Pearl Harbor. Depending on your point of view it is either “the mother of all conspiracies” or “the mother of all conspiracy theories”. Last year’s 75th anniversary of the attack was rightly marked by solemn remembrance for the dead. The 76th anniversary we mark today should be a time for setting the historical record straight.
Sunday, December 7, 1941. The hour after dawn. An armada of more than 350 Japanese planes begins a bombardment that has been planned for a year. The attack’s purpose is to cripple the Fleet. Four battleships are sunk, others badly damaged. By the time the sun goes down, 2403 Americans are dead, the nation’s leadership in turmoil.
In the days after the attack recriminations flew. Fingers were pointed at the FDR, his Secretaries of State, War, and Navy, military intelligence but most vigorously at Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander in Chief of America’s Pacific fleet and the Army’s Hawaiian commander, Lieutenant General Walter Short. The stream of blame and denial, accusation and rebuttal, claim and counterclaim, flows on still.
The effluent from the stream, which has become central to it, is the suspicion of a greater evil. Book after book, article after article, has entertained the notion that President Roosevelt and some of those around him knew in advance that Pearl Harbor would be attacked, that they allowed it to happen.
The speculations include the notion, covered in Part 1, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent America advance warning. The theories, though, spread well beyond that. They include suspicion that U.S. code-breakers had intercepted a message signaling the coming break in relations hidden in a Japanese weather bulletin; that senior officials in Washington knew that Japanese warships were steaming towards Hawaii; that President Roosevelt and members of his government concealed a meeting they held, on the eve of the onslaught, at which FDR ordered that no timely warning be sent.
During the research for A Matter of Honor, our book about Pearl Harbor, we yanked hard at the threads of the loosely woven tapestry of conspiracy to see if it would tighten the weave. Instead the fabric unravelled.
An October 1940 Navy intelligence memorandum, unearthed in the 1990s, was said to lay out the steps by which Japan could be lured into firing the first shot, thus propelling the US into war not just in Asia but through the backdoor into the war in Europe. Responses to the memo found by us in 2015, however, show that of three officers known to have seen the report none suggested following such a course. One senior officer explicitly recommended against “precipitating anything in the Orient”.
Then there is the so-called “Winds” message, a code that told Japanese diplomats that they would learn of an impending rupture in relations with any of three possible countries – the U.S., Britain, or the Soviet Union – in a broadcast coded to appear like an ordinary weather forecast.
Captain Laurance Safford, the U.S. Navy’s respected codebreaking chief, testified that a Winds message signifying a break with the United States was intercepted and known in Washington on December 4th. Safford’s version of the broadcast, however, was inconsistent with the prescribed format. A code that doesn’t follow the code is no code at all.
In 1977, in an oral history interview, former navy radioman Ralph Briggs claimed to have intercepted the “Winds” message on December 4th. What he said seemed at first to corroborate Safford, but falls apart on scrutiny. Years after the war, Briggs said, he had searched in official files for a record of the message but it was missing. He had noted that fact, he said, in the file. The file in the National Archives does include a note by Briggs. It relates, however, not to December 4th as he claimed, but to December 2nd. Moreover, a superior whom Briggs claimed could corroborate his story, instead said he had never handled or observed a Winds message.
In what would have been a superfluous and costly exercise had the broadcast been picked up on December 4 as alleged, a host of Army and Navy personnel continued to make searching the ether for Winds a priority long after December 4. “We were continuing to look,” one naval intelligence officer would recall, until “after the bombs had started falling on the Fleet.”
As reported in Part 1, meanwhile, a history of Britain’s code-breaking unit in the Far East, refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting “that the broadcast mentioning “East” and “West” winds had been heard.” “EAST WIND RAIN,” if that is what was indeed heard, was the coded language for an imminent break in relations with the United States. If the British history is accurate, it represents the only known record of the receipt anywhere of a “Winds” message referring to a break with the United States. It was intercepted two hours after the attack on Pearl.
One of the most seemingly credible suggestions of foreknowledge appeared in the book Infamy by the Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland. Toland published the recollection of a Dutch Naval officer, Johann Meijer Ranneft, that on a visit to U.S. Navy Headquarters on December 6, he had been shown a map on which two Japanese carriers were positioned at a point “just north of Honolulu.” In support Toland reprinted a portion of Ranneft’s wartime diary. A position to the north would have been significant, as the Japanese attack force approached Hawaii from that direction. Toland’s translation of the diary entry, though, is seriously inaccurate – the relevant passage places the two carriers simply “to the West of Honolulu”.
Two memos written by Ranneft in the 1940s, and located by us in the Dutch National Archives, meanwhile, specify that the position of the two carriers was “at the Easterly border of the Mandate area [Marshall Islands], at a distance of several hundred miles of Honolulu.” The area specified is to the southwest of Hawaii, not the north. Ranneft wrote, moreover, that “neither any of the intelligence officers present nor I spoke of a possible attack by the carriers on Honolulu.”
Finally, there is the allegation of a late-night meeting at the White House on December 6, at which FDR and a coterie of advisors – supposedly with some of intelligence of the attack in hand – gathered to plot. The notion was encouraged by two letters written in the 1970s by publisher James Stahlman. In one letter, in 1973, Stahlman quoted former Navy Secretary Knox as having told him that he and “[Secretary of War] Stimson, [Chief of Staff ]Marshall, [Chief of Naval Operations] Stark, and [presidential adviser] Harry Hopkins had spent the night before [Pearl Harbor] at the White House with FDR, all waiting for what they knew was coming…” In a second letter, in 1975, Stahlman’s list of supposed participants in the late-night meeting expanded to include Knox’s aide Frank Beatty and Stark’s aide John McCrea. Stark and Marshall denied under oath to official investigators that they had been at any White House meeting on the night of December 6th. Told of Stahlman’s claim McCrea, too, categorically denied attending such a meeting.
While there is no reliable evidence that U.S. officials conspired to allow the attack to happen, in the aftermath many of them certainly conspired to cover up the full facts. That conspiracy took place to hide the U.S. code-breaking program known as “Magic”.
Through Magic US intelligence had decoded the Winds message and hundreds of other valuable Japanese messages. So secret was Magic, that its existence was known to only a handful of men, so valuable, that its exposure was deemed too critical to be exposed. Officers who had sworn an oath to never reveal what they knew were cautioned not to speak of it even to official investigators. That major lie, as such lies often do, spawned myriad other lies – lies that covered a multitude of sins. Mistakes, incompetence, lost opportunities, petty ass-covering,
There were, too, egregious errors that the lies about Magic obscured. Two long suppressed “after action” reports made clear how poorly Magic had been used in the months before Pearl Harbor. One, for the Army, concluded that the coded information from Magic had “clearly foreshadowed” the attack. ”The traffic,” the Army’s report concluded, “had not been given sufficiently close attention.”
The decoded messages, the Navy’s report opined, showed the Japanese “had determined to attack Pearl Harbor as early as September 24…evidence for this last statement comes from…the minute attention paid to every inch of Pearl Harbor in the instructions from Tokyo.” None of the decoded messages, though, were shared with the two men who most needed them – Hawaiian commanders Kimmel and Short.
Admiral Kimmel and General Short had been, the Navy’s analyst later said, “scapegoats… for the failures of many.” That is the conspiracy at the heart of years of myth-making and propaganda about Pearl Harbor.
