From the Farm to Hollywood: Golden Age Star Ava Gardner

With her incredibly good looks and dashing smile, it seemed like Ava Gardner was destined to become one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She had a glamorous lifestyle, attending lavish parties and meeting some of the most prominent people in showbiz. Although everything was diamonds and glitz on the outside, things aren’t always how they appear.

Ava Gardner/ Ava Gardner/ Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.
Source: Getty Images

Like many other MGM starlets in old Hollywood, Ava Gardner was treated more as property than as a human being. They completely controlled her life. Her drop-dead gorgeous face overshadowed her talent, making it difficult for her to land roles, at least in the beginning.

From her North Carolina farm life to the bright lights of Hollywood, this is everything you need to know about stunning Golden Age actress Ava Gardner.

A Farmer’s Daughter

Ava Gardner was known for her glitzy and glamorous lifestyle, but the starlet came from humble roots. Hailing from Grabtown, North Carolina, Gardner was raised on a farm as one of seven children – and as you might assume, things weren’t always easy for the family.

Young Ava at age twelve.
Photo John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

The Gardners didn’t have much money at all. They were so poor that the bank took their home and farm while the kids were still little. This major loss forced them out of Grabtown and into Virginia. Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier over there with the Great Depression looming over their heads.

Tragedy Strikes the Family

After losing his farm, Ava’s dad, Jonas Bailey Gardner, worked on other farms while her mom Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Gardner, got a job managing dormitories and boarding houses. Things were already tough for the hard-working family and about to get worse.

Vintage Gardner’s family portrait.
Source: Pinterest

When Gardner was just 15 years old, she lost her father when he got sick with bronchitis and died. Obviously, this was a terrible loss for the family, and the devastating tragedy moved them back to North Carolina. She graduated high school there and took secretarial classes. However, she was destined for much more than an office job.

Getting Discovered

Forget about being spotted at the mall or getting discovered at the soda counter; Ava Gardner’s rise to fame is what legends are made of. She went to visit her sister in New York City when she turned 18. While she was there, Ava’s brother-in-law took her picture – he was a professional photographer.

Young portrait of Ava Gardner.
Photo by Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma/Getty Images

He hung it up in his studio, and it didn’t take long for a string of mostly male clients to ask about the beautiful girl in the photo. People wouldn’t stop asking about her, but one particular guy really pressed him about it.

MGM Wants You!

The client was a guy named Barnard Duhan, and he claimed to be an MGM talent scout. Luckily, the photo studio receptionist saw right through the sleazeball. As you might have guessed, Duhan was not a talent agent. In fact, he was just some law clerk who liked to use this trick to meet beautiful women.

Portrait of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer stars of 1949.
Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

Although he had had nothing to do with MGM Studios, in a bizarre twist of fate, he ended up being partially responsible for Gardner’s rise to fame.

He Was Right

When the receptionist told him to take a hike, Duhan said, “Somebody should send her info to MGM.” After getting rid of Duhan, Ava’s brother-in-law decided to do just that. Soon enough, Gardner was back in NYC for a screen test.

Ava Gardner is standing on the set of her first MGM movie ‘Whistle Stop.’
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

But knowing that she had a heavy Southern accent, the clever agent made sure she didn’t speak at all. Apparently, when MGM head Louis B. Mayer saw her, he exclaimed: “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific.” Just what you’d expect from the notorious Lewi B. However, optimism can only get you so far; Ava Gardner had to work hard to get to the top.

You’re Hired Cause You’re Pretty

In 1941, MGM Studios offered Ava Gardner a contract. Although they made it very clear to her that they were only interested in her looks, it was a job, after all. Steady background roles were streaming in and really helped the starlet’s financial situation.

Ava Gardner is posing on a deckchair circa 1945.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

But this girl was much more ambitious and determined to become much more than just an MGM extra; she wanted to be a star! She worked with a dialogue coach to help her become a skilled actress, not just a pretty face. The studio, however, was reluctant to give her more.

