Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner: Their $267,000 First Date by Gregory Hilton

1949: The Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles.

Movie actress Ava Gardner, one of the most beautiful women of the 1940’s and ’50s, was associated with many famous men. According to Time magazine, she was the most photographed woman in the world during the World War II era. She was 5′ 6″, a size zero, and had an 18 inch waist, 36-18-36. Gardner never won an Academy Award but the American Film Institute lists her as one of the top 25 greatest stars of all time.
Her best known films are Show Boat, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Barefoot Contessa, The Sun Also Rises, On The Beach, Seven Days in May, The Night of the Iguana and Mogambo, for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
She had just turned 18 at the beginning of 1941 and was taking secretarial classes. Her brother-in-law was a professional photographer who was proud of the shots he had taken of Ava. He placed them in the window of his 5th Avenue studio. They were spotted by an MGM talent scout, and the result was a coveted contract at the height of Hollywood’s golden age. She would be associated with MGM for the next 17 years.
On her first day at MGM she was given a studio tour and was introduced to America’s number one box office star, Mickey Rooney. For him it was love at first sight. A year later they were married when she was 19 and he was 21. Rooney later described their honeymoon as “a sexual symphony,” but she told Walter Winchell, “Well, honey, he may have enjoyed the sex, but goodness knows I didn’t.”
The marriage lasted 17 months and Rooney says his immaturity was largely to blame. Tycoon Howard Hughes was the next person to pursue Gardner. In the book, Love Is Nothing, she said Hughes made “Mickey seem like a boy who had just gotten paid from his paper route.” He showered her with expensive jewelry, furs, exotic vacations, and proposed marriage on several occasions.
Hughes always had the same thing for dinner every night, and she was never able to change his unusual habits. The relationship between Gardner and Hughes is a focal point of the 2004 movie, The Aviator, in which she is portrayed by Kate Beckinsale.
Her second husband was renowned band leader Artie Shaw, but that lasted just a year (October 17, 1945 to October 25, 1946). Gardner’s book says Shaw made her feel inferior because he constantly criticized her lack of education: “In front of my friends he would say I was stupid.” He castigated her for reading “trashy novels” such as Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor (who became Shaw’s next wife).
In 1949 at age 27 she met Frank Sinatra. Her friends Lana Turner and Howard Hughes both urged her to dump the moody and jealous singer. He instead became her third and final husband, and People magazine listed the union as one of the great “romances of the century.” Gardner described Sinatra as the love of her life, and he left his first wife in order to marry her. In her autobiography she said “He has a temper that bursts into flames, while my temper burns inside for hours.” She also wrote:

Let me say at this point that I approve highly of the physical side of relationships between male and female. Not only does it make the world go round, it’s marvelous. In that respect all my three marriages were perfect; I loved each one of my husbands just as much when I left them as I did when I married them.

Ava Gardner had many advantages in life, but she also had weaknesses. She was a smoker who later suffered from emphysema. In later years she could not go far without an oxygen tank. Gardner was also an alcoholic and her film career ended because she was unable to work after lunch. She had two strokes which left her partially paralyzed, and she died at age 67. The excerpt below is about Gardner and Sinatra’s first date. They met at a party at the home of producer David Selznick, and this is from Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan, Doubleday (2010).

They slipped easily back to their earlier, alcoholic mode. Both of them could hold a lot of liquor. After a couple of hours, they walked out in the crisp desert night, under an inky-black sky strewn with more stars than either of them had ever seen. After he went back into the house and gave the bartender a hundred-dollar bill for a fifth of Beefeater’s, they got in his Cadillac and set off. The top was down, despite the winter chill. . . “You ever think about getting old?” she asked.
“I am old,” he said. (He was 34). . .
“I got an idea,” Frank said, presently. “Let’s liven the goddamn place up.” He reached across her, almost falling in her lap, and after fumbling with the latch for a second, opened the glove compartment. “Here we go, kid. One for you and one for me.”
He handed her a dark, heavy metal thing that smelled of machine oil. Ava cradled it in her hand, looked at it in wonderment. It was a snub-barreled Smith & Wesson .38 Chief’s Special. Frank took out another pistol just like it and, squinting, aimed it at the traffic light.
An hour later, the phone rang in Jack Keller’s bedroom. Though he had been deeply asleep, Keller knew exactly who was on the other end before he picked it up. “Jack, we’re in trouble,” Sinatra said.
It was his one phone call. He and Ava were in the Indio police station, feeling much more sober than they had an hour before, when, whooping and hollering, they had both emptied their pistols, then reloaded and emptied them again, shattering streetlights and several store windows. Then there was the town’s single unfortunate passerby, drunk as the shooters, whose shirtfront and belly had been creased by an errant .38 slug.
Keller shook his head. Sinatra always knew how to up the ante. Still, there was only one thing that concerned the publicist. “Have you been booked? Do the papers know anything?” Frank looked at the police chief, who was smiling expectantly at his famous guest, secure in the knowledge that for whatever unknown reason, the Gods of chance had dealt him one hell of a payday. Sinatra told Keller that nobody knew nothin’, but that Jack had better get down fast, with plenty of money.
And so, legend has it, Jack did just that. The story hangs on an oral history taped by Keller before his untimely death—he was a four-pack-a-day smoker—at the age of 59 in 1975. In his account of that wild night in Indio, the publicist wakes up a pal, the manager of the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, who happens to have $30,000 in his safe. $30,000 in 1949 is the equivalent of $267,000 today. Keller borrows all of the money, charters a plane, flies to Indio, and papers the town with high-denomination currency to keep everybody quiet.

One response to “Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner: Their $267,000 First Date by Gregory Hilton

  1. You must be part Mickey Spillane,, fine tale , told well,, evocative I can hear the lone trumpet echoing the background music. Thank you.

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