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- June 01, 1998
- Vol. 49
- No. 21
A Swinger with Swagger
Frank Sinatra Left a Legacy of Tough-Guy Glamor as Great as His Vocal Genius
Frank Sinatra's way—with songs, with women, with life—was unquestionably, unapologetically his own throughout his remarkable 82 years. And when he died on May 14, of a heart attack in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, friends and fans felt the loss deeply. "He conquered every medium—television, recording, films," says Tony Bennett. "He was just born for what he did." Like other friends, Bennett had realized the end was near. "I saw him about two months ago, and it was uncomfortable. He'd just sit and watch television, and it was completely unlike the years I knew him when he'd just knock people out of their seats."
For more than half a century the seats were sold out. Francis Albert Sinatra was simply the greatest male vocalist in the history of popular music. Period. With his liquid baritone, he helped listeners rediscover powers of enchantment, in the oldest meaning of that word: a spell that is sung. Yet the fact that he produced one of the defining sounds of the century accounts for only half his legacy: Sinatra was just as well-known as the hard-living, snap-brimmed Chairman of the Board, a womanizing tough guy who busted lips and broke hearts with reckless ease, romancing Ava Gardner and many others when he wasn't closing bars with Rat Pack pals Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.—not to mention such mobsters as Lucky Luciano. "Sinatra was the most confident man who ever strode the planet," says Bill Zehme, author of the 1997 Sinatra style primer, The Way You Wear Your Hat (see excerpt on page 54). "There was never any second-guessing."
Sinatra had been in declining health for years, reportedly battling bladder cancer and other illnesses. Still, news of his death came as a shock to his adoring followers, and tearful tributes sprang up across the country. Mourners gathered for vigils in Hoboken, N.J., leaving loaves of Italian bread and bottles of Jack Daniel's near the plaque on Monroe Street that marks his birthplace. Across the river, New York City's Empire State Building was bathed in blue—for Ol' Blue Eyes—while the Capitol building in Hollywood, where Sinatra recorded some of his best albums, was draped in black. Bars and restaurants that were his old haunts—Rosebud in Chicago, Matteo's in L.A., Patsy's in New York—were packed with Sinatra-philes, and the neon-drenched Las Vegas strip dimmed its lights in honor of its adopted son. Fond remembrances from all manner of fans filled the air. "The way he sang lyrics, everybody thought he was singing right to them," Nancy Reagan, a close friend, told PEOPLE. "Underneath it all I think Frank was just a very old-fashioned Italian man." Patty Spaccavento, owner of Piccolo's restaurant in Hoboken, echoed that sentiment. "Losing him is like losing a family member," he said. "You can be prepared for it all you want, but it's still gonna hurt."
In fact, Sinatra's own family members—his fourth wife, Barbara, 71; and his children Nancy, 57; Frank Jr., 54; and Tina, 49—were somewhat unprepared for his passing. Sinatra, suffering from a heart ailment, had stopped singing in public in 1995 and made very few appearances since then. He was hospitalized in November 1996, following a heart attack and after that spent most of his time at home, watching TV and greeting only close friends as his memory seemed to fade. Bill Miller, Sinatra's pianist for more than 40 years, visited in November and recalls that the star "just kind of looked at me like, 'I know you from somewhere.' " The singer Jerry Vale, a frequent visitor, says Sinatra "had good days and bad days. Some days he was lucid and laughing, other days he was down."
Comedian Don Rickles, a friend for more than three decades, last saw Sinatra four months ago. "I sat with him in his study, and we watched television and he kept telling me to change the channel. He'd sit there and say, 'Turn that off, that's not good...turn that off...turn that off.' One time we came across him singing, and he said, 'Turn that off!' So we had a good time."
His last week saw Sinatra in fine spirits. On Thursday, the day he died, he had lunch with Barbara on the patio of his Beverly Hills home. That night, Barbara felt good enough about her husband's condition to go to dinner at Mortons with friends. "Otherwise she would never have left him," says producer Armand Deutsch, her host that night. "She said Frank was his old cranky self, and when he's cranky, that's how you know he's doing better." But as she finished eating, the maître d' told her she had a call from her assistant. "She just said, 'I've got to go, I've got to go,' " says Deutsch, who drove Barbara two miles back to her home. "We went through a lot of stop signs and intersections."
By the time they arrived around 9:45 p.m., Sinatra had already been taken by ambulance to the Cedars-Sinai emergency room. He had complained of chest pains, and a call was placed to 911 at 9:14 p.m. Barbara was whisked to the hospital, where she cradled Sinatra in his final moments. "She told me that she said to him, 'Fight,' " says Vale. " 'You've fought things bigger than this and beat them. Fight.' " A groggy Sinatra attempted to pull out intravenous tubes doctors had inserted in his arms, but, despite reports that Sinatra was explicitly refusing life-supporting aid, that was merely a reaction to the discomfort, a close family friend told PEOPLE, "and not the actions of a man who wanted to die." As Barbara held him, and before his children could make it to Cedars-Sinai, Sinatra finally gave up the fight (the family Web site reported that his last words were, "I'm losing"). "He was 82 years old, but it was a fast 82," says TV producer and longtime friend George Schlatter. "You don't know anybody who lived like Frank lived—not for 2 years, let alone 82."