The brave young Americans who faced the Japanese onslaught in 1941, Admiral Kimmel later wrote, “showed themselves fearless, resourceful and self-sacrificing.” The lesson for history is that those young men died not as the result of a vast perfidious conspiracy, but because of tragic human fallibility.
Tomorrow, December 7, is the 76th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The onslaught in Hawaii killed more than two thousand Americans and sunk or badly damaged major U.S. warships. It triggered America’s entry into World War II, changed history. Americans everywhere remember December 7th 1941 as the date that “will live in infamy”.
They mourn, but they also argue. Was the attack really a surprise? Did their President, Franklin Roosevelt, have foreknowledge? If he did, and failed to warn his commanders in the Pacific, was he not guilty of unforgivable treachery? And Britain’s legendary leader, Winston Churchill, features large in such conspiracy theories. Was it he who had foreknowledge, shared it with Roosevelt but then – because both men wanted to see America enter the War – connived with the President to keep the explosive knowledge to themselves?
The facts as now investigated take us closer to the truth than ever before.
Churchill told in his memoirs of how, when he learned the attack had taken place – from a few words on the end of a BBC radio broadcast – he at once placed a call to the President in Washington. Roosevelt told him: “It’s quite true. They have attacked us…We are all in the same boat now.”
Churchill, by his own account, said that “certainly simplifies things.” The United States and Britain now had common cause – in the open. He wrote in his diary: “So we had won after all…the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’…I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
That has long been the generally accepted version: An attack that took both men by surprise. A development, nevertheless, that happened to coincide with the desire of both men that America would now plunge openly into the fight against both Japan and Hitler.
But is the official account wallpaper that conceals a more complex, sinister truth? Was the attack really a surprise? Had the leaders received some form of advance warning, but concealed what they knew? Had they allowed the attack to go ahead – knowing that it would provoke America’s immediate entry into the war? That is one version of the conspiracy theorists’ scenario.
A recent find in British archives might seem at first glance to support the notion. It centres on a Japanese coded message that the intelligence services of several friendly nations had for days been tipped off to intercept. The words “EAST WIND RAIN”, hidden in what appeared otherwise to be a routine Japanese radio weather forecast, would warn Japan’s diplomats around the world of an imminent severing of relations with the United States. If relations with other nations were to be cut, that would be indicated by different coded weather references. “WEST WIND CLEAR” would mean relations with Britain were to be cut off. “NORTH WIND CLOUDY” would mean Tokyo was going to break with the Soviet Union.
Some were later to allege that such a Japanese message was indeed intercepted before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians, however, have long looked in vain for proof that the message was ever transmitted.
A secret report, prepared for Churchill after the war but not released by the British National Archives until 2004, shows that British code-breakers in South-East Asia did indeed intercept such a message. The report refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting that “the broadcast mentioning ‘EAST’ and ‘WEST’ winds had been heard.” If this is an accurate account, it reports the only known intercept anywhere in the world of the coded message indicating a Japanese break with the United States. An interception that was made by British intelligence.
Interesting though this is, though, the previously unknown report does not change history. Britain’s listening post in Southeast Asia had intercepted the message only “at 2010Z 7th” – military shorthand for “2010 Zulu” time – or 9.40 a.m. Hawaii time on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. The bombs had started to rain down on the Fleet nearly two hours earlier. By the time London received its report of the telltale Japanese weather broadcast, it was already too late.
Other information on supposed British foreknowledge turns out not to be reliable. In the 1970s, the wartime chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, said he recalled a December 5th meeting of the Committee – two days before Pearl Harbor – that discussed information that “a Japanese fleet was sailing in the direction of
Hawaii.” Someone at the meeting , according to Cavendish-Bentinck – he did not name the person – stated that Washington had been informed.
There is no evidence, however, that any Intelligence Committee meeting was held on December 5th. Committee records now available at the National Archives reflect no meeting that day. There was a meeting on the 3rd, but Pearl Harbor was not discussed.
In a draft memoir written in the 1990s, Sir Julian Ridsdale, who in 1941 had served in the War Office’s Far Eastern Section, recalled a meeting of the Committee on November 27th. Those present, he wrote, had discussed the fact that both U.S. and British intelligence in the Pacific “had begun losing track of the movements” of the Japanese fleet. It was observing radio silence. “We concluded,” he wrote, that the Japanese force was “now in a position to be considered a major threat to the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor. It was agreed we should alert the President of the United States.” Years later, Ridsdale wrote, he was assured that the message had been passed on.
If there was indeed such a discussion in the Intelligence Committee, and if a message was passed to Washington, nothing about it has ever surfaced in American archives. The author of “British Intelligence in the Second World War”, official historian F.H. Hinsley, cited a paper the Committee produced on November 28th, ten days before Pearl Harbor. Written the day after the meeting at which an attack on Hawaii had supposedly been discussed, it “excluded the prospect of a direct Japanese attack on U.S. possessions.”
And then there is a startling comment reportedly made by the onetime confidential secretary who served Britain’s wartime intelligence chief in the United States, Sir William Stephenson. “We did know that they were going to attack on December 7,” secretary Grace Garner told a newspaper in her native Canada in 1998, “We told London. We told the Americans. We had quite some considerable warning. Days, days, days.” Given that Garner’s boss Sir William was had contact with both Roosevelt and Churchill, her assertion would seem to indicate that Britain did warn the President.
Is the former secretary’s claim reliable? Perhaps not. She was ninety years old when she spoke with the Canadian newspaper. When we interviewed Garner years earlier, on the phone and in person, and on four separate occasions, she made no such claim.
What then of the assertion, made before the Millennium, that vital information in British government archives was being suppressed? In his two books on Pearl Harbor, historian John Costello wrote that, days before Pearl Harbor, Churchill shared with Roosevelt intelligence that hardened the President’s attitude to Japan. Relevant information, Costello added, was still being kept secret. “A whole section of the Prime Minister’s secret office file relating to Japan,” he wrote in 1994, “is marked ‘closed for 75 years’.” The file in question, however, is in fact now open to researchers. It contains nothing that is remotely relevant.
Those who suspect skulduggery, meanwhile, have long suggested that British intelligence perhaps obtained information on Japanese plans from coded intercepts – but deliberately withheld it from the Americans. That might support the theory that the British held back from sending Washington a warning – hoping to ensure that America would enter the war. Another version of perfidy.
Research, however, has now produced evidence that – far from London having the potential to be ahead of Washington in cracking Japanese coded messages – there were great gaps in what was read by the British. In a detailed post-war analysis of the period just before Pearl Harbor, GCHQ Deputy Director Nigel de Grey concluded that “we did not have all the Americans had.”
Pearl Harbor spawned multiple conspiracy theories. The notion that Roosevelt and Churchill connived to let the attack happen shows no sign of going away. But it is unsupported by the evidence.
HOW IS YOUR BOOK “A MATTER OF HONOR” DIFFERENT FROM OTHER BOOKS PUBLISHED ON THIS 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF PEARL HARBOR?
