Frank & Ava: In Love and War

Frank & Ava: In Love and War

by John Brady


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Frank & Ava: In Love and War by John Brady

The love story of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner has never been fully explored or explained—until now. Frank & Ava delves deeply into the lives of these two iconic stars and their turbulent lifelong relationship.

It began in Hollywood's golden age when Ava was emerging as a movie star. But she fell in (and out of) love too easily. Mickey Rooney married her because he wanted another conquest. Artie Shaw treated her like a dumb brunette, giving her a reading list on their honeymoon. Neither marriage lasted a year. Then, after being courted by Howard Hughes and numerous others, along came Frank Sinatra.

His passion for Ava destroyed his marriage and brought him close to ruin. Their wild affair broke all the rules of the prudish era as Frank left his wife and children and pursued Ava on an international stage. They became romantic renegades, with the press following them from location to location.

They married, but then came the quarrels, separations, infidelities, and reconciliations. Eventually, there was a divorce, and they thought it was over. It wasn't.

Through all of the tortured years of separation and splintered affairs with others, they maintained a secretive relationship known only to those who recognized that this was the love of a lifetime. Over the years, they attempted to reconcile, romanced and nurtured each other, right to the end. In Frank & Ava, longtime Sinatra specialist John Brady uncovers the beauty of this epic love story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250145017
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/14/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 787,415
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JOHN BRADY is a veteran editor and author of The Craft of the Screenwriter and Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater. A longtime Sinatra specialist, he worked at Warner/Reprise Records in the 1970s when Frank Sinatra came out of a brief retirement. Brady was editor-in-chief at Writer's Digest and Boston magazine, and founding editor of The Artist's Magazine. His byline has appeared in New York, New Times, Esquire, American Film, The Washington Post Magazine, The Boston Globe Magazine and numerous other publications. He lives in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt

Frank & Ava

In Love and War

By John Brady

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 John Brady
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-8157-0


She Can't Act, She Can't Talk, She's Terrific

When Ava Gardner arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 1941, all she knew about Hollywood was what she had read in the fan magazines back home in Smithfield, North Carolina, where her mother had taken her to the Howell Theatre, at age nine, to see reigning heartthrob Clark Gable and "blonde bombshell" Jean Harlow in Red Dust. After three scorching days of travel, Ava stepped off the Super Chief in a cheap summer dress and white wedge sandals, carrying a cardboard suitcase with most of her possessions. The eighteen-year-old beauty did not smoke, did not drink, and was a virgin. She was a stranger in a strange land.

Earlier that summer, in the Manhattan offices of the MGM publicity department, Ava laughed about her chances of fame and fortune before the train started its trip across the continent to Hollywood. "Well, if I make it big there," she told the staff, "I'll marry the biggest movie star in the world."

"Would you like to see the biggest movie star in the world?" a publicist asked. He had a photo behind his back, and it wasn't of Clark Gable, as Ava had anticipated. It was of Mickey Rooney.

Six months after this playful exchange, Ava Gardner would indeed marry MGM's biggest moneymaker, Mickey Rooney. When the marriage failed, Ava would marry (and divorce) bandleader Artie Shaw, and have numerous affairs on and off the set, and star in movies with Burt Lancaster, Robert Taylor, and, yes, Clark Gable, in Mogambo, a remake of Red Dust, the movie she had seen with Mama.

In the midst of it all came Frank Sinatra, the most popular singer on the planet, the entertainer of the century, the womanizer of the ages — in full pursuit of Ava, a brunette bombshell, the Jean Harlow of her time.

How quickly and easily everything had unfolded. Before the age of thirty, Ava had three brief, wild marriages, and had become a major film star as well as an international sex symbol. It was like one of those breathless stories you might read in a fan magazine.

* * *

Ava Lavinia Gardner was born a farmer's daughter on Christmas Eve, 1922, in a house without water or plumbing in a tiny crossroads hamlet called Grabtown, not even on the map, seven miles east of Smithfield, North Carolina, population 5,574. Because of the proximity of her birthday and Christmas, two cakes were baked to celebrate that day — one chocolate, for the family, and a white coconut cake, for baby Ava, both according to mother Mollie's recipe. It became a custom that would continue through the years.

Ava was the youngest of five daughters and two sons of Jonas and Mollie Gardner, tobacco sharecroppers who also operated a boardinghouse for teachers. The family was poor. At school, Ava rotated two sweaters, one to wear and the other in the wash.

