« Previous [Table of Contents] Next »

All Or Nothing At All:
A Life of Frank Sinatra

Chapter 7

Frank Sinatra's oldest friends from Hoboken have testified that he was a skinny little kid and couldn't possibly have been in as many fights as he claimed; his upbringing had really been quite comfortable, thanks to his mother's ability to manipulate the local society to her liking. He must have got his combativeness from her. On the plus side was his instinctive feeling for the underdog: he hated racism, antisemitism or injustice of any kind, and to be fair, maybe he got some of that from his mother, too. But his hatred of injustice was in the abstract. When it came to individual underdogs, they were either his friends or his enemies, and woe to them if they stepped out of line; neither strangers nor close friends were immune.

He threw hamburgers at the wall; he sometimes had members of the public beaten up if they had the temerity to approach him for the purpose of hero-worship; on one occasion he punched a bartender at a private party because a drink didn't come fast enough. The stories are legion. Sammy Davis Jr was supposed to co-star along with Peter Lawford in Never So Few in 1960, but had been candid on the radio about Sinatra's behavior: 'I love Frank, but there are many things he does that there is no excuse for. I don't care if you are the most talented man in the world. It does not give you the right to step on people and treat them rotten.' Davis was replaced by Steve McQueen, and it was some time and a lot of groveling before Davis was allowed back into the presence. The Rat Pack constantly played childish practical jokes on one another, but outside his circle of acolytes Sinatra demonstrated only lack of humor. He was the despair of his publicity people, who knew that he could have charmed the pants off the press anytime he wanted; but he preferred to lose his temper. The man who wanted to be the coolest animal who ever walked too often lost his cool.

The greatest artists in history have understood that imagination can sustain us if reality does not; contemplation can be as valuable as experience; the art can transcend the life. It is possible to get too close to some kinds of experience, and be shattered by them; that is where some of our proverbs come from: familiarity breeds contempt, absence makes the heart grow fonder. For most of us there is a middle ground between promiscuity and denial; but notwithstanding the quality of Frank Sinatra's best work, he sometimes fell down as an artist because his personal motivation was always instant gratification. Once again, in this respect he was a bellwether: 'Seize the day!' became a common mode of behavior during his lifetime; nobody wants to wait for anything. It is also a typical American belief that there is or should be no difference between the private behavior and the public life, and here is where Sinatra exhibited the most confusion, demanding high standards of others while often behaving badly himself. The only time he seemed to be in complete control of himself was when he was behind the microphone.

He always tried to insist that both his private and his public lives were his own business. A sometime girl friend, actress Gloria Rhoads, was writing a biography of another actress who had also dated Sinatra, and submitted her manuscript to Sinatra's people for approval; they forbade her to write anything at all, threatening to see to it that she never worked in Hollwood again, and sure enough, she said, she never did. In the early 1980s Sinatra tried for a year to prevent Kitty Kelley from writing about him. Not only was public curiosity about a star of his magnitude bound to be intense, but some of his displays of bad manners and temper tantrums were perpetrated in public, which meant that anybody had a perfect right to write about them, but he could never understand that. Trevor Howard, his co-star in Von Ryan's Express, said that Sinatra's goons would go into a taverna, take all the records off the jukebox and fill it with Sinatra's: he had to try to order the world into a mirror. The details of the temper tantrums are in Kitty Kelley's book, for those who want them; if only half of them are true, Sinatra had a serious behavior problem. Yet lots of people are spoiled, selfish and bad-mannered, and not many are also superstars. As somebody once said of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, 'He's a nice bunch of guys.'

Sinatra followed the pattern established in childhood of buying his friends presents; he passed out gold bracelets and watches like box-top premiums, and even gave away cars and pianos. Some of this was guilt (he once sent a piano to Judy Garland after he had stood her up). Most of this was primitive psychological gestures, virtually tribal in its meaning: his friends gave him gaudy junk, too; when he and Barbara Marx auctioned off a lot of their stuff at Christie's at the end of 1995, the auction catalog included any number of jewel-encrusted boxes, a fancy microphone cover and even a diamond-studded shoe-horn. But although he bought friends that way, he was embarrassed to accept gifts. Shirley MacLaine gave him a cigarette lighter of which he was quite fond, using it for many years, but when she gave it to him, he just slipped it into his pocket, finding it impossible to express any gratitude. When Brad Dexter had saved Sinatra's life, the best he could manage was "My family thanks you.'