Mostly, other books recount the saga of the catastrophe itself and the behind-the-scenes events that led up to it. Our investigation of those events led to new discoveries that show, more vividly than ever before how human failure – much of it by the top brass in Washington – led to the surprise attack. Our special focus, too – for the first time – is the tragic inside story of the man who commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl. Admiral Husband Kimmel, the creme de la creme of his naval generation, was removed from his post, accused of “dereliction of duty,” and lived out his life under a cloud of disgrace. Thanks to unprecedented access to tens of thousands of documents – we tell the story straight for the first time.
THAT’S WHY YOUR BOOK’S TITLE IS A MATTER OF HONOR”?
For a military man governed by the code “death before dishonor”, what befell Kimmel was unthinkable. Dominating his thinking, always, was the memory of the men for whose deaths he had been vilified – 2,403 of them. Through nine official investigations and extraordinary challenges – political trickery, betrayal and personal tragedy (his own eldest son, a submarine skipper, was killed in the Pacific) Kimmel fought until he died to clear his name. First his sons, and after them his grandsons, took up his cause, and are fighting it to this day.
WHAT SORT OF NEW INFORMATION HAVE YOU DISCOVERED?
We report on documents never unearthed until now: a naval chart showing that – ten months before the Japanese attack U.S. Naval lntelligence had detailed evidence showing that aerial torpedoes could be successfully launched in water as shallow as that at Pearl Harbor. Kimmel and his command team were vitally interested in such data. lt was never, however, shared with them, and probably lay filed and forgotten at Navy HQ in Washington. That was only one of multiple screw-ups. It has long been known that, eager to safeguard a vital wartime secret, the fact that U.S. codebreakers were reading Japan’s diplomatic message traffic, government and military leaders failed to share it with Admiral Kimmel and General Short, the Army commander in chief in Hawaii. They, more than almost anyone from the military point of view, ought to have been made aware of it. Our book reveals how and why HQ blew it – and how, later, they covered up.
WHY IS A BOOK ABOUT PEARL HARBOR RELEVANT TODAY?
Because history ignored repeats itself. The lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, which we investigated for our 2011 book “THE ELEVENTH DAY”, is a prime example. There is another parallel. The 9/11 story is bedeviled by allegations of high level U.S. foreknowledge – so too with the Pearl Harbor case, and it can be argued that it spawned the age of conspiracy. President Roosevelt’s enemies, who latched on to the holes in the case against Admiral Kimmel and General Short, used multiple apparent mysteries to sow distrust of FDR and his advisers. The mud stuck. A brief look at the Internet shows that vast numbers of people believe, seventy-flve years on, that FDR, and/or Winston Churchill. or the men around them, had foreknowledge of the coming attack on Pearl Harbor. Our book. almost alone among the serious books on Pearl Harbor, tackles the conspiracy theories with irrefutable new evidence.
WHAT LED YOU TO THE PEARL HARBOR STORY, AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT TACKLING IT?
We lucked into it, then worked damned hard. We encountered the Admiral’s grandson Tom Kimmel. Jr. a former senior FBI agent and retired naval officer, by pure chance. Tears came to his eyes when he discussed the case, and that piqued our interest. As we probed. we found that the entire extended Kimmel family was imbued with the intense desire to clear their forebear’s name. They opened their archives to us without reservation and said, “Let the chips fall where they may!” Cooperation coupled with evident integrity was hard to resist. We had first-ever access to a treasure trove of unpublished letters, diaries and photos.
We read into the published literature and dissected the forty volumes of testimony and documentary evidence of the Pearl Harbor investigations. That gave us a sense of the holes in the official story, the lingering questions. Then, we combed the archives, dug into obscure diaries, letters, and legal records, and tapped our international connections for research in Holland, Germany and the UK. The mountain of documents that we’ve gathered fill thirty file drawers.
WHAT MOST SURPRISED YOU DURING THE RESEARCH FOR THIS BOOK?
We’ve tackled some of the biggest stories of the last century – from the rise of the American Mafia, to the Kennedy assassination, to Watergate. to 9/11. Every time we start a book, someone says, “But hasn’t that been done before? We’ve always had to dig deep, and “A MATTER OF HONOR” has been no different. Seventy-five years after the attack, we find ourselves holding critical, unknown documents.
YOU’RE MARRIED TO ONE ANOTHER. WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WORK TOGETHER AS CO-AUTHORS?
It depends on what day you ask us….
When weore working on a book, we become barely capable of speaking about anything else. Our children and our friends bear the brunt. Working so closely together can be very intense, and we don’t always agree. In the main, though, we trust each other’s judgments. We feel privileged to be able to work on stories that matter. In the case of “A Matter of Honor”, that has also meant being able to contribute an important correction to the historical record. Admiral Kimmel was scapegoated for the mistakes of many. We hope that our work helps to restore his reputation – and his honor. Both houses of Congress voted in 2000 to recommend that he be posthumously restored to the four-star rank he held at the time of Pearl Harbor. No president has made that a reality. Obama may yet do so.
Back in 2011, with the cooperation of 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer and his Commission staff colleague Miles Kara, we had first access to a Commission working paper that incorporated actual audio from the aircraft hijacked on September 11, 2001, and the FAA and military personnel who scrambled to meet the threat.
For this 15th anniversary, we have put the full story of that fateful day together – with the revealing and emotionally charged audio-taped voices of the participants.
Late in 2004, almost three years after the attacks of September 11, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission – then in the final weeks of its work – dictated a memo. It was addressed to the inquiry’s chairman and vice-chairman, and posed a very sensitive question. “How,” Philip Zelikow wanted to know, “should the Commission handle evidence of possible false statements by U.S. officials?”
“Team 8,” he reported, “has found evidence suggesting that one or more USAF officers – and possibly FAA officials – must have known their version was false, before and after it was briefed to and relied upon by the White House, presented to the nation, and presented to us…The argument is not over details; it is about the fundamental way the story was presented. It is the most serious issue of truth/falsity in accounts to us that we have encountered so far…”
The “story” that so provoked the Commission was the military and FAA version of their response to the 9/11 attacks, a response that failed utterly to thwart the terrorists’ operation. The Commission’s belief that it had been deceived would be lost in the diplomatic language of its final Report. Zelikow’s memo on the subject would be withheld until 2009.
COMING IN NOVEMBER 2016 We think we know the story well: In the devastating aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, was relieved of command, accused of dereliction of duty, and publicly disgraced. In this conversation-changing book, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan not only tell Kimmel’s story, they unravel the many apparent mysteries of Pearl Harbor. A Matter of Honor is a heartbreaking human story of politics and war – and epic history.
The Commission’s chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, and the vice-chairman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, however, gave a sense of their frustration in their later memoir. The military’s statements, they declared, were “not forthright or accurate.” To another commissioner, former congressman Tim Roemer, they were, quite simply, “false”. Former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer, the Commission’s senior counsel who led Team 8’s probe of the military’s performance, has said that he was shocked by the “deception”.
Farmer questions not only how the military and the FAA had functioned on 9/11, but also the actions of the President and the Vice President. In his view, “The perpetuation of the untrue official version remains a betrayal of every citizen who demanded a truthful answer to the simple question: What happened?”
Two days after the attacks, Air Force general Richard Myers testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though the hearing had been scheduled before 9/11, questioning turned naturally to the crisis of the moment. For an officer of distinction, about to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Myers seemed confused as to when fighters had gone up to attempt to intercept the hijacked planes. Memory, he said in an oddly vague way, told him that fighters had been launched to intercept Flight 93, the plane that crashed before reaching a target. “I mean,” he said, “we had gotten somebody close to it, as I recall. I’ll have to check it out.”