Jonas Gardner, a lean man of Scots-Irish ancestry, died when Ava was fifteen. "He did everything slowly, so deliberately and so well," Ava later remarked. He was her idol. "There wasn't an impulsive bone in his body," she said. "He used to make us lemonade and I can see him now, sitting at the kitchen table, rubbing the lemons hour after hour so they'd be soft and the juice would literally pour out of them when he finally got around to that part of the operation. I've never tasted anything like it. No booze was ever so good." Ava grew up playing in the tobacco fields, and assisting her father when the tobacco was aging in barns, where the furnaces had to be stoked to maintain a steady temperature for six or seven days until the leaves were cured. "I used to love it," she said. "I would stay the night with Daddy, sleeping with him."

At home, she remained the family baby. As her older sisters were married or nudged out of the house to get jobs after high school, Ava was cuddled and coddled. Her sisters bought her special bras to save her breasts from the fate of theirs — strapped against their chests in the Jazz Age style of the day. "I'd get out of doing the dishes," Ava said years later. "I can see Mama now, cleaning every room every day as though she were expecting Sunday visitors. But I never offered to help her. I should have, I suppose, and now I wish I had."

Mother Mollie was a woman of strict Baptist principles, who did not, or could not, bring herself to explain the facts of life to her daughters. When Ava had her first period and thought she was bleeding to death, it was not to her mama she rushed, but to the warmhearted black lady who worked in the Gardner household, who comforted her and explained what was happening. Mama had instilled in Ava a fear of the consequences of sex. On Ava's first date, a school prom, the lad tried to kiss her at the doorstep, and Mama came out of the house, scaring him away.

After a year at secretarial school, Ava came under the influence of her eldest sister, Beatrice, the family rebel, who lived in New York City with her second husband, a professional photographer. Beatrice was called "Bappie," a name Ava bestowed on her when the youngster could not pronounce her given name. Bappie, nineteen years older than Ava, had movie stars in her eyes. When she won a pair of green shoes — once worn by movie star Irene Dunne! — in a charity auction, she gave them to Ava, who kept them on a shelf in her bedroom to look at, but never to wear.

Ava talked Mollie into letting her visit Bappie in New York during the summer of 1939. Bappie's husband, Larry Tarr, took photos of the sixteen-year-old beauty and displayed one in his Fifth Avenue studio window as a sample portrait. A young clerk in MGM's New York office saw the photo and — hoping for a date — pretended to be a talent scout for the studio. He inquired about the model's name, and Larry Tarr used the occasion to send an array of photos to the MGM office. Ava soon found herself doing a screen test for the studio, including an audio sample, for Ava sang in the church choir and knew all of the old spirituals. She had a sweet singing voice, but her southern drawl was so heavy that few could understand her, so the technician sent the screen test to Hollywood — without audio. "She can't act, she can't talk," said studio chief Louis B. Mayer after viewing it. "She's terrific." He rose to leave the screening. "Give her to Gertrude and Lillian and let her have a year's training," he said. "Then test her again." A contract was issued. Beauty carried the day.

Milt Weiss, a young MGM publicist, and sister Bappie accompanied Ava on the train to Los Angeles, because that was how ladies traveled in those days, and that was what Mama wanted for her baby. When Bappie learned that Hedy Lamarr, MGM's reigning goddess, would arrive on the same train, she proclaimed, "That makes two movie queens on board!"

* * *

The drinks were strong and the conversations lively at Ruth Waterbury's home when Ava walked in on the arm of Milt Weiss. The publicist had called ahead and asked Ruth — the editor of Photoplay magazine — if he could stop by and show the new starlet off. "Naturally, the moment Ava walked in, the party was ruined," Waterbury wryly recalled. "The men were knocked speechless. They had never seen so much young beauty before, and I doubt if they ever will again. The women were kayoed, too, not only by Ava but also by the men's reaction to her." Ava was shy, but knew how to be slightly flirtatious in her charming southern way. This was her first night in Hollywood, and she was learning to operate on a mixture of instinct, charm, and looks. Tomorrow would be busy, said Milt, and they made a quick exit. "We were all relieved when Ava and the agent left," said Waterbury. But the conversations suddenly died. "Everybody else left right after them. There was no putting that party together again."

* * *

No other lot in Hollywood knew a more spectacular and storied history than MGM, the celebrated real estate where The Wizard of Oz and most of the outdoor scenes in Gone With the Wind were filmed. It was where Myrna Loy and William Powell sipped martinis and walked their dog, Asta, where Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy, where Judy Garland sang and danced down the yellow brick road. It was where Mickey Rooney said, repeatedly, "Let's put on a show!" Here Mama's favorite, Clark Gable, reigned as King of Hollywood for twenty-seven years.

