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On Frank Sinatra: “The poor guy was literally without a job. He said all he could do was play saloons and crappy night clubs. His ego and self-esteem was at its lowest ever. And mine was practically at its peak. So it was hell for him. He was such a proud man — to have a woman pay all his bills was a bitch.” AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Ava Gardner

I wish to live until 150 years old but the day I die, I wish it to be with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of whisky in the other

Caution Bad Language

The screen goddess once said: “My vices and scandals are more interesting than anything anyone can make up.”

Ava Gardner knew how to pose for the camera. She’d slit her eyes, throw her head at an angle, and the photographer would somehow catch something about her — not elegance or grace, exactly, but something that was strong, sexual, and almost animal, as if she were zeroing in on you, weighing your merits, and readying to pounce. And for most of the ’40s and ’50s, she was Hollywood’s most alluring femme fatale, an image solidified both on and off the screen.

Once Hollywood’s most irresistible woman—wed to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra—by 1988 Ava Gardner was nearly broke, ravaged by illness, and intent on selling her memoirs. But the man she chose as her ghostwriter, Peter Evans, had his own problems, not least a legal war with Sinatra.

In The first week of January 1988, Ava Gardner asked Peter Evans to ghost her memoirs. Since Evans had never met Ava Gardner, the call, late on a Sunday evening, was clearly a hoax. “Sounds great, Ava,” Evans played along. “Does Frank approve? I don’t want to upset Frank.” There was a small silence, then a brief husky laugh.

“Everybody kisses everybody else in this crummy business all the time. It’s the kissiest business in the world.”

“F____ Frank,” she said with a faint southern drawl. “Are you interested or not, honey?”

Evans should have said no right there. He wasn’t a ghostwriter. He was working 15 hours a day to finish his third novel. But this was Ava Gardner calling him.  Only a fool would say he wasn’t interested.

“I’m told we’d get along fine, but who the hell knows? You’ve been a journalist; I hate journalists. I don’t trust them,” she said. “But Dirk Bogarde says you’re O.K. Dirk said you deal from a clean deck, and you’re not a faggot. Don’t get me wrong. I get on fine with fags, I just prefer dealing with guys who aren’t. Dirk reckons you’d break your ass to get the book right. Are you taping this?” she suddenly asked sharply. “This is between the two of us, right?”

“Of course,” Evans said.

“I’ll tell you when the meter starts,” she said. Evans assured her again that he wasn’t taping her. However, he was making plenty of notes.

On Howard Hughes: “I didn’t know anything about him. I didn’t know about his reputation or his great wealth or his thing about aeroplanes and jetting around the world. I just knew that as soon as I got divorced from Mickey, Howard entered my life and I couldn’t get rid of him for the next twenty or so years, no matter who I was with or who I married.”

Fiery tempered when drunk, she once knocked billionaire boyfriend Howard Hughes out with a marble ashtray. The love of her life was Frank Sinatra who shared her taste for boozy revels. One night they roared through a small town in Sinatra’s Cadillac blasting the street lights out with revolvers. His career was in a slump when they married. When asked what she saw in an “119lb has-been”, she replied, “nineteen pounds of him is c____”.

In the Sixties, she moved to Madrid where she seduced matadors, flung drinks in the face of photographers and was banned from the Ritz for relieving herself on the floor of the hotel reception.

Ava on Fighting off men: “I dealt with men who had tempers, and who could get violent. —Lord knows how I had to defend myself against Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra, and from Artie Shaw’s verbal abuse. But George [C. Scott] was a different category of animal when he got drunk. He’d break into my hotel room, which he did in Italy, London and at the Beverly Hills Hotel, attack me to where I was frightened for my life, and scream, ‘Why won’t you marry me?’ Well, I would never marry a man who couldn’t control his liquor. Me, I’m a happy drunk. I laugh, I dance. I certainly don’t break bottles and threaten to kill.”

So in 1998, when she was broke and alone and usually drunk, the one-time Hollywood goddess decided she had two choices: “I either write the book or sell the jewels,” she said. “And I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels.”

Ava Gardner, Ravaged by booze and cigarettes and a recent stroke, called British journalist Peter Evans and asked him to ghostwrite her memoirs. What followed were the extended deathbed confessions of a legend, compiled for the first time in Evans’ last book, “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.”