Within days, another senior officer flatly contradicted Myers. Major-General Paul Weaver, commander of the Air National Guard, gave reporters a detailed timeline of the military’s reaction. According to him, no airplanes had been scrambled to chase Flight 93. “There was no notification for us to launch airplanes…We weren’t even close.”
What, moreover, asked Weaver, could a fighter pilot have done had he intercepted one of the hijacked airliners? “You’re not going to get an American pilot shooting down an American airliner. We don’t have permission to do that. The only person who could grant such permission was the President, the General pointed out, leaving the impression that Bush had not done so.
By week’s end, however, that notion was turned on its head. Vice President Cheney, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that George W. Bush had indeed made the “toughest decision” – to shoot down a civilian airliner if necessary. Fighter pilots, he asserted, had been authorized to “take out” any plane that failed to obey instructions to move away from Washington.
In spite of denials by General Myers and others, there were people who thought United 93 might in fact have been shot down. Bush himself had asked Cheney, “Did we shoot it down, or did it crash?”
In the absence of good evidence to the contrary, though, few now credit the notion that any pilot shot down an airliner filled with helpless civilians on September 11. No pilot would have fired without authorization, could not have done so without fellow officers, radio operators and others being aware of it. There was no way such an action could have been kept secret.
Shootdown aside, the statements by the military and political leadership begged a host of questions. Had fighters really gone up in time to intercept any of the hijacked planes? If they did get up in time, what had they been expected to do? Could they – would they – have shot a plane down? If pilots were cleared to shoot, was the order given in the way the Vice President described? If so, when did he issue the order and when did it reach military commanders?
The most powerful military nation on the planet had been ill-prepared and ill-equipped to confront the attacks. Time was, at the height of the Cold War, when NORAD could have called on more than a hundred squadrons of fighter aircraft to defend the continental United States. By September 2001, the number had dwindled to a token force of just fourteen “alert” planes based at seven widely scattered bases. Only four of those fighters were based in the Northeast Air Defense Sector – NEADS – which covered the geographical area in which the hijackings took place.
Practice runs aside, moreover, the airplanes had never been scrambled to confront an enemy. They were used to intercept civilian aircraft that strayed off course, suspected drug traffickers, planes that failed to file a proper flight plan. Hijacks were rare, and counter-measures were based on the concept of hijacking as it had almost always been carried out since the sixties – the temporary seizure of an airliner, followed by a safe landing and the release of passengers and crew.
The cumbersome protocol in place to deal with a hijacking involved circuitous reporting, up through the FAA and on to the Pentagon, all the way up to the office of the Defense Secretary. At the end of the process, if approval was granted, NORAD would launch fighters. The pilots’ mission would then be to identify and discreetly follow the airplane until it landed. Nothing in their training or experience foresaw a need to shoot down an airliner.
September 11, 2001. Shortly before 7:30, Gen. Myers, was at the Pentagon viewing the slide presentation that comprised part of his usual morning intelligence/operations briefing. The Air Force had deployed additional forces to Alaska and Canada in response to a major Russian military exercise in the northern Pacific that had begun the previous day. The Russians had scheduled the firing of an air-launched cruise missile as part of the exercise – the first such firing since the end of the Cold War. A “threat-ring” graphic depicting the current range from the continental U.S. of Russian military forces – and the missiles they carried – flashed onto the screen as the briefer described them as “the current air threat to CONUS.” Within the hour, the nature of that threat was to change dramatically.
At 8:00 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan airport bound for Los Angeles with 92 people aboard. All appeared well until thirteen minutes into the flight when Air Traffic Control lost contact with the cockpit.
“American 11 [instruction…there is no response]….American 11 [instruction]….American 11, Boston…American 11, Boston…American 11, the American on the frequency. How do you hear me?…He will not respond to me now…He’s turning right….American 11, Boston…American 11, if you hear Boston Center, ident….American, if you hear Boston, ident please, or acknowledge…..American 11, if you hear Boston Center….[THERE IS NO RESPONSE
Increasingly concerned, the Boston controller tried repeatedly over the next nine minutes to raise the flight and check the status of his own equipment. At 8:21, the plane changed course and someone turned off its transponder – severely limiting controllers ability to judge its position, speed or even to identify it accurately.
At 8:18, unbeknownst at the time to the controllers, a telephone rang at an American Airlines office almost a thousand miles away, in the town of Cary, North Carolina. The woman calling was a senior Flight 11 attendant, forty-ﬁve-year-old Betty “Bee” Ong.
Using a seatback Airfone, Ong had dialed a number that crews knew well – they used it to help passengers with onward travel plans. When she got through, finally, to an American Airlines ground supervisor named Nydia Gonzalez, she sounded “calm, professional, and poised. The first four and a half minutes of Ong’s call, the standard duration of the recording system at American, tell the tale.
I’m in my jumpseat, that’s 3R….My name is Betty Ong, I’m number 3 on Flight 11….The cockpit’s not answering their phone. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and, ah, I think there’s Mace that we can’t breathe. I don’t know. I think we’re getting hijacked . . . Somebody is coming back from business . . . hold on for one second . . . Karen and Bobbi got stabbed. [This last sentence, the tape shows, was spoken by a fellow attendant close by.] . . . Our number 1 got stabbed . . . our galley ﬂight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can’t get into the cockpit. The door won’t open.
“Karen” was lead ﬂight attendant Karen Martin, “Bobbi” her backup BarbaraArestegui. Martin, Ong said, lost consciousness, then came around and was being given oxygen. Arestegui appeared not to be seriously injured. The passenger in First Class Seat 9B, however, appeared to be dead.
The man in Seat 9B had perhaps tried to intervene and ﬁght the hijackers. He was Daniel Lewin, an American-Israeli who had served in a crack Israeli commando unit. Lewin spoke Arabic, and may have understood before anyone else what the hijackers intended. Ong said the passenger in Seat 10B, directly to his rear, had stabbed Lewin to death. The man in 10B was one of the ﬁve young Arabs who had boarded that morning. The killer and another hijacker, Ong said had gotten had gotten into the cockpit. The sound of “loud arguing” had been heard.
There is no knowing exactly how or when the hijackers erupted into the cockpit. “There was no warning to be more vigilant,” Captain Ogonowski’s wife Peg would later say ruefully. “These people come in behind him. He’s sitting low, forward, strapped in – the same with his co-pilot. No warning…”
Ogonowski and co-pilot Tom McGuiness had been trained not to respond to force with force. FAA policy instructed pilots to “refrain from trying to overpower or negotiate with hijackers, to land the aircraft as soon as possible, to communicate with authorities, and to try delaying tactics.”
At 8:32, using a borrowed calling card, Ong’s colleague Amy Sweeney placed a call back to the American office back at Logan. She began speaking with duty manager Michael Woodward.
Sweeney said the hijackers had “boxes connected with red and yellow wire” – a bomb, she thought. One, she said, spoke no English. So far, passengers in Coach seemed unaware of what was going on.
As Ong talked on, Nydia Gonzalez passed on what she learned to American’s security office in Texas.
“American Airlines Emergency line. Please state your emergency.”
