AVA GARD­NER & FRANK SI­NA­TRA

THE LEG­ENDARY LADIES’ MAN AND THE FEMME FATALE GOT UN­DER EACH OTHER’S SKIN — AND NOTH­ING COULD TAKE THAT AWAY

Closer Weekly - - Contents - By BRUCE FRETTS

Closer re­veals the truth be­hind the Hol­ly­wood siren’s com­pli­cated love af­fair with Ol’ Blue Eyes.

When Sir Ian McK­ellen met Ava Gard­ner on the Mex­ico set of the 1981 film Priest of Love, he was ap­palled at how the one­time Hol­ly­wood god­dess was be­ing treated. She was forced to share a trailer (and a bath­room!) with sev­eral co­work­ers. He urged Ava to call her reps and com­plain. “I’m not go­ing to call my agent or man­ager, Ian,” the nearly 60-year-old diva told him. “I’m go­ing to call Frank” — her ex-hus­band, Frank Si­na­tra, that is. The next day, Ian re­calls, “the big­gest f---ing trailer I’ve ever seen” ar­rived for Ava.

Frank and Ava had been di­vorced for more than 20 years at that point, but they were al­ways there for each other. “We talk, honey,” she told Peter Evans, au­thor of Ava Gard­ner: The Se­cret Conversations, not long be­fore her 1990 death. “He al­ways calls at Christ­mas. He never for­gets my birth­day. He’s a sen­ti­men­tal man.”

They were the loves of each other’s lives, but they just couldn’t live to­gether. The rough-and-tum­ble crooner-turned-ac­tor and the iconic screen siren “were two of a kind, very much alike, and they would al­ways fight,” says J. Randy Tarabor­relli, au­thor of Si­na­tra: Be­hind the Leg­end. “It was a des­per­ate ob­ses­sion.”

They came from dis­parate back­grounds, but their at­trac­tion to each other had deep roots in their child­hoods. Ava was raised poor in North Carolina and idol­ized her fa­ther, a share­crop­per. He died when Ava was 15, and “I thought noth­ing as painful as that could ever hap­pen to me again,” Ava said. “Daddy made me feel loved and safe.” She spent the rest of her life search­ing for that feel­ing again.

Grow­ing up in Hobo­ken, N.J.,

Frank was close to his mom, Dolly. “She was a tough wo­man and very in­volved in pol­i­tics,” says Tarabor­relli. “She did things her way, and Frank saw a lot of that men­tal­ity in Ava.”

When they tied the knot in 1951, it wasn’t the first mar­riage for ei­ther. Seek­ing fame, Ava had moved to Hol­ly­wood as a teen, and her first day on the MGM lot, she met megas­tar Mickey Rooney. “He was dressed in drag im­per­son­at­ing Car­men Mi­randa with the tutti-frutti hat,” says Dar­win Porter, Ava’s friend and bi­og­ra­pher.

It was far from love at first sight, but the pint-size lady-killer pur­sued Ava re­lent­lessly, and she soon suc­cumbed, mar­ry­ing him in 1942 and los­ing her vir­gin­ity to him on their wed­ding night. “He was the smallest hus­band I ever had, and the big­gest mis­take I ever made,” Ava cracked. “He wasn’t an easy man to live with. It was re­ally a f---ed up mar­riage from day one. I was 19 years old. Je­sus! I was just a kid!”

Mickey cheated on Ava, and she wouldn’t stand for it, so they di­vorced af­ter one year of mar­riage. She moved on to Ar­tie Shaw, an emo­tion­ally abu­sive big band leader who — like Mickey — had canoo­dled with Ava’s idol, Lana Turner. “Ar­tie was al­ways putting me down,” Ava said. “He was a dom­i­nat­ing son of a bitch.” She de­vel­oped a drink­ing prob­lem, and “Ar­tie made me go to a shrink,” she said. “I didn’t need a shrink to tell me why I was drink­ing too much — Ar­tie was the rea­son!” They, too, split af­ter a year.

IT HAD TO BE YOU

In 1939, Frank mar­ried Nancy Bar­bato, a tra­di­tional home­maker and the mother of his three chil­dren. But he al­ways had a wan­der­ing eye, and when he caught sight of a new­ly­wed Ava with Mickey at a stu­dio com­mis­sary in 1942, he fell for her — hard. “A cocky god, he reeked of sex,” Ava said. “He said some­thing ba­nal, like, ‘If I had seen you first, honey, I’d have mar­ried you my­self.’ I paid no at­ten­tion to that. I knew he was mar­ried.” When they met again a decade later, Frank was no longer a su­per­star beloved by bobby-sox­ers. His ca­reer had hit the skids, Ava’s was as­cen­dant — and the an­i­mal at­trac­tion be­tween them only in­ten­si­fied. “Frank was flat broke — the poor dar­ling was on his ass,” said Ava. “His voice had gone. His records weren’t sell­ing. His movie con­tract had been dropped. His con­fi­dence was shot.”

