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All Or Nothing At All:
A Life of Frank Sinatra

Chapter 1

Even as it began, it must have been obvious that the twentieth century would be an American century: the lusty, brawling, violent and sentimental United States was an irrepressible teenager of a nation. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 had already been an enormous celebration of Americanism (the extermination of Native American cultures being virtually complete by then), and Independence Day celebrations in those years were marked by immigrant groups singing patriotic songs (except for those whose ancestors had come from Africa), while the nineteenth century had already decided what kind of nation the USA would become. Immigration had reached a crescendo after 1880: protected by a Constitution, a Bill of Rights and an unquenchable optimism, the young nation's doors were open, and of all the immigrant groups of the period, the Jewish and the Italian ultimately had the most profound influence on American culture.

We must qualify that, and say 'popular culture': in Italy, for example, the barrow-boys in the marketplace whistled the tunes from the newest operas, but in the USA (though it was supposed to be a classless society) there was already a gulf between the highbrow and the lowbrow. It was in the commercial marketplace that the riches and the fame lay, and hearts and souls were to be won. The achievement of the Jews is obvious: the inventors of the dream machine itself, the Hollywood film industry, were all Jewish, as were many of the greatest songwriters of a golden age, and many of the greatest entertainers. But the accomplishment of second-generation Italian-Americans was hardly less impressive; in particular, they quickly became proficient at American music.

Harry Warren (Salvatore Guaragna) was one of the most prolific of all the great songwriters ('You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me'); Eddie Lang (Salvatore Massaro) virtually invented jazz guitar, and was Bing Crosby's favorite accompanist. Here is a partial list of the sons of Italy who played for only one bandleader (Benny Goodman): Toots Mondello, Art Rollini, Vido Musso, Lee Castle (Castaldo), Louis Bellson (Bellasano), Remo Palmieri, Conrad Gozzo, Gene Bertoncini, Johnny Guarnieri, Bucky Pizzarelli and Buddy Greco (there were many more). And the Italian-American vocalists were more famous than the musicians: Al Martino (Cini), Dean Martin (Crocetti), Jerry Vale (Vitaliano), Tony Bennett (Benedetto), Vic Damone (Farinola), Frankie Laine (LoVecchio), Johnny Desmond (DeSimone), and many others. There were a few who didn't change their names: Julius LaRosa, Perry Como, and the biggest star of all. Those who sing a nation's songs must be among its greatest heroes, and the singer who would be named by most people as the single greatest interpreter of America's best songs is Frank Sinatra, a star of such magnitude that he became the virtual king of show business.

Between 1876 and 1914 over 7.6 million Italians crossed the Atlantic. Some of them went to South America, and some returned to Italy when they'd saved some money; but the USA was the land of opportunity. Until 1890 the majority of American immigrants had come from northern Europe, but from 1891 until 1915, more Italians came to the USA than any other national group. In earlier decades, California had more Italian immigrants than any other state, mostly working in agriculture, but by the end of the century they were settling in the northeastern USA, looking for urban and industrial opportunities. Between 1900 and 1910 the Italian-born population of New Jersey increased by over 73,000, and that figure does not include those who landed there and left, or who came there after they arrived in the USA. By 1924 the Italians had become the largest foreign-born group in the state.

Italian families brought with them strong traditions of personal and familial pride and honor, yet they were often seen as dirty and ignorant, suspected of political radicalism and a tendency to pauperism and criminality. By 1925 a study had been made in New York City courts of over 2,000 criminal cases classified by nationality, and it was found that relative to their numbers, native-born Americans committed more crimes than immigrants. Among immigrants who did get in trouble with the law, those from southern Europe were more likely to commit crimes of passion, but those from northern Europe were overwhelmingly more likely to be thieves, burglars and embezzlers; in other words, to choose crime as a way of making a living. In every study in every state, when the ratio in the population of each immigrant group was taken into consideration, the Italians turned out to be more law-abiding than average: if seventeen groups were included, the Italians would typically rank twelfth on the list of those contributing to criminal statistics. Yet American newspapers and periodicals were inclined to make much of 'black-hand societies and cammorista bands'.

