May 15, 1998 12:00 PM

He does better at making out accidentally,” a friend remarked of Frank Sinatra’s hyperactive love life, “than Hugh Hefner does on purpose.”

A comment by Sinatra’s former manager, Hank Sanicola, suggests a more sentimental interpretation. Sinatra wasn’t so much swingin’ as needin’—a lonely man who craved love. “He wants it,” said Sanicola, “24 hours a day.”

And he got it, baby. An abbreviated list of Sinatra’s flings would include Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Judy Garland, Anita Ekberg, Hope Lange, Pamela Hayward (shortly before she became Mrs. Averell Harriman), Natalie Wood, Gloria Vanderbilt, Kim Novak, Mob mistress Judith Campbell Exner (who also had an affair with President John Kennedy), Victoria Principal, Marilyn Monroe, Jill St. John, Angie Dickinson and Marlene Dietrich.

He certainly could be smooth. According to biographer Kitty Kelley, Sinatra once invited the German siren over without bothering to tell her that his cronies would be sitting around the apartment, drinking, playing cards and waiting to get an eyeful. She entered, was not in the least nonplussed, and gave Sinatra her hand. He led her off to the bedroom.

The world first learned of his magical effect on women in the early ’40s, when he caused legions of bobby-soxers to swoon. By then, Sinatra was already married to Nancy Barbato, a plasterer’s daughter from Jersey City, N.J., who would be the only one of his four wives to give him children. After he moved the family to Los Angeles in 1944, Nancy, a pretty woman who looked a little like Eva Peron, couldn’t hold her own against sexually willing, if scarcely remembered, starlets like Alora Gooding and Marilyn Maxwell. Frank and Nancy divorced in 1951 after a protracted, on-and-off separation that the press (and Catholics) followed with keen interest and a couple of years after Frank had taken up with Ava Gardner. Nancy, now 81, never remarried. As she once put it, “When you’ve been married to Frank Sinatra…”

Gardner was so voluptuously enticing she seemed paradoxically beyond reach—an erotic mirage. Sinatra, while still married to Nancy, reportedly had noticed Gardner’s photo on a magazine cover and boasted to a friend, “I’m going to marry that girl.” They met socially on a few occasions before the spell of those ol’ blue eyes finally took hold, Gardner later said, at a party in Palm Springs in 1949. Once, on a typically exuberant night together, the lovers, high on booze and romance, wound up in little Indio, Calif., where they used Sinatra’s two pistols to shoot out shop windows and streetlights. According to Kelley, Sinatra’s press agent paid off townsfolk to hush up the incident.

Sinatra and Gardner married in 1951, when he was 35 and she was 28. “We were desperately in love,” Gardner once said. Only rarely did they love complacently. There were, certainly, some charming interludes. When Gardner was on location in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1952, filming Mogambo with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly, Sinatra surprised her by appearing in a performance of 50 tribal dancers and singers. Later, when Gardner told Sinatra she was pregnant, she recalled, “Right on the spot, for. the first and only time in our relationship, Frank decided to sing to me.” (According to daughter Nancy Sinatra, Gardner aborted this and a previous pregnancy.)

But the relationship was usually as unpredictable as a dyspeptic volcano. Quite simply, as Shirley MacLaine wrote in her 1995 memoir My Lucky Stars, “they couldn’t live with or without each other.” Their sexual chemistry was terrific, Gardner confessed, yet emotionally they were combustible. He would become enraged with the suspicion that she was sleeping with her previous husband, bandleader Artie Shaw. If he smiled at a girl in a restaurant, Gardner would snap, “I suppose you’re sleeping with all these broads.”

This proved to be more zing zing zinging of the heartstrings than even Sinatra could stand. He made a couple of suicide attempts, although they do not seem to have been very serious. Ava, wrote MacLaine, “made him grovel. Ava humiliated him.” Career conflict also played a role in their difficulties, at least according to Gardner. “When he was down and out, he was sweet,” she said of the bleak period before From Here to Eternity. “But now that he’s successful, he’s become his old arrogant self again.”

They finally divorced in 1957. By then, Gardner had moved to Madrid and taken up with at least one matador. Sinatra, according to MacLaine, “was strung out on her” until she died in 1990.

Sinatra’s next wife was nearly Lauren Bacall. She and her husband, Humphrey Bogart, and Sinatra and Gardner had been neighbors in the Holmby Hills section of L.A. But she and Frank grew especially close in 1957, when Sinatra was still pining for Gardner and Bogart was dying of lung cancer. Once she became the widow Bacall, things became truly intimate. “No promises were made,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography By Myself, “but we were together—a couple.”

When Sinatra finally proposed, Bacall accepted without hesitation. Then word of the engagement leaked to the press. Sinatra, infuriated that his private life was again making headlines, dropped her instantly. He referred to her as “that pushy female.” In retrospect, Bacall wrote, Frank “saved me from the disaster our marriage would have been.” On the other hand, she couldn’t help adding, “he behaved like a complete s—t.”

In 1962, Sinatra was briefly engaged to dancer-actress Juliet Prowse, 25, his high-kicking costar in Can-Can. “Juliet,” Sinatra told reporters, “has been my one romance. I’m 46 now—it’s time I settled down.” But within two months the wedding was off because, as daughter Nancy put it tactfully, “they couldn’t agree on how much time she should devote to her career.” When Prowse tried for a reconciliation, Sinatra told her, “Forget it, baby.”

If Sinatra and Gardner made one of the most exciting couples of Hollywood lore, Sinatra and Mia Farrow rank as one of the most inexplicable. Their affair began when Sinatra, almost 49, was shooting a WWII adventure, Von Ryan’s Express. The 19-year-old Farrow, exotically frail as a moonflower, was also on the lot, playing troubled young Allison MacKenzie on ABC’s Peyton Place. During the week she kept visiting Sinatra’s set. So nervous was the actress at the prospect of addressing this “beautiful face…full of pain,” Farrow recalls in her memoir, What Falls Away, that she spilled her purse onto the floor. He helped her pick up her coins, glasses, gum and retainer. “It might have been right then, as our eyes met,” writes Farrow, “that I began to love him.”

It may be that her vulnerability appealed to him. He called her “doll face” and “my Mia.” She called him “Charlie Brown.” Given their three decades’ age difference, everyone else just called them mismatched. Farrow later painted an almost idyllic portrait of their times together: “Crossword puzzles, spaghetti sauce, TV in bed, our puppies, walks…his smile.” But when they married, in July 1966, Sinatra was already hedging his bets. “I don’t know,” he told Nancy, “maybe we’ll have only a couple of years together, she’s so young.” He was right: They divorced in 1968, in part because she wouldn’t curtail her career.

With his fourth wife and now widow, Barbara, 71, Sinatra seemed to have found a match that worked. This was a woman content to be the lavish-living wife of the Chairman of the Board, with a full calendar of social and philanthropic events. A former model, beauty queen and for 14 years the wife of Zeppo Marx, she was Sinatra’s neighbor in Palm Springs. For their wedding in 1976, he gave her a peacock-blue Rolls-Royce and she gave him a Jaguar. Frank Jr.’s present for the groom consisted of four sex books. As he later told USA TODAY, “I said, ‘Well, the fourth time. There’s got to be something wrong here. Maybe this’ll help.’ ”

Sinatra had little to say publicly about any of this. You probably can learn his version by listening to “In the Wee Small Hours” in those dark hours just before the dawn.

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