Frank & Ava: In Love and War by John Brady
Thomas Dunne Books, 2015; 304 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
As far as Hollywood marriages go, few were as fiercely passionate or self-destructive as the union between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. What started as another illicit affair for each of them soon drew the ire from their bosses, the public, and even the Catholic Church. The blow-by-blow drama of their lives—which included suicide attempts, abortions, boozing, and, well, love—is the subject of John Brady’s entertaining new biography Frank & Ava: In Love and War.
Brady’s book arrived around the Sinatra centennial (December 12, 2015). Though Ol’ Blue Eyes has a legendary history in the entertainment industry, things didn’t begin so well when he and Gardner first started their romance. His career had hit the skids. He was financially on the rocks and almost unemployable. Gardner, meanwhile, was establishing herself as a top star for MGM as well as one of the most desired women in the world. Both stars had so much to lose at this point in their career, personally and professionally, and yet they risked everything for what would become more than playing bedfellows. As Brady makes it clear, their romance, as problematic as it was, informed on their relationships for the rest of their lives.
Frank & Ava rises above a tawdry tell-all, mining the Sinatra/Gardner romance for something more potent and emotional than the subject might suggest. The continuing draw of this relationship becomes clearer in the back half of the book after the couple divorce. Despite the end of their marriage, Sinatra and Gardner never lose sight of what they once had and, it seems, hoped they might have rekindled. Brady is particularly sensitive to his portrayal of the aging Sinatra who supported his ex-wife throughout her later years and even had hired tough guys rough up one of her abusive movie star boyfriends. The moment that Sinatra publically mourns Gardner after her 1990 death is particularly vivid: him drinking straight out of a whiskey bottle while he croons “One for My Baby” to an audience of 18,000 people. That scene really crackles.
Sinatra and Gardner are well-trotted material (neither the first nor last book this reviewer has read about them), but Brady tunnels through so much fascinating material regarding the whirlwind romances that defined their melancholy lives. A veteran author and journalist, Brady’s prose cuts to the heart of the material thanks to trim, precisely considered writing. I appreciated such a well-informed and brisk read like this one. I think I’ll go put on a Sinatra record and a Gardner film sine the moment feels so right.