Yet there was another kind of generosity which was deep and genuine, and embarrassed him even more. When comedian Rags Ragland suddenly dropped dead, his partner Phil Silvers was utterly grief-stricken; Sinatra dropped what he was doing, flew to Silvers' side and did the club act with him, knowing all of Ragland's lines by heart (Sinatra and Silver had done the routines together on a USO tour). And much of Sinatra's generosity was less public than that. When another old girl friend was dying of leukemia, he paid all her hospital bills. When Sammy Davis Jr lost an eye in a car crash, when Bela Lugosi was hospitalized with drug addiction, when Charlie Morrison, owner of the Mocambo nightclub in Hollywood, died suddenly leaving debts and no insurance, these people and their families benefitted from Sinatra's gifts not just of money but of his time. The excellent actor Lee J. Cobb had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and had few friends in Hollywood when he had a severe heart attack in 1955; he was broke, depressed and thought his career was over. Cobb barely knew Sinatra, though they had met on the set of Miracle Of The Bells in 1949; but Sinatra came to see him every day in the hospital, bringing him books and other presents; he put Cobb in a rest home for six weeks, then in his own home in Palm Springs, then in an apartment in Los Angeles, paying his bills until he was on his feet. Cobb lived another twenty years and had more success as an actor (he played Sinatra's father in Come Blow Your Horn in 1963).

All this happened in the 1950s, when Sinatra's image was that of a bad-mannered playboy; but his spontaneous generosity was kept secret for a long time, because he knew that his motives would be suspect. Many years later, he hadn't stopped: when his old rival Bob Eberly was in hospital with lung cancer in 1981, he offered to have him transferred to the best clinic and to pay all his medical bills. Sinatra had absolute faith in Dr De Bakey in Houston, and sent him a few patients: 'When [Joe Louis] had his stroke, Frank sent him to me. I'm not sure he'd want people to know this, but he said: "Take care of him and just send me the bills." ... None of the people who made money off Joe Louis when he was fighting were there for him. Only Frank.' His kindness to people who could do nothing for him had nothing to do with the favors his mother had done for people in Hoboken. He had started out in 1915 very nearly born dead; he came from nowhere to be the sensation of the 1940s, and then knew what it was like to go back down to the bottom. He knew that he owed something, somebody, somewhere, for his power and his stardom, and for his ability to reveal his vulnerability in a song, which is where the power ultimately came from. Much of his generosity, such as his twelve or fifteen benefits a year for various causes, was a kind of karmic obeisance to the gods who had once brought him so low that he lost weight he could not afford to lose, lost his voice, and even attempted suicide.

He also knew, must have known at some level, that a great many of his personal and professional problems were his own fault. 'Women,' he once said to Pete Hamill. 'I don't know what the hell to make of them.' The first thing about women is that they are other people, like other men, and you have to allow other people to exist, but there was something missing in Sinatra's psychological makeup. Each of us is supposed to learn in childhood that we are not the centre of the Universe; one's freedom ends where the other person's nose begins. If we allow other people their space, demanding neither too much nor too little, sometimes they understand and appreciate it, and that is the best we can hope for; sometimes they want more than you can give them, or they will not allow you to be nice to them at all, or they want to treat you like dirt, especially if you're a big shot like Frank Sinatra. And Sinatra, with his weird upbringing, his crazy mother and his quiet father, could not seem to get the balance right.