The studio was a loose collection of buildings and soundstages, a self-contained entertainment factory that measured some five square miles in Culver City, south of Los Angeles, with its own police and fire departments, bank, post office, hospital with a physician and nurses on call, a swimming pool, commissary, a blacksmith's shop, city streets, western scenes, several lakes, and a fifteen-acre jungle. There were dozens of lavish dressing rooms, bungalows for the big stars, and a little red schoolhouse for child actors. One longtime publicist who was a former circus barker kept four elephants — from his circus days — as pets.

MGM produced the biggest films, paid the biggest salaries, and grossed the largest revenues. Walking through the commissary in that vintage year of 1941, you could have seen, picking at their salads, Jimmy Stewart, Hedy Lamarr, Greer Garson, Lionel Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, Irene Dunne, Red Skelton, William Powell, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon, Robert Taylor, Lewis Stone, Gene Kelly, George Murphy, Van Johnson, Marsha Hunt, Robert Benchley, Spring Byington, Gladys Cooper, Barry Nelson, Desi Arnaz, and many others — including Louis B. Mayer, the founding father, who was in his fifties now, but still very much in power.

"L.B." was a short, barrel-chested man with thin white hair, round glasses, and an owlish, gruff expression that someone said made him look like a small-town high school principal. At fifty-six, he still worked until 8:30 P.M., minimum, with three secretaries. His birthday, celebrated on the Fourth of July, was a real holiday on the lot, with a huge party and entertainment by some of the top actors in the commissary, an event that everyone was commanded to attend.

Mayer had come out of a Russian ghetto, and he felt a great debt to the America that had permitted him to grow so powerful. He fancied himself a guardian of American family values. His favorite product was the Andy Hardy movie series, idealized sagas of small-town life, with Mickey Rooney as the devilish but good-hearted kid, learning life's lessons with his mom and pop and his wise old grandpa. L.B. truly believed the myth — and he loved the money it made for the studio, and for himself. At one million dollars a year, Louis B. Mayer was regularly named the country's highest-paid executive.

His office was cavernous, "about half as large as the lounge of the Radio City Music Hall," reported New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross. Mayer presided behind a huge creamy white desk covered with four creamy white telephones, overlooking a vast expanse of creamy white carpet. The walls were paneled in creamy white leather, and there was a bar, a fireplace, leather chairs, couches, and a grand piano, all creamy white. His desk, on a raised dais, was positioned so that the visitor, always looking upward, was made to feel like a recalcitrant child in the principal's office. L.B. got the idea from Harry Cohn, who ran Columbia Pictures (the salt mine of studios), who got the idea from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. "It made L.B. the prophet and all those sitting before him the disciples," said Jerry Lewis. "A great device for his need to dominate."

Mayer insisted on absolute punctuality on the part of visitors, who had to be impeccably dressed. Men were required to wear a jacket and tie. Joan Crawford came from a set in a swimsuit and bathrobe, and was sent home to change. Most of Mayer's top executives — Eddie Mannix, Benny Thau, and Sidney Franklin — were also short. Esther Williams, the gorgeous five-foot-eight swimming star, said that she felt like Snow White with the Dwarfs whenever she was in Mayer's office for a meeting. A story, probably apocryphal, was told of a somewhat proper actress entering the office one day and asking, "Don't you usually stand when a lady enters the room?" "Madam," replied the diminutive L.B., "I am standing."

Mayer was like a Jewish father (or mother, perhaps) who kept a vigilant eye on his film family. When Lana Turner's nights on the town elicited the wrong kind of publicity, he summoned her to his office — and demanded that she bring her mother. In an emotional, disappointed tone, he told the young star that keeping late hours and making the papers endangered her wonderful future. "He actually had tears in his eyes at one point, so I started crying, too," recalled Lana. Then L.B. jumped up and shouted, "The only thing you're interested in is ..." and he pointed crudely to his crotch.

"How dare you, Mr. Mayer!" said Lana's mother righteously as they marched out. "In front of my daughter!"

Mayer was a micromanager, a stickler for details. One had to be a demagogue on little things if you wanted to have your way on the big things. He was also the best actor on the lot. He asked director John Huston to come to his house one Sunday for breakfast. A script in progress wasn't what L.B. wanted. He told Huston about Jeanette MacDonald and how he had instructed her to sing "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" by singing the Jewish "Eli, Eli" for her. "She was so moved," recalled Huston, "that Mayer said she wept. Yes, wept! She who had the reputation of pissing ice water!"

