A month before her passing, in 1990, Ava Gardner received a magazine clipping and a note from her friend Gregory Peck. “You are always on our minds. Try hard to get better,” he wrote to her from Beverly Hills, signing the message, “With love, Greg.”
The actors met in 1948, costarred in three films and became “great old pals” for nearly a half-century. “He was somebody that she could really be herself with,” Lynn Haney Trowbridge, author of Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life, tells Closer. “She didn’t have to put on a front. She could just be a small-town girl.”
Despite their good looks and glamorous careers, the actors recognized something more humble in each other. Gregory’s parents split when he was 6, and he spent his California childhood ricocheting between them. As a young man, he paid his way through college by working as a janitor. Ava, meanwhile, was a North Carolina sharecropper’s daughter and the youngest of seven. She was 15 when her father died and her mother opened a boarding house.
Neither Gregory nor Ava had hit the big time yet when they met at a Look magazine party in 1948. “It was like we were young people from the same hometown,” said Gregory, who was then married to his first wife, Greta. “We struck up an immediate friendship. Ava was also outspoken, and there was something refreshing about that.”
Not long after, the pair costarred in The Great Sinner. On set, Gregory recognized Ava’s “immense potential and tried to encourage her to believe in her talent and work at it,” recalled Ava’s housekeeper Mearene Jordan in her book, Living With Miss G.
The actors reunited three years later for The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a film based on the Ernest Hemingway short story. Ava would give one of her best performances in it. “She did things in Kilimanjaro that she could not have done three years earlier,” Gregory gushed.
By the time they filmed 1959’s On the Beach in Australia, Ava had also become close to Gregory’s second wife, Veronique. The couple rented a home during the production that became a gathering place for the film’s actors, including Ava, Fred Astaire and Anthony Perkins.
The break was much needed. Creating the postapocalyptic film was physically demanding. “There would be thousands of flies crawling on Ava’s forehead and in her hair,” recalled Gregory, who praised his co-star’s courage. “She took it like a trouper, and we just kept plugging away.”
In the last three decades of her life, Ava lived primarily in London, but she remained in touch with Gregory and Veronique. When she died from pneumonia at age 67, the couple adopted her beloved corgi, Morgan, and hired Ava’s housekeeper to work for them. “[Ava] was much better than she thought she was. She had no vanity about her talent,” said Gregory of his dear friend. “She did nothing that lowered her standards as an actress or as a lady.”