Yet another part of getting along with others is tact, which often means, for example, telling white lies. This was a skill that Sinatra did not have, and his honesty may have had the effect of a bull in a china shop, but it was very real. Again and again his Hollywood friends, Kirk Douglas, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck and the others, say variants of the same thing: you never came away from a conversation with Sinatra wondering, 'What did he mean by that?' He was capable of lying endlessly to the authorities, but that was part of the game: cops, governments, taxmen all want to take advantage of you or tell you what to do, which is to be avoided. Person to person was another matter, and Sinatra's honesty was strong stuff. His opinion of newspaper people is almost unprintable, and in the 1970s it was intolerably vulgar and sexist as well, but the gossip columnists he had known were liars, and metaphorically they were whores, printing anything about anybody that would sell papers, and even taking tips from crackpots like Harry Anslinger and J. Edgar Hoover. There were many who did not like Sinatra's manners, but only a fool would have preferred the honesty of the tabloid journalist to his. Then there was the problem of being so famous: Elvis Presley could not cope at all with fame on that scale, and cocooned himself, never seen in public; he would charter an aircraft, or rent a theater or an amusement park for the night, keeping everybody out except for his entourage. Sinatra knew that he could not walk down the street like anybody else, but he was a gregarious man who wanted to go to a nightclub or a restaurant or attend an opening, where he might have expected to run into people much like himself, without being hassled. If his own public high spirits were often those of a spoiled working-class nouveau riche from Hoboken, well, that is what he was.

Yet he had a mysterious charm that usually allowed him to get away with it. He was capable of exquisite manners when the occasion demanded it, and his brutal honesty was also part of his power. On one occasion, after a spectacular display of Sinatra's temper, somebody asked Jimmy Van Heusen why he put up with it, and Van Heusen replied, 'Because he sings my songs. I'm a whore for my music.' But there was more to it than that. Sinatra's peculiar power over a great many people was that of one of nature's aristocrats. Like a great many of the most fascinating people in history, both angels and monsters, he had the ability to wield power over others by simply assuming it. This is an inexplicable quality, and comparatively few people are immune to it.

In earlier times, the kings, princes and popes who possessed Sinatra's kind of power were responsible for much of the world's great art, because they commissioned and patronized the poets, composers, painters, sculptors and architects. But they were well educated, and had political skills, while Sinatra's judgement was limited to his own sphere, having not much taste outside it (and he lived in an era when the bottom line was fame and riches rather than political power, increasingly not worth having anyway). Sinatra also had the problem that he was himself the artist. He put everything he had into that, and invaded people's lives with his art, from the years with Tommy Dorsey, when he helped his generation to define their own feelings, to the concerts of 50 years later, where those same people came to listen, and their children and even their grandchildren came to hear what the magic was about. Sinatra's temperament and power over others meant that he could do as he pleased in the rest of his life, but his lack of political skills (such as patience and judgement) meant that of his fifty or sixty films and the equivalent of seventy or eighty albums, only half a dozen films and a dozen or so albums remain timeless. Yet that is enough to ensure artistic immortality, such as it is today.

And the life of a tyrant is lonely. Sinatra could neither let others get too close nor keep them away. Nick Sevano, Brad Dexter, George Jacobs, even Hank Sanicola: sooner or later, no matter how loyal they were, the time would come when most of the people who worked for him or with him had been around too long, and he owed them too much. (Somebody once said that no man is a hero to his valet, and to Sinatra, they were all valets.) In the 1960s he had serious romances with actress Dorothy Provine and dancer Juliet Prowse; then he tried marriage again, with Mia Farrow; but he would always expect a woman to give up everything else: in particular, she should give up her career and stay in the kitchen, as Nancy Barbato had once done. But he could not go back to Nancy either, because he had treated her disgracefully once, and he knew that he would do it again. She had known him when he was a teenager; she had given herself to him wholly, forever; he could trust her more than anyone else, but he could not let anyone get that close again. Loneliness is part of the human condition, and Sinatra learned that lesson better than most people ever learn it. He could go halfway around the world to see Ava, but she eventually gave up on men, on her career, on everything, and as she got older she drank too much, and he could not stand to watch that either. Yet he would not have traded anything, not even happiness, to be anything other than he was; he described himself as a manic-depressive, and in his life as in his art there was, to quote Arnold Shaw again, the constant counterpoint of toughness and tenderness. Henry Pleasants, concentrating on Sinatra's art, wrote that 'fastidious taste, a different upbringing or a successful psychoanalysis would have destroyed him as an artist.'

