From the mid 1940s, Sinatra was the biggest star in American music. An idol to the bobby soxers, he was effectively the first pop star in music history. The singer was publicised as a wholesome family man, with his wife Nancy and three young children, Nancy, Frank Jr and Tina. But the reality was typically very different. Not only was he hugely famous and dazzlingly talented, the star also had a couple of advantages over most men.
As his film career also began to flourish, Sinatra began to bed a succession of starlets and major Silver Screen goddesses from Lana Turner and Angie Dickinson to Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland.
Actress and close friend Ruta Lee described the extraordinary power his famous eyes had on women: “Those fabulous blue eyes of Frank Sinatra were so piercing. When he was with you, those blue eyes stayed with you, you felt like he was entering your soul. It was something incredible.”
However, another friend also revealed a rather more personal detail.
Gardner divorced Rooney in 1943 but then married actor and bandleader Artie in 1945. It was short-lived and throughout the rest of the decade, her affair with Sinatra gathered pace.
Between constant rowing and sex, their relationship was notoriously as explosive by day as by night. Sinatra said; “If we didn’t kill each other during the day, we might have killed each other in bed.”
Gardner’s biographer Anthony Uzarowski said: “It was toxic and explosive. Frank’s Palm Springs mansions still bears the scars of those fights. A bottle of champagne was thrown at the sink and a dent is still visible today.”
When the affair went public, his fans were disillusioned to discover their idol was deeply flawed. His music career was already failing and he was dropped by his agent, publicist, and record label.
In October 1951, Nancy granted him a divorce and he immediately married Ava but nothing changed in their tumultuous relationship. The marriage was in trouble within two years.
Russo said: “She drove him nuts, crazy. I spent many nights with him crying like a little kid because he loved her so much.”
For the first time in his life, Sinatra had lost all the power in a relationship. When Gardner flew to Africa to film Mogambo in 1953, he followed her as a big romantic gesture, but she was clearly unexcited to see him.
Lee said: “It just broke his heart.”
Yet, Sinatra pulled off an extraordinary comeback. With his film and music career seemingly over he landed a role in 1953’s From Here To Eternity with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. The rumours were that the studio hadn’t wanted him, but Sinatra’s Mafia connections smoothed the way. Others say Gardner pulled in some favours. Either way, it paid off and the star ended up winning a best Supporting Actor Oscar.
At the same time, his music career was revived when he rode the latest Swing craze, starting with his return hit I’ve Got The World On A String. Unfortunately, his professional success was not matched at home.
Uzarowski explained why: “Ava said the moment things started going well for him, he went back to his arrogant ways, which she detested… Their relationship suffered because they didn’t trust each other.”
This was made brutally clear when she travelled to London to have a secret abortion in 1952. When the Catholic Sinatra discovered this, it was devastating.
Uzarowski added: “He was overheard saying she should have killed him for what she’d done to him and the baby.”
At the same time, Sinatra’s return to blatant womanising enraged his wife. Gardner issued a press statement announcing their marriage was over in October 1953, although the divorce wouldn’t be finalised until 1957.
Russo said: “Ava Gardner destroyed him. He went to his agent’s apartment. He tried to kill himself.”
Sinatra was discovered just in time and rushed to hospital. He was back on TV days later on The Colgate Comedy Hour with Jimmy Durante. It’s possible to glimpse the bandages in his left wrist.
Following the divorce in 1957, Sinatra had a short-lived marriage to Mia Farrow from 1966-1968.
It would be almost another decade before he finally settled down with third wife Barbara, who is credited with finally bringing stability to his life and severing his Mafia ties. They married in 1976 and were together until Sinatra’s death in 1998.
SINATRA: KING OF THE CROONERS ON CHANNEL 5