In 1915-16, New York City had done a survey of its schools, classifying absenteeism according to nationality, and the Italian children were found overwhelmingly the most likely to be truant. This surprised some New Yorkers, who expected the worst miscreants to be Irish, as they probably would have been twenty years earlier: a long-standing New York prejudice against the Irish had not yet been transferred to the Italians. But in each generation, the children who are least likely to value education are those at the bottom of the social ladder, who perceive the establishment as treating them badly anyway and see no reason why they should submit to it. One interesting fact emerging from the studies of the period is that crime went up in the second generation of immigrant families: the children of the immigrants, more fully American and having no direct connection with the old country, were more likely to commit crimes. Yet against all the evidence, native-born Americans saw themselves as law-abiding, and foreigners (the 'others') more likely to be criminals.

Most of the Italian immigrants to the USA were from the south; Italy was one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, and then as now, the south was less prosperous than the north. Over 80% of the immigrants from the south were unskilled laborers, and over half of them were illiterate. Frank and Rose Sinestro brought their son Anthony Martin Sinestro to the USA from Sicily, as far south as you can get in Italy; but Natalie Della Garavanti had emigrated from Genoa in the northwest, an important and historic port which once had colonies of its own. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, Natalie was spoiled by her family, and was called Dolly from an early age. They all came to Hoboken, on the Hudson River.

From Bayonne in the south through Jersey City, Hoboken, Union City and North Bergen to Englewood in the north, the New Jersey side of the Hudson River stretches for 20 miles or so, urbanized and densely populated. Hoboken had once been a resort for wealthy New Yorkers, but had long since become a factory town, with jobs for immigrants. There is an American irony here. As commuter railways were built, it became possible to live further out of town, so that from being a place where the nobs and nabobs of Manhattan gathered to relax and play croquet on their lawns, Hoboken became the 'wrong' side of the river, where the working-class were quarantined. Manhattan became more glamorous in the 20th century, and even as bridges were built, the distance across the river seemed to grow in sociological terms.

Hoboken had its Germans, its Irish and Italians, in that order of respectability, and the Italians had their own pecking order. Marty's father is said to have worked in a pencil factory for eleven dollars a week; Natalie's father was a lithographer's stone-cutter: no doubt they both breathed a lot of dust, but Natalie's father had a skilled trade. Marty's mother ran a small grocery store, so at least there was always enough food. Marty was apprenticed to a shoemaker, but then took up prize-fighting, calling himself Marty O'Brien, because the fight game did not welcome Italians in those days. Two of Dolly's brothers were also fighters; when Marty fought her brother Champ, it was typical of her that she dressed up as a boy and sneaked in to see the match: boxing was considered disreputable, but Dolly always did as she pleased. (The fight was an exhausting draw; neither of the boys managed to knock the other down, but for the rest of their lives they argued about who had won.)

Just as African-Americans have been prejudiced against the darker members of their community, and as the uptown Irish looked down at their poorer brethren, so the northern Italians considered themselves superior to the southerners. Marty was a quiet man, never strong; in fact he was asthmatic. He never spoke unless it was necessary, while Dolly was noisily gregarious; Marty had never held a steady job and could not read or write, while Dolly had at least finished elementary school. When they began seeing each other, Dolly's parents naturally did not understand what she saw in Marty, who was not even a very good boxer. But perhaps he was simply a good and decent man; and perhaps their different personalities allowed Dolly a rest from herself, a source of calm that she must have needed. And maybe she knew instinctively that she needed a man who would allow her to do as she pleased.

Dolly's parents refused to give them a wedding, so they eloped to Jersey City, on Valentine's Day 1914. The pressure to become Americanized was very strong, and nobody admitted to being an immigrant if they could avoid it; immigrants avoided brushes with authority anyway, some even believing that any policeman could send them back to the old country on a whim. So it is not surprising that Marty and Dolly fibbed when they obtained a marriage licence in Jersey City, stating that they had been born there. In any case, they were married until Marty died nearly 55 years later, for most people stayed married in those days.

The newlyweds moved into a flat in Hoboken at 415 Monroe Street. The area later became a slum, but in 1914 the building was not very old; in their cold-water flat with the toilet in the hall, Marty and Dolly were already better off than many of their neighbors, and that is where their only child was born, on 12 December 1915. He was the first grandchild on either side of the family, and the excitement must have been great, helping to heal the family differences. The boy who became known as Francis Albert Sinatra was a large baby, over thirteen pounds, and it was a long and difficult breech delivery: the doctor had to use forceps, and the baby's ear was torn, the side of his face scarred and his eardrum punctured. The family story is that the doctor thought he was dead, turning his attention to Dolly, and that Dolly's mother Rosa held him under the cold-water tap, shocking him into life. (Many years later, Dolly's sister cast doubt on this story, maintaining that Rosa had not even been present, whereupon Dolly never spoke to her again.) At any rate, twenty-year-old Dolly was unable to have any more children.