It is easy to be generous when you are very rich, and Sinatra knew that, too. There were times when he could say the right thing in public: when the film industry gave him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1971, an honorary Oscar, he said,

If your name is John Doe, and you work night and day doing things for your helpless neighbors, what you get for your effort is tired. So Mr and Mrs Doe, and all of you who give of yourselves to those who carry too big a burden to make it on their own, I want you to reach out and take your share of this, because if I have earned it, so too have you.

Above all, Sinatra was an American.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the USA in the 1830s, could see at the beginning that the principal American problem was going to be the tyranny of the majority. De Tocqueville also remarked that the liberty to say or do anything you want is accompanied by extraordinary social pressure to conform. In a new nation swamped by waves of immigration and with no traditions of its own, borrowing this from England, that from Germany and the rest from somewhere else, the rules would have to be made up as we went along, and would always rest on a fragile attitude of community rather than on centuries of tradition. There would always be somebody trying to tell everybody else how to behave, and this above all Frank Sinatra could not tolerate.

American manners and standards of behavior had always been dominated by the influence of the old East Coast families, who in turn took their cues from the British upper classes. In a book called The English House, German architect Hermann Muthesius wrote about life among the style-setters:

From the very fact that the members of the household regularly meet for dinner in evening dress ... the act of taking nourishment is sublimated by a pleasing presentation of what is offered. And this is where England can take credit for having created a fine tradition which has become the model for the world at large ... summoned to the table, usually by three muffled notes of a gong, the company in its ceremonial attire moves toward the dining-room two by two...

Our peasant ancestors once ate hunkered around the fireplace where the food was cooked; then Muthesius was writing in 1904 about a house which contained a small army of servants, and in which the children were served separately, in the nursery. Although the evening dress was eschewed, one of the ways in which we aped the mores of our betters was in everyone sitting down to eat at the same time. (In the early 1930s in Hoboken, Dolly Sinatra's plastic flowers were a similar attempt at class.) Yet increasingly the families of the 1950s served their meals out of the saucepans, because there were no servants to wash the serving dishes; and too often we ate hunkered around the colder glow of the television screen. Standards had slipped.

The manners of the New York society knowingly described in the novels of Edith Wharton, and those attitudes were ultimately the reason for the morals clauses in the Hollywood contracts, and the rule on TV sitcoms that Ozzie and Harriet and their like were supposed to sleep in separate beds. But by the 1950s that world was fraying around the edges, for several reasons. Everybody knew that the public behavior of the rich and famous covered up a lot of fundamentally bad manners (that's what Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was all about); the sheer nastiness of the gossip columnists and the obvious point-scoring of self-interested politicians was all becoming increasingly evident, while two world wars had raised questions about the very nature of civilization itself; Alfred Kinsey's research into sexual behavior exploded the myths of our morality in that area. And increasing prosperity seemed to make the traditions less important: as the working class joined the middle class (with mortgages, two-car garages and a TV set in every room) there were more demands on everyone's time; many families had two wage-earners. And to the extent that manners carries less class distinction, they had lost some of their point.

The 1950s seemed to reach an apotheosis of mass culture and social cohesion, when everybody knew their place and gave lip service to the same shibboleths, but this was an illusion. The need for 'dating do's and don'ts' was accepted by teenagers even while, at the drive-in movies, the windows of their cars were fogged up with their passion. And that was only the first stage of cultural revolution: soon there would be even more freedom (or license) in a nation that paradoxically seemed to be frightened of the freedom it already had. For thirty years after the Second World War the USA was the richest and most powerful nation on earth, and the largest and most prosperous generation of Americans had less and less in the way of tradition to hang onto.

