Frank Sinatra Meets Ava Gardner: James Kaplan's Frank Excerpt

Sinatra was in a slump when he met the beautiful Ava Gardner at a party. Soon they were driving through the night guns blazing, says James Kaplan in an excerpt from his new biography, Frank.

Frank Sinatra is seen in Las Vegas with new love interest, actress Ava Gardner. Sinatra split with his first wife Nancy to marry Gardner in 1951. (AP Photo)

In January 1949, MGM celebrated its Silver Jubilee by gathering 57 of its biggest stars, including Lassie, for a historic group photograph. There they sat (except for Lassie, who stood in front), in chairs arranged on bleachers on a soundstage, row on row of them, Tracy and Hepburn and Gable and Astaire and Garland and Durante and Errol Flynn, living proof that the great studio had, if not quite more stars than in the heavens, then at least more than anyone else. Wearing an unflattering light-gray suit and looking oddly pallid (and distinctly balding), Sinatra sat at the far right in the second-to-last row, in between Ginger Rogers and Red Skelton (who had broken everyone up when he walked in, calling out, "Okay, kids, the part's taken, you can go home now"). Ava sat front and center in the second row, between Clark Gable and Judy Garland, strangely sedate in her blue suit and pearls and bright-red lipstick. Her hands, clutching a pair of red gloves, lay demurely folded in her lap.

Appearances—as was always the case where the movies were concerned—were deceiving. As was the distance that separated Ava and Frank in the bleachers.

When she drove onto the studio lot that day, Gardner recalled, "a car sped past me, swung in front, and slowed down so much I had to pass it myself. The car overtook me again and repeated the process. Having done this about three times, the car finally pulled alongside me, the grinning driver raised his hat and sped away to the same photo session. That was Frank. He could even flirt in a car."

Sinatra's theme that year was escape. He was going to Palm Springs more and more often, not so much as a retreat from hard work, of which there wasn't much in 1949, as to get away from everyone and everything. One weekend in late January, batching it with Jimmy Van Heusen—his increasingly present Falstaff, pilot, pimp, and fixer—he stopped by a party at David O. Selznick's place. Sipping a dry martini, Sinatra looked across the room and got a jolt more powerful than any gin could've given him: It was Ava, smiling at the tall, homely producer.

She felt Frank's look, turned and flashed him a dazzling smile. He raised his glass and walked over.

"Hello," he said.

"Hello, Frank. You know Mr. Selznick, don't you?"

"Sure," he said, not taking his eyes off her. In fact, Frank knew that it had been Selznick who had landed John Derek, the producer's protégé, the plum role in Knock On Any Door. Knowing that Sinatra knew, and glancing back and forth between the two of them, Selznick excused himself.

"Hello," Frank repeated. He couldn't stop grinning at her.

Gallery: Photos of Frank Sinatra

"I thought we were past that stage." She colored slightly at the unintended double meaning.

"It's been a long time."

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"Sure has," Ava said.

"I suppose we were rushing things a little the last time we met."

"You were rushing things a little."

"Let's start again," Frank said. "What are you doing now?"

"Making pictures as usual." She had just finished shooting My Forbidden Past, at Metro, with Robert Mitchum. "How about you?"

"Trying to pick myself up off my ass."

"And how's that going?" Ava asked him, teasingly.

"A lot better right now," he told her.

"Though I knew all about Frank's problems," Ava wrote, years later, "I wasn't about to ask him about them that night. And, honey, I didn't bring up Nancy, either. This night was too special for that."

They slipped easily back to their earlier, alcoholic mode. Both of them could hold a lot of liquor. After a couple of hours, they walked out in the crisp desert night, under an inky-black sky strewn with more stars than either of them had ever seen.

"Lemme take you home," he said. They were standing very close, each with hands clasped behind the other's back.

"That's very gallant, darling, but I'm not staying alone."

"You're not?"

"No, I'm renting a little place with my big sister Bappie."

"Maybe we should take a drive, then. Wanna take a drive?"

"You bet I do."

After he went back into the house and gave the bartender a hundred-dollar bill for a fifth of Beefeater's, they got in his Cadillac and set off. The top was down, despite the winter chill, and they rode under the river of stars, her hair flowing in the wind. She shivered deliciously and clutched her mink stole around her bare shoulders. He passed her the bottle; she took a long drink and passed it back.