Dolly was so long recuperating that it was apparently not until the following April that Frank was baptised. She probably surprised some people by choosing an Irish godfather, Frank Garrick, a crony of Marty's whose uncle was a Hoboken police captain. There is another family story that the priest made a mistake and named the baby after Garrick instead of Marty, but his birth had been registered on 17 December, and whether he was named after his godfather or his grandfather, the name on the birth certificate was Frank Sinastro. The certificate states that Anthony Sinestro had been born in the USA, and 'Dollie Garaventi' in Italy.

We do not know why the family changed the spelling to Sinatra. 'Sinestro' means nothing in modern Italian, but is close to the words for 'left' and 'sinister'; perhaps they wanted to Americanize and neutralize the spelling so that it was easier to remember and carried no connotations at all. Some other members of the family may already have made the change; Ray Sinatra, a distant relative, became a well-known radio bandleader in New York City. Also, there does not seem to be any evidence that any of the Sinestros ever bothered to become naturalised; maybe they were seeking to avoid any contact with officialdom. At any rate, in May 1945, when Frank Sinatra was already world famous, Dollie had corrections made to the birth certificate: the original had the surname spelled wrong, but 'Frank Sinastro' officially became Francis A. Sinatra, and 'Dollie Garaventi' became Natalie Garavanti. Her nickname had long been spelled 'Dolly'.

Married and with a child, and knowing that she would never have any more children, Dolly was set loose. She had chosen a husband who would not get in her way, and she had her mother to look after little Frank, and she set out to conquer Hoboken. Even before she became a mother she had made traditional Italian pastry sweets and passed them out to the neighbors; she could speak every dialect in Little Italy, and she now concentrated on bettering the family's social position any way she could.

A cousin of Marty's came over from Italy and joined the household; Dolly found him a job, and he turned his paycheck over to her. (She kept Vincent under her thumb, and he never married.) At one point she worked on Saturdays dipping chocolates in a candy store, but her main occupation was that of midwife, and she also performed abortions. This was not only scandalous in a Catholic community, but got her in trouble with the law several times; but her skill at ignoring such difficulties and getting away with it was developed early. In any case, it was the Catholic community which banished its own daughters if they were unlucky enough to get caught by a man without being married, and the laws against abortion simply didn't work (a fact that is inconvenient for today's single-issue fanatics).

Dolly also became a ward-heeler. In those days (and still today, in some places) American cities were run by political machines; a rough-and-ready corruption saw to it that poor people were looked after in exchange for their votes, while the most successful wheeler-dealers could get rich through political influence. One of the most fascinating documents in American political history is Plunkitt Of Tammany Hall, written down in 1905 by a journalist: it records the frank revelations of an unusually garullous politician, George Washington Plunkitt, an Irishman who orated from his 'office' (a bootblack's stand at the New York County Courthouse). Plunkitt proposed his own epitaph: 'He seen his opportunities and he took 'em.' He became a millionaire, and when he died full of honors in 1924, The Nation summed up his sort of career: ' . . . honesty doesn't matter; efficiency doesn't matter; progressive vision doesn't matter. What matters is the chance for a better job, a better price for wheat, better business conditions.' As Richard Croker, one of Plunkitt's political bosses, once replied when asked his opinion of free silver (an emotive issue in the 1890s): 'I'm in favor of all kinds of money -- the more the better.'

One of the effects of massive emigration to the USA had been that the aristocrats who had run the cities were outnumbered. The immigrants came so quickly and in such large numbers, many of them speaking no English and without any social services to look after them, that they were a sea of votes to be won, and high-flown political theory went out the window. If you wanted a peddler's permit or a liquor licence, you went to your neighborhood political boss; if you were cold you got a bucket of coal, if you were hungry, a bag of groceries; if your child was in trouble, you might get him out of it. The neighborhood boss, or ward-heeler, got out the vote on election day, and the winners of the election made millions in kickbacks and had thousands of jobs to pass out to their loyal servants.

