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 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.”
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.”