Take a look at the infamous outline that became Esquire’s most famous story.
In honor of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday on December 12, Taschen is publishing a beautiful limited-edition version of Gay Talese’s iconic 1966 Esquire story „Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.“ Among the book’s highlights are images of the writer’s trademark outlines scratched onto shirt boards.
Alongside Talese’s piece are photographs by legendary photographer Phil Stern, who shot Sinatra on various occasions, though perhaps most notably at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.
„I knew it would be an historic occasion and I wanted to be in on it,“ said Stern about the image, „So I wrote a note to Frank on a file card and left it in his dressing room. It read something like: ‚I’d like to photograph the inauguration. Check one of three boxes – fuck off, I’ll think about it, or yes.'“
Taschen’s „Frank Sinatra Has a Cold“ is available now. And don’t miss Gay Talese talking to David Brancaccio about growing up listening to Sinatra on our latest Esquire Classic podcast.
Gay Talese lives on the East Side of Manhattan, in a four-story brownstone he moved into in 1958, at age 26. When we met there recently to talk about his iconic Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” we chatted in a room that, in a house of such grandeur, one would have to call the parlor. The second time we talked, we went downstairs, to his cellar-turned-bunker, where he works dressed like a natty banker. I told him I was surprised that he spent only 31 days researching the Sinatra piece. For a guy who famously takes years on a story — he’s finishing up a New Yorker piece that’s been gestating for three decades — a month didn’t seem like much time to gather material for the greatest profile ever written. “Don’t ever think I’m fast,” he said. We talked for nearly five hours. I drank Scotch. He drank water. My comments and questions are in blue; his are in red.
Talese, in September, with one of his famous shirt-board outlines. Elon Gren
Gay Talese: Harold Hayes, magazine just did a piece on Sinatra. What can you say about Sinatra that hasn’t already been said?” “Look, Gay,” said Hayes, “it’s all set up. It’s a cover piece. His press agent, Jim Mahoney, will give you access to him. We’re gonna feature it big. Then after that, you can do what you want to do.”
The only thing I know is that, after he was dead, I was invited to Queens College to be on a panel of a Frank Sinatra event. Quincy Jones was there and Tina Sinatra, Frank’s daughter. And she was very friendly to me. She said, “I like that piece you did on my father.” I said, “You did?” Because I had never heard from anybody. I said, “Do you think he liked it?” She said, “You know, he would never tell you, but I think he did.”
I like it, but I’d say “Mr. Bad News” comes closest to what I aspire to do, which is to write nonfiction about ordinary people. Sinatra was the opposite of this.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”By Gay TaleseEsquireApril 1966
Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. This lovely, poetic sentence not only describes the hordes that surround Sinatra but it also signals to the reader that you spoke to, at the very least, “dozens of people.” How many people you speak to? At least a hundred. Is that an unusual number for one of your profiles? No. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people — his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five — which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. You don’t delve into his financial holdings much beyond this sentence. Was it something you looked into? All this financial stuff — the acquisitions, the chairman of the board stuff — had been written about. It was all so well-documented at that point. There were articles in the about his financial holdings. All of this had been written about by other people. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time. He is the champ who made the big comeback, the man who had everything, lost it, then got it back, letting nothing stand in his way, doing what few men can do: he uprooted his life, left his family, broke with everything that was familiar, learning in the process that one way to hold a woman is not to hold her. Now he has the affection of Nancy and Ava and Mia, the fine female produce of three generations, It’s interesting that you describe the ladies in his life as “produce” when, a couple of sentences prior, you describe Sinatra as a “product.” It’s a sort of commercialization of the characters. I think so, yeah. and still has the adoration of his children, the freedom of a bachelor, he does not feel old, he makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but it is still nice for other men to know, at fifty, that it can be done.
The manuscript that Talese turned in to Esquire. (Photo by Elon Green)
It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics — “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas — in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers; two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him. Such an extraordinary sentence. For a moment, you pluck the reader from the present and deposit him in different locales, different seasons, different generations. It’s so unusual. It’s not unusual, if you love the short story, as I do, and if you read enough Fitzgerald, as I have. That’s a Fitzgeraldian observation from afar. Look at my all-time favorite short story, “Winter Dreams.” You see this romantic notion of passion and longing.I was reading short stories as a college student at Alabama, and later on — reading stories, including my all-time favorite writer of theirs, Irwin Shaw. “Girls In Their Summer Dress”! “Sailor Off The Bremen”! No one has heard of these stories now. No one knows who Irwin Shaw is. But boy, he meant a lot to me. So, that stuff you quote, that’s just me. It’s like fiction. But it’s not necessarily fakery or fabrication. I grew up with the Sinatra songs and music, and it doesn’t require that much imagination to think that good, romantic music puts you in a romantic mood, whether you’re sitting on a beach or in a cabana or in some hotel. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.
The two blondes, who seemed to be in their middle thirties, were preened and polished, their matured bodies softly molded within tight dark suits. The punctuated alliteration is gorgeous — “preened and polished”; “matured” and “molded”. How much time would you spend on such a sentence? Oh, I could spend days. Sometimes these phrases come to you and sometimes they’re terrible. Sometimes you think, “Maybe that’s okay” and you let it in. I throw a lot of stuff away. What percentage of what you write for any given story do you get rid of? More than half. Because it’s so easily the case that it’s turgid or overwritten. Do you throw away more now, now that you use a computer? I don’t think so. I’ve always thrown a lot away, even when I was working on daily deadlines for newspapers. That was really expensive because at the right away. This was in the damn magazine. They issued a correction. I had her in my notes and I’d interviewed her. Fortunately, I save all my notes. The most distinguishing thing about Sinatra’s face are his eyes, clear blue and alert, eyes that within seconds can go cold with anger, or glow with affection, or, as now, reflect a vague detachment that keeps his friends silent and distant.