Getting Into the Industry

Gardner wasn’t even featured in a movie yet, but that didn’t stop her from becoming famous. To be fair, her Southern accent was too thick for speaking parts, but she was still one of the most beautiful girls at MGM Studios.

Ava Gardner is giving a straight look at the camera while reclining on the couch.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As part of her contract, Gardner posed for a series of publicity stills as well as pin-up photos. She was glad to be working, and once again, her stunning image would take her to the next level. But it wasn’t the only thing. Another MGM star had his eye on her.

Mickey Rooney Had a Crush on Her

On Ava Gardner’s first day on the MGM Studio lot, the newbie caught the eye of an actor named Mickey Rooney. Rooney wasn’t just any young actor; the 21-year-old was MGM’s biggest star for three years in a row. But when he asked her out, she turned him down.

A promotional portrait of Mickey Rooney, smiling broadly in front of a blue backdrop.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You would think she would want to be associated with famous celebrities, but not Gardner. She was still young, new in Hollywood, and… he was significantly shorter than she was. But with his extreme fame came a huge sense of entitlement. Rooney didn’t give up on Gardner that easily.

He Was Unforgettable

Living up to his performance skills, Mickey Rooney certainly gave Ava Gardner an unforgettable first impression. She later explained that when she met her first husband, Rooney was performing drag and dressed as the Brazilian dancer Carmen Miranda. That actually sounds like a pretty fun night!

Mickey Rooney is doing a hilarious dance number onstage, impersonating Carmen Miranda.
Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

“Complete with false eyelashes, falsies, his mouth smothered in lipstick,” the starlet revealed about that memorable night. He was an actor, so the extravagance shouldn’t have been that shocking. Gardner was still a star-struck girl but quickly got a crash course on Hollywood living.

Will You Marry Me?

Ava Gardner was just a teenager from North Carolina when one of the biggest Hollywood stars started showering her with attention. His persistence worked; Garner eventually agreed to go on a date with Rooney, who quickly pushed to marry her.

Youthful film star Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner, an 18-year-old actress, are shown after announcing their engagement.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

As flattered as she might have been, she didn’t really know what she wanted. She held him off for a bit, telling him that she wanted to wait until she was at least 19. As it turned out, her hesitation wasn’t the only obstacle on the way to the altar.

MGM Controlled Them

MGM Studios pretty much stopped the whole thing before it even started. Naturally, they didn’t want their young heartthrob and biggest star with tons of adoring female fans married. But the persistent Rooney pushed the issue until the studio agreed.

Mickey Rooney is arriving at a Hollywood party with newcomer Ava Gardner.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

MGM decided that they could tie the knot as long as the ceremony was far away from the tabloids. They insisted that Rooney and Gardner get married outside of L.A., in a small town in Santa Barbra instead. Now, young Gardner wasn’t only at the mercy of her bosses, but her new husband too – it was going to be a bumpy ride.

It Was Rocky From the Start

With Rooney’s adorable face and Gardner’s angelic beauty, their union quickly made them Hollywood’s golden couple. Unfortunately, their picture-perfect appearance had an alarming dark side. The stars became hard drinkers and partiers.

Ava Gardner and Mickey Rooney are smiling while sitting together behind a table at a party.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Later in life, Gardner recalled that Rooney could be a mean drunk. But so could she. Gardner would tease the intoxicated Rooney about his height whenever he would get angry. Sadly, this wasn’t the only problem in their seemingly whirlwind romance.

They Underestimated Her

Now that Ava Gardner was married to one of the biggest stars in MGM, you would think that the studio would try and keep him happy and her occupied. Well… not so much. The up-and-coming starlet still needed to fight for roles.

Ava Gardner is sitting on a chair printed with her name.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

The actress appeared in over 15 movies before MGM finally put her name into the credits of one of them. She was unhappy. She was trapped in a bad contract and a bad marriage. Something had to give. Luckily, some contracts are easier to break than others…

Filing for Divorce

Ava made her choice in 1943. She got a divorce from Mickey Rooney, and for an absolutely chilling reason. In the official documents, the grounds for the split were “grievous mental suffering” and “extreme mental cruelty.” Rooney was a massive star, and she could have gone after him, but instead, she settled for $25,000 and paid her own court fees.

