Monday, December 21, 2015

Kitty Kelley on Ol' Blue Eyes

I first met Kitty Kelley in Los Angeles the early 1980s when she doing her research on the book she was preparing to write about the life of Frank Sinatra. We had met through a friend of mine who had sublet her apartment to Kitty for a few months. 

Kitty Kelley.
After she was settled in, she called me because she’d learned from my friend that although I did not know Frank Sinatra, and at that point in my life I hadn’t met him, I knew a number of people in Hollywood who were friends of his, as well as many people in the industry who had worked closely with him.

I too was a lifelong fan as well as admirer of the man as a performer and singer. The man’s temperament was already as well known to his millions of fans as was his very great artistry as singer. His social associations with “the mob” was just another one of those inferences and/or facts that had been written about many times. I also knew that as a very successful performer whose career had at times been as volatile as his famous temper, he was also a man who loved and pursued the company of “social” people or what stood for “society” in the world. With all of these people he was beloved, adored and even idolized.

Janet de Cordova, who was the wife of film and TV director Freddie de Cordova, once told me that any time Sinatra entered a room and saw a women sitting nearby, if he uttered in his own fashion “hiya doll” to her in passing, no matter who the woman was, no matter how high and mighty she ranked on the social scale, she melted and, according to Janet, “would have gone anywhere with him.” Men knew this about him too, of course, and were always in awe.
With his men friends, he was a great and generous and caring friend. When Kitty's book was finally published in 1986, it caused a sensation and the 575 page tome sold more than a million copies hardcover. I read it of course, and was fascinated. A friend of mine, Armand ("Ardie") Deutsch, who was one of the few friends of Sinatra who would grant an interview to Kitty, told me after reading it that "she pretty much got right." Ardie was devoted to his friend and was with his wife Harriet very much a part of Sinatra's inner social circle. But he also was personally aware of the foibles and shortcomings of the man. But he accepted it the way one accepts one's own failings, and therefore saw nothing unrealistic about seeing them in print.

"His Way," the Kitty Kelley biography of America's most famous crooner of the 20th century, is being reissued on its 30th anniversary, and New York Social Diary was given the privilege by the author of publishing her new introduction to the work as well as one of the two new chapters — which we will publish next week — that she had added to the book. When I sat down to read this introduction, I was only being perfunctory — the editor looking for typos, etc. because, after all, I'd already read the book and some parts more than once. However, this introduction was more than that. It completely revived my interest in the story of Frank Sinatra once again. Fascinating and beyond. — DPC
Frank Sinatra, who never learned to read music, liked to describe himself as a saloon singer. At the age of seventy he was still straddling his bar stool, if a little shaky. By then “The Voice,” as bobby-soxers called him, had passed the pinnacle of his artistic powers, and could no longer make you hear nightingales sing in Berkeley Square. Still he insisted on performing, even though he stumbled on stage, forgot lyrics, and could not read the Teleprompters in front of him.

On his 75th birthday he kicked off a 75-city diamond jubilee world tour that he barely completed. Yet four years later, he scored his biggest musical coup in a decade with “Frank Sinatra: Duets I” and “Frank Sinatra: Duets II,” comprising signature songs that he recorded by himself in studio.  His partners, including Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Aretha Franklin, U2’s Bono, Natalie Cole and Carly Simon, also recorded separately, matching their voices to his. Smart digital technology combined the solos into duets that made the Billboard charts, and sold more than 3.7 million copies in the U.S. alone. The following year Sinatra celebrated his 80th birthday at the Shrine Auditorium watching Ray Charles, Little Richard, Natalie Cole and Salt-N-Pepa sing his songs. By then he was falling into the clutches of Alzheimer’s.

Unlike his friend Cary Grant, who stopped making movies when he aged beyond matinee idol status, Frank Sinatra continued performing well past his prime.  He needed the adulation and applause that had been his since 1942 when he first started singing at the Paramount Theater. “It gives me a high,” he said. His son, Frank Jr., said his father would become “a dribbling madman” were he to retire. Despite 58 films, Frank Sinatra was more singer than movie star, so for him to stop singing was to stop living.  “Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant,” he once said. “When I sing, I believe I’m being honest.”

