Although Ava Gardner was stunningly beautiful and a Hollywood actress with true star power, her fans found her leading men love affairs, tumultuous marriages, and subsequent divorces infinitely more titillating.
Due in part to Ava’s own passionate nature, some say her often fiery and always complicated marriages were doomed from the beginning. Upon her passing in 1990 though, Frank Sinatra privately mourned the woman who had inspired his song, “I Am a Fool to Want You” while the NY Times quoted Mickey Rooney as saying, ”My heart is broken with the loss of my first love.”
Born on December 24, 1922 in Brogden, North Carolina to poor tobacco farm parents, Ava Lavinia Gardner’s ride to Hollywood began with an MGM talent scout’s chance sighting of her portrait displayed in the window of her brother in law’s photography studio in New York. A screen test was quickly arranged and in 1941 the beautiful new starlet signed a seven year contract with Metro Goldwyn Mayer for fifty dollars a week.
Shortly after her arrival in Los Angeles, the still naïve Ava met the sophisticated MGM star Mickey Rooney. They married on January 10, 1942 in Ballard, California. While Rooney professed his love for Ava, he would not give up his playboy ways. When Ava divorced him in 1943, she merely cited irreconcilable differences rather than mar his Andy Hardy image.
After her divorce from Rooney, Ava met billionaire eccentric Howard Hughes. She never loved him and despite numerous proposals, chose to remain mere friends.
Ava had an equally brief and stormy marriage to swing-time bandleader Artie Shaw from 1945 to 1946.
While under contract to MGM, Ava was obligated to appear in over a dozen uncredited bit parts playing various hat check girls, receptionists, and car hops before being loaned to Universal Studios in 1946 for the Ernest Hemingway adapted film, “The Killers.”
Ava Gardner’s femme fatale persona was cast and her career began to soar with a string of starring roles including the 1947 film “Hucksters” with Clark Gable and the 1951 musical “Show Boat” with Kathryn Grayson.
Ava first met Frank Sinatra while she was still married to Rooney. They met again after her divorce from Artie Shaw and she began a torrid love affair with the still married crooner. Despite her onscreen popularity, Hollywood gossip columns labeled her a home wrecker when Gardner married the love of her life only a few days after his divorce from his first wife Nancy.
It was during the fifties that Ava Gardner’s film career became legendary with a succession of box office and critically acclaimed hits.
In 1952 she was on location in Nairobi, Kenya and the French Riviera with Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward for the second of her Ernest Hemingway stories, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” It was reported Hemingway was displeased with the way his story was adapted for the screen and although he and Gardner were friends, never saw the finished film.
Gardner played “Honey Bear” Kelly and was nominated for a Best Actress in a Leading Role Academy Award for the 1953 John Ford directed movie “Mogambo.” She co-starred with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly and was quoted in the Washington Post as saying John Ford was the meanest man on earth and she adored him.
With Ava’s intervention and influence, Sinatra’s acting and singing career was revitalized when he was cast as Private Angelo Maggio in “From Here to Eternity.” He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1953.
1953 also marked the beginning of the many break-ups and reconciliations of their ‘turbulent from the beginning’ marriage.
Playing Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas, Gardner co-starred with Frank’s buddy Humphrey Bogart in the 1954 film “The Barefoot Contessa.” Her performances in 1956 for “Bhowani Junction” and in 1957 for “The Sun Also Rises” both garnered critical acclaim.
After six years of jealousy racked conflicts, alcoholic rages, and intense screaming matches, Ava Gardner divorced Frank Sinatra in July of 1957. They would remain lifelong friends. Ava never remarried.
For the next 10 years Ava made her home in Spain. Although she never remarried, she continued scandal ridden relationships with playboys, bullfighters, and former leading men.
Completing her 1950s films were 1958’s “The Naked Maja” and 1959’s “On the Beach.” Gardner was nominated for a BAFTA and Golden Globe award in 1964 for the last of her leading role performances in “The Night of the Iguana.”
In 1968 Gardner moved to Ennismore Gardens in London and continued to act in movies and television until 1986.
After years of debilitating emphysema, one of the most beautiful women in the world became bedridden and partially paralyzed after suffering two strokes in 1986. Despite Frank Sinatra’s arrangements for a medically equipped private plane on stand by to transport her back to specialists in the United States, Ava Gardner succumbed to pneumonia and died January 25, 1990.
None of her ex-husbands or former lovers attended the Smithfield, North Carolina funeral or burial. A simple card attached to a single rose and signed “Francis” was sent to her services.