Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Appreciating Sinatra

December 12, 2018. Today is the 103rd anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra, one of the greatest male vocalists of the 20th century, probably the greatest. His was a very long and successful career, selling more than 150 million albums and records; an Academy Award winner when his career had fallen to rock bottom; a magnificently resilient film star, and often referred to as the Chairman of the Board because he was “up there” with the greats.

In 1986, Kitty Kelley published her biography of the man – “His Way; the Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra.” It was an instant best-seller, sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, and gained a lot of publicity just from the fact that Sinatra tried to stop the publication of the book with a lawsuit.  However, controversy about the man and his personal relationships with women and with the Mob only enhanced his public image for he was one of the greatest artists of his age.

Today marking his birthday, Kitty has written a fascinating post-script to her biography of the man and his great career. Reading this reminded me that like his music, Sinatra was such a compelling character in life, that it’s all what becomes stuff of legend, and actually makes his recordings even more irresistible.
Frank Sinatra would be 103 today, and to celebrate his two daughters have invited hundreds to pay $95 for dinner tonight at La Dolce Vita, his favorite Beverly Hills restaurant. The menu features his favorite Italian foods, complete with shots of Jack Daniels, his favorite drink.
The self-described saloon singer, who never learned to read music, or play an instrument, died May 14, 1998 at the age of 82. For years he had been trying to outrun “the fellow in the satin slippers,” as W.C. Fields described death. Refusing to retire, even at the age of 70, Sinatra 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 the nightingales sing in Berkeley Square, but he insisted on performing, even though he stumbled on stage, forgot lyrics, and could not read the Teleprompters in front of him.
Franks's table at La Dolce Vita in Beverly Hills.
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.
Pure gold.
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’ve become “a dribbling madman” had he retired.  Despite 58 films, 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 said. “When I sing, I believe I’m being honest.”

Sinatra fought hard to hold on to his diminished life, pushing through diverticulitis, small strokes, two heart attacks, pneumonia, cancer of the urethra, and a 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 Luciano Pavarotti.  “I’m just a wop baritone,” he said. “This guy can really sing.”
Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra, 1957.
Towards the end Quincy Jones said he spent many afternoons sitting by Frank’s bedside. In his autobiography Jones recalled that when Frank berated his nurse, he said, “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 a few nights later when Sinatra 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.

He had hated growing old, wearing hearing aids, losing his hair, and most of his memory. Throughout the 1990’s he was forced to say farewell to many he loved most: Ava Gardner, the second of his four wives, 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.”
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 his parents, Dolly and Marty, in the family’s plot in Palm Desert. An only child who could not stand to be left alone, Sinatra joined them six years later under a headstone that read:

The Best is yet to Come
Francis Albert Sinatra
1915 † 1998
Beloved Husband & Father     
The toughest farewell for Frank came on Christmas day, 1995, when his paisan, Dean Martin, died. Sinatra refused to 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. His wife, Barbara, said: “The death of so many old friends has taken its toll.”

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. 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. 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.
Frank and Nancy in the studio.
Having seen millions of dollars flood the estates of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, the Sinatra children raced to monetize their father, who never knew of their posthumous exploitation.

They sold the use of his name and image for $50 million to Warner Music Group, and with that group they formed Frank Sinatra Enterprises to split 50-50 on all Sinatra products and Sinatra productions, which have included gallery exhibits of Sinatra photographs, symposiums on Sinatra’s style, screenings of Sinatra movies. They’ve produced elaborate boxed sets of Sinatra songs from his Reprise, Capitol and Columbia catalogues. Many can be heard on the Frank Sinatra 100 App and purchased from the Sinatra website—at premium prices. The “Frank Sinatra Concert Collection DVDS” costs $79.98 and “Duets—The 20th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition” costs $149.98. They published a book of “never before seen Sinatra images” entitled “Sinatra.” Described on their website as “a high-end photography book,” the book sells for $1500.
“When you think of Sinatra, you think of the best of everything,” said Jimmy Edwards, co-president of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. He told the Financial Times that Frank Sinatra was not merely a singer and an actor, but a lifestyle brand, which accounts for the lucrative license attached to a limited edition of “the Raymond Weil Maestro Frank Sinatra Timepiece 1212” that sells for $1,395. The Sinatra estate and Frank Sinatra Enterprises also partnered with Jack Daniels to marked “Sinatra Select,” a 90 proof bourbon that the Tennessee distillery claims is made in “Sinatra Barrels,” which “have deep grooves on the inside of the slavs to expose the whiskey to extra layers of oak.” Each liter bottle of “Sinatra Select” sells for $200.

Setting land speed records in what is gently called “posthumous merchandising,” the Sinatra family and Frank Sinatra Enterprises have explored future money-making propositions such as Frank Sinatra restaurants, Rat Pack casinos and Chairman of the Board cigars. The only legal restrictions binding Frank Sinatra Enterprises are licensing his name to firearms and X-rated films. Everything else is up for profiteering, including an orange Sinatra Maserati, orange having been his favorite color. The Italian sports car sells for $185,000.

Within months of his death the Sinatra children established the Frank Sinatra Foundation, whose stated mission is “to honor a man who used his unparalleled artistic talents and resources to improve the human condition.” They solicited money by promising “with every donation you can help us realize dad’s dream for better education, the eradication of disease, and aid for the individual in need.”

Private foundations are funded primarily by the founders; yet the Sinatra Foundation with assets of $130,000-$330,000 accepts donations. Records show from 2014-2016 the foundation  received $24,727 in contributions. Yet their disbursements to charity in that time have been paltry: $6000.

To raise money the Sinatra foundation has trademarked little fedora hat pins, small microphone-stand pins, and two rubber wrist bands — the black band says “What Would Frank Do?” the orange band says: “Don’t Despair.” Each item is displayed with a “Buy Now” button and costs $35. The total profit for these sales from 2014-2016 was $360.00.

True to his own prophecy, Sinatra 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.    
“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.  

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.

Unfortunately, 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 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 of prior restraint  not recognized by U.S. courts. After a year of threats and intimidation he was forced to drop his lawsuit, but by then he had sent a global message that he did not want the book to be written. Still I continued interviewing his friends, employees, and associates, plus musicians, movie stars, and even 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.
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 nuts; 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 Frank, Jr. 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. Leaning in close to me, he said:

“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.

Several seconds of silence passed. Knowing that  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 as the son of a man connected to organized crime leaned over to whisper his secret to me, a terrible clatter rattled the room. Stanley dropped his cameras on the floor, slammed himself into a chair, and yelled: “Well, for God’s sake, man. 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.
Father and son in 1963.
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 a 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. He died of a heart attack in 2016, eighteen years after his father.

Reviled by the Sinatra family for it had opened doors that they had long kept locked.
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 reviled 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.  

“We nearly strangled on our pain and anger,” Nancy Sinatra said, maligning 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 my 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 in which she lacerated her father’s wife as a grasping, gold-digging wench not worthy of the Sinatra name. To this day the women speak only through lawyers.
Frank Sinatra, Jr. appearing on The Sopranos. 
That “His Way” is still selling years after Frank Sinatra’s death speaks to the enduring legacy of the man, his music and his swaggering, snap-brim lifestyle, which continues to fascinate. 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.
More than any other singer of his time, this son of Italian immigrants exemplified 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.

Despite the enmity of the Sinatra family — his curses and the  imprecations of his daughters — I remain grateful to the man for giving me such a vibrant life to document. After I spent four years researching the man behind the music and interviewing over 1000 people to tell his life story, I found Sinatra’s summation of himself to be quite perceptive:  “[I am]“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.
The author with a cut-out of Sinatra.