Ava Gardner is looking happy at the beach in a two-piece swimming costume circa 1943.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

One thing was for sure: She wanted out of the marriage, and keeping the divorce quick and quiet was a good idea. MGM renewed her contract shortly thereafter and gave her a raise. Perhaps it was a thank you for not tarnishing the name of their big star.

Tragedy Strikes Again

Gardner got out of her marriage and felt like things were finally falling into place. But there was a cruel twist in store. On the exact same day that she signed her divorce papers, Gardner’s mother, who was suffering from uterine cancer, passed away.

Ava Gardner is lying on her bed with a faraway look in her eyes.
Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Gardner was all alone, far away from home, and was about to learn how to survive this new life. She was not going to let Hollywood chew her up and spit her out the same way they had done to many young, dazzling girls before her. She was determined to be more than just a pretty face.

She Found Someone Else

Before her divorce from Mickey Rooney was even finalized, another powerful Hollywood figure had his eyes on her: mad director Howard Hughes. At this point, Hughes was still in his playboy years, not his reclusive nut job phase. Still, that doesn’t mean it was a whirlwind romance.

Three views of Howard Hughes as he is speaking with journalists.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He did help Gardner with her mother’s medical bills, but she thought he was difficult to deal with and rejected his marriage proposals. She didn’t want to make the mistake of getting trapped in another marriage with a strong, powerful man. Besides, there were plenty of other eligible bachelors in Hollywood.

Falling for the Wrong Guy

Gardner and Rooney’s entire relationship was like two immature kids partying. Ava Gardner wanted more out of a man… and that’s when she met someone who fit the bill: bandleader Artie Shaw, known as “one of Jazz’s finest clarinetists.” He was tall, dark, and smart, everything she didn’t see in Rooney. But like every time a girl thinks she met the perfect man, there was one little problem.

Actress Ella Raines, musician Artie Shaw, and actress Ava Gardner, circa 1945.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Shaw was already married to someone else. It wasn’t a big deal to him and Gardner, but his wife had a problem with it. Unfortunately, Shaw had more in common with Mickey Rooney than she previously thought.

She Wanted to Impress Him

In later years, she called Shaw a bully and said that he was emotionally abusive toward her. His behavior took a devastating toll on the insecure starlet. In 1945, Shaw and Gardner walked down the aisle. She was always worried she wasn’t good enough for the musician, even with a ring on her finger.

Ava Gardner and Artie Shaw are posing together the day after their wedding, circa 1945.
Photo by Eric Carpenter/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gardner had only read two books by that point, the Bible and Gone with the Wind. When she was around Shaw, she often felt insecure as she was constantly socializing with intellectuals.

Beauty and Brains

Although she was out of her comfort zone, Gardner really tried to keep up with her husband and his friends. During this time, she was incredibly dedicated to educating herself on various different topics. She wanted to be more confident in her intellect and impress Shaw.

Ava Gardner is wearing a light blue short-sleeve jumper while reading a book as she reclines on a sofa.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In fact, she was so determined to learn that she put her blossoming career on hold to take classes at the University of California. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for Shaw, who would criticize and belittle the young Gardner, which brought out her dark side.

A Legal Drinker

We know she enjoyed sneaking drinks with her first husband, but she was underage at the time. When she was with Shaw, however, it didn’t take long for things to get out of hand. Gardner became an excessive (legal) drinker with hangovers and periods of depression.

Ava Gardner sits at a party while holding her drink as she talks to Sir Laurence Olivier.
Photo by WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Shaw was fascinated by psychoanalysis, so he paid for his wife’s therapist. Perhaps he was undoing some of the damage he caused, at least from a financial standpoint. Unfortunately, their issues were far beyond what a therapist is equipped to handle.

