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Ava Gardner Thought She'd Killed Boyfriend Howard Hughes During a Violent Argument

The actor and billionaire were in an on-and-off-again relationship for two decades.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, what went on behind the scenes and in the private lives of its biggest stars was often more dramatic than what happened on the screen. Ava Gardner, for instance, was considered a siren of the screen, having risen to fame in 1946's The Killers as femme fatale Kitty Collins. However, what fans of the actor may not have known is how dramatic and even violent her off-screen love life was. Gardner was romantically linked to several other stars, including three famous husbands. But while she never married infamous billionaire Howard Hughes, the two were in a long, on-and-off relationship that included some drag-out fights. During one particularly heated argument, Gardner later wrote, she actually thought she might have killed Hughes after tossing an ashtray at his head. Read on to find out more about their saga.

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Gardner was married three times.

Ava Gardner in 1953
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Gardner arrived in Los Angeles from her home state of North Carolina in 1941, a sheltered virgin with a thick Southern accent. She met Mickey Rooney, then at the peak of his career as Andy Hardy, and fell head over heels. The two married less than a year later, but it didn't last long; by 1943, Gardner sued for divorce, citing "mental cruelty." Her second marriage also was a short and tumultuous affair; she married band leader Artie Shaw in 1945, only to get another divorce in 1946. Her final marriage was to Frank Sinatra, lasting from 1951 to 1957.

While her marriages burnt out quickly, her longest-lasting relationship was the one in which she refused to accept a proposal. Gardner met producer Hughes in 1943, right after her first divorce, when she was 21 and he was 43. In her autobiography, Ava: My Story, published posthumously in 1990, she wrote, "The amazing thing is that he was in my life, on and off, for more than 20 years—but I never loved him."

Hughes painstakingly pursued Gardner.

Howard Hughes in 1947
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Hughes is best known today for being one of the most eccentric and eventually reclusive billionaires in American history, including having his entire wardrobe burnt if he thought it had been infested by germs, shutting himself up in the penthouses of various Vegas hotels, and by the end of his life wearing tissue boxes on his feet and refusing to cut his fingernails and toenails. He once owned RKO Pictures, which went bankrupt in the late '50s, partially due to Hughes' growing mental health issues. (Today, it's understood that he had worsening OCD.)

Before all of that, the film business magnate and aviation enthusiast deliberately engineered a meeting with Gardner, when he heard she had split from Rooney. As she put it in her autobiography (via The Daily Mail), "Nothing was ever an accident with Howard, and when he read the story of my divorce in the papers, he decided I was the new girl on the loose." He was nowhere near as glamorous as the rising star, however. "Howard never cared much about what he wore, or what he looked like…. And he was never really aware of his personal hygiene," she wrote. That being said, she also wrote that his age made him one of the most worldly men of her acquaintance of the time and "infinitely more serious and smarter and sophisticated than anyone else [she'd] dated up to then."

Their dates were also repetitive to the point of being ritualistic. "The first couple of times were amusing—although dining a deux in an empty restaurant can lack a bit of atmosphere," she recalled in her book. "It felt as if we were a couple of actors being served by other actors on a candlelit stage."

They both had legendary tempers.

Howard Hughes and Ava Gardner in 1946
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gardner and Hughes were a match in the bedroom, according to her. ("Let's say that Howard Hughes was a pleasant surprise," she wrote.) However out of it, the mix of their personalities was too volatile. "Our chemistry was the stuff that causes hydrogen bombs to explode," she said, citing that as one of the reasons she turned down his endless marriage proposals. "Till death do us do part would have been a whole lot sooner than later if we'd tied the knot."

"We fought all the time—but I fought with all my men. It was my way of life; my way of loving, I suppose," Gardner said. For example, there was the day when Hughes bought her a Cadillac as an apology. "I thought that was nice because we'd just had a tremendous fight over something, and I'd actually blacked his eye," she recalled. "I wasn't expecting any favors, at least until the swelling had gone down."

Once, she feared she'd actually killed him.

Ava Gardner in 1953
Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The two had been together for about a year when one of their worst fights happened. In her autobiography, Gardner admitted that she had no idea how it started; they had just been arguing, as usual, when Hughes hauled off and punched her hard in the face, dislocating her jaw. However, instead of halting the fight or breaking down in tears, she'd coolly smashed an onyx ashtray over his head in response. It began to bleed heavily.

Gardner described the scene as horrific. "There was blood on the walls, on the furniture—real blood in the Bloody Marys," she wrote. She panicked and did what any star in the early '40s did when things went pear-shaped: She called the head of her studio, MGM's Louis Mayer, for help.

"Louis Mayer nearly had kittens," Gardner said, "He was convinced I'd whacked the [expletive]. His boys got me out of there so [expletive] fast, my feet didn't touch the Orientals." Not that he did that to protect Gardner from a murder charge. "I don't think he gave a damn about me, but he didn't want any scandal attached to his studio," she said.

Hughes recovered, and his first words were not what you'd expect.

Howard Hughes in the late '40s
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When Hughes woke up the next day, one of the first things he did was to call Gardner and asked her to marry him. Again. She said no—again.

Gardner wrote in her autobiography that that was par for the course. "[The refusals] didn't stop him proposing to me all the [expletive] time," she said. They continued even when he was seeing other women. Every time they went to dinner, just the two of them, he'd always propose marriage "just when the lamb chops arrived," she recalled.

Eventually, Gardner put a halt to his offers—she left him for Shaw and became the band leader's fourth wife out of an eventual eight. But it wasn't for long. Their less-than-a-year marriage ended when he left her for wife No. 5, Kathleen Windsor, and she went back to Hughes… at least until Sinatra came along.

They kept coming back to each other, however.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner in 1952
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Gardner wound up back in Hughes' arms after her second marriage broke up. "A couple of months after our divorce, I fell apart when Artie married Kathleen," she said in her autobiography. Despite the emotional meltdown, she claimed it was good for her in the long run. "It taught me a lesson, though. It taught me that hypocrisy isn't just the province of movie producers," she wryly observed.

The pattern continued when she and Sinatra broke up in 1957. However, Gardner never married again after Sinatra, continuing to resist Hughes' proposals. Their relationship ended for good in 1960, when Hughes, whose mental health had deteriorated, withdrew from public life. He passed away in 1976 at age 70, while Gardner died in 1990 at the age of 67.

Ani Bundel
Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV. Read more