Sinatra must have been familiar with the music of Ozzie Nelson's dance band in the late 1930s, and its vocalist Harriet Hilliard; no doubt he later snorted at the artifice in their harmless TV sitcom, if he ever saw it. Yet there was a reason for that artifice: we need some attitudes, some standards against which to measure ourselves. What one can say about Frank Sinatra is that he was consistent in his confusion, trying to deal with the world without compromise, taking cues from no one; he often did it badly, but he did it his way, and many people admired that because they were just as confused as he was. Sinatra needed to struggle against any constraint, yet he also wanted to cling to orderly ways, to the extent of compulsively straightening the ash-trays on the table. Mia Farrow had something of the image of a free spirit, a 'hippie chick'; it was during his marriage to her that he got drunk one evening in a private club and began insulting Harlan Ellison, a scriptwriter. Sinatra had never met Ellison, but took exception to his casual dress, subsequently forcing changes to the club's rules because he didn't want to have to look at anyone not wearing a tie. He was going to hold back the 1960s all by himself, even if he had himself been responsible for kicking over some of the fences, and even his wife wouldn't obey him.

His obsessiveness, his bad temper and his awful relationships with women were simply clues to the fact that no matter how big a star he was he could never get enough attention. It was the combination of bad temper and powerful charm that made him dangerous, and the danger added to his appeal for many; yet he was never trying to kick over the Establishment, but to join it and dominate it. And even in this he was ahead of his time: the USA today is a nation of victims, a selfish society that whines a lot. Michael O'Brien wrote in the Times Literary Supplement:

Much in American culture is passionate, ugly, violent, committed. Americans like it that way; it is part of their sense of self. They do not want to be Denmark writ large. The Scarsdale housewife with a gun in her bag, the Southerner with a Confederate flag on his lawn, the Jew in Brooklyn wishing death to Palestinians, the Minnesota feminist reviling men as potential rapists, the black professor chanting anti-semitism -- these are not candidates for membership in urbanely voluntary affiliations. These are angry people, who want to keep and share their anger. American culture teaches them that emotion is good, enthusiasm validating, and release a gift.

Sinatra became a big star because he was a great pop singer, and subsequently remained one of the most famous people in the world partly because he could behave badly and get away with it. He was nothing if not a dude; despite his own apparent contradictions, his public and private behavior really did seem to be the same. His life can be seen as a paradigm of the American experiment: if he seems to have had an emotionally deprived childhood, similarly the great question of modrrn times is whether or not we can govern ourselves without a state religion, the divine right of kings, or centuries of tradition to keep in check our tyranny over each other. If our old social cohesions are dissolving, we will have to discover new ones; that struggle has given rise to as lot of bad behavior, and even to a new American language, described by film critic David Thompson (in 1994, in The New Republic). It is the squeak of the Rat Pack. Thompson calls it 'tough mouth', or neo-gangsterese.

It is theatrical, modulated, with aspirations to a kind of don't-interrupt-me eloquence ... not just the disclosure of cynicism or depravity but the feeling that someone is getting away with talking like a movie gangster. It's dream talk, such as few of us manage in life. The listener has either to take it, to swallow it or to smack the speaker in the face ...

This kind of talk is all around us. The air is barbed, whether it's our kids wiping us out with 'dude' one-liners from Ninja turtles, or our politicians pushing their eight-word slogans through the CNN grinder. Very often it comes from male voices who have a hard time getting a woman's point of view. You can hear it in rap, in Scorcese's street films, in Mamet and Quentin Tarantino ...

... The Mob cherished movies. They could see that, whatever their moral endings, pictures like Scarface and Public Enemy were helping the public understand the gangster's point of view, his take on free enterprise. Little boys in the street liked to sneer, strut and stagger in the gutter like Cagney. Dude-ism was born. The gangsters were flattered to socialize with Hollywood elites; and actors got off on real-life models.