Happy Anniversary

Despite how poorly he treated her, Gardner was madly in love with Shaw. As their first anniversary was coming around, she considered having a baby to save their relationship. Well… things didn’t really work out that way. Instead of a baby, Gardner got a broken heart.

Ava Gardner’s portrait after getting her heartbroken.
Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild/Getty Images

She got what is probably the worse anniversary present ever. Just a year and a week after walking down the aisle, Shaw served Gardner with divorce papers. He crushed the starlet, who was head over heels in love and was willing to do pretty much anything to make him happy.

His New Woman

Shaw had no problem adding insult to injury when it came to his heartbroken, soon-to-be ex-wife. A few years before, Shaw caught her reading a historical romance novel written by a woman. He insulted her, the book, and the author. Wow, he sounds like quite the charmer, doesn’t he?

Artie Shaw is dining with his new wife, Kathleen Winsor, in a Manhattan nightclub during their short honeymoon.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Well, guess who Shaw hooked up with as soon as he ended things with Gardner? Lo and behold, that very same author. Obviously, Gardner wasn’t thrilled, but she didn’t have time to cry. Stardom was calling her name, and she went after it full force.

They Let Universal Bother Her

For years, Gardner was only getting small parts, and MGM was doing nothing to try and advance her career. Luckily, one director noticed her and was convinced that she was just the actress he was looking for.

Ava Gardner is holding her co-star Burt Lancaster at the set of ‘The Killers’.
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

He was working on an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers and thought she would be perfect to star as the femme fatale. Universal was making the film, but the director was so set on Ava Gardner that they asked MGM if they could borrow her. It was her first lead role, and it was an incredible success. On her way to the top, her bad habits were bringing her back down.

The Media Made Her Look Bad

Gardner finally made it in Hollywood. But with great fame comes great media attention. The tabloids couldn’t separate her good looks and her romantic past from who she was as a person. After all, she was only 23 and already divorced twice.

Actors Ava Gardner and Burt Lancaster are reading a magazine together at the set of ‘The Killers’.
Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

They also portrayed her as a hard-partying, wild celebrity who went out with a different guy every night. According to Gardner, the image they painted of her couldn’t have been farther from the truth. She said she spent most nights at home, alone. Maybe that was true for a while, but it didn’t last long.

MGM Still Didn’t Respect Her

After they watched Universal make her a star, MGM finally came to its senses and gave the actress some work. But that doesn’t mean she was treated nicely. The producers of Show Boat said her voice wasn’t up to par, so they had someone else overdub her songs in the movie.

Ava Gardner, the sensuous Hollywood star, is being portraited as she wears a melancholic expression in her eyes.
Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Needless to say, Gardner wasn’t very happy about that. However, she was able to dry her tears in the piles of cash that flew in. She made a hefty $140,000 for the role (which was obviously way more money back then).

Falling in Love Again

No matter how much she tried, Gardner couldn’t run away from her femme fatale reputation. She didn’t know it, but the tabloid attention was about to get worse. Years prior, back when she was a studio nobody, Ava Gardner met Frank Sinatra, who was already a veritable superstar at that point.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, circa 1953.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Now, almost a decade later, it looked like the roles had been reversed. Gardner was the starlet everyone was talking about while Sinatra’s career had been declining steadily. But that didn’t stop the actress from falling for him – and falling hard.

But There Was One Little Problem…

But don’t worry, this one wasn’t a one-sided relationship like some of her others. Sinatra was just as obsessed with Gardner as she was with him. But yet again, there was one serious roadblock: Sinatra was still married to his wife, Nancy Barbato.

Frank Sinatra is posing with his son Frank Sinatra Jr. and his wife Nancy Barbato at Coconut Grove, California.
Photo by Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images

Either way, Gardner and Sinatra were involved in an intense and passionate love affair. When he told Barbato, he was in love with another woman. She locked him out of the house – as she should have! Finally, the truth was out in the open, but the drama was just about to start.

Sinatra Had a Jealous Side

At first, there was some dilly-dallying over the divorce because Sinatra and his wife were Catholic. Gardner headed over to Spain to film a movie for MGM, and she made an eerie realization while she was there – Sinatra had a dark side, which she learned the hard way.