Frank navigated out to a two-lane blacktop, Palm Canyon Drive, that led out of town, and they drove southeast, through sleepy villages separated by long black stretches of nothing: Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells. Each of the towns had a few streetlights, a couple of stores, a blinking traffic signal. Then it was black again. Once they passed a little graveyard whose gates fronted onto the highway. She shivered.

"You ever think about getting old?" she asked.

"I am old," he said.

"Ha ha."

After a half-hour, another pocket of light approached. A city-limits sign read: Indio. The two of them were singing as they headed into the darkened town.

Oh, we ain't got a barrel of money,

Maybe we're ragged and funny….

She had a nice, tuneful voice; she could even do harmony. "Hey, you sing pretty good!" Frank said.

"You're not so bad yourself!"

The gin bottle had gone back and forth a number of times, and the Cadillac was weaving when Frank pulled off the road and into a Texaco station. The car fishtailed as he put on the brakes. He cut the engine. A blinking traffic light hanging over the main drag swayed in the wind. It was 2:30 in the morning, and Indio was out cold.

"Boy, is this a one-horse town or what?" he said.

"Where's the horse?"

He laughed, then kissed her. They kissed for a long time. She was still holding the bottle.

"I got an idea," Frank said, presently. "Let's liven the goddamn place up." He reached across her, almost falling in her lap, and after fumbling with the latch for a second, opened the glove compartment. "Here we go, kid. One for you and one for me."

He handed her a dark, heavy metal thing that smelled of machine oil. Ava cradled it in her hand, looked at it in wonderment. It was a snub-barreled Smith & Wesson .38 Chief's Special. Frank took out another pistol just like it and, squinting, aimed it at the traffic light.

An hour later, the phone rang in Jack Keller's bedroom. Though he had been deeply asleep, Keller knew exactly who was on the other end before he picked it up.

"Jack, we're in trouble," Sinatra said.

It was his one phone call. He and Ava were in the Indio police station, feeling much more sober than they had an hour before, when, whooping and hollering, they had both emptied their pistols, then reloaded and emptied them again, shattering streetlights and several store windows. Then there was the town's single unfortunate passerby, drunk as the shooters, whose shirtfront and belly had been creased by an errant .38 slug.

Keller shook his head. Sinatra always knew how to up the ante. Still, there was only one thing that concerned the publicist.

"Have you been booked? Do the papers know anything?"

Frank looked at the police chief, who was smiling expectantly at his famous guest, secure in the knowledge that for whatever unknown reason, the Gods of chance had dealt him one hell of a payday. Sinatra told Keller that nobody knew nothin', but that Jack had better get down fast, with plenty of money.

And so, legend has it, Jack did just that. The story hangs on an oral history taped by Keller before his untimely death—he was a four-pack-a-day smoker—at the age of 59 in 1975. In his account of that wild night in Indio, the publicist wakes up a pal, the manager of the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel, who happens to have $30,000 in his safe. Keller borrows all of the money, charters a plane, flies to Indio, and papers the town with high-denomination currency to keep everybody quiet.

Everybody certainly kept quiet. Whatever happened that night in the desert, no one ever talked, and the dead tell no tales—unless they happen to leave a taped oral history.

"A lot of silly stories have been written about what happened to us in Palm Springs, but the truth is both more and less exciting," Ava Gardner wrote in her autobiography, which, while entertainingly blunt in its language, is unfortunately euphemistic when it comes to her many exploits.

We drank, we laughed, we talked, and we fell in love. Frank gave me a lift back to our rented house. We did not kiss or make dates, but we knew, and I think it must have frightened both of us. I went in to wake Bappie up, which didn't appeal to her much, but I had to tell someone how much I liked Frank Sinatra. I just wasn't prepared to say that what I really meant by like was love.

Perhaps Frank and Ava really were as chaste as junior-prom sweethearts that night. Yet Keller's story, while too good to be true, is also too irresistibly crazy not to be. Sinatra certainly carried guns—once Lee Mortimer dropped his assault charges, the suspended pistol permit was reinstated—and he certainly drank heavily, as did Ava. There are copious records of wild, booze-fueled behavior on the part of Sinatra and Gardner once they became a bona fide couple. Why should the night they fell in love not have set the pattern?

Excerpted from Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan Copyright © 2010 by James Kaplan. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

James Kaplan is a novelist and nonfiction writer whose essays, reviews, and profiles have appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, Esquire, and New York. He coau­thored John McEnroe's autobiography, You Cannot Be Serious , a number-one New York Times bestseller, and coauthored the bestselling Dean and Me with Jerry Lewis. He lives in Westchester, New York, with his wife and three sons.