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Frank Sinatra's Wives (Part 2)

Updated on February 25, 2023

Ava Gardner

A poor, uneducated 19-year-old with a virtually unintelligible southern drawl, Ava Gardner was signed to MGM in 1941 purely on her looks. The MGM talent scout George Sidney said of her: "She can't act, she can't talk, but she's a terrific piece of merchandise."

She was taught in the studio how to talk correctly and walk correctly, and appeared in bit parts and small roles throughout the early 1940s. In 1942 she married Mickey Rooney, but the union did not last long. In 1945 she married Artie Shaw, who put her on a course of psychoteraphy, which left her with low self-esteem and a life-long distrust of analysis.

But from the moment Frank Sinatra saw Ava's picture on the cover of a magazine in the mid-1940s, he was smitten. On the page she was alluring -her fearless, almond-shaped green eyes, tumbling brown hair, high cheekbones and full, glossy-red mouth epitomized the idea of a temptress- and Sinatra was hopelessly drawn to her when they met. The pair became acquainted during the late 1940s in Hollywood social scene, flirted and by 1949 were lovers. There was much common ground. They both like sex, smoking, drinking, swearing, partying and fast-living. One of their first dates involved driving out of Palm Springs, having got drunk, and shooting at stores and injuring a passer-by, which led to Frank being arrested in Indio. His publicity team spent money hushing up the incident and then energy dissuading him from seeing Ava again, sensing further trouble.

It was no use. When Nancy filed for divorce and it became clear that Frank and Ava were a couple, the public, the church and Louis B. Mayer all made their disapproval clear. The press delighted in trailing them and reporting their tempestuous affair -and there was so much to report. Temperamentally, Frank and Ava were combustibly similar: both were restless, arrogant and insecure. The voraciousness of their passion was matched only by the ferocity of their jealousies, and the fights were loud. "It was always great in bed", Ava once famously said. "The quarreling started on the way to the bidet." Once, when Frank flirted with a waitress, Ava left to spend the evening with her ex-husband Artie Shaw and Frank phoned and pretended to shoot himself.

She lost patience with him for feeling guilty about leaving his family and had no time for his mobster pals, but she believed in him, and when she wasn't arguing with him she encouraged him. An onlooker remembered her speech to the shaken singer in March 1950 before he took the stage at the Copa in New York City. "Francis Albert Sinatra, you are the greatest goddamned entertainer who ever walked the face of this earth... I love you and I salute you." A reporter remembered hearing her tell a disheartened Sinatra in 1952: "No one with your talent is ever washed up."

At his divorce proceeded the pair drew together, and with the public and press getting used to the idea, they became one of Hollywood's most glamorous couples. They married in November 1951, but the sleepless nights and the daily fights continued. It didn't help that Ava aborted a pregnancy before Sinatra was aware that she was pregnant. At one engagement in New York, Ava accused Frank of directing a love song at his old flame Marilyn Maxwell, who was in the audience, and left for California, posting her wedding ring back to him. Frank used the press to woo her back -"Frankie Ready To Surrender; Wants Ava Back, Any Terms" ran one headline- and he did, briefly. But the jealousies, infidelities and petulance continued, with both parties seeming to expect more than the other could give. As the behaviour got crueller, the reconciliations became rarer, and the official end came in October 1953 when MGM announced that Ava was seeking a divorce. It was finalised in 1957.

For many years Sinatra's living quarters in California were almost a shrine to his second wife, replete with softly-lit pictures and mementos. Some subsequent partners would complain of him being a "moping bore" and friends would simply observe that he never got over her. But they remained confidantes, friends and sporadic lovers until her death in 1990. Ava, who described Sinatra as both "a scared monster" and "the love of my life", never remarried.

Their tumultuous relationship coincided with and undoubtedly exacerbated the slump in Sinatra's career. The guilt, sleeplessness and emotional trauma caused his voice and appearance to suffer and his susceptibility to belligerence and self-destruction increased. Yet it was Ava who persuaded her friend Joan Cohn to persuade, in turn, her husband Harry, the head of Columbia Pictures, to consider Sinatra for a part in the film From Here To Eternity, which transformed his life, and his ongoing passion for Gardner undoubtedly fuelled his ever-deepening feeling for lyrics that were lovelorn. As Nelson Riddle, the arranger who presided over Frank's classic Capitol recordings in the 1950s, declared: "It was Ava who taught Sinatra how to sing a torch song."

Without Ava, Frank might never have fallen so low. But equally, he would not have risen so high or sung so deep.

Ava Gardner: My Story


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