Leo Durocher, one of Sinatra’s closest friends, was now shooting pool in the small room behind the bar. I like that you don’t say — not ever — who Durocher is. He is, of course, the great Giants manager. Did you assume your readers would know who he was, or simply not care? I assumed people knew who Leo Durocher was, and to introduce him would be stupid. This is 1966, so he wasn’t so long removed from baseball. Standing near the door was Jim Mahoney, Sinatra’s press agent, a somewhat chunky young man with a square jaw and narrow eyes who would resemble a tough Irish plainclothesman if it were not for the expensive continental suits he wears and his exquisite shoes often adorned with polished buckles. Also nearby was a big, broad-shouldered two-hundred-pound actor named Brad Dexter who seemed always to be thrusting out his chest so that his gut would not show.
While this statement may seem outlandishly dramatic, particularly when taken out of context, it nonetheless expresses a fierce fidelity that is quite common within Sinatra’s special circle. It is a characteristic that Sinatra, without admission, seems to prefer: All the Way; All or Nothing at All. This is the Sicilian in Sinatra; he permits his friends, if they wish to remain that, none of the easy Anglo-Saxon outs. But if they remain loyal, then there is nothing Sinatra will not do in turn — fabulous gifts, personal kindnesses, encouragement when they’re down, adulation when they’re up. They are wise to remember, however, one thing. He is Sinatra. The boss. Il Padrone.
And they remembered when Sinatra was a failure and sang trash like “Mairzy Doats,” and they remembered his comeback and on this night they were all standing outside Jilly’s saloon, dozens of them, but they could not get in. So some of them left. But most of them stayed, hoping that soon they might be able to push or wedge their way into Jilly’s between the elbows and backsides of the men drinking three-deep at the bar, and they might be able to peek through and see him sitting back there. This is all they really wanted; they wanted to see him. And for a few moments they gazed in silence through the smoke and they stared. Then they turned, fought their way out of the bar, went home.
On the one hand he is the swinger — as he is when talking and joking with Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Conte, Liza Minelli, Bernie Massi, or any of the other show-business people who get to sit at the table; on the other, as when he is nodding or waving to his paisanos who are close to him (Al Silvani, a boxing manager who works with Sinatra’s film company; Dominic Di Bona, his wardrobe man; Ed Pucci, a 300-pound former football lineman who is his aide-de-camp), Frank Sinatra is Il Padrone. Or better still, he is what in traditional Sicily have long been called uomini rispettati — men of respect: men who are both majestic and humble, men who are loved by all and are very generous by nature, men whose hands are kissed as they walk from village to village, men who would personally go out of their way to redress a wrong.
The same Sinatra who did this can, within the same hour, explode in a towering rage of intolerance should a small thing be incorrectly done for him by one of his paisanos. For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with catsup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering catsup all over him. This is one of only three times in a 15,000-word piece that you use “apparently.” That’s quite remarkable for a write-around of such length. Were you unable to nail down Sinatra’s position on catsup? I can tell you exactly where it came from. It came from Ed Pucci, the bodyguard. Do I say who he threw the bottle at? No. Well, it’s Ed Pucci. The reason I didn’t use his name, probably, is it’s humiliating. Ed Pucci was a big guy, he used to be an NFL lineman. Most of the men who work around Sinatra are big. But this never seems to intimidate Sinatra nor curb his impetuous behavior with them when he is mad. They will never take a swing back at him. He is Il Padrone.
NOW SINATRA SAID A FEW words to the blondes. Then he turned from the bar and began to walk toward the poolroom. One of Sinatra’s other men friends moved in to keep the girls company. Brad Dexter, who had been standing in the corner talking to some other people, now followed Sinatra.
It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay,
“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”
“Look, I donno, man,” Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.
Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: “You expecting a storm?”
Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”
“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra said.
“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison said, “but I dress to suit myself.”
Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, “Com’on, Harlan, let’s get out of here,” and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, “Yeah, com’on.”
“No, no, he’s not,” another young man quickly yelled from across the table. “He wrote ”
“Oh, yeah,” Sinatra said, “well I’ve seen it, and it’s a piece of crap.”
“That’s strange,” Ellison said, “because they haven’t even released it yet.”
“Well, I’ve seen it,” Sinatra repeated, “and it’s a piece of crap.”
Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, “Com’on, kid, I don’t want you in this room.”
“Hey,” Sinatra interrupted Dexter, “can’t you see I’m talking to this guy?”
Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed, and his voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, “Why do you persist in tormenting me?”
“I don’t want anybody in here without coats and ties,” Sinatra snapped.
The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.
IT WAS THE MORNING AFTER. It was the beginning of another nervous day for Sinatra’s press agent, Jim Mahoney. Mahoney had a headache, and he was worried but not over the Sinatra-Ellison incident of the night before. At the time Mahoney had been with his wife at a table in the other room, and possibly he had not even been aware of the little drama. The whole thing had lasted only about three minutes. And three minutes after it was over, Frank Sinatra had probably forgotten about it for the rest of his life — as Ellison will probably remember it for the rest of his life: he had had, as hundreds of others before him, at an unexpected moment between darkness and dawn, a scene with Sinatra.
Still, Sinatra seems ever present, and if Mahoney did not have legitimate worries about Sinatra, as he did today, he could invent them — and, as worry aids, he surrounds himself with little mementos of moments in the past when he did worry. In his shaving kit there is a two-year-old box of sleeping tablets dispensed by a Reno druggist — the date on the bottle marks the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. There is on a table in Mahoney’s office a mounted wood reproduction of Frank Sinatra’s ransom note written on the aforementioned occasion. One of Mahoney’s mannerisms, when he is sitting at his desk worrying, is to tinker with the tiny toy train he keeps in front of him — the train is a souvenir from the Sinatra film, ; it is to men who are close to Sinatra what the PT-109 tie clasps are to men who were close to Kennedy The reference to the former president recalls the third paragraph of the story. It implies Sinatra’s influence and stature. I mean, Sinatra was like a king in the movie business. He not only made films, but he determined who was going to direct them and, more importantly, what hours he would work. He didn’t want to work in the morning. Most people get up at dawn and they accept it. Not Sinatra. He was going to start at noon. The power to decide what time to start a film is the ultimate power. — and Mahoney then proceeds to roll the little train back and forth on the six inches of track; back and forth, back and forth, click-clack-click-clack. It is his Queeg-thing.
Now Mahoney quickly put aside the little train. His secretary told him there was a very important call on the line. Mahoney picked it up, and his voice was even softer and more sincere than before. “Yes, Frank,” he said. “Right…right…yes, Frank….”
