So Long, Sinatra

UPDATED 06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT

A young man driving along Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills stopped in front of the Good Shepherd Catholic Church and looked at the crowd of more than 1,000 onlookers and 100 photographers and the line of limousines glinting in the noonday sun. "Hey, what's going on?" he shouted over the rock music blaring from his car stereo. "Frank Sinatra's funeral," replied a photographer. The driver buried his face in his hands, then looked up, stricken, and uttered, "Wow!" He turned off the music and, in silence, slowly drove away.

The silence was more deafening than the loudest music on May 20, as 700 of Frank's closest friends—who happen to be some of Hollywood's biggest stars—joined family to bid farewell to the skinny scrapper who charged out of Hoboken to become a superstar of American pop culture for an astonishing six decades. He died of a heart attack on May 14 in Los Angeles. "I could not believe that Frank was lying in that casket," says longtime friend and fellow Rat Packer Joey Bishop.

No one wanted to believe The Voice was silenced, but the tears made it all too real. Barbara Sinatra, 71, Sinatra's widow and fourth wife, sat in the first pew with his children Nancy, 57, Frank Jr., 54, and Tina, 49. Behind them sat two of his three former wives: Nancy Sinatra Sr., his Jersey City sweetheart and the mother of his children, and Mia Farrow, who was from the generation of his children when she and Sinatra were married briefly in the 1960s. (Second wife Ava Gardner, with whom he had a passionate and bedeviled union, died in 1990.)

As the guests made their way into the 74-year-old Spanish-style sanctuary sweetened by the scent of 30,000 white roses, gardenias and chrysanthemums, they heard "In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me," played by Sinatra's pianist Bill Miller. Comedian Tom Dreesen, Sinatra's friend and act opener, introduced each of the eulogizers, including Gregory Peck and Robert Wagner. "The celebration was for us, not for him," Dreesen says of the notoriously impatient Sinatra. "He would have wanted it to last 10 minutes, and then, 'Let's get outta here.' "

With Archbishop Roger Mahony of Los Angeles officiating, the funeral ended up lasting two hours, but "it didn't seem long," says actor and Sinatra friend Mike Connors (Mannix). Suzanne Pleshette (whose father managed the Paramount Theater in the heyday of the Sinatra swooners) says the service, both solemn and irreverent, would have pleased Sinatra: "Every word that was spoken had a sense of how extraordinary he was, not only his talent, but what a decent man he was—and how delicious he was in his imperfections." Friends told stories of the toughest tender guy of them all, the crooner and carouser who loved late nights, loyal bartenders, tuxedos and top hats. Kirk Douglas, imagining Sinatra's impact on the tranquil hereafter, predicted, "Heaven will never be the same."

But it was Frank Jr. who most impressed those in attendance. "My father's whole life was an anomaly," he said in a stirring eulogy delivered without notes. "His birth was so difficult that the fact that he lived at all was an anomaly. That he even became a singer, that he became a great singer and that he made such wonderful movies, all this was an anomaly.... And how did he live to such a ripe old age, which was certainly not because he took care of himself? That's the greatest anomaly." He concluded with the same words his father spoke at bandleader Harry James's 1983 funeral. "Thanks for everything," said his son. "So long, buddy, and take care of yourself." The guests responded with a standing ovation.

It was Sinatra himself who closed his last show. Through a recording, he serenaded his guests with "Put Your Dreams Away." "You could hear everyone gasp...'Aaaah,' " says Ben Vereen. "It was like he rose up on the edge of the coffin; like he was saying, 'Hey, Charlie, check this out!' "

As Sinatra's casket was carried from the church, the fans who had waited quietly outside for hours broke into applause. Then the family flew with Sinatra's body on a private jet to Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, near Palm Springs. They buried the Chairman of the Board close to his parents in a spot near olive and carob trees. Along with Frank on his journey from here to eternity are a bottle of Jack Daniel's whiskey, a Zippo lighter, a pack of Camel cigarettes and 10 dimes. "He never wanted to get caught not able to make a phone call," Tina told Larry King. Father Jack Barker, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in La Quinta, Calif., sprinkled holy water on the casket as the family huddled above it. "It was a very touching moment of farewell and goodbye for them," says the priest.

Even in death, Sinatra has guaranteed that his fortune will be distributed his way: Automatic disinheritance will befall any family member who contests his will, the details of which were made public the day after the funeral. (Most of Sinatra's estimated $200 million estate was apportioned before his death through a living trust.) Among the will's bequests: the Malibu beach house, Beverly Hills mansion and up to $3.5 million for his widow; $200,000 each and undivided interest in a plush Beverly Hills office building for his children, who already share rights to much of his lucrative music catalog (Frank Jr. gets sole rights to his father's sheet music); and $1 million to his two granddaughters.

Thanks to his recordings and the expected demand for Sinatra memorabilia, it may be that the best is yet to come—for both family and fans. "We will still be confronted with Frank's presence in so many ways," says Paul Anka, who wrote the lyrics to "My Way." "I don't know anybody who has influenced so many musicians and will continue to do so."

Nor so many loyal listeners—including Suzanne Pleshette, who said, the day after the funeral, "I'm going to get in my car and play some more of his music." Loudly, no doubt.

Christina Cheakalos
Champ Clark, Mitchell Fink and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles and Julie Jordan in Cathedral City

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