Female and male guests are relaxing and swimming in the piano-shaped swimming pool at Twin Palms’s house of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner.
Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images

He was insanely jealous. When he went to visit her in Spain, he asked if she was seeing someone. He said he wouldn’t get mad if she was honest. When Garner confessed to a one-night stand with a bullfighter, Sinatra was absolutely furious. But it would take more to break up these two.

People Were Scared of Him

Gardner was cheated on and mistreated by her first two husbands, so it comes as no surprise that this toxic cycle continued when she got involved with Sinatra. While he was still with his wife, Gardner kept herself occupied and had an affair with another handsome actor, Robert Mitchum.

Ava Gardner and Robert Mitchum in a romantic publicity shot for the movie ’My Forbidden Past.’
Photo by John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images

When she told Mitchum about Sinatra, he had a surprisingly strong reaction. He told the actress, “Get into a fight with him [Sinatra], and he won’t stop until one of you is dead.” Mitchum broke it off with Gardner shortly after.

The Tabloids Ate It Up

Sinatra couldn’t contain his feelings for Gardner any longer. Ultimately, he left his wife and kids so that he could be with Gardner. Just ten days after his divorce was finalized, Sinatra tied the knot with Gardner. Needless to say, the tabloids had a field day – which is an understatement.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner are finally tiding the knot in a quiet ceremony in Pennsylvania.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

After accusing Gardner of being a femme fatale for years, she finally lived up to her reputation. The press ran with it. As for Sinatra, his career was already dwindling, but now it was all but over.

She Took Care of Him

There were rumors about Sinatra and his connection to the mob, which certainly didn’t help his case. If those types of connections did exist, it certainly didn’t help his bank account. Luckily for Sinatra, Gardner had enough fame and fortune for the two of them.

Ava Gardner is relaxing in her Rome apartment as she waits for her Husband Frank Sinatra to come.
Photo Bettmann/Getty Images.

In 1953, when Gardner flew to Africa to film Mogambo, Sinatra didn’t even have enough money for a plane ticket to go visit her, so she bought him one – she never held it over his head. It wasn’t just money, though. She used the power she had in the industry to get him cast in From Here to Eternity. The movie saved his fading career, but their romance wasn’t all roses and butterflies.

It Could Have Ruined Her Career

Ava Gardner’s dramatic marriage to Frank Sinatra caused quite the storm and was gossip gold for tabloid writers. But the gossip quickly turned to something much darker at that time. One of the main media figures covering the affair was Hedda Hopper. Hopper was known for reporting celebrities to Senator McCarthy’s House of Un-American Activities.

Newlyweds Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner are strolling along the beach in Miami, two days after tiding the knot.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Gardner was a passionate Democrat and spent time with various different Communists when she was in a relationship with Artie Shaw. Thankfully, she got out of an interrogation, but her ex, Shaw, wasn’t as lucky. He ended up snitching on one of his closest friends.

Filming Mogambo Was Not Fun

In 1953, when Gardner was in Africa filming Mogambo, her marriage to Sinatra was crumbling fast, but she didn’t have time to worry about that. Making the movie was a total disaster. Notoriously tough director John Ford already put her on his bad side since he wanted his favorite actress Maureen O’Hara to star in the movie instead of Gardner.

Ava Gardner is feeding a tidbit to a young rhino in between scenes in the filming of ‘Mogambo.’
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Ford’s behavior ticked off Gardner’s friend and co-star, Clark Gable. So, every morning, Ford would treat Gardner poorly, Gable would get angry, everyone on set would be tense and miserable, and then they would wake up and do it all over again. It sounds like fun…

Putting on a Show

After working on the set of Mogambo in the hot African sun all day, it only makes sense that Ava Gardner wanted to cool off and relax. So, she would bathe in a canvas tub filled by a local boy every day. The British Colonial government wasn’t very amused with her behavior.