But now in this NBC studio in Los Angeles, there was an atmosphere of anticipation and tension because of the uncertainty of the Sinatra voice. The forty-three musicians in Nelson Riddle’s orchestra had already arrived and some were up on the white platform warming up. Dwight Hemion, a youthful sandy-haired director who had won praise for his television special on Barbra Streisand, was seated in the glass-enclosed control booth that overlooked the orchestra and stage. The camera crews, technical teams, security guards, Budweiser ad men were also standing between the floor lamps and cameras, waiting, as were a dozen or so ladies who worked as secretaries in other parts of the building but had sneaked away so they could watch this.
A few minutes before eleven o’clock, word spread quickly through the long corridor into the big studio that Sinatra was spotted walking through the parking lot and was on his way, and was looking fine. There seemed great relief among the group that was gathered; but when the lean, sharply dressed figure of the man got closer, and closer, they saw to their dismay that it was not Frank Sinatra. It was his double. Johnny Delgado.
Five minutes later, the real Frank Sinatra walked in. His face was pale, his blue eyes seemed a bit watery. He had been unable to rid himself of the cold, but he was going to try to sing anyway because the schedule was tight and thousands of dollars were involved at this moment in the assembling of the orchestra and crews and the rental of the studio. But when Sinatra, on his way to his small rehearsal room to warm up his voice, looked into the studio and saw that the stage and orchestra’s platform were not close together, as he had specifically requested, his lips tightened and he was obviously very upset. A few moments later, from his rehearsal room, could be heard the pounding of his fist against the top of the piano and the voice of his accompanist, Bill Miller, saying, softly, “Try not to upset yourself, Frank.”
Later Jim Mahoney and another man walked in, and there was talk of Dorothy Kilgallen’s death in New York earlier that morning. This gives a clue as to how long you worked on the story. Kilgallen died in November 1965; “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” was published in the April 1966 issue of . She had been an ardent foe of Sinatra for years, and he became equally uncomplimentary about her in his nightclub act, and now, though she was dead, he did not compromise his feelings. “Dorothy Kilgallen’s dead,” he repeated, walking out of the room toward the studio. “Well, guess I got to change my whole act.”
When he strolled into the studio the musicians all picked up their instruments and stiffened in their seats. Here, again, you capture so well the reaction of others to Sinatra. Well, he’s the payday. It’s like a conductor. You go to the Metropolitan Opera, and Mr. Levine walks in, the orchestra stiffens in their seats. They get up, they applaud, they sit down. Sinatra cleared his throat a few times and then, after rehearsing a few ballads with the orchestra, he sang “Don’t Worry About Me” to his satisfaction and, being uncertain of how long his voice could last, suddenly became impatient.
“Why don’t we tape this mother?” he called out, looking up toward the glass booth where the director, Dwight Hemion, and his staff were sitting. Their heads seemed to be down, focusing on the control board.
The production stage manager, who stands near the camera wearing a headset, repeated Sinatra’s words exactly into his line to the control room: “Why don’t we tape this mother?”
Hemion did not answer. Possibly his switch was off. It was hard to know because of the obscuring reflections the lights made against the glass booth.
“Why don’t we put on a coat and tie,” said Sinatra, then wearing a high-necked yellow pullover, “and tape this….”
Suddenly Hemion’s voice came over the sound amplifier, very calmly: “Okay, Frank, would you mind going back over….”
The silence from Hemion’s end, which lasted a second or two, was then again interrupted by Sinatra saying, “When we stop doing things around here the way we did them in 1950, maybe we…” and Sinatra continued to tear into Hemion, condemning as well the lack of modern techniques in putting such shows together; then, possibly not wanting to use his voice unnecessarily, he stopped. And Dwight Hemion, very patient, so patient and calm that one would assume he had not heard anything that Sinatra had just said, outlined the opening part of the show. And Sinatra a few minutes later was reading his opening remarks, words that would follow “Without a Song,” off the large idiot-cards being held near the camera. Then, this done, he prepared to do the same thing on camera. This is the second character — Harlan Ellison is the first — who doesn’t immediately acquiesce to Sinatra. He didn’t hear him. Hemion had the sound off. Sinatra was saying, “What the fuck is going on up there?” Dwight was tuned out, probably talking to somebody in the booth.
“Frank Sinatra Show, Act I, Page 10, Take 1,” called a man with a clapboard, jumping in front of the camera — clap — then jumping away again.
“Did you ever stop to think,” Sinatra began, “what the world would be like without a song?… It would be a pretty dreary place…. Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it?…”
“Excuse me,” he said, adding, “Boy, I need a drink.”
“Frank Sinatra Show, Act I, Page 10, Take 2,” yelled the jumping guy with the clapboard.
“Did you ever stop to think what the world would be like without a song?…” Frank Sinatra read it through this time without stopping. Then he rehearsed a few more songs, once or twice interrupting the orchestra when a certain instrumental sound was not quite what he wanted. It was hard to tell how well his voice was going to hold up, for this was early in the show; up to this point, however, everybody in the room seemed pleased, particularly when he sang an old sentimental favorite written more than twenty years ago by Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers — “Nancy,” inspired by the first of Sinatra’s three children when she was just a few years old.
Nancy now also sees him visiting at home with his first wife, the former Nancy Barbato, a plasterer’s daughter from Jersey City whom he married in 1939 when he was earning $25 a week singing at the Rustic Cabin near Hoboken.
“Got a party or something going on up there, Dwight?”
Sinatra stood on the stage, arms folded, glaring up across the cameras toward Hemion. Sinatra had sung Nancy with probably all he had in his voice on this day. The next few numbers contained raspy notes, and twice his voice completely cracked. But now Hemion was in the control booth out of communication; then he was down in the studio walking over to where Sinatra stood. A few minutes later they both left the studio and were on the way up to the control booth. The tape was replayed for Sinatra. He watched only about five minutes of it before he started to shake his head. Then he said to Hemion: “Forget it, just forget it. You’re wasting your time. What you got there,” Sinatra said, nodding to the singing image of himself on the television screen, “is a man with a cold.” Then he left the control booth, ordering that the whole day’s performance be scrubbed and future taping postponed until he had recovered.