It is a mystery to historians why the USA never developed a successful progressive political party: the country should have been dominated by working people, yet the labor unions had no legal right to organize until the 1930s and there was no meaningful Civil Rights Act until 1964. The answer is that the political machines had no vision at all. Croker also said, 'There is no denying the service which Tammany has rendered to the Republic. There is no such organization for taking hold of the untrained, friendless man and converting him into a citizen. Who else would do it if we did not?' But the real purpose of the game was getting into power and staying there, by any means necessary (when one political boss did not join in the singing of the national anthem, an aide explained, 'Maybe he doesn't want to commit himself.') The party machine was a boat on the ocean, somebody explained, and occasional reform movements were waves to be ridden. Men like Plunkitt were genuinely puzzled by periodic complaints of malfeasance: what was the point of political activity if not to better oneself?

Here is journalist and novelist William Kennedy, on the subject of Albany, New York:

When I grew up, there was no sense of morality in regard to politics. If you were Irish, you were obviously a Democrat. If you were a Democrat, you were probably a Catholic ... No matter what it was in town, wherever you could make an illegal dollar, that's where the Irish were, that's where the politics were, that's where the church was, that's where the morality was ... the goodness walked hand-in-hand with the evil. But it wasn't viewed as evil. It was viewed as a way to get on in the world. Objective morality didn't interest Albany. The Irish didn't care about it. They understood that they had been deprived and now they were not. Now they were able to get jobs. In the previous era, when the Irish were not in power, they had not been able to get jobs. Their families were starving, and starvation for them was immorality.

All this was true in Hoboken. American democracy was a matter of mutual back-scratching, and Dolly learned early the value of political influence. Several members of the family had brushes with the law, including Dolly herself, but the most serious case was that of her youngest brother, Babe (significantly, perhaps, the only one to have been born in the USA). In 1921 Babe was convicted of driving the getaway car during a robbery in which a man was killed. Dolly did the best she could, allegedly borrowing a baby (Frank was five years old), pretending to be her brother's wife and shedding copious tears in the courtroom, but to no avail: Babe went to the slammer. That must have been terribly frustrating, but Dolly was already becoming a political activist, and before long everybody knew who Dolly Sinatra was.

One of her favorite stories was about accompanying an immigrant fruit vendor to court to help him get his citizenship papers. When the judge asked him how many stars there were in the American flag, he replied, 'How many bananas inna bunch? ... Say, your honor, you stick-a you business, I stick-a mine.' But Dolly was there to mollify the judge, the fruit-seller became a citizen, and the party machine got another vote. She became the leader of the third ward in Hoboken's ninth district, no doubt the first woman to hold such a post, and probably the first Italian immigrant in a town then still dominated by the Irish, and maybe the first woman as well.

Dolly went out every Saturday night to political parties; in fact, she came and went as she pleased, often taking her black midwife's bag with her as though she were going to work, and Marty never complained. She sang the songs, drank the beer and danced on the tables, making friends of some and intimidating others. Plenty of people had reason to be grateful to her, while on the other hand, as a former mayor of Hoboken said many years later, 'The mouth on that woman would make a longshoreman blush ... she'd curse your mother to hell without even blinking.' The politicians accepted her as an equal because she left them no choice, and because she delivered the votes.

After thirty pro fights, Marty stopped boxing when he broke his wrists; he then lost a job on the docks because of his asthma, and Dolly cashed a political chit: she banged on the appropriate door and demanded a job as a fireman for her husband. Marty was duly appointed to the fire service in 1927, eventually rising to the rank of captain without ever taking a written exam. Although the National Prohibition Act had been passed in 1920, the local authority turned a blind eye to saloons, and Dolly opened a tavern called Marty O'Brien's. She had Cousin Vincent's paychecks coming in, she got free groceries from Marty's mother, and she didn't pay her bills if she could avoid it; now the family began moving up, first in 1927 to a three-bedroom apartment in Hoboken's Park Avenue, only ten blocks from Monroe Street but well out of Little Italy. Then in 1932, Dolly had saved enough money for a down payment on a four-story house in Garden Street, with flats to rent out to tenants, thus realizing two American working-class dreams at once: not only home ownership, but income property, so that somebody else's rent made the mortgage payments. Furthermore, Garden Street was in an Irish neighborhood: Dolly had managed to move away from the Italians altogether, the better to practice her political wiles.

They moved to their new address in time for teenaged Frank to throw a New Year's Eve party, and all his friends could see that the Sinatras were doing well. They now had central heating, and not only an indoor toilet of their own, but a bathtub. The apartment had a baby grand piano, and the standard of decorating included plastic flowers. A friend of the family many years later described it all as 'Guinea furniture', but also remembered being very impressed at the time.

