The sexual volcano: Ava Gardner was the one lover Sinatra couldn't tame...and when she spurned him, he slit his wrist in despair
By James Kaplan
As his singing and cinema career flourished, the delectable bodies of the swooning young women all around him proved increasingly irresistible to the 32-year-old Frank Sinatra, especially when he looked at his wife Nancy, growing great with child for the third time.
He had never been faithful but now he came and went as he pleased and did exactly what he wanted, with whomever he wanted. He dallied with actress Lana Turner and told her he would leave his wife.
But he didn't. Not for her.
Insatiable: Ava Gardner was regularly unfaithful
One night in 1948 he stood on the terrace of his Hollywood bachelor penthouse with his best friend, the songwriter Sammy Cahn, looking down over Sunset Strip.
'Do you know that Ava Gardner lives down there?' said Cahn, pointing to a little house nestled into the trees.
The name of the hot young film star stirred Sinatra. He had long lusted after her. With the kind of beauty that comes along once in a hundred years, she transfixed men and women alike. She took her pleasures as she found them — and she found them everywhere.
Cupping his hands to his mouth, he yelled 'Ava … Ava Gardner!' his big voice carrying far into the quiet evening. 'We know you're down there. Hello, Ava.'
The two men roared with laughter. And then a miracle. Down below, a curtain was drawn, a window opened and Ava stuck her head out. She knew exactly who it was. Sinatra's voice was unmistakable. She grinned and waved.
Was it an accident that they ran into each other a few days later, in front of her place? And then again in the street? Frank wasn't usually keen on walking but suddenly he was getting out a lot. The third time, they both began laughing as he said hello.
Icon: in his 1950s heyday, Frank Sinatra could have any woman he wanted
Ava's eyes searched his. Was he following her? He met her gaze boldly. She put a hand on her shapely hip, provocatively. He spoke. 'Ava, let's be friends. Why don't we have dinner tonight?'
He had met her, he remembered, when she was an 18-year-old starlet newly arrived in Hollywood and Mickey Rooney, no less, was madly in love with her. Though she was smokingly sexy, she was just a kid, Sinatra thought at the time, too young for him.
So he was content just to stare at those dazzlingly high cheekbones and haughty green eyes.
He met her again and danced with her in a nightclub when he was with Lana, and she — at 23, divorced from both Rooney and her second husband, the band leader Artie Shaw — was with the billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes.
Then Sinatra's friend Peter Lawford brought her to one of his parties. Dark haired with a white fur stole on her wide shoulders, he noticed how she prowled with the easy grace of a tigress.
And now, here they were, just the two of them, faced with a decision. 'I damn well knew he was married,' Ava recalled, 'and married men were definitely not high on my hit parade.
'But he was handsome, with his thin, boyish face, bright blue eyes and incredible grin. And he was so enthusiastic and invigorated, clearly pleased with life, in general, himself, in particular, and, at that moment, me.'
So began one of Hollywood's legendary pairings of alpha male and female.
That night they went out drinking. Despite her stupendous looks, she had no confidence and alcohol, consumed in quantity, made her forget her deep self-doubt and feel glamorous, intelligent, desirable — a person worthy of the attentions of Frank Sinatra.
She had always had a thing for musicians but he was in a different league. His voice had a quality, she said, 'I'd only heard in two other people — Judy Garland and Maria Callas. It made me want to cry for happiness, like a beautiful sunset or a boys' choir singing Christmas carols'.
Now here she was, sitting with him, staring at him. Could she be in love?
Frank took in her stare and told himself that here, for the first time in his life, was someone who instinctively knew him and all his secrets.
He took her hand (she kept stealing glances at his hands; they were beautiful) and led her to his car. She swore her deepest oath to herself that she would not sleep with him.
And, indeed she didn't. Not that night. They went to his apartment, kissed and he reached to unzip her dress. And though in most cases she was out of her clothes in a second, with him she hesitated.
The happiest girl in the world: But Ava's 1951 marriage to Frank was doomed from the start
She touched his arm and called him 'Francis'. No one had ever done that before. Then he took her home.
It was months before they saw each other again, but when they did Frank fell as fast as she did. In a flash, all his discontent alchemised into the most powerful emotion he had ever known.
This time they did make love, and, said Ava: 'It was magic. We became lovers for ever, eternally. Big words, I know, but I truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love.' Frank told Ava: 'All my life, being a singer was the most important thing in the world. Now you're all I want.'
He had, at last, found a true partner in the opera that was his life. All his other women had been supporting players, but Ava was a diva with a soul whose turbulence equalled his own. Both harboured profound feelings of worthlessness, which expressed themselves in volcanic furies.
'We were high-strung people,' she said. 'Possessive, jealous and liable to explode fast. When I lose my temper, you can't find it any place. He's the same.'
Both had titanic appetites, for food, drink, cigarettes, diversion, companionship and sex. Both loved jazz. Both were politically liberal. Both were fascinated with prostitution and perversity. Both distrusted sleep, fearing it as death's mirror. Both hated being alone.
Like him, she was infinitely restless and easily bored. In both, this tendency could lead to casual cruelty to others —and to each other. They quarrelled constantly. Friends whose house the lovers met in recalled how Ava would scream at Frank and he would slam the door and storm downstairs.
'Minutes later we'd smell sweet fragrance in the air. Ava had decided she wasn't mad any more and so she sprayed the stairs with her perfume. Frank would smell it and race back up to the bedroom.'