SOON THE WORD SPREAD like an emotional epidemic down through Sinatra’s staff, then fanned out through Hollywood, Who did you speak to in Hollywood about Sinatra’s cold? How did they find out about his ailment? And how did you know that . Of course, you start with Mahoney. Who but Mahoney would know about that? Mahoney’s the guy who told me about it in the first place. Mahoney is connected to Brad Dexter. Dick Bakalyan, who was an insider-outsider, knew about the cold. NBC was losing a fortune. The scheduled event, when you put an orchestra of 65 pieces in place — this guys are getting paid. There’s the studio, Burbank. And then the thing is cancelled? Every beer salesman from Budweiser knows it. It was a public event! So it was no secret. Of course it was no secret. The damn thing was cancelled. Why? Because he coughed. He couldn’t sing with a fucking cold. then was heard across the nation in Jilly’s saloon, and also on the other side of the Hudson River in the homes of Frank Sinatra’s parents and his other relatives and friends in New Jersey.
When Frank Sinatra spoke with his father on the telephone and said he was feeling awful, the elder Sinatra reported that he was also feeling awful: that his left arm and fist were so stiff with a circulatory condition he could barely use them, adding that the ailment might be the result of having thrown too many left hooks during his days as a bantamweight almost fifty years ago.
Martin Sinatra, a ruddy and tattooed little blue-eyed Sicilian born in Catania, boxed under the name of “Marty O’Brien.” In those days, in those places, with the Irish running the lower reaches of city life, it was not uncommon for Italians to wind up with such names. Most of the Italians and Sicilians who migrated to America just prior to the 1900’s were poor and uneducated, were excluded from the building-trades unions dominated by the Irish, and were somewhat intimidated by the Irish police, Irish priests, Irish politicians.
By playing skillful politics with North Jersey’s Democratic machine, Dolly Sinatra was to become, in her heyday, a kind of Catherine de Medici of Hoboken’s third ward. She could always be counted upon to deliver six hundred votes at election time from her Italian neighborhood, and this was her base of power. When she told one of the politicians that she wanted her husband to be appointed to the Hoboken Fire Department, and was told, “But, Dolly, we don’t have an opening,” she snapped, “Make an opening.”
They did. Years later she requested that her husband be made a captain, and one day she got a call from one of the political bosses that began, “Dolly, congratulations!”
“Oh, you finally made him one — thank you very much.”
“Let me speak to Captain Sinatra,” she said. The fireman called Martin Sinatra to the phone, saying, “Marty, I think your wife has gone nuts.” When he got on the line, Dolly greeted him:
Dolly Sinatra was not the sort of Italian mother who could be appeased merely by a child’s obedience and good appetite. She made many demands on her son, was always very strict. She dreamed of his becoming an aviation engineer. When she discovered Bing Crosby pictures hanging on his bedroom walls one evening, and learned that her son wished to become a singer too, she became infuriated and threw a shoe at him. Later, finding she could not talk him out of it — “he takes after me” — To whom did she say this? She said that to me. She said a lot of things to me. I got stuff about Ava Gardner from her. she encouraged his singing.
Many Italo-American boys of his generation were then shooting for the same star — they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them: no O’Hara, no Bellow, no Cheever, nor Shaw; yet they could communicate bel canto. This was more in their tradition, no need for a diploma; they could, with a song, someday see their names in lights…Perry Como…Frankie Laine…Tony Bennett…Vic Damone…but none could see it better than Frank Sinatra.
But he did — as he would leave other warm places, too, in search of something more, never wasting time, trying to do it all in one generation, fighting under his own name, defending underdogs, terrorizing top dogs. It sounds like he terrorized underdogs, too. Well, he throws ketchup at his bodyguard — if you call that terrorizing. He threw a punch at a musician who said something anti-Semitic, espoused the Negro cause two decades before it became fashionable. He also threw a tray of glasses at Buddy Rich when he played the drums too loud.
Talese’s „Sinatra“ outline, sketched on one of his famous shirt boards.
When many Italian names were used in describing gangsters on a television show, But when Gay Talese writes about Italian-Americans, there are very few people in this country who can tell me more than I know about that subject. So, you feel very comfortable — Fucking confident. I’m really comfortable. — basically saying, “This is where Sinatra is in the culture”? I can say that with as much certitude as anybody can refute me. There might be another Italian-American writer — I don’t know who it would be, because Mario Puzo wouldn’t refute me. It’s a subject just like Roth — who is my favorite writer, incidentally — writes about the Jews where you know that he is the supreme authority. He doesn’t need Isaac Bashevis Singer to tell you you’re wrong. Lawford and Bobby Kennedy are both suspected of having influenced the late President’s decision to stay as a house guest with Bing Crosby instead of Sinatra, as originally planned, a social setback Sinatra may never forget. Peter Lawford has since been drummed out of Sinatra’s “summit” in Las Vegas.
Today Dolly Sinatra is seventy-one years old, a year or two younger than Martin, and all day long people are knocking on the back door of her large home asking her advice, seeking her influence. When she is not seeing people and not cooking in the kitchen, she is looking after her husband, a silent but stubborn man, and telling him to keep his sore left arm resting on the sponge she has placed on the armrest of a soft chair. “Oh, he went to some terrific fires, this guy did,” Dolly said to a visitor, nodding with admiration toward her husband in the chair.
Mrs. Sinatra talks to her son on the telephone about once a week, and recently he suggested that, when visiting Manhattan, she make use of his apartment on East Seventy-second Street on the East River. This is an expensive neighborhood of New York even though there is a small factory on the block, but this latter fact was seized upon by Dolly Sinatra as a means of getting back at her son for some unflattering descriptions of his childhood in Hoboken.
“What — you want me to stay in your apartment, in that dump?” she asked. “You think I’m going to spend the night in that awful neighborhood?”
After spending the week in Palm Springs, his cold much better, Frank Sinatra returned to Los Angeles, a lovely city of sun and sex, a Spanish discovery of Mexican misery, a star land of little men and little women sliding in and out of convertibles in tense tight pants.
