Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Remembering Frank

Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying the company of Frank Sinatra.
Frank Sinatra, the great popular American singer and song stylist who died in 1998, was born on this day 92 years ago. I met Mr. Sinatra only once, and very late in his life when he was running on empty but still retaining that bravado that made him a star and made him an admired, respected and even beloved friend to a lot of people. There are a whole generation of us who sang along with Sinatra’s recordings for a lifetime, hearing his voice and his personality in our voices imitating him. It was a powerful sound and a powerful fury.

One of my favorite albums was “Where Are You?” which came out when I was a teen-ager when the man’s voice and the lyrics he sang evoked and articulated all the hormone-induced passionate longings and intensely romantic notions of adolescence — all heavily seasoned with the bittersweet. His was the stuff of poetry to a very young man who knew little more than “how it felt” to be alive. Almost a half century later, the same album of songs returns me directly to all of those evocations and longings — as well as the precious bittersweet.

Frank Sinatra, 1970 (AP file).
My late friend Ardie Deutsch knew Sinatra for many years and was part of a close-knit group of friends that was the “social” (as in “society”) side of his garrulous life. Ardie adored Frank, enjoyed his extravagant camaraderie, and also knew his parameters from experience. He once told me of a moment when the gang was staying with Frank in Palm Springs. Ardie had been out somewhere and had just entered the house when he saw Frank on the phone really letting someone have it with a torrent of raging epithets that could be most gently described as purple.

Before Ardie passed through the room, the phone call was completed and Ardie, who was a mild-mannered fellow and friend, asked with some some surprise in his curiosity: “What was that about?” Whereupon the Chairman of the Board turned on Ardie, unleashing the same shocking rage and profanity.

“Whoa!” thought Mr. Deutsch who promptly left the room without another word. Mr. Sinatra later apologized without explanation. Ardie got the picture and his friend was promptly forgiven.

The man was a bundle of contradictions, the sum total of which made him deeply attractive to many people -- men and women -- for a lot of reasons, although with women it often had to do with sex. Janet de Cordova who with her late husband Freddie, was very much a part of Sinatra’s Hollywood social circuit in its heyday, once told me that when Sinatra entered a room and uttered “hiya doll” to any woman, she wanted to go to bed with him. It was an animal magnetism that was garnished with charm, looks, money and power. There isn’t a man living today, no matter how much he possesses of any of the aforementioned, who could match Sinatra’s; not a one. Furthermore he didn’t give a damn about it, unless crossed.

He was a legendary friend. In the 1960s he became very friendly with Bill and Edie Goetz who were then the reigning social couple in movieland. Regular readers know all this but I’m going to thumbnail the following background: Mrs. Goetz (pronounced Gets) was the eldest daughter of L.B. Mayer (as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and was the Hollywood version of to-the-manor-born. Mr. Goetz was a very successful film executive who’d started out as a partner with Darryl Zanuck in the original 20th Century-Fox Studios (thanks to his father-in-law), and later acquired the failing Universal-International Studios, which a few years later sold to Jules Stein and MCA for a pretty penny. Goetz was also a favorite of all the guys and the women. He had an outgoing personality, given to bon mots that were a little on the blue side, a jokester who some believed wished he could have been Jack Benny (a close friend) or George Burns. He was very successful in business, and played the role of jester to his princess. It was a very successful marriage where he played foil to his wife’s social pretenses and they openly displayed affection for each other by calling each other Snoogie. People were amused by it and respected it. Together they entertained royally (and exclusively) in their Holmby Hills mansion filled with an extensive collection of Impressionist art.

Aside from his tough-guy personality, Frank Sinatra, also liked the glittering, sophisticated, and exclusive “society” of the Goetzes. He pursued it and was welcomed with open arms. The result was a coterie that became identified with him celebrity-wise during that decade – Edie and Bill Goetz, Ardie and Harriet Deutsch, Phyllis and Bennett Cerf, Rosalind Russell and Freddie Brisson, Jack and Mary Benny, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Leland and Pamela (later Harriman) Hayward, Claudette Colbert and Joel Pressman, Irving and Mary Lazar, Billy and Audrey Wilder, and a writer and wit named Harry Kurnitz.

