On May 14, 2019, the village of Lercara Friddi, Sicily will open the “My Way Museum” to commemorate its most famous son, Frank Sinatra.
Our 2005 biography, Sinatra: The Life, established Sinatra’s link to the village and we have been delighted by the way the village has embraced both us and the book.
We hope at some point to be able to join our friends in Lercara for their annual “My Way Festival”. Until then, though, here’s a sample of how it all began:
“Io sono siciliano…” I am Sicilian.
At the age of seventy-two, in the broiling heat of summer in 1987, Frank Sinatra was singing – not so well by that time – in the land of his fathers. “I want to say,” he told a rapt audience at Palermo’s Favorita Stadium, “that I love you dearly for coming tonight. I haven’t been in Italy for a long time – I’m so thrilled. I’m very happy.” The crowd roared approval, especially when he said he was Sicilian, that his father was born in Sicily. Sinatra’s voice cracked a little as he spoke, and he looked more reflective than happy.
* * *
Frank Sinatra’s paternal grandfather grew up in Sicily in the years that followed the end of foreign rule, a time of social and political mayhem. His childhood and early adult years coincided with the collapse of civil authority, brutally suppressed uprisings, and the rise of the Mafia to fill the power vacuum.
Beyond that, very little has been known about the Sinatra family’s background in Sicily. The grandfather’s obituary, which appeared in the New York Times because of his famous grandson, merely had him born “in Italy” in 1884 (though his American death certificate indicates he was born as early as 1866.)
Twice, in 1964 and in 1987, Frank Sinatra told audiences that his family had come from Catania, about as far east as one can go in Sicily. Yet he told one of his musicians, principal violist Ann Barak, that they came from Agrigento on the southwestern side of the island. His daughter Nancy, who consulted her father extensively while working on her two books about his life, wrote that her grandfather had been “born and brought up” in Agrigento. His name, according to her, was “John”.
Biography begins with this most simple of facts. When we set out to write our book on ‘Old Blue Eyes’ back in 2001, we both felt a niggling certainty that finding the truth about Sinatra’s lineage would be the Rosetta Stone to understanding the man. In fact, we discovered, Sinatra’s grandfather came from neither Catania nor Agrigento, was born earlier than either of the dates previously reported, and his true name was Francesco – in the American rendering, like his famous grandson, Frank.
* * *
Sicilian baptismal and marriage records, United States immigration and census data, and interviews with surviving grandchildren, establish that Francesco Sinatra was born in 1857 in the town of Lercara Friddi, in the hills of northwest Sicily. It had about ten thousand inhabitants and it was a place of some importance, referred to by some as “piccolo Palermo”, little Palermo.
The reason was sulfur, an essential commodity in the paper and pharmaceutical industries, in which Sicily was rich and Lercara especially so. Foreign companies reaped the profits, however, and most locals languished in poverty. The town was located, in the words of a prominent Italian editor, in “the core territory of the Mafia.” The town lies fifteen miles from Corleone, a name made famous by The Godfather and in real life a community credited with breeding more future American mafiosi than any other place in Sicily. It is just twelve miles from the Mafia stronghold of Prizzi – as in Prizzi’s Honor, the Richard Condon novel about the mob and the film based on it that starred Jack Nicholson.
It was Lercara Friddi, however, that produced the most notorious mafioso of the twentieth century. Francesco Sinatra’s hometown spawned Lucky Luciano. Luciano was “without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster”, according to one authority, and “head of the Italian underworld throughout the land”, according to a longtime head of the Chicago Crime Commission. One of his own lawyers described him as having been, quite simply, “the founder of the modern Mafia”.
Luciano, whose real name was Salvatore Lucania, was born in Lercara Friddi in 1897. Old marriage and baptismal registers show that his parents and Francesco Sinatra and his bride Rosa Saglimbeni were married at the church of Santa Maria della Nieve within two years of each other. Luciano was baptized there, in the same font as Francesco Sinatra’s first two children.
In all the years of speculation about Frank Sinatra’s Mafia links, this coincidence of origin has remained unknown. Living as they did in a town the size of Lercara, it is hard to imagine the Sinatras and the Lucanias did not know each other. The two families lived on the same short street, the Via Margherita di Savoia, at roughly the same time. Luciano’s address book, seized by law enforcement authorities on his death in 1962 and available today in the files of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, contains only two entries for individuals who lived in Lercara Friddi: one a member of his own family and the other a man named “Saglimbeni,” a relative of the woman Francesco Sinatra married – the famous Frank’s grandmother. Even if the Sinatras and the Lucanias did not know each other, Lucky Luciano’s later notoriety makes it certain that the Sinatra family eventually learned that they and the gangster shared the same town of origin. Kinship and origins are key to Italian-American culture, and were even more so in the first decades of the diaspora.
The future singer Frank Sinatra could have learned from any one of several senior relatives that his people and Luciano came from the same Sicilian town. He certainly should have learned it from his grandfather Francesco, who lived with Sinatra’s family after his wife’s death and often minded his grandson when the boy’s parents were out.
Francesco, moreover, survived to the age of ninety-one, until long after Luciano had become an infamous household name and his grandson an internationally famous singer. Sinatra himself indicated, and a close contemporary confirmed, that he and his grandfather were “very close”. Late in life, moreover, he said he had gone out of his way to “check back” on his Sicilian ties. And yet, as we have seen, he muddied the historical waters by suggesting that his forebears came from Sicilian towns far away from Lercara Friddi.