Frank, Jr., who is twenty-two, was touring with a band and moving cross country toward a New York engagement at Basin Street East with The Pied Pipers, with whom Frank Sinatra sang when he was with Dorsey’s band in the 1940’s. Today Frank Sinatra, Jr., whom his father says he named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, lives mostly in hotels, dines each evening in his nightclub dressing room, and sings until two a.m., accepting graciously, because he has no choice, the inevitable comparisons. His voice is smooth and pleasant, and improving with work, and while he is very respectful of his father, he discusses him with objectivity and in an occasional tone of subdued cockiness.
Concurrent with his father’s early fame, Frank, Jr. said, was the creation of a “press-release Sinatra” designed to “set him apart from the common man, separate him from the realities: it was suddenly Sinatra, the electric magnate, Sinatra who is supernormal, not superhuman but supernormal. And here,” Frank, Jr. continued, “is the great fallacy, the great bullshit, for Frank Sinatra is normal, is the guy whom you’d meet on a street corner. But this other thing, the supernormal guise, has affected Frank Sinatra as much as anybody who watches one of his television shows, or reads a magazine article about him….
“Frank Sinatra’s life in the beginning was so normal,” he said, “that nobody would have guessed in 1934 that this little Italian kid with the curly hair would become the giant, the monster, the great living legend…. He met my mother one summer on the beach. She was Nancy Barbato, daughter of Mike Barbato, a Jersey City plasterer. And she meets the fireman’s son, Frank, one summer day on the beach at Long Branch, New Jersey. Both are Italian, both Roman Catholic, both lower-middle-class summer sweethearts — it is like a million bad movies starring Frankie Avalon. . . .
And like so much of Hollywood’s fear, the apprehension about the CBS show all proved to be without foundation. It was a highly flattering hour that did not deeply probe, as rumors suggested it would, into Sinatra’s love life, or the Mafia, or other areas of his private province. While the documentary was not authorized, wrote Jack Gould in the next day’s New York Times, “it could have been.”
Immediately after the show, the telephones began to ring throughout the Sinatra system conveying words of joy and relief — and from New York came Jilly’s telegram: “WE RULE THE WORLD!”
THE NEXT DAY, STANDING in the corridor of the NBC building where he was about to resume taping his show, Sinatra was discussing the CBS show with several of his friends, and he said, “Oh, it was a gas.”
Ten minutes later Sinatra, following the orchestra, walked into the NBC studio, which did not resemble in the slightest the scene here of eight days ago. This is useful. Without drawing attention to it, you give the reader a timeline. Right. On this occasion Sinatra was in fine voice, he cracked jokes between numbers, nothing could upset him. Once, while he was singing “How Can I Ignore the Girl Next Door,” standing on the stage next to a tree, a television camera mounted on a vehicle came rolling in too close and plowed against the tree.
“Kee-rist!” yelled one of the technical assistants.
“We’ve had a slight accident,” he said, calmly. Then he began the song all over from the beginning.
When the show was over, Sinatra watched the rerun on the monitor in the control room. He was very pleased, shaking hands with Dwight Hemion and his assistants. Then the whisky bottles were opened in Sinatra’s dressing room. Pat Lawford was there, and so were Andy Williams and a dozen others. The telegrams and telephone calls continued to be received from all over the country with praise for the CBS show. There was even a call, Mahoney said, from the CBS producer, Don Hewitt, with whom Sinatra had been so angry a few days before. And Sinatra was still angry, feeling that CBS had betrayed him, though the show itself was not objectionable.
“Can you send a fist through the mail?” Sinatra asked.
He has everything, he cannot sleep, he gives nice gifts, he is not happy, but he would not trade, even for happiness, what he is….
He is a piece of our past — but only we have aged, he hasn’t…we are dogged by domesticity, he isn’t…we have compunctions, he doesn’t…it is our fault, not his….
He controls the menus of every Italian restaurant in Los Angeles; if you want North Italian cooking, fly to Milan….
Men follow him, imitate him, fight to be near him…there is something of the locker room, the barracks about him…bird…bird….
He believes you must play it big, wide, expansively — the more open you are, the more you take in, your dimensions deepen, you grow, you become more what you are — bigger, richer….
“He is better than anybody else, or at least they think he is, and he has to live up to it.” –Nancy Sinatra, Jr.
“He is calm on the outside — inwardly a million things are happening to him.” –Dick Bakalyan
“He has an insatiable desire to live every moment to its fullest because, I guess, he feels that right around the corner is extinction.” –Brad Dexter
“All I ever got out of any of my marriages was the two years Artie Shaw financed on an analyst’s couch.” –Ava Gardner
“We weren’t mother and son — we were buddies.” –Dolly Sinatra
FRANK SINATRA WAS TIRED of all the talk, the gossip, the theory — tired of reading quotes about himself, of hearing what people were saying about him all over town. It had been a tedious three weeks, he said, and now he just wanted to get away, go to Las Vegas, let off some steam. So he hopped in his jet, soared over the California hills across the Nevada flats, then over miles and miles of desert to The Sands and the Clay-Patterson fight.
On the eve of the fight he stayed up all night and slept through most of the afternoon, though his recorded voice could be heard singing in the lobby of The Sands, in the gambling casino, even in the toilets, being interrupted every few bars however by the paging public address: “…Telephone call for Mr. Ron Fish, Mr. Ron Fish…with a ribbon of gold in her hair…. Telephone call for Mr. Herbert Rothstein, Mr. Herbert Rothstein…memories of a time so bright, keep me sleepless through dark endless nights….”
“There are no messages going through, Miss,” he said, and then she turned, unsteadily, seeming close to tears, and walked through the lobby into the big noisy casino crowded with men interested only in money.
“Joey, I’m sorry,” Entratter said when the silence persisted, “but we couldn’t get more than six together in the front row.”
Bishop still said nothing. But when they all appeared at the fight, Joey Bishop was in the front row, his wife in the third.
The fight, called a holy war between Muslims and Christians, was preceded by the introduction of three balding ex-champions, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston — and then there was “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by another man from out of the past, Eddie Fisher. It had been more than fourteen years ago, but Sinatra could still remember every detail: Eddie Fisher was then the new king of the baritones, with Billy Eckstine and Guy Mitchell right with him, and Sinatra had been long counted out. One day he remembered walking into a broadcasting studio past dozens of Eddie Fisher fans waiting outside the hall, and when they saw Sinatra they began to jeer, “Frankie, Frankie, I’m swooning, I’m swooning.” This was also the time when he was selling only about 30,000 records a year, when he was dreadfully miscast as a funny man on his television show, and when he recorded such disasters as “Mama Will Bark,” with Dagmar.