There was lots of making-up sex, after which they nestled sweetly in each other's arms and swore never to fight again. But the fact was that Frank and Ava were a permanently unstable compound and no amount of sex — no matter how spectacular — was sufficient to keep them bonded.
Or as Ava later confided: 'The problems were never in bed. The problems would start on the way to the bidet.'
'With her acid tongue, she was ruthless with him,' said one friend. 'I was scared to death of her. I did what I could to stay out of her way.'
For Frank, the similarities with his bullying mother — who used to beat him but whose approval he constantly craved — were scary and exciting.
In their constant battles, jealousy was their emotional ammunition. Frank could trigger it in her with the blink of an eye, so conditioned was he to scanning any crowded party for gorgeous girls. She was convinced he was cheating on her, even when he wasn't.
Meanwhile, he couldn't get out of his mind the many other men there had been in her life. Out relaxing on a boat on a lake one day, Frank suddenly said to her: 'I bet Howard Hughes has got a bigger boat than this. I suppose you wish you were out here with him.'
Ava retorted: 'I don't care if he owns the Queen Mary. I'm not sorry I'm not with him. So shut up.' 'Don't tell me to shut up,' Frank snarled. They were off again.
Despite the difficulties between them, after his divorce from Nancy the couple married. 'We're going to redecorate Frank's home,' Ava gushed. 'I'm going to learn to make all his favourite dishes. Mama Sinatra has promised to send the recipes. Oh, it's all so thrilling and wonderful! Mrs Frank Sinatra is the happiest girl in the world!'
And she was, sometimes. But at other times, as Sammy Cahn's wife Gloria recalled, being with them 'was like sitting on cracked eggs. You never knew if there were going to be verbal daggers. And Frank was so subservient to her. He was insane about that woman'.
But if it was hard work being married to Ava Gardner, it was just as tough being married to Frank Sinatra.
'Neither gave an inch,' a friend of Ava's said, 'though Frank worked harder on the marriage than she did. She's a very selfish girl.'
It didn't help that Frank's career was on a downward spiral at the time — records not selling, films flopping — while hers was very much on the up. As a foul-mouthed facsimile of his mother, she was the dominant one in the relationship. As a sexual volcano, she ruled him in bed. And to top it all off, she was paying the bills while he struggled. The combination was corrosive.
She was not faithful, especially when she was away working. On location for a Western in the foothills of the Rockies, there was nothing to do but drink and have sex. Ava did a lot of the former and some of the latter with the stuntmen, and a little of both with the director.
'Ava couldn't be alone,' said a production man on another of her film sets, 'which is why she had so many affairs. She'd say: "Hey, come on, have a drink with me, I'm bored all by myself." Then she'd bring back a prop man or whoever to her tent.'
She and Frank celebrated their first anniversary on their way to Africa where she was once again filming.
'It was quite an occasion for me,' she recalled. 'I had been married twice before but never for a whole year.' But it was increasingly obvious that this one wasn't going to go the distance either.
They were forever breaking up, then getting back together. They would throw each other's clothes, books and records out of the windows. The police had to be called more than once. The gossip columns had a field day, following their every move, tracking the time they spent together and apart.
Of course, it couldn't last. Cupid didn't have enough arrows in his quiver for this pair. And when Ava eventually confided to friends that Frank could no longer satisfy her sexually, it was clear the glue that held them together was loosening.
Increasingly she signed up for work that took her away from him. In Europe — while Frank was back in the U.S. making From Here To Eternity, the film that would put his career back on track — she was pursuing Spain's best-known bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín, four years her junior.
'I'll never figure you broads out,' her co-star Humphrey Bogart said. 'Half the world's female population would throw themselves at Frank's feet and you are flouncing around with guys who wear capes and ballerina slippers.'
Frank began to panic as it dawned on him that they might be over. He couldn't sleep. At five in the morning, he'd pour another whisky and rack his brains for a way to keep her.
He went berserk when he found out from a gossip column that she'd had a drink with his friend Peter Lawford. It was innocent, but he told Lawford he was sending somebody to break his legs. A friend who had to put up with his ranting said: 'He's driving me crazy! Ava, Ava, Ava! A billion broads in the world and he picks the one that can take or leave him!'
And leave him is what Ava did, blaming his infidelities. Later, she would say: 'I was happier married to Frank than ever before. If I'd been willing to share him with other women we could have been happy.'
But, in reality, the break-up was her decision. In a desperate bid to keep her, he slit a wrist and was rushed semi-conscious to hospital. He imagined her at his bedside, her green eyes looking down on him.
But she didn't come. Against medical advice, he discharged himself and flew to see her. Realising that playing the vulnerable boy wouldn't work, he shrugged off the bandaged wrist as the result of an accident.
She smiled with relief — not that he was unharmed but because she'd been worried that, seeing him, she might be drawn back into a relationship.
He saw it. He was intuitive and especially attuned to the love of his life. As a boy, he had learned to watch his mother closely to figure out whether she was going to hug him or hit him. Later, he'd learned to watch Ava to see whether she was going to love him or leave him.
Now it was clear. She was leaving. The torrid Sinatra-Gardner romance was over. It was like the lyrics of a song he recorded soon after: 'I could have told you she'd hurt you/She'd love you a while, then desert you.'
He sang it with all the pain and sadness of one who knew.