Tour d'Argent. By the time it was over, he says, "I had to give up—she was too dangerous for me."

The peril began at dusk. Says Terrail: "She was Jekyll and Hyde. It was the drinking. She'd be fabulous from 9 A.M. to 7 P.M., until the mai tais were served. Then it was an entirely different personality—Ava from hell, with whole nights of drinking, wild times, car chases."

Later, of course, Gardner would give up car chases in favor of evenings at home. After her career reached its artistic apex with The Night of the Iguana in 1964, she began to retreat; always uncomfortable in front of the camera, she accepted roles in 12 movies in the 16 years before she died. Not because she wanted to prove anything as a performer; instead, she told one reporter, "I do it for the loot, honey—always for the loot."

Those who were close to Ava in her final years say that, although she was in pain, she harbored few regrets. A woman who always lived for the moment, he refused to clutter her London flat with mementos. "I don't like all that stuff hanging around," she said. "I don't need to be reminded every minute." Even wrinkles, it seemed, were no obstacle for the indomitable Ava Gardner. "Honey, there comes a time when you've got to face the fact that you're an old broad," she once declared. "I've had a hell of a good time, so my face looks, well, lived-in. You won't find me standing in front of a mirror, weeping."

—Michelle Green, Doris Bacon and Eleanor Hoover in L.A., Cathy Nolan in Paris, Jane Walker in Madrid, Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C., David Hutchings and Dick Lemon in New York City