Classic Hollywood wouldn’t have been the same without Ava Gardner. With her quick wit and timeless charm, she made every role unforgettable, and with each performance she proved that it takes more than just a pretty face to be a leading lady.

Yet like most major players of classic cinema, Ava’s journey from small-town girl to American icon was paved with breathtaking highs and rock-bottom lows. You may think you know this legend of Golden Age Hollywood, but chances are you’ve never seen Ava Gardner quite like this.

Before she was one of the era’s biggest stars, she was simply Ava Lavinia Gardner, the youngest of seven children to a pair of poor tobacco sharecroppers. Her childhood in North Carolina was a hard one, though things only became more difficult for Ava as a teenager.

Ava Gardner Museum

At age 15, she lost her father to bronchitis, and for the next several years, Ava and her family had a hard time making ends meet. She briefly considered a secretarial career, though a chance trip to New York City in 1940 changed everything.

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There, she visited her sister Beatrice and her photographer husband Larry Tarr. Larry suggested taking a portrait of Ava, and ge was so pleased with the photo that he hung it in his shop. Soon, men from all over Manhattan were stopping by for a glimpse of her.

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It wasn’t long before Ava was back in the Big Apple, this time to interview with MGM for a film contract. Studio scouts were enamored by Ava’s natural beauty, though when it came to her acting ability, they weren’t exactly gung-ho.

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In fact, Ava’s North Carolina drawl was so thick that they could barely understand her. The audition reel wound up featuring an 18-year-old Ava silently walking and then rearranging a flower vase, to which MGM head Louis B. Mayer replied, “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t talk, she’s terrific!”

MGM signed Ava to a standard contract, though even with help from a voice coach, she had trouble shaking her heavy Southern accent. Her first 15 screen appearances were bit parts and background appearances (like the one here), beginning with 1942’s We Were Dancing.

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That same year, Ava wed her first husband Mickey Rooney, though the marriage crumbled after just a year in light of the actor’s many affairs. Yet while Ava’s love life was on the downswing, her career was about to take a huge leap forward.

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In 1946, Ava landed the lead in the film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. Her portrayal of femme fatale Kitty Collins earned widespread critical acclaim, proving to everyone — especially MGM — that Ava was more than just a pretty face.

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A slew of top billings followed, including leading roles in The Hucksters (1947), East Side, West Side (1949), and Showboat (1951). Ava was quickly on her way to becoming one of Hollywood’s top stars, though it wasn’t long before a certain smooth-talking crooner nearly cost her everything.

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We’re talking, of course, about Frank Sinatra, who left his wife Nancy to become Ava’s third husband in 1951. Fans, fellow actors, and even the Roman Catholic Church condemned the couple for their actions, though the union actually proved a blessing for Frank.

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Using her considerable influence, Ava was able to get Frank his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity (1953), which successfully revived his stagnant singing and acting career. Professionally, the power couple was firing on all cylinders — behind the scenes, however, matters were far different.

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Frank’s struggles with depression and substance abuse weighed heavily on their marriage, and his frequent threats of suicide left Ava in a constant state of worry. To cope, the actress threw herself into her work and, in turn, created some of the most memorable performances of her career.

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The first came in 1953 when she starred opposite Clark Gable in John Ford’s Mogambo. Ava’s performance garnered universal praise, and she was even nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.

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Her next major hit came a year later in The Barefoot Contessa, where her portrayal of a Spanish dancer turned international movie star quickly became one of her career-defining roles. Unfortunately, all the success in the world couldn’t save her marriage from the inevitable.

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Ava and Frank divorced in 1957, and from there she went on to have high-profile flings with actor Benjamin Tatar, bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín, and even eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. Acting, however, became Ava’s primary love, seeing her through as she began a new chapter in her illustrious career.

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The 1960s saw Ava pad her resume with classics like 55 Days at Peking (1963) and Seven Days in May (1964), and she earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for The Night of the Iguana (1964). She even petitioned for the role of Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate, though the younger Anne Bancroft ultimately got the part.

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She switched gears in the ’70s with a series of disaster movies, including Earthquake (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), and City on Fire (1979). Incredibly, Ava, who was nearing her 60s by this point, still insisted on doing all of her own stunts!

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This likely took a toll on the legendary leading lady, as the 1980s saw her settle into small television roles and more comfortable film appearances. Sadly, her talents wouldn’t make it to the silver screens of the ’90s.

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Ava died at her London home on January 25, 1990, a lifetime of smoking having led to her untimely death at age 67. Hollywood greatly mourned the loss of the Golden Age icon, though, surprisingly, it was one of her ex-husbands who seemed to take her passing the hardest.