Ava Gardner is holding a coffee mug as she talks to John Ford on the set of the film 'Mogambo.'
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It wasn’t the fact that a little kid was filling up her tub that bothered them. It was her lack of clothing that they believed was immoral. Gardner responded in her own way. She made sure the British officers were around whenever she took off her clothes to get in the bath.

Nobody Helped Her

In one of the funniest scenes in Mogambo, a baby elephant knocks Ava Gardner into a puddle of mud. But this wasn’t just a silly accident. The elephant wasn’t supposed to knock the actress over, and she was not happy about it. But it got worse before it got better.

Ava Gardner is playing with a baby elephant.
Photo by LMPC/Getty Images

Gardner asked the crew to help her get out of the dirt, but not a single person came to aid the irritated actress. You’re probably wondering why. Well, her director (and on-set enemy) John Ford wouldn’t allow anyone to assist her. In the end, her behind-the-scenes struggles were worth it.

It All Paid Off

Ava Gardner finally gained recognition from Hollywood for her talents – instead of just her good looks and scandalous antics – when she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for Mogambo. Meanwhile, things were falling apart in her personal life.

Ava Gardner is addressing the fans at the premiere of ‘Mogambo.’
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Garner and Sinatra were both heavy drinkers and loved a good party. Their alcohol-fueled nights together inevitably turned into blow-up fights. It was clear that their relationship was unhealthy and filled with ups and downs. In October 1953, they finally split up after their two-year marriage. But that’s not where their story ended.

Finding Love, Yet Again

After starring in a bunch of movies based on Ernest Hemingway’s work, Ava Gardner became good friends with Papa in the 1950s. After her separation from Sinatra, the actress even stayed at Hemingway’s villa in Cuba for a little while. That sounds like a fun time!

Ernest Hemingway is smiling at the camera while his wife, journalist Mary Welsh Hemingway and actress Ava Gardner sit nearby and converse.
Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

At the beginning of their relationship, Gardner had an affair with a bullfighter, and at the end, she went out with another one. Hemingway introduced her to the world-famous bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin, and they began a short but passionate love affair.

He Had a Statue of Her

When Ava Gardner wrapped up shooting The Barefoot Contessa, she was still married to Frank Sinatra. It was one of her most famous and beloved roles. The studio decided to give her husband, Sinatra, a gift: a statue of Contessa.

Portrait of Ava Gardner in a scene from the movie ‘The Barefoot Contessa.’
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

He proudly displayed it in the backyard of his home, even after he and the actress separated. However, when Sinatra moved on and married Barbra Marx, she wasn’t thrilled with the statue of his ex-wife. Needless to say, she made him take it down.

Free at Last

While Gardner hung out in Cuba, heartbroken Sinatra was left in Hollywood, completely heartbroken. They split in 1953, but their divorce wasn’t finalized until 1957. The actress was so excited to finally move on, and the end of the ‘50s brought her freedom in more than just one way.

Ava Gardner is waiving as she sits in a convertible.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1939, when she first got to Hollywood, she signed a 20-year contract with MGM, meaning they had full control over her and her career. Finally, for the first time in a while, she wouldn’t be tied down by anyone or anything. And she was very happy about it.

Everyone Loved Her

After finally completing her two-decade-long contract with MGM studios, the free actress celebrated by snagging a starring role in the apocalyptic sci-fi romance On the Beach with Gregory Peck in 1959, Director Stanley Kramer had trouble trying to finish it because local residents couldn’t keep away from the famous stars who had come to their coastal region to shoot the movie.

Actress Ava Gardner in a still from the movie ‘On the Beach.’
Photo by Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Onlookers would constantly crowd in closer to get a glimpse of the stunning Ava Gardner, which meant some of them ended up in the shots. The movie wasn’t just a hit with locals, everyone loved it, and it was a massive success. This was a great achievement for Gardner, but sadly, one of the last ones of her career.

Another Bad Boy

In the ‘60s, Gardner got a big role in the biblical epic The Bible: In the Beginning. But ironically, she was living a sin behind the scenes. While filming the movie, Garner was having an affair with her co-star, the not single actor George C. Scott. She certainly had a type: married.