Friend to Presidents, hero to Italian-Americans, Oscar-winning actor and pop culture's first hysteria-inducing teen idol—Sinatra cut a swath across the landscape of this century like few who came before or followed after. "Sometimes I wonder whether anybody ever had it like I had it," he once said of the generation-spanning adoration of his faithful. "It was the damnedest thing, wasn't it?"
From the moment of his birth in Hoboken on Dec. 12, 1915, Sinatra got some rough handling. The doctor who delivered him used forceps that punctured his eardrum and left him with a scar behind one ear. His mother, Natalie, an Italian-born midwife known to everyone as Dolly, was the chief influence in Frank's early life (his father, Martin, was an illiterate former prizefighter and fireman). In the threadbare Depression, Dolly kept him so well-dressed that the local kids called him Slacksie. Sinatra was expelled from high school at 15 for rowdiness, and by the following year he was already singing occasionally at local dances, using an amplifier his mother bought him.
Sinatra's first big career break came as part of a vocal quartet, the Hoboken Four, who scored a hit on a 1935 radio broadcast of Major Bowes and His Original Amateur Hour. That led to a cross-country tour with other variety acts. Embarked now on a real singing career, Sinatra was able to marry Nancy Barbato, his Jersey sweetheart, in 1939. At first he stayed close to home with a singing waiter's job at a New Jersey nightclub where shows were broadcast live over the radio. That brought him to the attention of bandleader Harry James, who was looking for a new male singer. "He considers himself the greatest vocalist in the business," a skeptical James told friends. "He's never had a hit record. He looks like a wet rag. But he says he's the greatest!"
Putting aside his misgivings about Sinatra's Hoboken accent, James gave him a two-year contract at $75 a week. Within six months, Sinatra had jumped to the even bigger band of Tommy Dorsey and quickly had his first hit, "I'll Never Smile Again." A string of others followed. By 1941 the 25-year-old crooner was named top band vocalist by Billboard magazine. But Sinatra's obsession with becoming bigger than Bing Crosby led him to pursue a solo career. One of his early engagements, at New York City's Paramount theater in 1944, led to the legendary Columbus Day riot, when 30,000 girls who were unable to get in rampaged through Times Square, breaking shop windows, blocking traffic and battling hundreds of cops. It wasn't long before Sinatra was being denounced by one congressman as "the prime instigator of juvenile delinquency in America."
Exempt from the draft because of his punctured eardrum, Sinatra didn't perform for the troops as other noncombatant stars were careful to do during World War II. Still, his success during the war years "was cheered by Italian-Americans who were defensive about their origins," says author Gay Talese. "It made us feel more American." In the years right after the war, Sinatra made three movies in quick succession, including On the Town, one of his best. In 1944 he signed a $1.5 million contract with MGM, which allowed him to pack up his family—son Frank Jr. and daughter Nancy—and move to Hollywood.
That same explosive year, Sinatra, whose extramarital affairs had included Lana Turner and Marlene Dietrich, embarked on a passionate, highly public romance with Ava Gardner. "She was the love of his life," says actress Esther Williams. "She said he was magic." Just as their affair became serious, Sinatra's career began a hard, quick decline. In 1948 his only two films bombed, and he was dropped as featured vocalist on radio's Your Hit Parade. He walked out on Nancy the next year—after she refused to grant him a divorce—and got caught up in a Senate probe into organized crime (though not called to testify, Sinatra was grilled by investigators who asked about his bookings at Mob-run nightclubs). After a fight with Gardner, Sinatra attempted suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills.
A few days later he was granted a Nevada divorce from Nancy and in 1951 was free to enter into a brief, bumpy marriage with Gardner. "They fought something awful," says Williams, "but she always wanted to go back to him." At the very lowest point of Sinatra's career, when Columbia Records canceled his contract, Gardner intervened to get him the break that restored him. She begged the wife of Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn to get Sinatra the important role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity despite the fact that director Fred Zinnemann wanted Eli Wallach for the part. Coached by costar Montgomery Clift, Sinatra won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor and became a star again.
But in October 1953 he lost Gardner: They formally separated, and a few weeks later a devastated Sinatra attempted suicide again, this time slashing his wrists. Around this time, his singing voice took on a melancholy depth. With a new record label, Capitol, and a new arranger, Nelson Riddle, he made some of his greatest albums: In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely, Songs for Swingin' Lovers.