Among the shocking revelations: first husband Mickey Rooney was such a womaniser that he cheated on Ava, then considered the most beautiful woman in the world, in their marital bed — while she was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy.

“He went through the ladies like a hot knife through fudge,” she said, adding that her best friend Lana Turner — who’d slept with Rooney first — called him “Andy Hard-On.”

Gardner went on to marry bandleader Artie Shaw — “another kind of bully; he was always putting me down” — and then, most famously, Frank Sinatra, who left his wife for her.

Sinatra knew it was true love on their first date, when they went for a late-night drunken drive from Palm Springs to Indio and “shot out streetlights and store windows” with a pair of .38s the Chairman kept in his glove compartment.

While seeing Sinatra, Gardner also had an affair with the married Robert Mitchum. “I was crazy about him,” she said. When she told Mitchum that she was also seeing Sinatra, he ended things. “He said, ‘Get into a fight with him, and he won’t stop until one of you is dead,’ ” Gardner said. “He didn’t want to risk it being him.”

Gardener was wildly insecure about her looks, she a star who swore she couldn’t act, Gardner had always been a study in contradictions. To the moviegoers entranced by Ava during World War II, she was sensuality itself. But while part of her was the flamboyant temptress whose beauty cowed even Elizabeth Taylor, another part was a country girl who went barefoot, took seconds on fried chicken and disliked anything that hinted of pretension. A loner who felt miscast as a movie queen, she learned to drink her liquor straight—not because she liked the taste, but because alcohol took the edge off her shyness. Addicted to stormy relationships, she was a quick-tempered scene maker who fought and made love with equal fervour. In her later years, she began saying that she would have traded her film career for “one good man I could love and marry and cook for,” but friends doubted that she could have made it as a hausfrau. Says Kitty Kelley (who wrote about Ava’s entanglement with Frank Sinatra in her controversial 1986 Sinatra bio, His Way): “Ava Gardner probably represented more tempestuous passion and sex appeal than one marriage could ever contain.”

“Some of the things that I regret most in my life happened when I was drinking. I’m just not good with alcohol. And I don’t give a damn what time of the day it is, I just drink too much.”

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born near the farming community of Smithfield, North Carolina. She was the youngest of seven children. She had two older brothers, Raymond and Melvin, and four older sisters, Beatrice, Elsie Mae, Inez, and Myra. Her parents, Mary Elizabeth “Molly” and Jonas Bailey Gardner, were poor cotton and tobacco farmers. While there are varying accounts of her background, Gardner’s only documented ancestry was English.

She was raised in the Baptist faith of her mother. While the children were still young, the Gardners lost their property, forcing Jonas Gardner to work at a sawmill and Molly to begin working as a cook and housekeeper at a dormitory for teachers at the nearby Brogden School. When Gardner was seven years old, the family decided to try their luck in a larger city, Newport News, Virginia, where Mollie Gardner found work managing a boarding house for the city’s many ship workers. While in Newport News, Gardner’s father became ill and died from bronchitis in 1938, when Ava was 15 years old. After Jonas Gardner’s death, the family moved to Rock Ridge near Wilson, North Carolina, where Mollie Gardner ran another boarding house for teachers. Gardner attended high school in Rock Ridge and she graduated from there in 1939. She then attended secretarial classes at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson for about a year.

Gardner was visiting her sister Beatrice in New York in 1941 when Beatrice’s husband Larry Tarr, a professional photographer, offered to take her portrait. He was so pleased with the results that he displayed the finished product in the front window of his Tarr Photography Studio on Fifth Avenue.

‘SHORT’ COURTSHIP: Ava Gardner was a virgin when she wed Mickey Rooney in 1942 but says she “caught on very quickly.”

Gardner was a teenage virgin from Grabtown, NC when she was discovered by a talent scout in 1941. She’d grown up poor and uneducated, yet her mother always knew that Ava had what it took to be a movie star. So did she.

“I wasn’t dumb,” Gardner said. “I knew that my looks might get me through the studio gates.”

She knew she wasn’t a great actress and didn’t much care: “A lot of my stuff ended up on the cutting-room floor,” she said. “A lot more should have.”

After a screen test, she was signed to a seven-picture deal with MGM and quickly became sought after by nearly every leading man in Hollywood. On her first day on the lot, she met Rooney, the 5-foot-2 star of the wholesome “Andy Hardy” series.

