Born in North Carolina, the often barefoot and always brash movie star Ava Gardner was, in the words of second husband Artie Shaw, “the most beautiful creature you ever saw.” She was also, according to costar Deborah Kerr, “funny and rich and warm and human.” But Gardner also had a wandering spirit, with a reckless streak and an insatiable appetite for booze and boys that would often lead to the most glamorous sort of disaster.
In the engrossing Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing, biographer Lee Server documents a life filled with lust, love, and late-night shenanigans. There was her long entanglement with a snooping Howard Hughes, as well as flings with bullfighters, Robert Taylor, Mel Tormé, David Niven, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, an abusive George C. Scott, and an unsuccessful attempt to lure Robert Stack into a foursome (he suddenly got a stomachache).
And then there was her beloved Francis—Gardner’s third husband, Frank Sinatra. Their fights were legendary (Sinatra once threw a douche bag filled with water at her and pal Lana Turner), and their make-ups loud. When asked why she stayed with the 119-pound Sinatra, Gardner once replied “Well, I’ll tell you—nineteen pounds is cock.”
This straightforward, sassy broad would challenge and terrify both men and women her entire life—including supposed tough guy Robert Mitchum, her former flame and costar. Years after their on-set affair, Server writes, a friend would tell Mitchum that Gardner was arriving shortly. “Ava Gardner! No, no—don’t tell her I’m here!” Mitchum apparently replied. “If I get together with Ava, I’m done for.”
After reading Server’s book, it’s easy to understand why.
Meeting Mr. Right
On her first day at MGM as a tongue-tied 18-year-old, Gardner was given a tour of the sprawling Culver City lot by studio PR man Milton Weiss. Weiss took her to the set of the musical Babes on Broadway, where an exuberant man performed “Mama, Yo Quiero” dressed as Brazilian star Carmen Miranda. “He was wearing at this time a spangled bra and skirt, a fruited turban, had rouged cheeks, and his lips bore a thick coating of red lipstick,” Server writes. “A famously short young man, he stood now on high platform heels favored by Miss Miranda.”
Weiss had to whisper to a dumbstruck Gardner that this performer was none other than superstar Mickey Rooney, at 20 years old already a hard-living, wised-up “wolf, junior grade.” Even in the midst of performing, Rooney noticed the befuddled beauty and made a beeline for her in his clomping high heels. “Everything in me stopped,” he would write in his memoir I.E. “My heart. My breathing. My thinking.”
Within months, they were married. “Don’t let the little guy fool you,” Gardner later told movie star Ann Miller, per Server. “He knew every trick in the book.”
Love at First Shot
The legendary love story of Gardner and her inamorato Frank Sinatra began with a bang. According to Server, in the fall of 1949, the very married and very drunk Sinatra convinced an equally inebriated Gardner to leave a Palm Springs party hosted by studio head Darryl Zanuck with him. They sped into the night, until they reached the quiet town of Indio. After a sloppy make-out session, Sinatra brought out two guns and began to shoot out streetlights. A titillated Ava joined suit and shot out the window of a hardware store.
The night ended with the pair brought into the station by armed cops, who were then paid off by the studio. When Gardner finally got home, she found her sister Bappie eating breakfast. “Ava,” Server writes, “told her she had been out with Frank Sinatra and they had had a wonderful time.”
The Princess and the Goddess
Gardner first met patrician Grace Kelly, the future Princess of Monaco, on the sultry, sexually-charged Kenyan set of Mogambo, in 1952. The outwardly uptight Kelly was initially appalled by Gardner and tag-along Sinatra’s antics in the tent that cast and crew shared, telling one friend, “Ava is such a mess it’s unbelievable.” But Gardner’s free-spirited sense of fun soon won over Kelly, who also began a passionate affair with hard-drinking leading man Clark Gable. Soon, Kelly was trying to keep up with her costars—though according to Server, “after a few drinks she usually ended up turning pink and running into the bushes to vomit.”
The two beauties took a madcap trip to Rome, Kelly now suffering a severe case of hero worship. Gardner apparently insisted they visit a brothel, and an intrigued Kelly went along. “By the end of the tour,” Server writes, “the demure Grace Kelly had even found a boyfriend at one place and had dragged him into the backseat of the taxi for some heavy necking.”
Gardner and Kelly would remain friends for the rest of their lives. The princess would even attempt to set up her friend with Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis, who she claimed was a very “forceful lover.” Gardner was decidedly grossed out by Onassis, though; per Server, she “whispered to Grace that not even a good whipping could
make her change her mind, and slipped away.”