Ava’s at­ten­tion gave Frank just the boost he needed. He left Nancy and the kids for her, and the af­fair cre­ated a na­tional scan­dal, with Ava la­beled a home-wrecker and Frank a heel. Striv­ing to avoid the spotlight’s glare, they fled to Philadel­phia to wed in 1951. “The press found out, of course,” said Ava. “My God, it was a cir­cus.”

Frank and Ava could’ve used a lion tamer to break up their brawls, which be­gan as soon as their hon­ey­moon. “We were fight­ing all the time — and booz­ing,” Ava said. “Break­ing up, get­ting to­gether again. It was mad­ness.”

Their tem­pers were as for­mi­da­ble as their tal­ents. “His eyes do the most in­cred­i­ble thing when he’s an­gry,” Ava said. “They turn black. I swear to God, they be­come as black as the ace of spades. It makes your blood creep.”

Frank even staged a sui­cide at­tempt one night when Ava re­fused to sleep with him. “I heard this gun­shot — it scared the be­je­sus out of me,” said Ava. “He was al­ways threat­en­ing to kill him­self. In­stead, he was sit­ting on the bed in his un­der­pants, a smok­ing gun in his hand, grin­ning like a god­damn drunken school kid. He’d fired the gun into the f---ing pil­low!”

Ava could be equally ex­plo­sive. “She was am­bi­tious, ag­gres­sive and ex­tremely sexy, and Frank could not re­sist her,” says Tarabor­relli. “She treated Frank the way he treated all the women be­fore her.”

Ac­cord­ing to Roland Flamini’s biog­ra­phy Ava, Frank and Ava’s clashes be-

came vi­o­lent. She made him jeal­ous by hav­ing an af­fair with a bull­fighter, and Frank threw her off his boat in a rage.

Many of their squab­bles were about money: Frank didn’t have any, Ava did, but it cre­ated ten­sion. On the African set of 1953’s Mogambo, “Frank was Ava’s lit­tle er­rand boy,” says Tarabor­relli. “She sent him out in the jun­gle to find sher­bet for her on a whim.”

Tired of Frank’s moan­ing about his ca­reer, Ava in­ter­vened with stu­dio mogul Harry Cohn and got him cast (over Eli Wal­lach) in the role as the doomed sol­dier Mag­gio in 1953’s From Here to Eter­nity. It won Frank an Oscar, but by the time he re­ceived it, he and Ava had al­ready bro­ken up, though they wouldn’t of­fi­cially di­vorce for four more years.

ALL OR NOTH­ING AT ALL “I tried to be a good wife — or any kind of wife,” Ava lamented. “The plain fact is, I just wasn’t meant to ride off into the sun­set and live hap­pily ever af­ter.”

As Ava’s friend Peter Vier­tel said,

“Si­na­tra, the poor bas­tard, never stood a chance. He was too pos­ses­sive of her; that was the prob­lem. No one is ever go­ing to pos­sess Ava.”

And no one ever did. “Af­ter she di­vorced Frank, she told him, ‘You’ll go on to have other wives, but you are my last hus­band,’” re­ports Porter. Her heart al­ways be­longed to Frank. “Even on her deathbed, she still thought they might have more time,” says Tarabor­relli.

Frank was wed to Mia Far­row from 1966-’68 (“I al­ways knew he’d marry a boy,” Ava snarked of the an­drog­y­nous ac­tress). And his fourth wife, Bar­bara Marx (Zeppo’s ex), was with him from 1976 un­til his 1998 death. Yet be­fore each mar­riage, “He’d call Ava to see if there was any hope,” says Tarabor­relli. As his star rose again and hers dimmed, Frank paid Ava’s bills and gave her an open credit ac­count at the Lon­don de­part­ment store Har­rods.

“You can sum up my life in a sen­tence, honey,” Ava told Peter Evans.

“She made movies, she made out and she made a f---ing mess of her life. But she never made jam.”

Ava wasn’t meant to tend Frank’s home fires, but their mu­tual pas­sion burned eter­nally. As Frank sang in a bal­lad he co-wrote about Ava, “I’m a fool to want you / Pity me, I need you / I know it’s wrong, it must be wrong / But right or wrong, I can’t get along / With­out you.” — Re­port­ing by Katie Bruno

“I’m very fond of women. But like all men, I don’t un­der­stand them.”

— Frank

V Ava had a fling with Clark Gable be­fore she wed Frank, but when they made 1953’sMogambo, “Clark had eyes for Grace Kelly,” Ava said.That same year, Ava helped Frank land From Hereto Eter­nity, with Mont­gomery Clift and Burt Lan­caster.

Frank with his first wife, child­hood sweet­heart Nancy Bar­bato, and kids Nancy, Tina and Frank Jr. When Frank, 50, wed Mia Far­row, 21, his pal Dean Martin quipped, “Je­sus, I’ve got Scotch older than this kid.” “I was his com­pan­ion, con­sul­tant, muse, psy­chi­a­trist and lover,” said Frank’s fourth wife, Bar­bara.

“I do owe him one thing,” she said of first hus­band Mickey Rooney. “He taught me how much I en­joy sex.”“Ar­tie Shaw was a reg­u­lar poly­math,” said pal Peter Vier­tel of Ava’s sec­ond hus­band. “And he couldn’t han­dle her.”

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