Celebrating Sinatra at 100, an extract from SINATRA: THE LFE

Sinatra on tolerance….

In his childhood, Frank Sinatra told a group of young people in 1945, African-American children had been dismissed as “niggers,” Jews as “kikes” and “sheenies.” He had been called “little dago” and showered with rocks by other children.

Frank blamed prejudice not on children but on parents, including his own parents. He remembered his mother pestering him about the ethnic origin of boyhood friends, his father “hating” people of different ethnic origin who might take his job away from him. The Ku Klux Klan had a significant membership in the New Jersey of his youth, and its enmity was applied to Italians as well as blacks.

At seventeen, when Frank spent a year fending for himself in New York, he had tried to get a job as a messenger on Wall Street. “One of the questions that was on almost every form I had to fill out,” he remembered, “read ‘religion?’ It meant that whether you got a job or not – a  matter of life or death with people such as I came from – depended largely on your religion.”

Hanging out on 52nd Street, he had seen for himself how deeply racial prejudice was ingrained. At the end of the thirties, there were still few places outside Harlem where an African-American band could play. Even when invisible to the audience, on the radio, black musicians could not play with white bands.

Conditions for entertainers reflected those in society at large, as Frank discovered when he traveled around the country. World War II changed little. Blacks were allowed to perform in some first-class hotels, but not stay there as guests. The police in Washington, DC, would tolerate black after-hours clubs, but raided or closed them down if white women were seen entering. After complaints from white guests at a New York hotel, Billie Holiday was ordered to use the service elevator rather than the main one. Duke Ellington could record with Rosemary Clooney, but the record cover could not include a photograph of them together.

Frank detested such rules. To him, Ellington and Holiday were just two of many African-Americans he admired as colleagues and treated as friends. A 1943 photograph shows him sitting and laughing with the black pianist and singer Hazel Scott but – shockingly for the day – holding hands with her.

Frank reacted viscerally on encountering blatant prejudice. “When I was a kid and somebody called me a ‘dirty little Guinea,’” he recalled, “there was only one thing to do – break his head….Let anybody yell wop or Jew or nigger around us, we taught him not to do it again.” So it was, on numerous occasions, when he became an adult. When he was with the Dorsey band, he knocked a newspaperman out cold at a party for calling another guest a “Jew bastard.”

Orson Welles witnessed a similar incident. “Sinatra went into a diner for a cup of coffee with some friends of his who were musicians,” he recalled, “one of whom happened to be a Negro. The man behind the counter insultingly refused to serve this Negro, and Sinatra knocked him over on his back with a single blow.”

On racial matters, however, it dawned on him that “you’ve got to do it through education.” He began subtly – though it was noticed soon enough – in his performance of the Jerome Kern classic “Ol’ Man River.” When Paul Robeson had sung it, in 1927, “darkies” all worked on the Mississippi while the white folk played. Frank’s version, from 1943, went: “Here we all work while the white folks play.” Concerned that the song live on as more than a cliché, he was to sing it with evident passion time and again.

In 1944, on one of Frank’s visits to the White House, he told President Roosevelt that he intended to start talking to young people “about the need for tolerance and to point out that we mustn’t destroy the principles for which our grandfathers founded this country….” Roosevelt approved the idea, and Frank kept his word within months. In early 1945, encouraged by George Evans, he went to the Bronx to talk with schoolchildren about juvenile delinquency. In March, at Carnegie Hall, he addressed a World Youth Rally.

Frank made thirty speaking appearances that year alone. “The surprising element was that he came to speak on ‘Racial Tolerance’ rather than to sing,” Grayce Kaneda recalled of a visit he made to Philadelphia when she was a student. “Negroes, Irish, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Catholics and Protestants, were all there together.”

“The next time you hear anyone say there’s no room in this country for foreigners,” Frank wrote in an article, “tell him everybody in the United States is a foreigner….It would be a fine thing if people chose their associates by the color of their skin! Brothers wouldn’t be talking to brothers, and in some families the father and mother wouldn’t even talk to each other. Imagine a guy with dark hair like me not talking to blondes. The more you think about all this, the more you realize how important Abraham Lincoln was talking when he said: ‘Our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.’ Get that!…”

Though they seem trite today, Frank’s homilies were well received. Film director Mervyn LeRoy told Frank, “You could reach a thousand times more people if you’d tell your story on the screen.” The pair found an ally in an R.K.O. vice president and got the go-ahead to make a short movie aimed at youngsters likely to be effected by bigotry – and perhaps prepared to listen to advice from a pop singer. The result was a fifteen-minute movie made in just two days, The House I Live In.

The film was built around a song that had previously been featured only by a black gospel group and seemed destined for obscurity. Its first three verses:

What is America to me?

A name, a map, or a flag I see,

A certain word, democracy

What is America to me?

 

The house I live in

A plot of earth, a street

The grocer and the butcher

Or the people that I meet.

 

The children in the playground,

The faces that I see

All races and religions

That’s America to me.

Frank made the song powerful populist propaganda. In the movie he played himself, a crooner who emerges from a studio to find a gang of boys abusing a young Jew. “Look, fellas,” he admonished them, “religion doesn’t make any difference! Except maybe to a Nazi or a dope.…God didn’t create one people better than another. Your blood is the same as mine, and mine is the same as his. You know what this country is? It’s made up of a hundred different kinds of people – and they’re all Americans….Let’s use our good American brains and not fight each other.”

The movie ends with the boys dispersing, tempers calmed, and humming quietly. It was good melting pot stuff and generally well received, as was the news that the proceeds were to go to charity and that Frank had taken no salary. A usually acid columnist, Harriet Van Horne, declared him “a sincere, hard-working young man with a deep sense of his brother’s wrong and a social conscience that hasn’t been atrophied by money or fame.”

The movie rightly won Frank a special Oscar, his first Academy award and one of which he was especially proud, and he returned to the song time and again over the years.

SINATRA: The Life, is published by Vintage Books

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