He hated growing old, wearing a hearing aid, losing his hair and most of his memory. He tried to run away from death, which W.C. Fields called “the Fellow in the satin slippers,” but throughout the 1990’s he was forced to say good-bye to many he loved most. Ava Gardner died in London in 1990 and was buried in North Carolina under a wreath that said: “With my love, Francis.” Her memoir, published a few months later, recounted their turbulent marriage with its abortions, pistol shooting sprees, screaming obscenities, and flying ashtrays, but through it all she said they remained “lovers eternally.”
Frank and Ava.
Months later Sammy Davis, Jr. died wearing the enormous gold Cartier watch Frank had given him. When Jilly Rizzo was killed by a drunk driver in 1992, Frank buried him next to Dolly and Marty Sinatra in the family’s plot in Palm Springs. The toughest farewell came on Christmas day, 1995, when his paisan, Dean Martin, died. Sinatra would not attend the funeral. Some said it was because he was still angry at Dean for bowing out of a rat pack tour that Frank had staged to distract him from the death of his son, Dino; others said it was because Frank could not bear to be seen breaking down in public. “The death of so many old friends has taken its toll,” said his wife, Barbara.
Dean, Sammy, and Frank.
Equally difficult was the public humiliation he suffered when the Wall Street Journal published personal details of his family’s ugly fight over his $200 million estate.  The front page article was entitled “Love and Marriage: Sinatra’s Wife and Kids Battle over Frank Inc. While His Health Slips — Tough-talking Tina Feels She’s Keeper of Flame and Dishes, Ties, Sauce — Who Owns Which Records.”  Pathetically, Sinatra had begged Tina not to let him “wind up on a coffee mug.” The article left the impression of greedy children impatient for their dead father’s shoes. Even Sinatra said he was “disgusted.”

Portraying herself as the guardian of the Sinatra image, Tina, who was given to saying, “I am Frank Sinatra,” began marketing Frank Sinatra champagne, ties, belt buckles, pens, cigars, souvenir plates, pasta sauces, t-shirts, posters, calendars, and hats. She claimed control over various recordings which she relicensed for distribution. She reissued Sinatra videos, Sinatra boxed albums, and Sinatra radio and television rights.
Frank and daughter Tina Sinatra, 1965.
She even went so far as to put her father on legal notice that he was not entitled to re-record some of his standards such as “My Way” and “New York, New York” for an album he dedicated to Barbara, “the love of my life,” to benefit the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center at Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Springs. Tina maintained that according to a signed agreement those Sinatra songs and Sinatra royalties belonged to Sinatra’s children, not to Sinatra’s wife or her charity.

Tina and Nancy Sinatra
Representing her siblings, Tina let her father know that his name was their annuity, not Barbara’s. Neither Tina nor her sister, Nancy, ever accepted the former Las Vegas showgirl, who gave Frank his most enduring marriage. Even more disapproving was Frank’s mother, the indomitable Dolly Sinatra, whose maid, Celia Pickell, cringed every time Dolly and Barbara were in the same room together.

“Dolly would say just horrid things to Barbara, and there was nothing none of us could do to stop her. Dolly would say real loud, ‘I don’t want no whore coming into this family.’”

Rather than fly with Barbara to Frank’s Las Vegas opening on January 6, 1977, Dolly and her houseguest took a later plane from Palm Springs, which, tragically, slammed into the icy, unforgiving San Gorgonio Mountains. “My father was devastated by his mother’s death,” said Frank, Jr. “The days after were the worst I had known. He said nothing for hours at a time….[W]atching the tears roll one by one down his face made me feel even more desolate than I had on the night the kidnappers dragged me out into the snow half-dressed.”

None of Frank’s children or his grandchildren attended his 20th anniversary celebration in 1996 when he and Barbara renewed their wedding vows. His daughters had objected strenuously when their father said he wanted to formally adopt Barbara’s son, Robert Marx because they knew that the Sinatra estate would then have to be divided among four children, instead of three. They bullied their father mercilessly until, in the end, he deferred to their demands, but he did welcome into the family the out-of-wedlock son of Frank, Jr. — Michael Sinatra — so he would have a male to carry on his name.   
Frank and Barbara on thier wedding day in 1976. Renewing their vows in 1996.
Sinatra fought hard to hold on to his diminished life, pushing through diverticulitis, small strokes, two heart attacks, pneumonia, cancer of the urethra, and the long descent into dementia. He spent his last months at home in monogrammed silk pajamas without his silky toupee, sometimes asking “Where am I? …. Who am I?” He loved listening to opera, especially Lucianno Pavarotti. “I’m just a wop baritone,” he said. “This guy can really sing.”

