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Sinatra in Sicily, “My Way Museum” opens in Sinatra’s home town

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.

2 _ CHURCH _DOCS - edited

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.

3 _ BOAT_DOCS - edited

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).

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Sinatra at the Paramount

An Extract from SINATRA: The Life

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’s Dictionary 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.

 

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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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The Many Loves of Frank Sinatra

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 femme fatale. 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.

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Kicking and screaming!

That’s how Anthony, anyway, will be coming to this blog.

With more than 70 years of reporting and writing experience between us (eight books and more documentaries and articles than we can count), however, we think we have lots still to say. And this is going to be the place we say it.

We’ll be digging into our archives to share stories we’ve written nowhere else, fleshing out and elaborating on the revelations in our latest book, The Eleventh Day. We’ll also be commenting on stories and events that grab our attention – particularly from the worlds of politics, intelligence, and organized crime. Bear with us as we get the bugs out (that was not a jibe, Mr. Murdoch). We hope eventually to be worth the wait.

 Anthony Summers & Robbyn Swan

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