His voice and his artistic judgment were incredibly bad in 1952, but even more responsible for his decline, say his friends, was his pursuit of Ava Gardner. She was the big movie queen then, one of the most beautiful women in the world. Sinatra’s daughter Nancy recalls seeing Ava swimming one day in her father’s pool, then climbing out of the water with that fabulous body, walking slowly to the fire, leaning over it for a few moments, and then it suddenly seemed that her long dark hair was all dry, miraculously and effortlessly back in place.
Sinatra’s manager at that time, a former song plugger named Hank Sanicola, said, “Ava loved Frank, but not the way he loved her. He needs a great deal of love. He wants it twenty-four hours a day, he must have people around — Frank is that kind of guy.” Ava Gardner, Sanicola said, “was very insecure. She feared she could not really hold a man…twice he went chasing her to Africa, wasting his own career….”
In 1953, after almost two years of marriage, Sinatra and Ava Gardner were divorced. Sinatra’s mother reportedly arranged a reconciliation, but if Ava was willing, Frank Sinatra was not. He was seen with other women. The balance had shifted. Somewhere during this period Sinatra seemed to change from the kid singer, the boy actor in the sailor suit, to a man. Even before he had won the Oscar in 1953 for his role in some flashes of his old talent were coming through — in his recording of “The Birth of the Blues,” in his Riviera-nightclub appearance that jazz critics enthusiastically praised; and there was also a trend now toward L.P.’s and away from the quick three-minute deal, and Sinatra’s concert style would have capitalized on this with or without an Oscar.
Floyd Patterson chased Clay around the ring in the first round, but was unable to reach him, and from then on he was Clay’s toy, the bout ending in a technical knockout in the twelfth round. A half hour later, nearly everybody had forgotten about the fight and was back at the gambling tables or lining up to buy tickets for the Dean Martin-Sinatra-Bishop nightclub routine on the stage of The Sands. This routine, which includes Sammy Davis, Jr. when he is in town, consists of a few songs and much cutting up, all of it very informal, very special, and rather ethnic — Martin, a drink in hand, asking Bishop: “Did you ever see a Jew jitsu?”; and Bishop, playing a Jewish waiter, warning the two Italians to watch out “because I got my own group — the Matzia.”
They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back, and listened to a baldheaded little comedian named Don Rickles, who is probably more caustic than any comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor; and when two businessmen in the audience acknowledged that they were Egyptian, Rickles cut into them for their country’s policy toward Israel; and he strongly suggested that the woman seated at one table with her husband was actually a hooker.
When the Sinatra crowd walked in, Don Rickles could not be more delighted. Pointing to Jilly, Rickles yelled: “How’s it feel to be Frank’s tractor?… Yeah, Jilly keeps walking in front of Frank clearing the way.” Then, nodding to Durocher, Rickles said, “Stand up Leo, show Frank how you slide.” Then he focused on Sinatra, not failing to mention Mia Farrow, nor that he was wearing a toupee, nor to say that Sinatra was washed up as a singer, and when Sinatra laughed, everybody laughed, and Rickles pointed toward Bishop: “Joey Bishop keeps checking with Frank to see what’s funny.”
Then, after Rickles told some Jewish jokes, Dean Martin stood up and yelled, “Hey, you’re always talking about the Jews, never about the Italians,” and Rickles cut him off with, “What do we need the Italians for — all they do is keep the flies off our fish.”
Sinatra laughed, they all laughed, and Rickles went on this way for nearly an hour until Sinatra, standing up, said, “All right, com’on, get this thing over with. I gotta go.”
“Shaddup and sit down!” Rickles snapped. “I’ve had to listen to you sing….”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Sinatra yelled back.
“Dick Haymes,” Rickles replied, and Sinatra laughed again, and then Dean Martin, pouring a bottle of whisky over his head, entirely drenching his tuxedo, pounded the table.
“Who would ever believe that staggering would make a star?” Rickles said, but Martin called out, “Hey, I wanna make a speech.”
“No, Don, I wanna tell ya,” Dean Martin persisted, “that I think you’re a great performer.”
“Well, thank you, Dean,” Rickles said, seeming pleased.
“But don’t go by me,” Martin said, plopping down into his seat, “I’m drunk.”
BY FOUR A.M. FRANK SINATRA led the group out of The Sahara, some of them carrying their glasses of whisky with them, sipping it along the sidewalk and in the cars; then, returning to The Sands, they walked into the gambling casino. It was still packed with people, the roulette wheels spinning, the crapshooters screaming in the far corner.
Frank Sinatra, holding a shot glass of bourbon in his left hand, walked through the crowd. He, unlike some of his friends, was perfectly pressed, his tuxedo tie precisely pointed, his shoes unsmudged. He never seems to lose his dignity, never lets his guard completely down no matter how much he has drunk, nor how long he has been up. He never sways when he walks, like Dean Martin, nor does he ever dance in the aisles or jump up on tables, like Sammy Davis.
Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second hundred-dollar bill. He lost that. Then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth hundred-dollar bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing, “Good dealer.”
The crowd that had gathered around him now opened up to let him through. But a woman stepped in front of him, handing him a piece of paper to autograph. He signed it and then he said, “Thank you.”
In the rear of The Sands’ large dining room was a long table reserved for Sinatra. The dining room was fairly empty at this hour, with perhaps two dozen other people in the room, including a table of four unescorted young ladies sitting near Sinatra. On the other side of the room, at another long table, sat seven men shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall, two of them wearing dark glasses, all of them eating quietly, speaking hardly a word, just sitting and eating and missing nothing.
The Sinatra party, after getting settled and having a few more drinks, ordered something to eat. The table was about the same size as the one reserved for Sinatra whenever he is at Jilly’s in New York; and the people seated around this table in Las Vegas were many of the same people who are often seen with Sinatra at Jilly’s or at a restaurant in California, or in Italy, or in New Jersey, or wherever Sinatra happens to be. When Sinatra sits to dine, his trusted friends are close; and no matter where he is, no matter how elegant the place may be, there is something of the neighborhood showing because Sinatra, no matter how far he has come, is still something of the boy from the neighborhood — only now he can take his neighborhood with him.