Towards the end Quincy Jones said he spent many afternoons sitting by Frank’s bedside. In his autobiography he recalled that once when Frank berated his nurse, he looked at Jones, and said softly, “Q, I’m a pain in the ass, right?” Jones laughed. “Right. Yes — you are. You always have been, but I still love you, you blue-eyed mutha-trucka.” The end came on May 14, 1998 when Sinatra, 82, was rushed to Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles where he died of congestive heart failure at 10:50 p.m. with only his wife, Barbara, by his side.
Sinatra as Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" (1953).
America mourned the passing of its favorite Sicilian crooner. The casinos in Las Vegas stopped spinning for a minute in tribute; In New York City the top of the Empire State Building went blue; the tower of Capitol Records in Hollywood was draped in black, and The Good Shepard Roman Catholic Church in Beverly Hills gave the thrice-divorced singer a holy mass and burial celebrated by Cardinal Roger Mahony. An only child who could not stand to be left alone, Frank was laid to rest in Palm Dessert alongside his parents and his pal, Jilly Rizzo, in Desert Memorial Park under a headstone that read:

The Best is yet to Come
Francis Albert Sinatra
1915-1998
Beloved Husband & Father
True to his own prophecy, Sinatra had outlived most of his enemies. “He vowed that he would spit on the grave of the New York columnist Lee Mortimer, who had dogged him about his ties to the mafia,” said the actor Brad Dexter, a close Sinatra friend at one time, and the man who had saved him from drowning.  “I’m ashamed to tell you that Frank did more than that when he got to the cemetery. He urinated on Mortimer’s grave.

Afterwards he screamed, ‘I’ll bury the bastards. I’ll bury them all.’” In the end, skinny little Maggio, the character who won Sinatra his Academy Award in “From Here to Eternity” and resurrected his career, had triumphed over his tormentors.    

Frank with Bugsy Siegel.
“The bastards” were, for the most part, female journalists like Dorothy Kilgallen (New York Journal-American), Maxine Cheshire (The Washington Post), Barbara Walters (ABC-TV) and Liz Smith (New York Daily News), who reported the less savory aspects of Sinatra’s life. (Through the four years of researching this book, Liz Smith called me regularly with all sorts of Sinatra stories, mostly scurrilous. A few weeks before publication, Sinatra decided to make amends with the woman he demeaned on stage as “a dumpy, fat, ugly broad,” and referred to as “Lez” Smith. He invited her for drinks, she swooned, and Sinatra never had to read another negative word about himself in her gossip column.

While he lambasted most journalists as “pimps and whores,” he had a few male favorites like Pete Hamill (New York Daily News), James Bacon (Los Angeles Herald-Examiner) and Larry King (CNN-TV), all of whom did his bidding.

I became one of “the bastards” when I signed to write Sinatra’s biography. As an independent writer, I approached his life story without his permission or his approval. “If there’s one fact wrong in that book, that broad will spend the rest of her life in court,” he told James Bacon.

But before I could write a word he had sued me for $2 million, saying that he and he alone — or someone he anointed — had the right to write his life story, a premise not recognized by U.S. courts. After a year of threats and intimidation he finally dropped his lawsuit, and I continued interviewing his friends, employees, and associates, plus musicians, movie stars, and mobsters like Moe Dalitz, who had known and worked with him over the years. I also interviewed a few Sinatra relatives, including his son, Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Father and son in 1963.
That interview, on January 15, 1983, remains a memorable experience. I was accompanied by my friend Stanley Tretick, the photographer, who said that in addition to making snaps of Frank Sinatra, Jr., he would take a picture of me doing the interview.  “When this book comes out, you’ll say you interviewed Frank Sinatra, Jr. and he’ll deny it because he’ll want to live another day. No one will believe you unless you produce a picture.” I thought Stanley was crazy because my notes and tapes would be sufficient proof.

Frank with Jerry "The Crusher" Amaniera.
We arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, D.C., and Sinatra’s publicist took us to his suite. “Ole Brown Eyes,” as he called himself, invited us in and asked me to sit close to him so he wouldn’t have to strain his voice.  He spoke softly and called me “hon.” Stanley walked around the room quietly taking pictures. The first hour went beautifully. Frank Sinatra, Jr. spoke candidly into my tape recorder about what it was like to be the only son of a world-famous singer. He talked about his father’s bodyguards, Joey Tomatoes and Jerry The Crusher. He did a few impersonations of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Then he started talking about his father’s Las Vegas crime connections.

“You know, hon. I know a lot of those people. Do you know what I’m saying?”

“Those people?  You mean mobsters?”

He hesitated a moment, and peered at me over his glasses. “I know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.”

Winner, winner.  Chicken dinner. I was about to get the answer to one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. I fantasized about winning the Pulitzer Prize, even wondering what I should wear to collect journalism’s most coveted award. Then just as the son of a man connected to organized crime leaned in to whisper his secret to me, a terrible clatter rattled the room. Stanley had dropped his cameras on the floor and slammed himself into a chair. “Well, for God’s sake, man,” he yelled. “Out with it.  What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?”

