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Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s tempestuous Spanish love affair

New book explores trips made by ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ to see love of his life in her beloved Spain

Ava Gardner (left) with the wife of Frank Grant, MGM's representative in Spain, Frank Sinatra and Grant during the shooting of 'Pandora' in Catalonia.
Ava Gardner (left) with the wife of Frank Grant, MGM's representative in Spain, Frank Sinatra and Grant during the shooting of 'Pandora' in Catalonia.

As though straight out of a black and white Hollywood movie, one of those that Federico Fellini described as containing “no beginning or end, just the infinite passion of life,” the stormy love affair between Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner played out against an exceptional setting: Franco’s Spain, a place of flamenco stages, late-night drinking dens and bullfights.

In a country scarred by the Civil War, by shortages of all kinds and by an iron-fisted, pathetically moralizing dictatorship, these two legends of pop culture gave free rein to their sentimental tug-of-war.

Sinatra was never any good at dealing with Francoist Spain, just like he was no good at dealing with Ava”

Like the journalist Francisco Reyero writes in his book Sinatra. Nunca volveré a ese maldito país (or, Sinatra: I’ll never go back to that damned country), “he was never any good at dealing with Francoist Spain, just like he was no good at dealing with Ava.”

Using solid prose and providing a wealth of details that range from biographical curiosities to press clippings, Reyero reviews every single trip that Sinatra made to Spain. But he devotes extra space – and rightly so – to the visits that were triggered by the presence of the dazzling actress, who was herself fascinated by the Spanish show business scene and by the world of matadors.

Frank Sinatra arriving in Barcelona on May 11,1950. ampliar foto
Frank Sinatra arriving in Barcelona on May 11,1950.

With her smoldering body and penetrating gaze, Gardner – who once declared that “fucking is a good sport” – always had Sinatra going crazy. But it was in Spain where the mass idol had the biggest clashes with the woman that was, in all likelihood, the greatest love of his life.

Sinatra first set foot on Spanish soil in May 1950, and he did it for one purpose only: to meet up with Gardner, then on the Costa Brava to shoot Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Spurred by jealousy, he landed at Barcelona’s El Prat airport and went straight to Tossa de Mar.

The actress, whom he would marry a year later, was involved at the time with the bullfighter Mario Cabré. Although the singer was himself still married, he and Gardner were in the middle of a romance that had already made international headlines. They had tried to be discreet about it, but Sinatra, who showed up bearing six crates of Coca-Cola and an emerald necklace for her, could not stand the idea of watching his “unfaithful loved one” together with the Catalan matador, who dedicated every bull he killed to her.

Before arriving in Spain, Sinatra had sent perfumed letters from New York to his “dear bunny,” but they had to compete with the presumptuous Cabré, who made an effort to learn English and wrote letters of his own to his “sweet angel.”

Gardner’s elegant ways and seductive smile won over the people of Tossa de Mar, while Sinatra was viewed like an unfriendly and stingy man who ended up issuing the following threat to the star of The Killers: “If I hear about this guy again [Mario Cabré], I will kill him and you.”

But Gardner – who mused that if she were a man, she would never marry a woman like herself – was out of control. She said she loved Spain because it was a lot like her: violent, rural and whimsical. And she was not going to let that classy ruffian Sinatra, whom she intermittently felt a need for between movies, between lovers and between drinks, tell her what to do.

In 1953, the pair split up, but ‘The Voice’ came back looking for her desperately in Christmas of that year. And there she was, in Spain. Except this time, Gardner was having an affair with another bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguín. After chartering a plane, Sinatra arrived from London on New Year’s Eve, but Gardner was out partying. She was the first to walk out of her house and the last to return home.

The singer tried to drown his woes in Madrid’s nightlife, making stops at the celebrated cocktail bar Chicote. In between the flamenco dancing and the alcohol, the actress focused her attention on the matador while Sinatra attempted to patch up the relationship.

Ava loved Spain but never managed to put together two full sentences in Spanish. She did, however, manage to get her Spanish teacher hooked on gin tonics

Meanwhile, Dominguín – a real alpha male of the Iberian world – boasted about besting a man for whom, as Humphrey Bogart himself once told Ava: “most women would be willing to drag themselves at his feet, yet you go around with a guy who dresses up in a cape and ballet shoes.”

Gardner was a star in every sense of the word. She loved Spain but never managed to put together two full sentences in Spanish. She did, however, manage to get her Spanish teacher hooked on gin and tonics. Just as famous were the slaps in the face she got from the men who tried to win her heart, including Dominguín and Sinatra.

“I will never talk to that son-of-a-bitch spaghetti again,” she said about Sinatra during one of her nights out in Madrid in 1962. For every night of drunken excess, the actress would lose a necklace, a bracelet or an earring. The jewels she misplaced in Spain would have been enough to open a jewelry shop.

It was also in Spain that Sinatra, a mass idol back home, kissed the ground like he had rarely done before for the sake of a woman whom he considered the love of his life.