Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were one of Hollywood’s most infamous couples. In an era of MGM contracts and secret love affairs, Gardner and Sinatra exploded into the gossip columns when they were spotted out for dinner together in 1950.
They had been secretly dating for some months before this while Sinatra’s long-suffering wife Nancy was left at home caring for two children and a newborn baby.
At the time of their first meeting, Gardner was married to Mickey Rooney, and she would go through a series of affairs and another marriage before the two met again.
It seemed like nothing could stop the flame between Gardner and Sinatra. Before they had even met, Sinatra saw a photo of Gardner and told friends “I’m going to marry that woman.”
During the years between their first meeting and the beginning of their affair, Ava had become a star in her own right. Capitalizing on her dramatic looks and femme fatale image, she was MGM’s hottest property, with a movie star love life to match.
Around the same time, Sinatra was on a downward turn — his fan’s interest was waning and his contract with MGM had been terminated. Sinatra didn’t seem to care. He told Gardner when their affair started in 1949 “All of my life, being a singer was the most important thing in the world, now you’re all I want.”
Nancy finally granted Frank a divorce in 1951, and he married Gardner a few days later. The marriage did not calm the pair down, they were notorious for drinking, arguing and passionately making up, fuelled by Gardner’s paychecks and Sinatra’s frustration at being out of work.
Gardner was the breadwinner for their entire marriage which created an imbalance of power between the two. Sinatra was going through possibly his darkest period; there was no support, just Ava.
Of this time, Gardner is quoted in Vanity Fair as saying “Frank was flat broke when we tied the knot. I don’t know where those stories came from that the Mafia was taking care of him. They should have been. But the…Family was nowhere to be seen when he needed them.”
The rumors that Sinatra attempted suicide during their relationship are confirmed by Gardner, who has discussed at least three attempts in the seven years they were together.
The first attempt was a trick to lure Gardner back to his hotel room after a drunken argument. As told by the Daily Mail, “There were two loud shots. Ava screamed and ran into his bedroom. Sinatra was lying on the floor with his eyes closed, a gun smoking in his hand. ‘Oh my God.’
Ava threw herself on to Frank’s body and began to cry…. then his eyes opened. For a moment, the lovers just stared at one another. Then Ava noticed a gaping hole in his mattress — into which he’d fired the bullets.”
The second time, after yet another row, Sinatra tried using sleeping pills. His valet found him and called the doctor, who called Gardner, who rushed to his side. Gardner is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying of the incident “You can be sure he counted how many sleeping pills he took. I could have kicked the cr** out of him. Instead, I forgave him in about 25 seconds.”
The third time Sinatra was drunk and high on pills when he turned on the gas hobs in his kitchen and fell asleep. Sinatra was saved by a friend who turned up just in time to save his life.
Gardner also confirms that she had two abortions during their marriage, feeling that their marriage was too rocky to provide a stable home life. By Gardner’s own account it was the second abortion that led to the final breakdown of their relationship. Gardner said at the time “I’m afraid there’s no coming back from this. What I’ve done is so monstrous.”
It’s likely that Gardner had a hand in getting Sinatra the role in From Here to Eternity that would ultimately revive his career and earn him an Oscar. Pulling strings with her contacts in Hollywood she got him a screen test, and the rest is history. He repaid her by cheating on her, and she repaid him in kind.
Their marriage was over by 1957, but they never stopped loving each other. According to the Daily Mail, Gardner called Sinatra the love of her life, and when she died of emphysema in 1990, Sinatra reportedly wept uncontrollably as was overheard saying “I should have been there for her.” Friends of Sinatra said that Frank, throughout his life and all his loves, never quite got over Ava.