* * *
There was only one school in Lercara Friddi, and few could read or write. Francesco Sinatra was no exception, but he did have a trade – he was a shoemaker. He married Rosa Saglimbeni, a local woman his own age, when both were in their early twenties, and by the time they turned thirty – in 1887 – the couple had two sons. As the century neared its close, times were desperate. Thousands of Sicilians were going hungry, especially in the countryside. There were food riots, and crime was rampant.
In western Sicily, the Mafia’s power had become absolute. Palermo, the island’s capital, spawned the first capo di tutti capi, Don Vito, who one day would forge the first links between the Sicilian Mafia and the United States. His successor, Don Calò, operated from a village just fourteen miles from Lercara Friddi.
By 1889 Francesco and Rosa had moved to a working-class suburb of Palermo. Two more sons were born there, but died in infancy, possibly victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the neighborhood in the early eighteen-nineties. Meanwhile, a Sicilian exodus began. One and a half million people were to leave the island in the next twenty-five years. The emigrants went to Argentina and Brazil and, in ever increasing numbers, to the United States, L’America.
Francesco Sinatra joined the rush in the summer of 1900. At the age of forty-three, he said goodbye to Rosa and their surviving children – there were by now three sons and two daughters – and boarded a ship for Naples. There he transferred to the British steamer Spartan Prince, carrying a steerage ticket to New York. At Ellis Island, on July 6, he told immigration officials he planned to stay with a relative living on Old Broadway. He had thirty dollars in his pocket as he headed for Manhattan.
Francesco found work, and soon had enough confidence to start sending for his family. His eldest son, Isidor, joined him in America, and Salvatore, just fifteen but declaring himself a shoemaker like his father, arrived in 1902. Rosa arrived at Christmas the following year, accompanied by Antonino, age nine, and their two daughters Angelina and Dorotea, who were younger. Antonino – “Anthony Martin” or “Marty” as he would become in America – was to father the greatest popular singer of the century.
The Statue of Liberty smiled, Frank Sinatra would say in an emotional moment forty years later, when his father “took his first step on Liberty’s soil.” For many Italian newcomers, however, the smile proved illusory.
* * *
In Francesco’s day, Italian immigrants were greeted with widespread hostility. They were bottom of the heap in New York, ostracized by those who had arrived before them, by the Germans and the Irish especially. Italians were said to be dirty, ignorant and criminal, and were vilified as “wops,” “dagos”, “guineas”. Early in the twentieth century, when blacks were being lynched in the South, some Americans considered Italians – immigrants from southern Italy and Sicily especially – “not even white”. The Ku Klux Klan railed against them. They found themselves excluded from churches used by other ethnic groups, consigned to menial work, and persecuted by the police.
The accusation of criminality had some basis in fact. Mafia fugitives from Sicily had been active in the United States for some years now. Palermo’s mob chieftain Don Vito, describing himself to immigration officials as “a dealer”, arrived from Europe the year after Francesco and during a two-year stay laid the foundation of what would eventually become the American Mafia.
To oppressed Sicilian immigrants, Vito and his kind were the uomini rispettati who had ruled the roost back home. They offered protection, made loans, made many things possible – at a price. They extorted money from shopkeepers and workmen, and those who did not cooperate got hurt. To some immigrants, joining the ranks of the criminals was more attractive than regular work. “I realized Italians were considered dirt, the scum of the earth,” recalled “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo, the son of a Calabrian tailor who was to become a senior American mafioso. “I quit…went the other way.”
Lucky Luciano, who arrived in the States from Lercara Friddi several years after the Sinatras, made the same choice. “We was surrounded by crooks,” he recalled of his childhood years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, “and plenty of them were guys who were supposed to be legit…All of them was stealin’ from somebody. And we had the real pros, the rich Dons from the old country, with their big black cars and mustaches to match…The only thing is, we knew they was rich, and rich was what counted….”
Francesco Sinatra, for his part, struggled. Many Italians were cobblers, apparently too many, for he first found work as a boilermaker. He later landed a job at the American Pencil Company that paid $11 a week (just over $200 dollars today),7 and stayed with the company for seventeen years. Rosa, like Francesco already well into her forties, raised their children and eventually opened a small grocery. By that time, the couple had long since left New York City for the New Jersey town now inseparably linked with the name Sinatra – Hoboken.
It was there, On December 17, 1915, that a baby – whose birth certificate mistakenly recorded was called “Frank Sinestro” – was born. A quarter of a century later, when the grown child had become a celebrity, the name would be corrected and reregistered as “Francis A. Sinatra”.
But that’s another chapter.
Records establish that Sinatra’s paternal grandfather, Francesco, and his grandmother Rosa Saglimbeni came from the same town and street in Sicily as Mafia boss Lucky Luciano. The church (background) where they were baptised and married; their baptism and marriage records (top and center); the information on Rosa’s U.S. death certificate (bottom) that confirms the discovery.
Francesco Sinatra arrived from Italy in 1900 abroad the S.S. Spartan Prince, as recorded (top) by U.S. Immigration at Ellis Island. His wife, Rosa, and three of their children, including Frank Sinatra’s father, Anthony Martin (“Marty”), arrived aboard the S.S. Citta di Milano three years later (bottom).