This was a group far from the Mafia
and Vegas show-biz types that the press often rightfully associated with him. Every New Year’s Eve Sinatra would fly them up to Las Vegas in his private plane, put them up in a hotel, supply them with a bag of chips for the gaming tables and entertain them ringside at his performance. And they loved it; who wouldn’t? To borrow the phrase from the late Katharine Hepburn referring to the winning screen combination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: they gave him “class” and he gave them “sex.” Well, sort of: truth told, it was the sexiness of being in his orbit that appealed to everyone.

When Bill Goetz became ill with stomach cancer in the late 1960s, Sinatra flew him back and forth to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, and on his final trip back to Los Angeles, Sinatra was with him and right by his side. Naturally unabashed and unself-conscious about his affection for another, he was a loving and adoring friend and he loved Bill Goetz.

When Goetz died in 1969, Sinatra mourned the loss deeply. He also took the widow Goetz under his wing. It has been said that it was the habit of the Chairman to comfort the grieving widows of his friends with intensely sincere attention, also known, in the lingo of his buddies as: the mercy-fuck.

Edie Goetz was sixty-four when her husband died, and they had been a devoted to each other for their almost forty years of marriage. Aside from her husband, she was not a woman who attracted a lot of romantic male admirers, although she had long had a politically powerful allure in the movie business for the obvious reasons. So when Frank began looking after her and comforted her with his most intimate attention, she was like a teen-age girl having her first affair. The difference was her suitor was the sexiest, most attractive, most sought after man she ever knew, saw or heard about. And ten years her junior.

No one who knew both parties ever thought that Frank Sinatra was seriously interested in Edie Goetz other than as a good friend. Mrs. Goetz, however, being the princess that she had come to believe she was — over the course of several decades of being on the top of the social heap, pampered, attended and paid homage to, saw an opportunity to experience youth again. She was taking a chance at the Big Casino of Dolldom, and she was all shook up. For, of all of the gifts and privileges that Dad and Dame Fortune and her Snoogie had bestowed on her, she had never been the recipient of the love, attention and carnal knowledge of a True Swain, let alone the Idol of Millions.
Edie Goetz in her Billy Haines library of her Holmby Hills mansion.
All of this led Mrs. Goetz down the path of self-delusion, as it would many a girl, thinking she might one day, (even in her mid-sixties), become the wife of a man whose previous wife (Mia Farrow) was half his age (Edie Goetz had been the matron of honor at the Farrow-Sinatra wedding).

Whatever Mr. Sinatra thought of this situation, is unknown, at least to this writer. However, it is known that when he saw the lady’s temperature rising, he turned on the air-conditioning and began making himself a little scarcer, as they say.

It should be noted that he did not entirely desert the grieving widow for, whatever his failings, he was also a man true to his word. He continued to call and to look after her, and, although a little more occasionally than before, escort her to dinner.

His kindnesses were appreciated by Mrs. Goetz, to a point. Because underneath she was steaming in more ways than one: she wanted him, and yet she knew she had been rejected. The Hollywood of the moguls, which is what we’re dealing with here, was a very small town of very big egos. Everyone knew everyone else’s business be it monkey or big, or thought they did; and everyone had an opinion about all of it, and never a charitable one. The fact that the community knew Frank Sinatra was never going to marry Edie Goetz was not only an ego crusher to the woman who really had been The Mrs. Astor of her time and place, but it was also humiliating and infuriating, not to mention evidence that her reign was over. The good news --Frank Sinatra’s attentiveness -- was also the bad news: he wasn’t going to marry her.