Accomplishing all this at the bottom of the Great Depression, as a provider Dolly could not be beat; but as a mother, she may have left something to be desired. Frank Sinatra was just an Italian-American kid, and if he hadn't decided to be a singer we might never have heard of him; but he knew from a very early age that he was different. His mother was loud, pushy, foul-mouthed and vulgar; the testimony of friends and neighbors many years later was that Frankie was embarrassed by his mother's antics, and also very conscious of the way she walked all over Marty. In other Italian families the father was at least allowed the illusion of being the boss. His friends had up to a dozen brothers and sisters, while Frankie was an only child, which meant that his mother could afford to spoil him. The boy had eight aunts and uncles, two on his father's side and six on his mother's, and four living grandparents, all within walking distance; later there were nearly a dozen cousins, but as the oldest, Frankie was cock of the walk. Yet he would stand in his grandmother's doorway and stare into space, as though he were the last boy on Earth. For all Dolly's garrulousness, she managed to raise a lonely child. (Many years later, when his daughter Nancy presented him with his first grandchild, Frank Sinatra's first concern was that she should have another one, saying, 'It was very lonely for me.')

Dolly was almost never at home, and when she was, she sent all the wrong signals. She had no taste, no judgement. She tried in vain to prevent Frankie from imitating her foul mouth, on one occasion washing his mouth out with soap, but children learn by example, not by being lectured. She was a snob, but had no taste, impressed only by political power; she had no respect for anyone who was not useful to her. This was not a good example for someone who was going to be in the public eye. Frankie loved his mother, and she no doubt loved him above all things, but many years later, when he was one of the most famous men in the world, he told actress Shirley MacLaine that he feared and admired Dolly at the same time: 'She scared the shit outta me.'

He had plenty of friends in the neighborhood, but Dolly inadvertently spoiled that too. Dolly bought her friends with political favors, and she taught Frankie to buy his friends, too: the only thing that was important was power. The other children regarded the Sinatras as rich, because Dolly kept Frankie supplied with enough pocket money to buy treats for them. He was the best-dressed kid on the block, having so many pairs of trousers that his nickname was 'Slacksie O'Brien'; he had his own charge account, and on some occasions he even bought clothes for others. Frankie naturally took advantage of his situation, yet he made no relationships which lasted beyond his teenage years. Much would be written in years to come about the Italian side of Frank Sinatra's personality, the need to surround himself with cronies and demanding absolute loyalty, like the padrone or clan chieftain, but this has nothing to do with nationality. Italians as a rule are anything but lonely, but Frankie never learned how to make friends; instead Dolly taught him how to cope with loneliness. Perhaps she herself, for all her compulsive activity, was fundamentally lonely, too.

Frankie was a mischievous boy, and already inclined to arrogance, but he was also a skinny little guy; if he got in trouble in the street, somebody else had to defend him. He was lazy and did not do well in school, unable to apply himself to anything that didn't interest him: he attended high school for just 47 days, and his schooling was effectively over at age fifteen. Dolly had hoped he would go to college and perhaps become an engineer, but there was no chance of that. She got him a job bundling newspapers at The Jersey Observer, where his godfather, Frank Garrick, was circulation manager; and when a sportswriter was killed in a car crash a few weeks later, Dolly told him to see Garrick about a promotion to the sports desk. Young Frankie went to the editorial room, but Garrick wasn't there, so he sat down at the dead boy's desk and made himself at home, saying that Garrick had sent him. The others resented this, and Garrick was instructed to fire him. He tried to explain to Frankie that he had overplayed his hand, but nobody was going to tell Dolly's son that he had screwed up: Frankie loosed a torrent of obscene insults at his godfather and stormed out of the room. Dolly had taught her son to expect to be able to manipulate people, but she couldn't teach him any judgement because she had none. None of the Sinatras spoke to Garrick again for over fifty years.

Frankie was definitely interested in girls; he had a car as well as his mother's money in his pocket, and he showered the girls with presents, but they didn't take him too seriously, because he didn't look like he was going to amount to much. Dolly herself was afraid he was going to turn out to be a bum. But there was one thing of value that she had taught him: if there was something he wanted badly enough, he could have it if he refused to let anything stand in his way. Maybe that is the only lesson an American can learn, or needs to learn; at any rate, before long Frankie had discovered what he wanted. He wanted to be a singer.

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