By way of demonstration, Mayer sang the song for Huston. Mayer said that if Huston could make the script into that kind of picture, he would crawl to the director on his knees and kiss his hand, which he then proceeded to do. "I sat there and thought, this is not happening to me," said Huston, who left in a cold sweat, with Mayer's words echoing in his ears: "You can only try! Try, John! Try!"

Nepotism ruled. Mayer's relatives and friends of relatives were everywhere. George Sidney, who directed Ava's screen test, was the son of Louis K. Sidney, pioneer producer and vice president of MGM. His wife was Lillian Burns, who worked in the drama department. Actress Norma Shearer's husband, legendary producer Irving Thalberg, had died in 1936, but he was still an influence at the studio. Her brother Douglas was head of the sound department. "We are a business concern and not patrons of the arts," said obsessive memo dictator David O. Selznick, who earned L.B.'s esteem (and his daughter Irene in marriage) by making two Westerns concurrently, with two scripts and two leading ladies, shooting all action material at the same time, "making two of them for the price of about one and one-eighth," memo'd Selznick. Such stratagems advanced Selznick's standing among producers, but it didn't hurt that there was reportedly an inscription in the commissary men's room: "The son in law also rises." The studio was like a Jewish resort in the Catskills.

* * *

Shortly after Ava's arrival, Milt Weiss took her for a tour, including a visit to the set of Babes on Broadway, where Mickey Rooney was dressed for his Carmen Miranda number, bedecked in a skirt, a fruit hat larger than his head, and platform-soled shoes, which added some height to his diminutive stature. When he espied Ava behind the cameras, it was lust at first sight.

"She had narrow ankles, perfect calves, full thighs, a tiny waist, a bosom that rose like two snowy mountain peaks, an alabaster throat, a dimpled chin, full red lips, a pert nose, wide green eyes beneath dark, arched brows, a wide, intelligent forehead and chestnut-colored hair that looked as if it had been stroked a thousand times a night ever since she was old enough to handle a brush," he recalled approvingly in his memoir, Life Is Too Short. At lunchtime that day, as Ava walked into the studio commissary, Rooney told his cronies that he was going to marry that girl.

Rooney, two years older (and four inches shorter) than Ava, was the biggest box-office attraction in the world, and — at twenty — still a convincing teenager in the studio's Andy Hardy movies. He was also a relentless womanizer — Lana Turner called him "Andy Hard-on" — and a regular at a brothel called T&M Studios, off Santa Monica Boulevard, where young women were made up to look like Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer, and other stars of the era.

When Mickey asked Ava for a date, though, she said no. He continued to pester, and she continued to turn down his requests. "That only made me want her more," he said, "not just so I could go to bed with her. I wanted to make her the mother of my children."

* * *

Ava drew a low salary, even by entry-level standards: At fifty dollars a week, plus acting, speech, and grooming lessons, she was a steal. Her salary was actually thirty-five dollars, because a clause in the contract gave MGM the right to stop payment for a twelve-week layoff period. "If Bappie hadn't come to Hollywood with me ... and she hadn't gone downtown and got a job at I. Magnin's, we'd have starved to death," Ava later recalled. "As it was, we lived in one crummy room with a pull-down bed, and a kitchenette as big as a closet. Film star! More like slave laborer."

There was no equity among the starlets in residence. Esther Williams — who had an agent — signed on, shortly after Ava's arrival, for $350 a week. Of course, both lasses' salaries paled beside the one thousand dollars a week that Lassie earned as top dog around the studio, where he was known as "Greer Garson with fur."

Beyond salary inequities, contracts gave the studio the right to rule on all professional decisions in an actor's life. The studio decided which film she or he would make, who else would be in it, who would produce and direct it. The studio had the right to "loan" an actor out to another studio for any film that the other studio wanted to make. The loan-out fee went entirely to MGM, which paid the actor his regular salary out of its profits on the loan.


Excerpted from Frank & Ava by John Brady. Copyright © 2015 John Brady. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. She Can't Act, She Can't Talk, She's Terrific,
2. Frankie Comes to Hollywood,
3. The Education of a Femme Fatale,
4. More Stars Than There Are in Hoboken,
5. Hollywood Department of Public Affairs,
6. America's Original Reality Show,
7. A Star Is Reborn,
8. The Barefoot Diva,
9. Of Rats and Men,
10. Top of the Heap,
11. Twilight of the Goddess,
12. There Are No Third Acts in American Lives,
13. Down and Out in London,
14. The Final Curtain,
About the Author,
Also by John Brady,

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