Ava Gardner is strolling down a Rome street with actor George C. Scott.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Saying their relationship was toxic and turbulent doesn’t quite cover it. He would physically abuse her, and once he kicked off the door of his hotel room. After that, the actress wasn’t interested in dating home anymore.

Her Experience With Religion

Despite starring in a biblical epic, Gardner didn’t have the warmest feeling towards religion. But there is a heartbreaking reason why. The starlet admitted that when her father was dying when she was just 15 years old, she saw how scared and alone he was.

Young Ava Gardner.
Photo by Jean-Louis Atlan/Sygma/Getty Images

So, Gardner begged her family’s preacher to come to see him. He needed come company, and the preacher could help comfort him. However, the preacher never showed up, and Gardner was absolutely devastated. From then on, she never prayed again. That’s one way to ruin a person’s opinion of religion, mister preacher.

Proving Her Abilities

Ava Gardner faced some new career challenges in the 1970s, as she was no longer the Hollywood It Girl she used to be in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, she really wanted to prove her worth and determination in more than one way.

Charlton Heston, Lloyd Nolan, and Ava Gardner in a scene from the film 'Earthquake,' circa 1974.
Photo by Universal/Getty Images

While shooting the 1974 disaster film Earthquake, Gardner shocked her director Mark Robson when she insisted on doing all her own stunt work. All the action sequences in the film are the real deal. It was really Ava Gardner doing all those crazy and impressive stunts. But as we know, you can’t please everyone.

Growing Up Is Inevitable

In Earthquake, Ava Gardner played Charlton Heston’s love interest. But both filmgoers and critics thought she looked way too old for him. This was strange considering the starlet was one year older than him – cue eye roll. You know what they say about stars aging in Hollywood.

Ava Gardner is attending the 46th Annual Academy Awards Pre-Party.
Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection/ Getty Images

Landing movie parts were few and far between after that. As the years went on, Ava Gardner didn’t just have to struggle against Hollywood’s revulsion for older actresses. In fact, that was the least of her problems. She was fighting a much darker battle behind the scenes.

She Was Getting Sick

Concerned about the cancer that took her mother’s life, Gardner had an elective hysterectomy. But that wasn’t the end of her health problems. She had a series of strokes in 1986, and she was left partially paralyzed. Her recovery was long and hard.

Ava Gardner is smiling with her head turned to her left in a studio portrait.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In the late 1980s, someone from her past paid her a visit: her first husband, Mickey Rooney. He came to see how she was feeling, and she told him that she contemplated taking her own life. This clearly wasn’t a good sign, and it was the beginning of her decline.

Ghosting Her Ghostwriter

After her stroke, Ava Gardner asked Peter Evans if he would ghostwrite her autobiography. It seemed like a perfect match and a good way to her story of Old Hollywood cinema out into the world. After various good interviews with Evans, Garner made a disturbing discovery about her possible ghostwriter.

Portrait of a journalist for the Daily Express and author, Peter Evans.
Photo by Bryan Wharton/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Her ex-husband Frank Sinatra sued Evans at one point for writing that he was part of the mob. Since Sinatra was “the love of her life,” she began distrusting Evans, and their work relationship came to an end. Although it never made it to the book phase, Evans published his notes and recordings when Gardner passed away. It contained shocking information about her life.

Tropical Island Vacation

Ava appeared in the movie The Little Hut, and marketing was excited. They came up with a fun way to promote it. Gardner starred alongside David Niven and Stewart Granger, and the trio played seafarers that were shipwrecked on a tropical island.

David Niven and Ava Gardner in a publicity shot for the movie ‘The Little Hut.’
Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

The movie producers bought a small island in Fiji and named it Ava Ava. Then they created a contest, and the winners get to lease the private island. That sounds like a sweet deal! Who would say no to a tropical island vacation? Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t as memorable as its marketing techniques.