When Gardner arrived on the studio lot in 1941, she had become the immediate target of one Mickey Rooney, who, at all of 21, had been Hollywood’s biggest box office draw for three years running.

“I wanted to f___ you the moment I saw you,” he told her. Gardner was 18 and innocent. “I was shocked,” she said. “I still didn’t know he was the biggest wolf on the lot . . . He’d screw anything that moved.”

Rooney met Gardner and asked her out on a date, but she deferred because of Southern manners and the fact that he only came up to her chin. But Rooney was persistent: He was a hot commodity, and he would have his hot date. Gardner eventually gave in but refused to marry Rooney until she was 19. When she did agree, the wedding had to be approved by the MGM brass and chaperoned in full.

So they got married. Can you imagine being married to Mickey Rooney? The star with the face of an 11-year-old boy?

After a one-year courtship they wed, and one of Hollywood’s greatest sex symbols was a virgin on her wedding night. “I caught on very quickly,” she said.

But Rooney was also a bit of a dork — there are heartbreaking stories about the way he treated Judy Garland when she was head-over-heels for him in the late ’30s — and the marriage to Gardner lasted but a year.

Gardner then started hanging out with Howard Hughes.

Gardner became a friend of businessman and aviator Howard Hughes in the early- to mid-1940s, and the relationship lasted into the 1950s. Gardner stated in her autobiography, Ava: My Story, that she was never in love with Hughes, but he was in and out of her life for about 20 years. Hughes’ trust in Gardner was what kept their relationship alive. She described him as “painfully shy, completely enigmatic and more eccentric…than anyone [she] had ever met.”

All that Ava Gardner could recall was that her latest boyfriend had suddenly punched her hard in the face, dislocating her jaw. And instead of bursting into tears, she’d coolly smashed an onyx ashtray over his head — and probably killed him.

‘There was blood on the walls, on the furniture — real blood in the Bloody Marys.

The man lying on the floor was the billionaire Howard Hughes — at that time reputed to be the richest man on the planet. And he wasn’t moving.

Panicking, Ava did what all movie stars used to do when they got into major trouble: she picked up the phone and rang the film studio. And the head of MGM, Louis B Mayer, did what studio bosses always did: he sent round his boys.

‘Louis Mayer nearly had kittens — he was convinced I’d whacked the bastard,’ said Ava, with her customary barrack-room vocabulary. ‘His boys got me out of there so f___ing fast, my feet didn’t touch the Orientals.

Gardner said, ‘I don’t think he gave a damn about me, but he didn’t want any scandal attached to his studio.’
Hughes eventually recovered. And one of the first things he did afterwards was to ask his assailant to marry him.
At the age of 20, newly divorced from her first husband Mickey Rooney — who’d awakened her powerful sex-drive — Ava had been catnip to men. That’s when aviation billionaire Howard Hughes had come calling.

‘Nothing was ever an accident with Howard,’ she recalled. ‘He had people meeting every plane, train and bus that arrived in Los Angeles with a pretty girl on board. He had to be the first to grab the new girl in town.

‘And when he read the story of my divorce in the papers, he decided I was the new girl on the loose.
‘Howard never cared much about what he wore, or what he looked like. Maybe on our first dates he did — but he went downhill pretty fast after that. And he was never really aware of his personal hygiene.’

So what was attractive about him, then? She considered that for a while.

‘He was a skinny guy, not bad looking, well over 6 ft. He reminded me of my father. He had a kind of remoteness about him like Daddy had, and that’s always attractive in a man.’

It also helped, she said, that he was 17 years older and ‘infinitely more serious and smarter and sophisticated than anyone else I’d dated up to then’.

True, he was still seeing plenty of other women, but, she pointed out, ‘that didn’t stop him proposing to me all the f___ing time.’

His wealth never impressed her much, though he showered her with diamonds and furs. In the middle of the war, he even used to bump four-star generals out of their airline seats (Hughes owned TWA) for Ava.

Nor did she really appreciate his idea of a date, which was to hire an exclusive private club, clear it of people and have an orchestra playing while he and Ava dined alone.

‘The first couple of times were amusing — although dining deluxe in an empty restaurant can lack a bit of atmosphere,’ she said. ‘It felt as if we were a couple of actors being served by other actors on a candlelit stage.’ Once, she asked him: ‘Couldn’t you have invited a few extras along to cheer the place up a bit?’ Regular as clockwork, he’d always ask her to marry him just when the lamb chops arrived. And she always said no.