In the mid-'50s, Sinatra's film career peaked. It was the start of his ring-a-ding ding days with his Rat Pack pals Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. Las Vegas became his second base of operations. His interest in the Sands Hotel, which would eventually grow to 9 percent, would make Sinatra very wealthy. He gave good value to the mobsters who controlled the place by performing there to lure high rollers.
It was also Sinatra who introduced Marilyn Monroe to Peter Lawford, who eventually connected her to his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy. Sinatra adored the new President, who in turn was fascinated by the singer's glamoUr and his powers as a fund-raiser. In 1965, when Frank Jr. was kidnapped by amateur extortionists, Sinatra asked Lawford to seek the help of JFK's brother Robert (RFK responded, and the FBI caught the three kidnappers).
By the mid-'60s, Sinatra was back on top of the charts with the hit single "Strangers in the Night." Then he met Mia Farrow, the saucer-eyed 19-year-old star of TV's Peyton Place. To the horror and amusement of their friends, they were married on July 19, 1966, but Farrow grew to hate Sinatra's buddies. "All they know how to do," she said, "is tell dirty stories, break furniture, pinch waitresses' asses and bet on the horses." They split less than two years after marrying.
Sinatra then surprised the world by announcing his "retirement" in 1971. A year later he changed his mind and performed a series of concerts at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for $400,000 a night. As Sinatra grew older, he also mellowed, a process accelerated by his marriage in 1976 to Barbara Marx, a former showgirl and the ex-wife of Marx brother Zeppo. One year later he was sobered further by his mother's death in the crash of a private jet en route to one of his concerts. Devastated, he returned to the Catholic faith. His charity appearances became even more numerous.
Sinatra also soon found himself in the good graces of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. He raised money for the Reagan campaign and organized the inaugural galas in 1981 and '85. A grateful Reagan presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
In the twilight of his career, Sinatra was a cultural institution. His renditions of "My Way" and the theme from New York, New York became ubiquitous anthems, and his 1993 Duets was the biggest-selling album of his career. He kept up a steady round of sold-out concerts. Though his voice frayed and he needed TelePrompTers to remember lyrics, he could still deliver. "You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world," Sinatra said, "but the audience is like a broad—if you're indifferent, endsville."
Almost to the end, it seemed, endsville was nowhere in sight. Even on his final tour with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., in the late 1980s, Sinatra showed few signs of slowing down. "Dean and Sammy, they couldn't hang," says Hank Cattaneo, Sinatra's concert production manager for the past 20 years. "They weren't in shape for it. After a half-hour, Dean would say, 'I gotta go to bed,' and then Sammy would say, 'Please, let me go too.' But the old man loved to hang, loved to talk and tell stories." Adds Tom Dreesen: "He was nocturnal. When you tour with Frank, you have to stay up until the sun comes out." Dreesen was there for Sinatra's last public concert, in 1995, in Desert Springs. "He got five standing ovations for six songs, says Dreesen. His final number? "The Best Is Yet to Come."
Sadly, it wasn't. Many of his friends say that not being able to sing—and being confined to his house—zapped Sinatra of his zest for life. Says Dreesen: "He lived for singing. He didn't want to spend his life in his pajamas and his robe." In his final years, Sinatra also had to contend with a feud between his wife, Barbara, who gets 20 percent in royalties from his recordings for Capitol from 1993 on, and his children, who control his earlier Reprise catalogue and the rights to his name and likeness. A 1997 Wall Street Journal article exposed the rancorous infighting over royalties and licensing and led to a truce-making Thanksgiving dinner that year. But with so much potential income at stake, the squabbling is likely to continue. As for Sinatra's estate, valued at $200 million, he reportedly left his homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu to his wife, and music rights to his children.
It was the Sinatra family's wish that his funeral at the Good Shepherd Catholic Church in Beverly Hills be private and that he be buried in the family plot at Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, Calif., near Palm Springs, where his parents, Dolly and Martin, and his lifelong friend Jilly Rizzo are buried. "Now he's with a great group up there," Jeanne Martin, ex-wife of the late Rat Packer Dean Martin, told PEOPLE. "The clan is back together." On Earth there remained only the sound of Sinatra's voice wafting out of joints like The Summit in St. Louis, where patrons stopped a house band playing Sinatra songs so they could spin his records and listen to the real thing.
For those close to him, the songs offer only a little solace. "After all the hullabaloo is over, Barbara is going to be without him," says Vale, who was by her side following Sinatra's death. "We're all going to be without him." Pausing at the thought, he added, "It's unbelievable. I always thought Frank Sinatra would live forever."
In music, he will.
With reporting by Champ Clark and John Hannah in Los Angeles, Greg Aunapu in Miami, Mitchell Fink, Nina Burleigh, Cynthia Wang and Eve Heyn in New York City and Joseph V. Tirella in Hoboken
- Champ Clark,
- John Hannah,
- Greg Aunapu,
- Mitchell Fink,
- Nina Burleigh,
- Cynthia Wang,
- Eve Heyn,
- Joseph V. Tirella.
August 27, 2015
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