The truth about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner's relationship

He was once the world's most successful crooner, she a Hollywood starlet with the world on a string. Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner were perfect for each other, right? That's what they thought, too, but the relationship that would define both of their careers was anything but perfect. They would only be married for six years, but their manic roller coaster of a relationship spanned decades, like a pair of star-crossed lovers who should have met each other in different lives.

The two first met in 1943, while Ava was still with her first husband, the famous actor Mickey Rooney. Frank was married as well, to his sweetheart Nancy, with whom he had a child (and eventually two more). Still, that didn't stop him from showing interest in Ava. According to Vanity Fair, Ava described him to her biographer as a "cocky god" who "reeked of sex" and flat-out told her he'd have married her himself had Rooney, who was sitting there at the table, not seen her first.

But the two didn't get started right away. Although Ava's marriage to Rooney only lasted nine months, she would go on to try the idea out with jazz clarinetist and bandleader Artie Shaw, but with similar results. She found herself with two divorces under her belt by the time she was 25 years old. Then six years after that first fateful meeting, Ava and Frank met back up at MGM studios, and this time sparks really began to fly.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner started things off with a bang

As People magazine remembered in 2017, the lovebirds met again in 1949. Ava wasn't married, but Frank still was. He didn't let his marriage to Nancy stop him from telling Ava, "... you got prettier since last time I saw ya." To Frank's eyes, the young farmer's daughter from North Carolina had grown into a "glorious" woman. The two began an affair and went wild. Once, after a party in Palm Springs where Ava found Frank really tying one on — he was bummed he'd just lost his contract with MGM — the two went on a drunken joy ride, shooting out small town streetlights with a pair of .38 revolvers Frank kept in his glove compartment, wrote Sinatra biographer James Kaplan. Frank's publicist used some (most likely mafia) connections to get them out of jail at 3 a.m. "God knows how we got away with it. I guess Frank knew somebody! Somebody with a badge. He usually did," Ava said, according to her biographer.

The two fell further and further in love, but even though Frank was head over heels for Ava, he dragged those heels on his way out of his marriage to Nancy. At one point Ava forced him to call Nancy up to confirm that he'd actually asked for a divorce. Although Nancy didn't want one, she finally conceded in 1951. Frank and Ava got married three days after his divorce with Nancy was finalized.

Frank and Ava had their fun, but were more often fighting

According to a 1996 People magazine piece, the two got along quite well, during the rare times they actually got along. Actress Kathryn Grayson said that the star couple "loved fun, and they loved their quiet moments," but it wasn't all smooth sailing. "They had their fights too," she said. Those fights only became more and more frequent. They both got angry with each other, but each expressed that anger in a different way. "He has a temper that bursts into flames," Ava said of Frank, "while my temper burns inside for hours."

Their diverging careers didn't help the situation. Frank's popularity was waning as his fan base began to age, but Ava's career was still on the rise. Frank followed her to movie sets across the globe and lavished her with gifts he couldn't afford, but none of it could make things work. Even after he got his career back on track, the two continued to grow apart. They separated in 1953 and finalized their divorce in 1957.

Still, the two seemed to have love for each other. Frank always kept a photo of her taped to his dressing room mirrors. Grayson said she thought "they wanted to get together again, but circumstances kept them apart." They remained friends until Ava's death in 1990, and another friend of hers claimed that the actress had told her "that she never loved another man as much as she loved Frank."