She recalled: ‘Although Howard was crazy about me (this was before I realised that he was just plain crazy),  we still hadn’t slept together. I enjoyed the power I had over him. I enjoyed his frustration.

‘I knew that he had a reputation as a c__ksman, but the powder-room scuttlebutt was that he was no great shakes in the sack.’

The powder-room gossip was wrong, she discovered eventually.

‘I’ll say this: he knew how to take his time with a lady. At least with this lady he did. He was a patient sonofabitch, the complete opposite of Mickey Rooney.

‘As a lover, let’s say that Howard Hughes was a pleasant surprise. He didn’t have Mick’s vivacity, his cheerfulness between the sheets — and nor mine, to be honest. But Howard’s timing was nearly always perfect.

‘He taught me that making love didn’t always have to be rushed. “Slow down, slow down, kid. We’ll get there!” he’d say. He was like a f___ing horse whisperer. We usually had a good time in the feathers.’
With hindsight, though, she thought she should never have got involved with Hughes.

The biggest problem, though, was that Hughes was a control freak, while Ava was exceptionally independent for a woman of her day.

‘The mix was too volatile: our chemistry was the stuff that causes hydrogen bombs to explode,’ she said. ‘Till death us do part would have been a whole lot sooner than later if we’d tied the knot.’

Once, Hughes bought her a new Cadillac and then offered to have it serviced by mechanics at his aircraft workshop.

‘I thought that was nice,’ said Ava, ‘because we’d just had a tremendous fight over something, and I’d actually blacked his eye. I wasn’t expecting any favours, at least until the swelling had gone down.’

After picking up the car, she’d only driven two miles along a canyon when the engine fell out. ‘That was Howard’s idea of a practical joke,’ she said. ‘It took me years to see the funny side of that prank.’
She sighed. ‘I don’t know why Howard stayed around so long.

‘We fought all the time — but I fought with all my men. It was my way of life; my way of loving, I suppose. But our intimacy never deepened. We had no sense of complicity at all. I could laugh with Mick [Rooney], I could cry with Frank [Sinatra], but with Howard, there was always this kind of shortfall.

‘I don’t think he ever put his arms around me out of affection, or to comfort me. He’d only take me in his arms if he wanted sex — or to stop me from hitting him.

‘The amazing thing is that he was in my life, on and off, for more than 20 years — but I never loved him.’

It was during the first stage of their long-running affair that she fell wildly in love with the band leader and clarinettist Artie Shaw, who was then the big heart-throb of the jazz scene.

Much to Hughes’ chagrin, he was quickly (if temporarily) dumped. When Ava told him that the bandleader wanted to marry her, he warned: ‘It won’t last five minutes. He doesn’t love you: he just loves the idea of shagging you.’

Then, in 1945, she married Shaw — who’d also left his wife for her.

Sadly, said Ava, Hughes was right. ‘Artie dumped me one week after our first anniversary. But now Gardner was smoking three packs of Winstons a day and getting drunk constantly; she felt so intellectually insecure around her new husband that she finally took an IQ test.

“He had me convinced that I was completely stupid,” Gardner said. “I didn’t have an enormous IQ, but I did have a high one.”

At that time, Shaw, who was earning the equivalent then of $1 million a week, was already tired of fame and had embarked on a lifelong mission to educate himself. The people he hung around with were all Left-wing ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ — as Ava described them —  and she told me she’d ‘gotten seriously into socialism’ herself. Indeed, she still had the books to prove it. ‘We’d go to the Russian consulate,’ she recalled. ‘We’d sit down to dinner and the vodka bottles would appear, and the caviar. That’s when I got a taste for the hard stuff.’

Chiefly because she felt inadequate, she soon started drinking to excess. ‘Artie was difficult, he was complex, but I was stuck on him,’ she explained. ‘I was crazy about him.

‘He was smart as a whip: he always knew what I was going to say next. To tell the truth, I was always a little afraid of him. Not physically. Not the way I was scared of GCS [the actor George C. Scott, with whom she had an affair in the Sixties]. When GCS was loaded, he was terrifying — he’d beat the s*** out of me and have no idea next morning what he’d done.

‘I’d be lying next to him, black-and-blue and bleeding, and he couldn’t remember a thing.

‘Artie was another kind of bully. He was a dominating sonofabitch.