Frank Sinatra had remained a dear friend of Ava’s through the years, and he even offered to fly her to the U.S. for specialized treatment when she fell ill. Frank no doubt had a soft side to him, though not everyone agreed that the “Sultan of Swoon” was so innocent.

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Hailed as one of the greatest entertainers of all time, Frank Sinatra was the kind of man every woman wanted and every man wanted to be (at least, that’s what they say). But behind his sharp style and million-dollar smile, some believed “Ol’ Blue Eyes” was actually more dangerous than he led on.

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It all began in the 1940s when “Sinatramania” was running wild across America. Teenage girls flocked to the young crooner like moths to a flame, and in the midst of the hysteria, another group of individuals began following him just as closely: the FBI.

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In the bureau’s mind, the kind of influence Sinatra could exert over an audience was dangerous, comparable to the blind devotion that WWII had made them all too familiar with. But this was just paranoia — after all, how dangerous could a singer really be?

The FBI attempted to shake their suspicions about Sinatra, but shortly after he was declared ineligible for the draft, a rumor spread that Sinatra had allegedly paid a doctor $40,000 to deem him unfit to serve. The bureau couldn’t ignore the whispers.

But after looking further into the tip, the FBI ultimately found that the reason for Sinatra’s exemption – a punctured eardrum and “psychological issues” – was legitimate. Still, something about the singer just didn’t sit right with the agency.

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From very early on in his career, Sinatra associated with some very unsavory individuals, namely high-ranking members of the Mafia. Though Sinatra fervently denied being a mobster himself, his friendships painted an entirely different picture of a man so beloved.

Sam Giancana, the notorious leader of the Chicago Outfit, was one of the singer’s closest friends, and it was Sinatra who supposedly introduced him to then-senator John F. Kennedy in a bid to secure union votes for his presidency. Sinatra then worked gigs at Giancana’s nightclubs as payment for such favors.

Sinatra also introduced Kennedy to Judith Campbell Exner, Giancana’s girlfriend, who allegedly became one of JFK’s mistresses. She allegedly served as a liaison between Kennedy and Giancana during the CIA’s alleged plot to have the Mafia assassinate Cuban president Fidel Castro.

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But Sinatra’s mob ties didn’t end there. FBI records give accounts of gifts from Chicago gambling bosses Joseph and Charles Fischetti (below), and Sinatra even performed at an Atlantic City club on behalf of Philadelphia mobster Angelo Bruno. His own godfather, Willie Moretti, exerted pressure to get him out of a 1951 contract.

All the while, the FBI was keeping tabs on Sinatra’s every move, including his frequent rendezvous with Detroit mobsters Anthony and Vito Giacalone. The evidence they collected didn’t look great for the singer.

“It was like clockwork,” recalled retired FBI agent Sam Ruffino. “A few times a year, we’d trail the Giacalones to the airport to pick up Sinatra. They’d spend the weekend together socializing before and after his shows.”

“Almost every night, [the police] shut the place down,” Ruffino continued. “And he didn’t make any apologies for it. Those were his friends. The fact that they were known hoodlums and murderers didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care, he was going to hang around with who he wanted to hang around with.”

Only the FBI seemed to care, however, until word got out that he had attended the infamous Havana Conference in Cuba alongside the Fischettis and Lucky Luciano. Then, newspapers across the country printed headlines condemning the singer and his actions.

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Still, Sinatra was never charged with criminal behavior, though his mob ties weren’t the only thing the government perceived as a threat. The FBI’s file on Sinatra is filled with additional accounts of “suspicious activity,” most of which revolved around his political sympathies.

Sinatra was an outspoken supporter of liberal policies and publicly condemned systematic racism and discrimination. His close association with JFK was also viewed as suspicious, and some in Washington even accused Sinatra of having ties to Communism.

Indeed, Sinatra defended individuals accused of being Communist, especially those in Hollywood. He helped found the Committee for the First Amendment, a group that supported writers and directors who were blacklisted during the Red Scare.

But Sinatra’s file didn’t solely serve as a means to build a criminal case against him. The FBI also kept records of the threats of extortion, blackmail, and violence made against him and was integral in advising him after his son, Frank Sinatra Jr., was kidnapped in 1963.

All along, however, Sinatra knew the FBI was watching him, and in both 1979 and 1980, the singer received copies of his file through the Freedom of Information Act. Though nothing ever came of the file, it speaks volumes about the lengths the government was willing to go to put Sinatra behind bars.

“Sinatra’s FBI dossier reveals a dismaying situation,” historian Gerald Meyer wrote in 2002. “At no time does it contain anything that even hints at an activity disallowed by the Bill of Rights.”

Despite this fact, the FBI kept Sinatra’s file open for nearly five decades, closing it only upon his death in 1998. During this time, the bureau amassed a staggering 2,403 pages on every word he spoke and move he made.