Frank Sinatra, Jr. reared back like someone who had just been belted with a dose of common sense. “Hon” tried to keep the interview going but he waved me off.  “No, no ... I can’t talk to you any more ... I can’t ... I’ve said too much already.” He literally ran out of the suite and locked himself in the bedroom. The publicist rushed us out the door.

It was several weeks before I spoke to my good friend the photographer and even then I was barely civil. But when the book was published I owed him the world. Because, exactly as he predicted, Frank Sinatra, Jr. denied talking to me. But God bless Stanley.  He produced the picture that proved otherwise. And that picture was as validating as the Pulitzer Prize.
His father must have forgiven Frank, Jr. for talking to me because in the last years of his life after Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May had died, Sinatra let his son become his musical director. But even then they never became close. “I only see my father on stage,” Frank Jr. said after one of their concerts. He had inherited the Sinatra name, some of the talent but, unfortunately, none of the charisma.

While “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra” enjoyed great success in 1986, becoming number one on the New York Times best seller list, and selling over 1 million copies in hardback alone, it was not applauded by the Sinatra family for it had opened doors that they had long kept locked.

Nancy and Tina immediately called reporters to denounce the book as “hearsay.” Their father said, “I never read it ... I don’t even talk about it.”  The closest he came was on television when he railed about “pimps and prostitutes ... parasites” who write “a lot of crap” for money. It was taboo, he told his family, to even mention my name. Milton Berle joked at the Friars Club, “Kitty Kelley wanted to be here tonight but an hour ago she tried to start her car.” Years later Tony Danza told me — seriously — that I was lucky to be alive. However, I never felt in danger because I knew that Sinatra himself was praying for my safety. “I hope nothing happens to that goddamned broad because if it does, I’ll be the first one blamed,” he told a friend.  

Nancy Sinatra posing for Playboy at age 54.
“We nearly strangled on our pain and anger,” Nancy Sinatra said, reviling me as “The big C-word .... I hate [Kitty Kelley] ... If I ever met her, I don’t know what I’d do ....”  She ranted for months on her website and was still ranting years later when she tried to jump start her career at the age of 54 by posing nude for Playboy.  “Don’t ask me any questions about that goddamned Kitty Kelley or her goddamned book,” she warned reporters. Tina Sinatra claimed that the book had made her father ill, causing him to undergo major colon surgery in 1986 for seven and a half hours, and to endure a temporary colostomy.  Tellingly, she waited until her father was dead before she published her own book, which lacerated her father’s wife of 22 years as a grasping, gold-digging wench not worthy of the Sinatra name. To this day the women speak only through lawyers.

That “His Way” is now being published ten years after Frank Sinatra’s death speaks to the enduring legacy of the man’s music, which continues to sell and to his swaggering, snap-brim lifestyle, which still fascinates. No one has stepped forward to take his place as the interpreter of American popular music. Nor has anyone appeared who dares to live life as defiantly as Sinatra, who was despised for his cruelty, adored for his philanthropy, and feared for his power. In the years since his death even his well-documented crime connections seem to have enhanced his mystique. As if to corroborate their father’s mafia ties, Nancy and Frank Sinatra, Jr. each appeared in different episodes of HBO’s The Sopranos.  The producers of the hit series on the mob hung Frank Sinatra’s mug shot in Tony Soprano’s office at the Ba Da Bing. (Yes, Ole Blue Eyes was once arrested on a morals charge and jailed for three days). Movie directors continue to license his music as melodic striptease for their gangster films, and his picture inevitably appears in any film about the mafia.
Frank Sinatra Jr. in "The Sopranos."
More than any other singer of his time, this son of Italian immigrants exemplifies the rags-to-riches definition of the American dream. Beginning in Hoboken, New Jersey, “His Way” delineates the life of a young boy who sang his way to stupendous success, conquered Hollywood, lost his voice and his career, but rebounded to fame and riches. In later life he received the Medal of Freedom from a grateful President (Ronald Reagan), and as an old man he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest accolade this nation can bestow. Along the way there were triumphs and failures, both grandiose and gruesome. Rather than examining the music of Frank Sinatra, “His Way” illuminates the man behind the music, who once described himself as “an 18-karat manic depressive who lived a life of violent emotional contradictions with an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as happiness.” As his biographer, I took him at his word and rode the roller coaster.
Receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Ronald Reagan.
 
Contact Liz Smith here.