The power of a woman, as defined by Edie Goetz, in her imagined yet self-actualized world, was the ability to “get a man.” “I could always get a man,” she would recall looking back over her life. As much as some who knew her might have scoffed at the idea, this was not an unrealistic self-assessment. She had grown up in a world where her father had gone from owner of a neighborhood nickelodeon to head of the greatest movie studio in the world – and with his name on it. He was the most powerful man in the community for more than two generations of stars. He was a father who also had idolized his coy and demanding daughter. And, she then left Dad’s house to marry a man who despite his own extra-marital affairs demonstrated undying loyalty and devotion to her and made their marriage a paragon in that community that mocked the institution.

Otherwise, people could argue, the men were not banging down her door – except to be invited to dine, in a town where some men would sell their grandmother for such an invitation.

And so it was that the Chairman of the Board, Frank, Francis Albert Sinatra, the idol of millions, the man who could wither any dame with two simple words “hiya doll,” had deeply disappointed Edie Goetz, leaving her just another lonely heart along the boulevard of broken dreams. But, as she was a true child of Hollywood where thought and illusion are interchangeable, Edie Goetz was no dying swan. Her natural self-defense was the same as that of Norma Desmond, the ex-film star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, who when confronted by a young, potential swain with the lost magnitude of her former stardom, responded: “I’m still big; the pictures got smaller.”

And so it was that one night under the stars of the desert sky that is Los Angeles, with the jasmine in bloom filling the air with exotic fragrance, Frank Sinatra dutifully escorted Edie Goetz to a dinner party at the Bistro, then a popular restaurant in Beverly Hills. And when they returned to her famous house on Delfern Drive, she invited him in for a nightcap. And while they sat facing each other in the famous Billy Haines-designed library under the shelves of the late William Goetz’s collection of first edition books, Edie brought the conversation around to “them.”
With nary a word from Frank, she broached the subject of what (she or) some people viewed as their “romance” and its future. And without waiting for, or asking, his opinion of the situation, she very coolly “explained” to this man — who probably had more women who wanted to marry him in a single average month than all the Impressionist paintings in the Goetzes’ famous collection — that although many had imagined that he and she would marry, and that she could understand why people would think that — because they had been friends for so long, and because Frank loved Billy so, and because they all loved each other very much, and that she might be a perfect wife for him (Frank) at this time in his life, etcetera; she continued:

“But what people don’t understand is that I could never marry you Frank, because Deane Johnson (Edie’s lawyer) told me you were a hoodlum.

A hoodlum.

Whereupon, Frank Sinatra, ladykiller without peer, idol of millions, turned several shades of purple, (according to Mrs. Goetz’ memory) put down his drink, and without uttering another syllable, got up, walked out of the room, walked out of the house, slamming the door, got into his car, drove out of the driveway and into the night, never to return to or speak to Edie Goetz again.

From her point of view, it had been a victory, albeit a hollow one. She lived another fifteen years believing his departure and eternal estrangement was the result of her uttering the truth. Whatever regrets she had were buried in the backstory of her actions that night in her library. In retrospect, the move on her part was a foolish one because Frank Sinatra had indeed been her friend and defender, and in all likelihood would have remained so for ever after, even after he married his wife Barbara. But as it happened, he could never abide even the mention of her name.

Frank Sinatra’s fame, and the power that the legend of his personality brought him, continued unimpeded, reaching far beyond anything Edie Goetz had enjoyed in her heyday. Although the subject that Mrs. Goetz had chosen to even the score, was his Achilles heel. He’d come a long, long way from Hoboken and risen up more than once from the show business ashes. Kitty Kelley’s scandalous best-selling biography of the man was so popular it made her rich, and even his friend and admirer Ardie Deutsch testified that Kelley had “pretty much got it right.”

The “getting it right” also includes a man who was loyal, devoted, generous, self-indulged, egomaniacal, volatile, kind, gentle, complex, abusive at times, mindful of his responsibilities to his wives and to his children, and ... The Voice. In memory, nine years on, those of us millions who, like Edie Goetz and all those dames and all those devils who fell for his tough guy charm, and were swept away by the voice, remain unabashed, his followers and his fans. Get out one of your Sinatra albums and see -- listen -- for yourself.

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