“The bastard broke my heart,” she said, and throughout her life, she picked the wrong men.

The happiest girl in the world: But Ava’s 1951 marriage to Frank was doomed from the start.

Frank Sinatra’s singing and cinema career ­flourished, the delectable bodies of the swooning young women all around him proved increasingly irresistible to the 32-year-old Frank Sinatra, ­especially when he looked at his wife Nancy, growing great with child for the third time.

He had never been faithful but now he came and went as he pleased and did exactly what he wanted, with ­whomever he wanted. He dallied with actress Lana Turner and told her he would leave his wife.

But he didn’t. Not for her.

One night in 1948 he stood on the terrace of his ­Hollywood bachelor penthouse with his best friend, the songwriter Sammy Cahn, looking down over Sunset Strip.

‘Do you know that Ava Gardner lives down there?’ said Cahn, pointing to a little house nestled into the trees.

The name of the hot young film star stirred Sinatra. He had long lusted after her. With the kind of beauty that comes along once in a hundred years, she transfixed men and women alike. She took her pleasures as she found them — and she found them everywhere.

Cupping his hands to his mouth, he yelled ‘Ava … Ava Gardner!’ his big voice carrying far into the quiet evening. ‘We know you’re down there. Hello, Ava.’

The two men roared with laughter. And then a miracle. Down below, a curtain was drawn, a window opened and Ava stuck her head out. She knew exactly who it was. Sinatra’s voice was unmistakable. She grinned and waved.

Was it an accident that they ran into each other a few days later, in front of her place? And then again in the street? Frank wasn’t usually keen on walking but suddenly he was getting out a lot. The third time, they both began laughing as he said hello.

Ava’s eyes searched his. Was he following her? He met her gaze boldly. She put a hand on her shapely hip, ­provocatively. He spoke. ‘Ava, let’s be friends. Why don’t we have dinner tonight?’

He had met her, he remembered, when she was an 18-year-old starlet newly arrived in Hollywood and Mickey Rooney, no less, was madly in love with her. Though she was smokingly sexy, she was just a kid, Sinatra thought at the time, too young for him.
So he was content just to stare at those dazzlingly high cheekbones and haughty green eyes.

He met her again and danced with her in a nightclub when he was with Lana, and she — at 23, divorced from both Rooney and her second husband, the band leader Artie Shaw — was with the ­billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes.

Then ­Sinatra’s friend Peter Lawford brought her to one of his parties. Dark haired with a white fur stole on her wide ­shoulders, he noticed how she prowled with the easy grace of a tigress.

And now, here they were, just the two of them, faced with a decision. ‘I damn well knew he was married,’ Ava recalled, ‘and married men were definitely not high on my hit parade.

‘But he was handsome, with his thin, boyish face, bright blue eyes and ­incredible grin. And he was so ­enthusiastic and invigorated, clearly pleased with life, in general, himself, in particular, and, at that moment, me.’

So began one of Hollywood’s ­legendary pairings of alpha male and female.

That night they went out drinking. Despite her stupendous looks, she had no confidence and alcohol, consumed in quantity, made her forget her deep self-doubt and feel glamorous, ­intelligent, desirable — a person worthy of the ­attentions of Frank Sinatra.

The pair started a torrid affair that would lead to a tempestuous short-lived marriage characterised by feuds and faithlessness. Eventually, as both stars grew older, their passion would develop into a tender, if eccentric, love that would last a lifetime. But there was a lot of fighting to be done first.

They met in Hollywood in the mid-1940s, when, as Ava put it, ‘everybody was F___ing, everybody. Maybe it was the war’.

Frank was still married to his first wife Nancy when they began their relationship, and the romance became America’s first reality show, with photographers and reporters pursuing them around the world.

Frank and Ava: She said he made love like a woman. He said she was a ‘falling-down drunk’. She made him suicidal, he humiliated her.

In 1951 she married Sinatra, who she later called the love of her life. Their relationship was famously tempestuous, and her best friend Turner — who’d also had affairs with Shaw and Sinatra — begged Gardner not to go

through with it: “I’ve been there, honey,’ she told me. ‘Don’t do it!’ Gardner said: “I should have listened to her.”

Despite the difficulties between them, after his divorce from Nancy, the couple married. ‘We’re going to redecorate Frank’s home,’ Ava gushed. ‘I’m going to learn to make all his favourite dishes. Mama Sinatra has promised to send the recipes. Oh, it’s all so thrilling and wonderful! Mrs Frank Sinatra is the happiest girl in the world!’