In some ways, this quasi-family affair at a reserved table in a public place is the closest thing Sinatra now has to home life. Perhaps, having had a home and left it, this approximation is as close as he cares to come; although this does not seem precisely so because he speaks with such warmth about his family, keeps in close touch with his first wife, and insists that she make no decision without first consulting him. Maybe it’s a generational difference, but I read this and think, “Man, Sinatra is a control freak.” Did you think of him like that? No. How many men, when they get separated or divorced, want to wash their hands of that whole thing? Maybe it was representative of a controlling guy, but Sinatra they spent some time together, being pursued wherever they went by the paparazzi. It was reported then that the paparazzi had made Sinatra a collective offer of $16,000 if he would pose with Ava Gardner; Sinatra was said to have made a counter offer of $32,000 if he could break one paparazzi arm and leg.
While Sinatra is often delighted that he can be in his home completely without people, enabling him to read and think without interruption, there are occasions when he finds himself alone at night, and not by choice. He may have dialed a half-dozen women, and for one reason or another they are all unavailable. So he will call his valet, George Jacobs.
“Just myself,” Sinatra will say. “I want something light, I’m not very hungry.”
George Jacobs is a twice-divorced man of thirty-six who resembles Billy Eckstine. He has traveled all over the world with Sinatra and is devoted to him. Jacobs lives in a comfortable bachelor’s apartment off Sunset Boulevard around the corner from Whiskey à Go Go, and he is known around town for the assortment of frisky California girls “frisky” — this is an interesting descriptive. he has as friends — a few of whom, he concedes, were possibly drawn to him initially because of his closeness to Frank Sinatra.
When Sinatra arrives, Jacobs will serve him dinner in the dining room. Then Sinatra will tell Jacobs that he is free to go home. If Sinatra, on such evenings, should ask Jacobs to stay longer, or to play a few hands of poker, he would be happy to do so. But Sinatra never does.
THIS WAS HIS SECOND night in Las Vegas, and Frank Sinatra sat with friends in The Sands’ dining room until nearly eight a.m. He slept through much of the day, then flew back to Los Angeles, and on the following morning he was driving his little golf cart through the Paramount Pictures movie lot. He was scheduled to complete two final scenes with the sultry blonde actress, Virna Lisi, in the film As he maneuvered the little vehicle up the road between the big studio buildings, he spotted Steve Rossi who, with his comedy partner Marty Allen, was making a film in an adjoining studio with Nancy Sinatra.
“Hey, Dag,” he yelled to Rossi, “stop kissing Nancy.”
“It’s part of the film, Frank,” Rossi said, turning as he walked.
“Where’s the fat director?” Sinatra called out, striding into the studio that was crowded with dozens of technical assistants and actors all gathered around cameras. The director, Jack Donohue, a large man who has worked with Sinatra through twenty-two years on one production or other, has had headaches with this film. The script had been chopped, the actors seemed restless, and Sinatra had become bored. But now there were only two scenes left — a short one to be filmed in the pool, and a longer and passionate one featuring Sinatra and Virna Lisi to be shot on a simulated beach.
The pool scene, which dramatizes a situation where Sinatra and his hijackers fail in their attempt to sack the went quickly and well. After Sinatra had been kept in the water shoulder-high for a few minutes, he said, “Let’s move it, fellows — it’s cold in this water, and I’ve just gotten over one cold.”
So the camera crews moved in closer, Virna Lisi splashed next to Sinatra in the water, and Jack Donohue yelled to his assistants operating the fans, “Get the waves going,” and another man gave the command, “Agitate!” and Sinatra broke out in song. “Agitate in rhythm,” then quieted down just before the cameras started to roll.
Frank Sinatra was on the beach in the next situation, supposedly gazing up at the stars, and Virna Lisi was to approach him, toss one of her shoes near him to announce her presence, then sit near him and prepare for a passionate session. Just before beginning, Miss Lisi made a practice toss of her shoe toward the prone figure of Sinatra sprawled on the beach. As she tossed her shoe, Sinatra called out, “Hit me in my bird and I’m going home.”
Virna Lisi, who understands little English and certainly none of Sinatra’s special vocabulary, looked confused, but everybody behind the camera laughed. She threw the shoe toward him. It twirled in the air, landed on his stomach.
“Well, that’s about three inches too high,” he announced. She again was puzzled by the laughter behind the camera.
Then Jack Donohue had them rehearse their lines, and Sinatra, still very charged from the Las Vegas trip, and anxious to get the cameras rolling, said, “Let’s try one.” These days movie studios are generally reluctant to allow reporters on set. Did Donohue and his benefactors require much convincing? Listen, I didn’t sneak in. So I got on there. I wasn’t hanging out with Sinatra, but I was part of the entourage. How do you think I got to watch Sinata lose a hundred bucks? I watched him. Donohue, not certain that Sinatra and Lisi knew their lines well enough, nevertheless said okay, and an assistant with a clapboard called, “419, Take 1,” and Virna Lisi approached with the shoe, tossed it at Frank lying on the beach. It fell short of his thigh, and Sinatra’s right eye raised almost imperceptibly, but the crew got the message, smiled.
“What do the stars tell you tonight?” Miss Lisi said, delivering her first line, and sitting next to Sinatra on the beach.
“The stars tell me tonight I’m an idiot,” Sinatra said, “a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing….”
“Cut,” Donohue said. There were some microphone shadows on the sand, and Virna Lisi was not sitting in the proper place near Sinatra.
Miss Lisi again approached, threw the shoe at him, this time falling short — Sinatra exhaling only slightly — and she said, “What do the stars tell you tonight?”
“The stars tell me I’m an idiot, a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing….” Then, according to the script, Sinatra was to continue, “…do you know what we’re getting into? The minute we step on the deck of the we’ve just tattooed ourselves,” but Sinatra, who often improvises on lines, recited them: “…do you know what we’re getting into? The minute we step on the deck of that mother’s-ass ship….”
