Frank Sinatra's Heat-Seeking Missive Finds Two New Targets: a Columnist and a Deejay
05/05/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT
New York disc jockey and sometime novelist Jonathan Schwartz has been a Frank Sinatra fan—some would say sycophant—all his life. On the air he specializes in Sinatra records, often dipping into his extensive personal collection of bootlegged and out-of-circulation material. As a budding nightclub singer, he developed a style unmistakably influenced by his favorite crooner. Their relationship warmed to the point that the two men dined together in Palm Springs in 1976. "I admire him immensely," says the 41-year-old Schwartz. But it takes only one wrong word to turn Ol' Blue Eyes steely, and Schwartz uttered several last month when he reviewed Sinatra's new three-record album, Trilogy.
While lavishly praising the records Past and Present, Schwartz found the third, titled Future, "a shocking embarrassment, in poor taste," adding, "One must avert one's eyes when one hears it.... The ideas are so trite and clichéd." Most critics agreed, calling the autobiographical "musical fantasy" pretentious and worse. Yet two days after the broadcast, Schwartz was out of a job—though it was described as a leave of absence granted a little earlier than the May 1 date the disc jockey had requested months ago. His audience was left to wonder: Had Sinatra's bitter, long-standing war against his critics claimed a new victim?
Schwartz refers all questions to the management of his station, WNEW-AM—and they deny any connection. "The timing was strictly coincidence," insists George Duncan, president of the Metromedia Radio group, which owns WNEW. "It was playing Sinatra recordings before their release date that got him into trouble." The last time Schwartz did that, however, was four weeks before he was invited out. The misdemeanor led Sinatra to complain to an old friend—Metromedia's board chairman John Kluge. Sinatra's notorious temper lent credence to a feeling among Schwartz' friends that Frank had spoken to Kluge again after the review, and this time had demanded the deejay's head.
Nationally syndicated columnist Liz Smith printed that version of the story, and Sinatra's virulent response was immediate. "Your information in regard to Jonathan Schwartz and myself stinks," his telegram read in part—the part that Smith could print. "My work in every field has been criticized, good and bad, for years, and none of it ever meant crap to me because the people who criticize me do not have the calibre of my musicianship or my performing know-how."
Smith, a veteran, Texas-born journalist, did not lose her dignity. "He's terribly spoiled and powerful, and he doesn't react well to criticism," she says. Meanwhile other journalists who have been the target of corrosive messages from Sinatra offered their sympathy. "By sending that wire, he just confirmed my column about him," Smith says. "It was so vulgar. I don't understand his psychological thing." Actually she got off easy. Sinatra slugged New York Mirror columnist Lee Mortimer in 1947, the first incident in his antipress vendetta (he later paid Mortimer $9,000 not to press charges). After Maxine Cheshire of the Washington Post raised persistent questions about Sinatra's friendships with Mafiosi in 1973, he confronted her at a party and called her a "two-bit broad." The next year his bodyguards roughed up tenacious cameramen during an Australian tour. In 1976 he attacked a largely praiseful biography by columnist Earl Wilson with a $3 million libel suit (it was dropped quietly the following year). Given that history, Smith shrugs off the more scurrilous passages of Sinatra's telegram as symptomatic: "He's just behaving the way he's been behaving for years—like this legend of power and danger."
Schwartz' future is unclear. He has been singing part-time at an East Side club and is writing his third book. This summer, as planned before the crisis, he will go to his Palm Springs vacation home and continue writing. Schwartz has taken literary sabbaticals before, and WNEW will not say flatly he cannot return after this one. "We'll discuss it when he gets back to New York," says Duncan. Some of Schwartz' friends say that his welcome depends on buttoning his lip over the circumstances of his departure. That seems to put Sinatra's hand precisely where he wants it—on the suspended ax.