“This is Nydia, American Airlines, calling. I’m monitoring a call from a flight attendant on Flight 11. …She is advising that the pilots…everyone’s been stabbed. They can’t get into the cockpit. That’s what I’m hearing.”
“Who’s this I’m talking to?”
Raleigh, [Carolina] Ops. Center.”
“What was your name again?”
“Gonzalez. [spells] We’ve got a flight attendant on the line one of our agents.”
“I’m assuming you are declaring an emergency. Let me get APC on here…”
“Betty, you’re doing a great job. Just stay calm, okay….We are absolutely. We’re contacting the flight now. We’re also contacting APC.”….
“Is there a doctor on board?” “You don’t have any doctors on board….”
“You’ve got all the First Class passengers out of First Class? “
“Have they taken everyone out of First Class?”
“Yeah. She says that they have. They’re in Coach.” “What’s going on honey?”
“The aircraft, it’s erratic again. Flying erratically…”……
“They are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking….They seem to think he is descending.”
“They may have sprayed something. They’re having a hard time breathing.”
Now Ong’s connection was fading in and out. Her colleague Amy Sweeney said she could see they were now “over New York City.” Then Ong exclaimed, “Oh God!…Oh God!…” and began to cry.
Sweeney screamed and said, “Something is wrong. I don’t think the captain is in control. We are in a rapid descent…We are all over the place…I see water! I see buildings!…” Next, a deep breath and, slowly, calmly, “Oh my God!…We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” Seconds later, again, “Oh my God, we are way too low…”
The American Airlines people on the ground could no longer hear either flight attendant. In Boston, duty manager Woodward got only “very, very loud static.” In North Carolina, Gonzalez hung on the line.
“What’s going on Betty. Betty, talk to me. Betty….”
“O, we’ll stay open…”
“I think we may have lost her….”
While Ong and Sweeney had been alerting their colleagues, the Boston air traffic control had picked up an ominous message from the cockpit. Someone in the 767’s cockpit someone had keyed the mike to make an announcement to the passengers – but had instead broadcast a message to controllers.
Controller: “Is that American 11 trying to call?”
Male voice[accented]: “We have some planes. Just say quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.”
Controller: “Who’s trying to call me here?…American 11, are you trying to call.”
Male voice: “Nobody move. Everything is okay. If you try to make a move you endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
Then seconds later, another transmission:
Male voice: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
In Herndon, Virginia, the FAA’s new national operations manager Ben Sliney had begun his first day on the job by fielding a routine phone call alerting him pending Russian missile shot. Ten minutes later, though, at 8:28, a call came through from Boston Center advising that American 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York.
The nerve center for the military on September 11 was an unprepossessing aluminum bunker, the last functional building on an otherwise abandoned Air Force base in upstate New York. From the outside, only antenna betrayed its possible importance. Inside, technicians manned rows of antiquated computers and radar screens. They did not, though, expect to have a quiet day on September 11. Their commander, Colonel Robert Marr, moreover, expected to have to respond to a hijacking.
A simulated hijacking. For the Northeast Air Defense Sector’s headquarters was gearing up for its part in the latest phase of Vigilant Guardian, one of several largescale annual exercises. This one, old-fashioned in that it tested military preparedness for an attack by Russian bombers, included a scenario in which an enemy would seize an airliner and fly it to an unnamed Caribbean island.
At 8:30 that morning, the exercise proper had not yet got under way. The colonel was munching apple fritters. His mission-control commander, Major Kevin Nasypany, was away from the Ops floor getting a coffee. The general to whom they answered, Larry Arnold, was at the NORAD Command Center in Florida.
On the Ops floor at NEADS, Master Sergeant Maureen Dooley, Technical Sergeant Shelley Watson, and Senior Airman Stacia Rountree, were chatting about furniture at the mall – wondering whether an ottoman and a love seat were on sale. To be sure, the orders for the day’s training exercise provided for the team to be capable of responding to a “Real World Unknown”, but no one expected much to happen.
Then the unknown arrived, in the form of a call from FAA controller Joe Cooper, at Boston Center, to Sergeant Jeremy Powell. It was 8:38.
Cooper: Hi, Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit] We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
Sgt. Jeremy Powell: Is this real-world or exercise?
Cooper: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
The sergeant, and the women who moments earlier had been discussing home furnishings, needed some persuading. Phased by the advent of real-life excitement, Shelley Watson even exclaimed, “Cool!” A moment later, after an “Oh, shit…”, she was all business. “We need call-sign, type aircraft. Have you got souls on board, and all that information?…a destination?” Cooper could say only that the airplane seized was American 11 – as would become clear, the first of the four hijacks. No one could have imagined the destination its hijackers had in mind.
By 8:41, Colonel Marr had ordered the two alert jets at Otis Air National Guard base, on Cape Cod, to battle stations.
Marr immediately passed the order down the chain of command, but it was immediately clear there was a problem.
Weapons Director: I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.”
At 8:46, having conferred with General Arnold, Marr ordered the Otis planes into the air – to no avail.
Absent any detailed data, they were assigned merely to fly to military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. In the same minute, a hundred and fifty-three miles away, American 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The NEADS technicians, who had a TV set, saw the tower in flames. “Oh, God,” Sergeant Watson said quietly. “Oh my God…”A colleague at her side cried, “God save New York.”
Watch for Part 2 of IN THEIR OWN WORDS: INTHE TRUE STORY OF THE 9/11 BATTLE IN THE SKY to be published in coming days
In late 1942, after his stint with band leader Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra was back in New Jersey playing small-town theaters. His luck turned on December 12, his twenty-seventh birthday, thanks to a persistent New York booker named Harry Romm. After weeks of trying, Romm got the attention of Robert Weitman, director of the Paramount Theater, Broadway’s hottest music and movie venue.
Romm went on and on about Sinatra. “Take a chance. Come over and look for yourself,” he recalled telling Weitman. “It’s the damnedest thing you ever saw. A skinny kid who looks strictly from hunger is singing over in Newark and the she kids are yelling and fainting all over the joint. You’ve got to see it to believe it….”
Weitman agreed to go to Newark’s cavernous Mosque Theater to hear Sinatra perform. The place was less than half full. “Then,” he remembered, “this skinny kid walks out on the stage. He was not much older than the kids in the seats. He looked like he still had milk on his chin. As soon as they saw him, the kids went crazy. And when he started to sing they stood up and yelled and moaned and carried on until I thought – excuse the expression – his pants had fallen down.”
Weitman swung into action within hours. “He rang me at the house,” Frank remembered, “and said ‘What are you doing New Year’s Eve?’ I said, ‘Not a thing. I can’t even get booked anywhere….He said, ‘I’d like you to open at the joint.’ He used to call the Paramount ‘the joint.’ I said, ‘You mean on New Year’s Eve?’ He said, ‘That’s right.’…And I fell right on my butt!”
The Paramount was majestic, the tallest structure on Broadway north of the Woolworth Building. The illuminated glass globe at its top could be seen as far away as New Jersey. Its plush red and gold auditorium could accommodate almost four thousand people. Fred Astaire, Gary Cooper, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, were among the stars who had seen their names on the marquee beneath the Paramount’s vast ornamental arch. At dawn on December 30, when Frank arrived to rehearse, there was his name beneath the title of the movie and “Benny Goodman and his Band,” and alongside the billings for the Radio Rogues comedy act: “EXTRA – FRANK SINATRA.”