“No, no,” Donohue interrupted, shaking his head, “I don’t think that’s right.”
The cameras stopped, some people laughed, and Sinatra looked up from his position in the sand as if he had been unfairly interrupted.
“I don’t see why that can’t work…” he began, but Richard Conte, standing behind the camera, yelled, “It won’t play in London.”
Donohue pushed his hand through his thinning grey hair and said, but not really in anger, “You know, that scene was pretty good until somebody blew the line….”
“Yeah,” agreed the cameraman, Billy Daniels, his head popping out from around the camera, “it was a pretty good piece….”
“Watch your language,” Sinatra cut in. Then Sinatra, who has a genius for figuring out ways of not reshooting scenes, suggested a way in which the film could be used and the “mother” line could be recorded later. This met with approval. Then the cameras were rolling again, Virna Lisi was leaning toward Sinatra in the sand, and then he pulled her down close to him. The camera now moved in for a close-up of their faces, ticking away for a few long seconds, but Sinatra and Lisi did not stop kissing, they just lay together in the sand wrapped in one another’s arms, and then Virna Lisi’s left leg just slightly began to rise a bit, and everybody in the studio now watched in silence, not saying anything until Donohue finally called out:
“If you ever get through, let me know. I’m running out of film.”
Then Miss Lisi got up, straightened out her white dress, brushed back her blonde hair and touched her lipstick, which was smeared. Sinatra got up, a little smile on his lips, and headed for his dressing room.
Passing an older man who stood near a camera, Sinatra asked, “How’s your Bell & Howell?”
Talese works out of a basement office at his Upper East Side apartment. (Photo by Elon Green)
In his dressing room Sinatra was met by an automobile designer who had the plans for Sinatra’s new custom-built model to replace the $25,000 Ghia he has been driving for the last few years. He also was awaited by his secretary, Tom Conroy, who had a bag full of fan mail, including a letter from New York’s Mayor John Lindsay; and by Bill Miller, Sinatra’s pianist, who would rehearse some of the songs that would be recorded later in the evening for Sinatra’s newest album,
While Sinatra does not mind hamming it up a bit on a movie set, he is extremely serious about his recording sessions; as he explained to a British writer, Robin Douglas-Home: “Once you’re on that record singing, it’s you and you alone. If it’s bad and gets you criticized, it’s you who’s to blame — no one else. If it’s good, it’s also you. With a film it’s never like that; there are producers and scriptwriters, and hundreds of men in offices and the thing is taken right out of your hands. With a record, you’re it….”
It no longer matters what song he is singing, or who wrote the words — they are all his words, his sentiments, they are chapters from the lyrical novel of his life.
When Frank Sinatra drives to the studio, he seems to dance out of the car across the sidewalk into the front door; then, snapping his fingers, he is standing in front of the orchestra in an intimate, airtight room, and soon he is dominating every man, every instrument, every sound wave. Some of the musicians have accompanied him for twenty-five years, have gotten old hearing him sing “You Make Me Feel So Young.”
When his voice is on, as it was tonight, Sinatra is in ecstasy, the room becomes electric, there is an excitement that spreads through the orchestra and is felt in the control booth where a dozen men, Sinatra’s friends, wave at him from behind the glass. One of the men is the Dodgers’ pitcher, Don Drysdale (“Hey, Big D,” Sinatra calls out, “hey, baby!”); another is the professional golfer Bo Wininger; there are also numbers of pretty women standing in the booth behind the engineers, women who smile at Sinatra and softly move their bodies to the mellow mood of his music:
After he is finished, the record is played back on tape, and Nancy Sinatra, who has just walked in, joins her father near the front of the orchestra to hear the playback. They listen silently, all eyes on them, the king, the princess; and when the music ends there is applause from the control booth, Nancy smiles, and her father snaps his fingers and says, kicking a foot, “Ooba-deeba-boobe-do!”
Then Sinatra calls to one of his men. “Hey, Sarge, think I can have a half-a-cup of coffee?”
Sarge Weiss, who had been listening to the music, slowly gets up.
“Didn’t mean to wake ya, Sarge,” Sinatra says, smiling.
Then Weiss brings the coffee, and Sinatra looks at it, smells it, then announces, “I thought he’d be nice to me, but it’s really coffee….”
There are more smiles, and then the orchestra prepares for the next number. And one hour later, it is over.
The musicians put their instruments into their cases, grab their coats, and begin to file out, saying good-night to Sinatra. He knows them all by name, knows much about them personally, from their bachelor days, through their divorces, through their ups and downs, as they know him. When a French-horn player, a short Italian named Vincent DeRosa, who has played with Sinatra since The Lucky Strike “Hit Parade” days on radio, strolled by, Sinatra reached out to hold him for a second.
“Oh, she’s not a little girl anymore,” Sinatra corrected himself, “she’s a big girl now.”
“She’s also got a little talent, I think, Frank, as a singer.”
“Yes, Frank,” he said, and then he said, “Well, good-night, Frank.”
After the musicians had all gone, Sinatra left the recording room and joined his friends in the corridor. He was going to go out and do some drinking with Drysdale, Wininger, and a few other friends, but first he walked to the other end of the corridor to say good-night to Nancy, who was getting her coat and was planning to drive home in her own car.
After Sinatra had kissed her on the cheek, he hurried to join his friends at the door. But before Nancy could leave the studio, one of Sinatra’s men, Al Silvani, a former prizefight manager, joined her.
“Oh, thanks, Al,” she said, “but I’ll be all right.”
“Pope’s orders,” Silvani said, holding his hands up, palms out.
THE REST OF THE MONTH was bright and balmy. The record session had gone magnificently, the film was finished, the television shows were out of the way, and now Sinatra was in his Ghia driving out to his office to begin coordinating his latest projects. He had an engagement at The Sands, a new spy film called to be shot in England, and a couple more albums to do in the immediate months ahead. And within a week he would be fifty years old….
Frank Sinatra stopped his car. The light was red. Pedestrians passed quickly across his windshield but, as usual, one did not. It was a girl in her twenties. She remained at the curb staring at him. Through the corner of his left eye he could see her, and he knew, because it happens almost every day, that she was thinking, It looks like him, but is it?