LOS ANGELES - Ava Gardner, the Hollywood beauty known as much for her fiery marriages to Frank Sinatra and Artie Show as for her movies, had her ups and downs like everybody else. The difference, says a new biography, is the way she lived life - "like a rocket."
Lee Server devoted three years to the 500-page "Ava Gardner: 'Love Is Nothing,'" plus 51 pages of sources, an index and other reference material.
Speaking from his New Jersey home, Server said the research took him on the road "since Ava's trail goes all over the world," including Madrid, London, her birthplace in North Carolina, Hollywood and Puerto Vallarta - "she put that place on the map when she made 'Night of the Iguana' there."
Gardner was born in 1922 near Smithfield, N.C., one of six children of a poor tenant farmer. On a trip to New York, her brother-in-law took her photograph and somehow it reached the offices of MGM. She passed a screen test and was sent to Hollywood for the usual starlet training.
"She was on that starlet list for many years and stayed in the background," Server said. She had to go to another studio, Universal, for her first big break in "The Killers," opposite Burt Lancaster and released in 1946.
As her career progressed, she was making headlines with marriages to men who were leaders in their fields: Mickey Rooney, the No. 1 box office star; Artie Shaw, the superstar of swing music; Frank Sinatra, the No. 1 pop singer as well as a film star. All ended in divorce.
Server analyzed the failures.
Rooney (1942-1943): "It was a question of too much, too soon. Mickey was experienced; he wanted immediate gratification. Ava was just out of the woods; she didn't know what she wanted."
Shaw (1945-1946): "Artie was almost the equivalent of a rock star. She was almost a groupie; she loved his music. He had that intellectual pomposity, that sense of superiority. Ava was wildly in love with him, but Artie was just kind of a spoiled and arrogant fellow. He was the only one of the three who dumped her."
Sinatra (1951-1957): "One of the all-time tumultuous relationships; you just expected fireworks. They loved hard and they fought hard, and they had to watch out or one of them would be hit with a flying ashtray. They tried to get together after the divorce, but the same old fire and anger would flare up.... They both realized they would never make it work."
Gardner left Hollywood after the final breakup and never married again. She continued to attract attention with her romances with matadors, playboys and more actors, but the flings didn't last.
She died in 1990 at age 67.
Server seems intent on cataloging all of Gardner's flings (which may help explain why the book is so long). Samplings:
Jazz singer Mel Torme romanced Ava during a heated two months. Then he lied in order to break a date. She found out, summoned him to her apartment and told him: "We're through, Melvin. Finished. You lied to me, and I won't take that from anyone. Out!"
Gardner met Kirk Douglas on a radio show and engaged in a brief but passionate liaison. Douglas later commented, "Being a Jew, I always fasted on Yom Kippur... it's not easy to make love to Ava Gardner on an empty stomach."
Howard Hughes proved to be the longest lasting of Gardner's suitors. His interest in her started when she separated from Mickey Rooney. Hughes presented her with a large diamond engagement ring, which she refused because she didn't love him.
He continued his plight through the years, giving her a Cadillac convertible and other favors, including airplane flights that he personally piloted. He also placed a 24-hour surveillance on her activities. She refused all his offers of marriage.
Gardner made a lot of forgettable movies, but Server said her career also had some memorable ones. He cited "The Killers," "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," "The Barefoot Contessa," "Bhowani Junction" and "Night of the Iguana." To which might be added "Mogambo" (her only Academy Award nomination), "One Touch of Venus," "The Sun Also Rises," "On the Beach" and "Seven Days in May."
In her later years, Gardner dabbled in television, appearing in "Knots Landing" and the mini-series "A.D." (as Nero's scheming mother), as well as the TV movies "The Long Hot Summer" and "Harem," her last role.
"Ava went through life with all the stress and bad times and sad times," Server said. "But she also went through life like a rocket."