That night was pivotal. For all his early success, he was still relatively unknown. When Weitman told Goodman that Frank would be appearing, Goodman asked: “Who’s he?” “I introduced Frank Sinatra as if he were one of my closest friends,” the comedian Jack Benny remembered. “I had to make all of this up, because I didn’t know who he was.” He did it only as a favor to Weitman.
Yet as Sinatra’s name was spoken, there came a reaction from the audience that no one present ever forgot. “I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in,” said Benny, “people running down to the stage, screaming and nearly knocking me off the ramp.” As Weitman remembered it, there was a long call from the audience of “F-R-A-N-K-I-E-E-E-E-E!” Sinatra himself recalled a sound that was “absolutely deafening…a tremendous roar.” Conducting with his back to the audience, Goodman could not imagine what was going on.
Frank froze in terror for a moment, then burst out laughing. He could not remember later whether he began by singing “For Me and My Gal” or “Black Magic.” “The devout,” wrote the editor of The New Republic, Bruce Bliven, had recognized “a pleasant-appearing young man” who “with gawky long steps moves awkwardly to the center of the stage while the shrieking continues….He has a head of black curls and holds it to one side as he gestures clumsily and bashfully, trying to keep the crowd quiet enough for him to sing….”
Something unprecedented had begun. Vast throngs of people, most of them very young and most of them female, began flocking to the theater. Frank was soon singing as many as a hundred songs a day – at least nine shows. “One Saturday I did eleven shows,” he remembered. “We started at 8:10 in the morning and finished at 2:30 Sunday morning.”
When his family came to the theater they became part of the spectacle. Nancy was lost to sight in the throng and Dolly was pawed by the fans. “I couldn’t hear,” Marty complained. “Who could hear?” For Frank’s grandfather Francesco, now in his late eighties, it was all too much. “I put him in the third row, in among the kids,” Frank remembered. “He didn’t know what the hell happened to him because when I came out on the stage everything broke loose and he just sat there. I could see his face. He was absolutely terrified. They brought him back in the dressing room after the performance, and he was so angry – that he had come that far and never heard me sing. He didn’t understand that that was the game that the kids played….”
The original one-week appearance at the Paramount was extended, first to a month, then to two months, a theater record. Frank agreed to return in the spring. His audience was made up overwhelmingly of schoolgirls in their early or mid-teens, typically dressed in sweaters, knee-length skirts, and white socks – bobbysoxers. Webster’sDictionary defines one as an “adolescent girl”.
“The squealing yells reverberated,” Bob Weitman’s friend Armand Deutsch, a film producer, said of the fans, “It was a new sound, a screaming expression of adulation and curiously innocent eroticism. They were, Bob told me sadly, almost impossible to dislodge, fiercely fighting all eviction efforts and drastically cutting the grosses.”
Few bobbysoxers stayed for only one performance. They came with food and drink and settled in. Theater staff often found the girls had urinated on their seats, either out of fear of losing them if they went to the bathroom or out of sheer excitement.
“They would scream every time he sang a word like ‘love,’” said Al Viola, who was to become Frank’s principal guitarist. “I used to think, ‘Oh, here it comes!’” Sometimes, though, the fans were “as hushed as if they were in church.”
Fans fell to their knees in the aisles. Girls lined up to kiss Frank’s picture on billboards, begged for trimmings from the floor of his barber’s shop, snatched the handkerchief from his jacket pocket as he passed. In the hope of forcing him to stop and sign autographs, some flung themselves in front of his car. They gave him teddy bears, heart-shaped flower arrangements, a loving cup, a golden key – said to fit the heart of its sender.
“He was my idol when I was in eighth grade,” Marie Caruba, a former teacher in her late seventies, recalled half a century later. “I had his photos all over my locker. I worked some days at Gardella’s Ice Cream shop, and the only way I’d work in the afternoons would be if Mr. Gardella let me listen to Frank on the radio. I knew, of course, that he was singing just to me. We lived in Connecticut, and a girlfriend and I would hop a train down to New York to go to matinees at the Paramount. I went as often as I could, but my mother never knew.”
“Groups of little girls used to play hooky from school,” said Martha Lear,“off to shriek and swoon through four shows live, along with several thousand other demented teenagers….That glorious shouldered spaghetti strand way down there in the spotlight would croon on serenely, giving us a quick little flick of a smile or, as a special bonus, a sidelong tremor of the lower lip. I used to bring binoculars just to watch that lower lip….Before going home we would forge the notes from our parents: ‘Please excuse Martha’s absence from school yesterday as she was sick….’”
On October 11, 1944, opening night of another run at the Paramount in New York, Frank triggered a frenzy unprecedented in the history of music. Girls waited in the street all night to buy tickets. When the doors opened, a capacity crowd crammed into the theater and began chanting his name. The fans totally ignored the movie that was shown and then – when he appeared – their screaming made him virtually inaudible.
By five o’clock in the morning the next day, a veritable army of young people was already waiting outside and near the Paramount. “I ventured down to Times Square,” wrote Earl Wilson, who had been working through the night at the Post, “and was literally scared away. The police estimated that 10,000 kids were queued up six abreast on 43rd Street, Eighth Avenue, and 44th Street, and another 20,000 were running wild in Times Square, overrunning the sidewalks and making traffic movement almost impossible.
“Over on Fifth Avenue, a Columbus Day parade was forming. Two hundred cops were taken off guard duty there and rushed over….Eventually there were 421 police reserves, twenty radio cars, two emergency trucks, four lieutenants, six sergeants, two captains, two assistant chief inspectors, two inspectors, seventy patrolmen, fifty traffic cops, twelve mounted police, twenty policewomen and two hundred detectives, trying to control some 25,000 teenage girls. Girls shrieked, fainted – or swooned – fell down, were stepped on and pulled up by their companions and resumed screaming. They rushed the ticket booth and damaged it. Windows were broken.”
Of the 3,600 fans admitted for the first performance, only a couple of hundred left when it ended. Angry thousands waiting outside swarmed around the neighborhood all day, not dispersing until nightfall. There was similar chaos when Frank appeared in Chicago, Boston, and Pittsburgh. The New Republic described it as an “electric contagion of excitement…a phenomenon of mass hysteria that is seen only two or three times in a century.”
“What is it you’ve got,” the actress Carmen Miranda asked Frank in 1944, “that makes the girls all cry over you?”
“It’s not what I’ve got, Carmen,” Frank replied, “it’s what they’ve got. Imagination.”
The adulation of Elvis Presley ten years later, or of the Beatles in 1964, perhaps came close. The furor over Frank, though, was the first eruption of youthful idolatry in the twentieth century, and as great as any that has come since.
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.
You need only say “Frank” – millions connect at once to the second name. Sinatra. His music is an evening dress slipping down to reveal a soft shoulder. A hand sliding up a thigh, probing for the stocking top. Sinatra would be 100 years old in December, but his songs remain part of the background of all our lives. In a world where celebrity lasts but a nanosecond, Frank Sinatra holds his value.
One day, soon after Sinatra’s death, a New York editor took us to lunch. He asked us to write Frank’s biography. One that would square the circle between the great artist and the monster that seemed to lurk behind the headlines. The editor wanted it all – the music of course, but also the truth about the Mafia connection and the notorious temper. And the women.