Leaving the Spotlight

Battling various illnesses after a lifetime of drinking and smoking, Gardner became incredibly reclusive in her later years. For the final decade of her life, she lived in London with Carmen Vargas, her housekeeper, and a dog named Morgan as her furry companion.

Ava Gardner is wearing a white dress as she reclines in an armchair, and a small table beside the armchair features two decanters and a glass on a tray.
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One day, Vargas came home from a shopping trip and made a devastating discovery. Nobody else was home, and the actress had fallen in the front hall of her London apartment and laid there for hours. When Vargas found her, the actress uttered her tragic last words, “I’m so tired.”

Friends With Her Ex

Even though Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra ended their toxic relationship in 1957, the two remained lifelong friends. Toward the end of her life, Gardner was bedridden after suffering two strokes. Sinatra could see that she was in so much pain, so he reached out to her with a kind, touching gesture.

Ava Gardner is seen in London, circa 1970.
Photo by Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis/Getty Images

He tracked down a specialist in the United States who could help treat her, and he even booked her a flight there from London. Sadly, she never made it there. She passed just weeks before the planned trip. Sinatra was devastated, but what shocked many people was that he didn’t attend her funeral.

None of Them Showed Up

Even though Gardner stayed in touch with some of her ex-husbands after they split, especially Frank Sinatra, the wounds those marriages opened ran deep. After she passed away in 1990, Gardner’s family planned her funeral for her back in North Carolina.

Portrait of the Hollywood star Ava Gardner.
Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Only a handful of close friends and family attended the private ceremony, and there were many noticeable absences. All three of Gardner’s ex-husbands didn’t show up at her funeral. Gardner struggled so hard to become a star and find love. But she was left with a lonely end. Maybe it all went back to the beginning.

She Was Heartbroken

Gardner’s first marriage to MGM movie star Mickey Rooney wasn’t ideal. But the way it came crumbling down was incredibly brutal. They were still in their honeymoon phase when Gardner suddenly got extremely sick and spent weeks in the hospital recovering from an emergency appendectomy. She was so excited to return home, but heartbreak was awaiting her return.

Mickey Rooney is sitting on a piano.
Photo by Stanley Sherman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She returned to the Westwood apartment she shared with Rooney. She was stunned. She found out that while she was in the hospital, he was hooking up with another woman… in their bed. Their marriage was never a fairy tale, but Gardner tried to make it work. Eventually, the infidelity got to be too much, and she filed for divorce.

A Tough Decision

During her marriage to Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner got knocked up twice. But being a mother and a Hollywood darling didn’t exactly go hand in hand. In fact, MGM had strict rules about their female stars having babies. In the cutthroat studio industry, Gardner had no career security. Therefore, she ended up terminating both pregnancies.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner sit in the back seat of a car leaving the train station.
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Gardner’s marriage to Frank Sinatra was always a turbulent affair, partly because of Sinatra’s erratic behavior and spurs of depression. As Gardner said to her ghostwriter Peter Evans later in life that Sinatra had a tendency of overdosing on a cocktail of pills, performing a fake suicide. It was a chilling cry for attention.

Reaching a Breaking Point

At the worst of Sinatra’s behavior, Gardner was scared of what might happen next. His extreme behavior was unpredictable and terrifying at times. In her autobiography, she recalled how one night, she was awakened by the sound of a gunshot. It sounded like it came from Sinatra’s living room.

Frank Sinatra is sitting at home and drinking coffee.
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She was terrified that Sinatra would finally come through on his threats of self-harm. When she walked in, she saw Sinatra sitting there in his underwear. He was laughing at the pillow that was still blazing from the bullet – another false alarm.

Holy Water

Gardner’s marriage to Sinatra was defined by tension and terror. So, when she split up with him, she was finally able to breathe and relax. She spent some time in Spain and then Cuba for a while with her friend, a rumored lover, writer Ernest Hemingway.

Ava Gardner on the set of a movie that was based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway.
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When she thought she was alone one day, she went skinny dipping in Hemingway’s pool. When he caught her, he had an exceptional reaction. Right away, he told his staff that “the water is never to be emptied.” Fair enough!