Ava Gardner was legendary for her beauty, her classic Hollywood films — and her tumultuous love life, especially with Frank Sinatra.
Ava, a Life in Movies, a new biography by Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, delves into the late screen siren’s colorful life, on and offscreen. (Read her 1990 PEOPLE obituary here.) From her wild affair and marriage with Sinatra to her other rocky romances — and her regrets late in life — here are some of the most fascinating details about the woman who won the hearts of movie audiences and some of Hollywood’s most famous leading men.
She was divorced twice before the age of 25
After being discovered via pictures taken by her brother-in-law, Gardner made her way to Hollywood where she quickly attracted the attention of young star Mickey Rooney. Though their managing studio, MGM, didn’t want the two to date in order to protect Rooney’s image, they were married just after her 19th birthday in 1942 — a first for both of them.
Their relationship was unfortunately doomed, as the then-21-year-old Rooney couldn’t give up his bachelor lifestyle and Gardner realized she wasn’t really in love with him, Bean and Uzarowski write. They divorced 9 months after getting married, with Gardner citing “mental cruelty” as the reason for their split.
Gardner’s second short-lived marriage was to bandleader Artie Shaw in 1945. They divorced the next year and the jazz musician was said to be cruel to Gardner, whom he pushed to become more educated.
She started her relationship with Sinatra while he was still married
After a string of affairs with various costars Gardner reconnected with Frank Sinatra and started what would be the most defining relationship of her career.
The two first met in 1943 when she was at a club with Mickey Rooney and Sinatra was immediately captivated by her. Though they saw each other occasionally for the next few years, Sinatra was happily married to his longtime sweetheart, Nancy, and the two kept their distance until a fateful 1949 meeting at MGM.
“I looked at her and said, ‘Jesus, you got prettier since last time I saw ya,’” Sinatra said, according to the biography. “This was not the young girl from Carolina at the studio. This was a woman who was glorious.”
The two entered into an affair, often getting into trouble during their escapades, like the time Sinatra’s publicist had to get them out of jail after a “drunken joyride” at 3 a.m. left several storefront windows blown out by the couple’s two pistols.
Sinatra was still married, and the book recounts a time when an insistent Gardner made the crooner drive to his house, where he phoned his wife Nancy asking her to confirm to the actress that he had asked her for a divorce. Though Nancy initially refused to give in, she eventually granted Sinatra a divorce and he married Gardner in 1951.
Sinatra and Gardner in 1953
She had two abortions while married to Sinatra
While the two traveled to Nairobi for Gardner’s role in Mogambo, Gardner became pregnant with Sinatra’s child and chose to have an abortion after Sinatra left, without telling him. According to the book, Gardner wanted a family, but not if she couldn’t provide her children the stability she had growing up. With their relationship already showing signs of strain, and after a few brief separations, Gardner chose to have an abortion in late-1952.
Sinatra was reportedly crushed when he found out about the abortion, but the two continued to try to make their difficult relationship work. When Gardner became pregnant again and decided to terminate it, Sinatra was there when she woke up with “tears streaming down his face.”
The two would go on to have multiple affairs with others before divorcing in 1957, though they remained close friends until her death in 1990.
She had a brief affair with Fred MacMurray but broke it off after finding out about his sick wife
Gardner had an open mind about adultery and often cried foul at the double standards that allowed men to sleep around while women were shamed. While filming in Singapore, the actress felt an instant connection to her costar Fred MacMurray and they began a secret relationship that ended when she found out about his sick wife, Lillian Lamont.
“She didn’t object to secret adultery, but when a guy was two-timing a sick wife, she objected to that —strongly,” her housekeeper Rene Jordan said in the book.
Gardner in 1985
Later in life, she said wished she had focused more on education and family than her career
Gardner retired from Hollywood at the end of her life, but had a stroke that left her partially paralyzed while recovering from pneumonia in 1986. She died from bronchial pneumonia on January 25, 1990 after having a final cigarette and glass of champagne, according to her housekeeper.
Over the course of her life, the actress had sometimes mused that she had prioritized the wrong things.
“I’m sorry I spent 25 years making films,” she said in 1966. “I wish now I had the things most important to a woman— a good marriage, children, a better education.”