Frank couldn’t read music and wrote only two songs – his talent lay in the seductive skill he brought to the material. When Sinatra sang of longing, of love found and lost, the listener knew he’d been there himself.
Frank’s women were a special challenge. There were (really were) so many of them – press clippings hinted at affairs with starlets, songbirds and society girls too numerous to count – and habitual use of prostitutes. Oh, and four wives. Most of the information came from gossip columns – unnamed sources, friends of friends. While he was alive Frank’s real friends obeyed his edict: “Don’t tell!” Now that he was dead we set out to break through the wall of silence. Hundreds of interviews later, here is the story.
The young Sinatra and his parents, like other working class Italian-Americans of the nineteen-thirties, escaped in summer to the New Jersey shore. In 1931, at 15, Frank crossed the street to chat up a pretty girl named Nancy Barbato. He had a concave chest, a still reedy voice and a ukulele under his arm. “I was a poor, lonely, and discouraged kid, when I met her,” he said later. “In Nancy, I found beauty, warmth and understanding.”
That didn’t stop Frank straying. “There were lots of women,” his old friend Lucille Buccini told me. “His ears stuck out,” another pal recalled, “but broads swarmed over him.” Frank told his friend Tom Raskin, “I’m just looking to make it with as many women as I can.”
That youthful ambition rapidly got him into trouble. One girl, another Nancy, feared she’d become pregnant after a night with Frank. She remembers dragging him to church, where he prayed “C’mon God, gimme a break, will ya?” God obliged – on that occasion.
An infamous mugshot of Sinatra, prisoner number 42799, dates from 1938. Taken only weeks before Frank and Nancy’s wedding, it relates to an amatory misadventure with a woman named Toni. “He was promising both women that he’d marry them,” remembered Fred Travelena, who worked at the club where Frank had started singing.
Lucille Buccini was there the night Toni stormed in to confront Frank – in front of Nancy. Toni filed a complaint against him with the police. The charge? “Seduction…of a single female of good repute for chastity, whereby she became pregnant.” Toni wasn’t pregnant and was already married to another man.
Frank and Nancy got married soon after. She worked days (and had babies), while Frank worked nights singing in the clubs. In 1940, when he got his break with the Tommy Dorsey band and went to Hollywood, Frank indulged “his first big love away from home.” He and a young actress named Alora Gooding holed up in a rented penthouse. More than fifty years later, Gooding’s daughter Julie would claim Frank as her father.
Back in Hollywood in 1944, by now a national sensation with a movie contract from MGM, he brought Nancy – and their daughter and infant son – with him. That did not deter him from drawing up a shopping list of actresses he’d like to bed – and working through it. Frank’s relationship with Nancy had been “neighbourhood serious,” as pianist Joe Bushkin put it. But Frank had left the neighbourhood.
A home movie shows Sinatra by a pool, holding a lit cigarette between his toes. As a blonde enters the frame, the two exchange looks and banter. Singer Marilyn Maxwell, billed as “one of the best sweater-fillers in Hollywood,” had known Frank since they were both young band singers and they had a passionate affair. “Crazy about each other,” Frank’s pal Nick Sevano recalled.
Frank certainly took crazy risks. At a New Year’s party in their own home Nancy spotted a diamond bracelet glittering on Maxwell’s wrist – identical to one she had seen in the glove box of the family car days before and imagined was for her. Frank promised to end the affair.
The marriage wobbled on. Frank started going out on his own and drinking too much of the Jack Daniels he would make famous. Nancy – who still reminded her husband to wear his galoshes when he went out in the rain – must have seemed like a clucking hen compared to the brilliantly plumed birds of Hollywood. Marlene Dietrich and Lana Turner were among the more exotic creatures Frank bedded.
At forty-four, Dietrich was fourteen years Sinatra’s senior, her husky voice long since internationally famous. Her many lovers had included Maurice Chevalier, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne – and some women, including Greta Garbo.
“I know they had a thing going,” said Frank’s songwriter Sammy Cahn, “She had powers as a lover that were spoken of behind people’s hands …she was supposedly the champion in the oral sex department.” Marlene herself described Frank as “the only really tender man I have ever known.”
MGM’s leading sweater girl, Lana Turner, was in 1946 preparing for her role as an adulteress in The Postman Always Rings Twice – the first movie version. When they began an intense affair, too blatantly, Nancy issued a public statement saying Frank had left home “seeking the freedom of separation without divorce.”
Hollywood contracts in those days routinely included a “morals clause,” and a tearful Lana was soon denying the affair. “I have never in my life broken up a home,” she told reporters. Within three weeks of leaving, Frank sang “Goin Home” to Nancy in a nightclub, and did just that.
Even as he dallied with Lana, Frank had been romancing a bit-part actress named Shirley Ballard. “We were in Palm Springs, at the Chi Chi Club,” she told me. “Frank tips back in the chair and eyeballs me and sings ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You’ – to me! Those blue eyes. They nailed you.” At his latest penthouse hideaway, Frank introduced her to the intricacies of music – classical music – and got her into bed. He was a “considerate lover, not selfish,” as she remembered it.
Shirley also saw another side of Frank. He cheerfully took her to the house where the mobster Bugsy Siegel had been riddled with bullets, to toast his departed friend in champagne.
The Sinatra marriage was now so damaged that in 1947, when Nancy again found herself pregnant, she went off to Mexico for an abortion. Frank was devastated. Though they went on to have a third child, the marriage was beyond repair.
Enter Ava Gardner, the woman who was to be Frank’s femmefatale. She was a tough-talking, hard-drinking, volatile actress from Nowhereville who had been married and divorced twice – and her star was rising at a time Frank’s was in decline. “My God, she was beautiful!” her friend Peggy Maley remembered. In those pre-email days, the two women came home each night to an avalanche of handwritten invitations from suitors. Even as headlines began to ask “Is Sinatra Finished?,” he set out to win her.
When they went to bed, Ava remembered, she “truly felt that no matter what happened we would always be in love.” When the press found out Nancy, “terribly hurt,” started divorce proceedings at last.
Ava had been right. She and Frank would be in love for the rest of their lives. They both drank, though, and fought constantly. When Ava dallied with a co-star, Frank retaliated with infidelities of his own. One night he took an overdose of sleeping pills. “He suffered,” Sinatra’s friend Brad Dexter told us. “Ava emasculated him.”
Frank married Ava all the same, but soon she was complaining that he was an absentee husband and went to bed with the director of her latest film. She claimed that she aspired to motherhood, and twice became pregnant during the filming in Africa of Mogambo. Each time, she took off for London to have an abortion. When she told Frank of the first abortion, after the fact, he sobbed uncontrollably. The second child was likely fathered not by Frank, but by an adviser on the Mogambo shoot, a very English “great white hunter.”
“The exact moment I made the decision to seek a divorce,” Ava said years later, “was the day the phone rang and Frank was on the other end announcing that he was in bed with another woman.” In autumn 1953, after a publicist announced the couple’s separation. Frank slit his wrists. He survived, of course, as he did other half-serious suicide attempts.
Professional and personal oblivion threatened, but Frank fought his way back . There was the Oscar-winning performance as Maggio in the movie From Here to Eternity. Then there was his triumph with the albums that would become the core of his legacy: Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely. And on and on.