And she was, sometimes. But at other times, as Sammy Cahn’s wife Gloria recalled, being with them ‘was like ­sitting on cracked eggs. You never knew if there were going to be verbal daggers. And Frank was so subservient to her. He was insane about that woman’.

Ava had trouble with intimacy. When a man fell in love with her, she ­reciprocated for a little while, then she began to torment him.

‘With her acid tongue, she was ­ruthless with him,’ said one friend. ‘I was scared to death of her. I did what I could to stay out of her way.’

For Frank, the similarities with his bullying mother — who used to beat him but whose approval he constantly craved — were scary and exciting.

In their constant battles, jealousy was their emotional ammunition. Frank could trigger it in her with the blink of an eye, so conditioned was he to ­scanning any crowded party for ­gorgeous girls. She was convinced he was ­cheating on her, even when he wasn’t.

Meanwhile, he couldn’t get out of his mind the many other men there had been in her life. Out relaxing on a boat on a lake one day, Frank suddenly said to her: ‘I bet Howard Hughes has got a bigger boat than this. I suppose you wish you were out here with him.’

Ava retorted: ‘I don’t care if he owns the Queen Mary. I’m not sorry I’m not with him. So shut up.’ ‘Don’t tell me to shut up,’ Frank snarled. They were off again.

On Marlon Brando: “We went back to his hotel and had some drinks. I wasn’t wearing a bra and he reached over and grabbed my breasts and said, ‘Are those real?’ I said ‘I believe they are.’”

But if it was hard work being married to Ava Gardner, it was just as tough being married to Frank Sinatra.

‘Neither gave an inch,’ a friend of Ava’s said, ‘though Frank worked harder on the marriage than she did. She’s a very ­selfish girl.’

It didn’t help that Frank’s career was on a downward spiral at the time — records not selling, films flopping — while hers was very much on the up. As a foul-mouthed facsimile of his mother, she was the dominant one in the ­relationship. As a sexual volcano, she ruled him in bed. And to top it all off, she was paying the bills while he struggled. The combination was corrosive.

She was not faithful, especially when she was away working. On location for a Western in the foothills of the Rockies, there was nothing to do but drink and have sex. Ava did a lot of the former and some of the latter with the stuntmen, and a little of both with the director.

‘Ava couldn’t be alone,’ said a ­production man on another of her film sets, ‘which is why she had so many affairs. She’d say: “Hey, come on, have a drink with me, I’m bored all by myself.” Then she’d bring back a prop man or whoever to her tent.’
She and Frank celebrated their first anniversary on their way to Africa where she was once again filming.

‘It was quite an occasion for me,’ she recalled. ‘I had been married twice before but never for a whole year.’ But it was increasingly obvious that this one wasn’t going to go the distance either.

“Some of the things that I regret most in my life happened when I was drinking. I’m just not good with alcohol. And I don’t give a damn what time of the day it is, I just drink too much.”

One night Gardner heard this gun go off. They’d been fighting, of course. And drinking. Every single night, they would have three or four martinis, big ones, in big champagne glasses, then wine with dinner, then go to a nightclub and start drinking scotch or bourbon.

“It was another one of those nights Gardner ended up refusing to sleep with Frank. She was half asleep in her room across from the suite and heard this gunshot. It scared the bejesus out of her. She didn’t know what I was going to find. His brains blown out? He was always threatening to do it. Instead, he was sitting on the bed in his underpants, a smoking gun in his hand, grinning like a goddamn drunken schoolkid. He’d fired the gun into the f___ing pillow.”

She seemed amused at the memory. “At least his overdoses were quieter.”

Overdoses?” Evans pretended to be surprised, although the stories of Sinatra’s mock suicides were well documented. “You mean he tried it more than once?”

“All the f___ing time. It was a cry for help.” Gardner said, she always fell for it.

They were forever breaking up, then getting back together. They would throw each other’s clothes, books and records out of the windows. The police had to be called more than once. The gossip columns had a field day, ­following their every move, tracking the time they spent together and apart.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Cupid didn’t have enough arrows in his quiver for this pair. And when Ava ­eventually confided to friends that Frank could no longer ­satisfy her sexually, it was clear the glue that held them together was loosening.