The personal life, though, remained a sad struggle. The night he won the Oscar, Frank wandered Beverly Hills alone, clutching the little gold statuette. He sometimes took visitors “home” to Nancy and the children – the neighbourhood girl still kept a few of his shirts in the cupboard, his monogrammed towels in the bath.
“It was nightmare time after Ava,” one of Frank’s lovers recalled. Those briefly enlisted to banish the bad dreams included Anita Ekberg and the heiress Gloria Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, who had a husband forty-two years her senior, wrote that she could “not imagine a long tomorrow with F. and me in it.” Jeanne Carmen, a pin-up girl and trick golfer who dated him off and on for years, remembered him above all as having been “needy…like a little boy.”
Nineteen-year-old singer Jill Corey noticed Frank watching her as she performed in a club in Manhattan. In 2001, she quietly sang me the song she’d written about their first date, the start of a five-year relationship.
“Tonight I’ve a date with Sinatra,
Oh God, I’m experiencing angst!
In my virginal state, should he kiss me I’d faint,
And do I call him Frankie or Frank?”
There were few virgins. On a tour of Australia, his fourteen-year-old daughter Nancy was horrified to find a pair of women’s stockings in her father’s bedroom. Frank’s valet George Jacobs said his boss leafed through movie magazines looking for women to “do”. He rushed at women, then dumped them. “All of a sudden,” sighed one conquest, “he doesn’t phone.” Frank had abandoned Jill Corey in favour of a game of cards. Ava haunted him. “I will never hurt like that again,” he told his daughter Tina.
Frank’s home was still a shrine to Ava, photographs of her were everywhere. For a couple of years in the mid-fifties, he appeared to be serious about the jazz singer Peggy Connelly. She looked very like Ava. Frank was an “energetic and interested” lover, Connelly told us, “but it was more about himself.” Though intelligent and hugely generous, he had an explosive temper. “If he got angry, it went from zero to ten,” Peggy said. “There wasn’t much in between.”
Peggy once returned from a trip to find that Frank had spent the night – in the hotel room they shared – with Ava. He twice asked Peggy to marry him, but she turned him down. She was not about to tolerate relapses into the arms of Ava, and left Frank for good in 1957.
Frank again moved on. Some think his affair with Lauren “Betty” Bacall, the famously devoted wife of Frank’s close friend Humphrey Bogart, started even before Bogie died from throat cancer. “There must have always been a special feeling alive between Frank and me,” Bacall wrote later. At Christmas 1957, months after his most recent proposal to Peggy Connelly, Frank asked Betty to marry him. Then he broke with her, accusing Bacall of leaking the news of the engagement to the press. Betty said later “I couldn’t have lived with that fucking mercurial personality” anyway.
Frank had power, and power usually ensured his lovers’ silence. Decades passed before Zsa Zsa Gabor revealed that Frank cajoled her into having sex – with her child sleeping just along the corridor – by refusing to leave until she relented. Sandra Giles, another actress, fell asleep drunk at Frank’s house and woke to find herself in bed – undressed now – and Frank trying to badger her into sex by claiming they’d made love earlier. It was a lie. The husband of Shirley Van Dyke,a would-be actress, told us of a sordid deal. In return for sex, he claimed, Sinatra got Van Dyke acting jobs.
Early in his time with Bacall, Frank had a fling on the side with Hungarian actress Eva Bartok. Nine months later, when she gave birth to a baby girl, she left blank the space for “Father’s Name” on the birth certificate. She always felt “1,000%” sure, however, that the child was Frank’s. The little girl, Deana, looked like him, down to those magical blue eyes. Eva, and eventually Deanna herself, years later wrote to Frank begging him to acknowledge his daughter. They wanted nothing of him, they emphasized, except the chance to meet. Frank replied, through his lawyer, that he was too busy.
In the Rat Pack period of the early 1960s, by then in his mid-forties, Frank was still flailing around for love. There was the dark-haired beauty Judith Campbell, whom Frank first bedded and then handed over to John F. Kennedy. Witnesses we interviewed said Campbell took money for sex – something she long denied – and may have been put in Kennedy’s path by Sam Giancana, one of Sinatra’s powerful Mafia cronies.
Marilyn Monroe also served Sinatra and Kennedy as on-off lover. Dean Martin’s wife Jeanne remembered a cruise in the summer of 1961, when Marilyn and Frank shared a cabin. “She was half dressed,” Martin recalled, “wandering around the deck…pitifully trying to find someone to give her pills at three o’clock in the morning.”
Frank soon announced his engagement to the twenty-three-year old dancer Juliet Prowse, whom he’d met on a movie set. They set up house together. Frank painted, while Juliet tended the garden. But he wanted her to stop working, got drunk and flew into violent rages – bang went another relationship.
In 1964, when Sinatra took up with nineteen-year-old Mia Farrow, she saw in him a “wounding tenderness that even he can’t bear to acknowledge.” They married in a four-minute Las Vegas ceremony two years later. Photographs show her in evening dress, looking childlike among Frank’s much older friends. As with Prowse, the terminal rift came over Mia’s career. She insisted on honouring her contract to finish work on Rosemary’s Baby, and Frank despatched a lawyer with divorce papers.
After what was supposed to be his “retirement” in 1971, Frank turned sixty-six. He still dated, but half-heartedly now. “We slept in the same bed,” actress Patty Duke said, “but never was there any sex.” With Marianna Case, a Playboy-bunny he’d noticed in a bra commercial, things never went beyond a “kiss and a hug.” Frank’s daughter Tina thought him the loneliest man in the world.
What he looked for in a woman now, he said, was intelligence and a degree of reserve. He seemed for a while to have found her in Lois Nettleton, a sensitive stage actress who for once was only fifteen years his junior. They listened to classical music, cycled together on quiet roads in Palm Springs. He gave Lois little gifts, called her “scrumptious”. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, he turned on her in a rage over nothing and stormed off. Another goodbye.
Frank could neither really retire nor live for long without a woman at his side. In 1974, when he returned to the microphone and delighted the Madison Square Garden audience with “Let Me Try Again,” the lyrics seemed especially appropriate. He had embarked on a relationship that would last.
It had looked briefly as though Frank would circle back to first wife Nancy. Twenty-five years after divorcing, they spent a few tender days together. Frank spoke of reconciliation, if not with Nancy then perhaps – for he never gave up – with Ava. Frank’s daughter Tina thought the new woman he’d been seeing lately, former showgirl Barbara Marx, was just “a one-night stand with an extended visa.”
Wrong. When Frank did call Ava several times asking if she would come back –her companion Reenie Jordan remembered – Ava “told him no. She told him to marry Barbara.” And so he did, and they stayed together until his death at eighty-two. He called Barbara “the sunshine of my life.” Tina Sinatra, especially, loathed her, thought she was only after Frank’s money. The last Mrs. Sinatra does not give interviews.
The love of Frank’s life had been Ava. When she died years before him, of drink and cigarettes, a distraught Sinatra went on stage and sang the lament that – for him – was about the woman he could not forget:
“I could tell you a lot
But you gotta be true to your code
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road.
He never did tell, never wrote an autobiography. He sang the songs the lonely heart sings, and sings them still.