Increasingly she signed up for work that took her away from him. In Europe — while Frank was back in the U.S. ­making From Here To Eternity, the film that would put his career back on track — she was pursuing Spain’s best-known bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín, four years her junior.

‘I’ll never figure you broads out,’ her co-star Humphrey Bogart said. ‘Half the world’s female ­population would throw themselves at Frank’s feet and you are flouncing around with guys who wear capes and ­ballerina slippers.’

Frank began to panic as it dawned on him that they might be over. He couldn’t sleep. At five in the morning, he’d pour another whisky and rack his brains for a way to keep her.

He went berserk when he found out from a gossip column that she’d had a drink with his friend Peter ­Lawford. It was innocent,­ but he told Lawford he was sending somebody to break his legs. A friend who had to put up with his ranting said: ‘He’s driving me crazy! Ava, Ava, Ava! A ­billion broads in the world and he picks the one that can take or leave him!’

And leave him is what Ava did, blaming his ­infidelities. Later, she would say: ‘I was ­happier married to Frank than ever before. If I’d been ­willing to share him with other women we could have been happy.’

But, in reality, the break-up was her ­decision. In a desperate bid to keep her, he slit a wrist and was rushed ­semi-conscious to hospital. He imagined her at his ­bedside, her green eyes looking down on him.

But she didn’t come. Against medical advice, he ­discharged ­himself and flew to see her. Realising that playing the ­vulnerable boy wouldn’t work, he shrugged off the bandaged wrist as the result of an accident.

She smiled with relief — not that he was unharmed but because she’d been worried that, seeing him, she might be drawn back into a relationship.

Gardner had two abortions during her marriage to Sinatra, and a courtship that began with “fighting all the time, boozing and fighting,” ended the same way. They divorced in 1957 but remained close for the rest of their lives, and when Gardner pulled out of completing her memoirs, Evans suspected that Sinatra gave her the money she would have gotten for the book.

Her decision wasn’t a complete surprise to Evans; she would later say that when she was “pushing clouds around,” he could publish their book.

After a lifetime of smoking, Gardner suffered from emphysema, as well as an unidentified auto-immune disorder. Two strokes in 1986 left her partially paralysed and bedridden. Although Gardner could afford her medical expenses, Sinatra wanted to pay for her visit to a specialist in the United States, and she allowed him to make the arrangements for a medically staffed private plane.

In the end, Ava Gardner said that she was tired of living. Struggling against lung disease and the partial paralysis that was the legacy of her 1986 stroke, the woman whose mesmerizing looks and public life once defined the term screen goddess spent her last weeks inside the sumptuous flat off Hyde Park, London, where she lived with her longtime housekeeper, Carmen Vargas, and her beloved Welsh corgi, Morgan. Exasperated with her failing body, she took little interest in food, and for the first time in her life, she stopped fighting. Plagued by a limp and a weakened left arm, she suffered a bad fall a week before she died, and she lay on the floor, alone and unable to move until Vargas returned. When old friend Sydney Guilaroff called from Los Angeles on Jan. 20, the once fiery Gardner sounded weak and dispirited. “I feel as if I have pneumonia again,” she said. “I can hear the water in my lungs.” Then she told him, “I don’t want to live anymore.”

Less than a week later, Ava Gardner, 67, died quietly in her canopied Chippendale bed. After bringing in Ava’s breakfast tray on Jan. 25, Vargas came back in mid-morning to find that she had stopped breathing. Sobbing, Vargas called Gardner’s physician and close friends Paul and Spoli Mills, who rushed over from their flat across Hyde Park. “It was very simple: She’d gone to sleep after breakfast, and then she died,” said Paul.

Gardner was buried in the Sunset Memorial Park, Smithfield, North Carolina, next to her brothers and their parents, Jonas and Mollie Gardner. The town of Smithfield now has an Ava Gardner Museum.

After months of collaborating, Gardner learned that Evans and the BBC had been sued by Sinatra in 1972 for mentioning his Mob associations. She withdrew from the ghosted autobiography and produced a book with another writer. She died in January 1990. Sinatra would die in May 1998, and Artie Shaw in December 2004. With permission from Gardner’s estate, Evans decided to publish their interviews. He died on August 31, 2012. 

Evans’s notes and sections of his draft of Gardner’s autobiography, which he based on their taped conversations, were published in the book Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations after Evans’s death in 2012.

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