Gore Vidal said about the Puritans that they did not leave England for the American colonies because they were being persecuted, but so they could persecute other people. The USA is both obsessed with morals and a place where anything goes, and there is one American minority group which has never had any illusions or doubts, and which has always known exactly what it was doing. In James Elroy's novel American Tabloid (1995), about fictionalized events leading up the the JFK assassination, the characters are FBI and CIA agents, hired killers, politicians, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and so forth; but the only people in the book who are not double-crossing each other are the gangsters. (And in the novel they are the funniest, because they understand the other characters better than the others understand themselves.) A nation with a strong puritan streak but also devoted to the pursuit of pleasure, and which measures status in terms of personal weath and power, is going to give rise to a class of businessmen who are going to buy or sell anything they want, no matter what rules they have to break; by simultaneously ignoring the majority and pandering to it, gangsters became the true American aristocrats of the twentieth century. And some of the most prominent members of this peculiarly American aristocracy were to be counted among Sinatra's friends and associates. If Sinatra was not a prince, he knew who the princes were; he understood them, and they understood him.

While I have been writing this book, the one question everybody has asked is, 'Was Frank a member of the mafia?' But the Mob doesn't have a membership list. Gangsters don't carry cards. No computer sent Sam Giancana an annual reminder to pay his dues. Giancana was a full-time gangster; Sinatra had grown up with gangsters, and became a singer who sometimes needed a favor; still others were more or less straight lawyers or businessmen who helped gangsters bend the rules, or helped them get out of trouble, and it was all just business. For decades J. Edgar Hoover pretended that there was no such thing as organized crime, because he couldn't find a membership list. The Mob no doubt appreciated having such a man as head of the nation's premier law-enforcement agency, but meanwhile anyone who ever ate spaghetti in a Brooklyn restaurant, bought a cinema ticket or put a coin in a jukebox was as much a member of the Mob as Frank Sinatra. We were all Americans, and the business of America is business.

When America's first experiment with Prohibition was over, the Mob needed a place to put its new wealth, and was already moving into entertainment and other industries. Bugsy Siegel had relocated to the West Coast in the 1930s, and soon mingled with the Hollywood smart set; Frank Sinatra and Phil Silvers hero-worshipped him. Siegel thought of building a sports palace in Los Angeles, but then he realized that Las Vegas was the place to make the American dream visible, and built the Flamingo Hotel there. Gambling was legal in Nevada, and entertainers were used to lure the suckers; there were almost no controls, and for decades the Mob skimmed the revenue and paid no taxes. While Elvis Presley performed in Vegas, his manager, Tom Parker, lived in one of the hotels and gambled Presley's money away; Sinatra and all his chums were big draws in Las Vegas, and for many years Sinatra took his pocket money from the tables: he got chips free for the asking, cashed them in when he won and walked away when he lost.

The American love affair with the Mob had not of course ended with George Raft and Jimmy Cagney. Joe Kennedy was not the last to recognize his own kind on the other side of the law, and John Kennedy probably got an extra thrill out of balling a gangster's chick. The evidence of our fascination is shot through our popular culture. Francis Ford Coppola's series of Godfather films (1972-80) are recognized as American classics; Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America (1984) was beautifully done, and much of the early part of it looks like Sinatra's Hoboken. Barry Levinson portrayed Bugsy with style (1991), but Martin Scorcese is one of our most valuable observers: he made Goodfellas (1990), went back to Edith Wharton's old New York, drenched in manners, for The Age Of Innocence (1993), and then to Las Vegas for Casino (1996). The worst gangster picture has some truth in it, because when we look at gangsters we are seeing ourselves: our contradictions, our world-weariness, our hollow souls 'in the loop'.

Of course Sinatra was in the loop. So what? Long before Las Vegas the Mob had moved into American watering holes, and when Sinatra's career had bottomed out around 1950, Moe Dalitz booked him into the Desert Inn; Skinny D'Amato ran the 500 Club in Atlantic City; Willie Moretti the Riviera in Fort Lee, New Jersey; Joe Fischetti and Sam Giancana could hire anybody they wanted in Chicago; other guys had the Fountainebleau in Miami: if the Mob couldn't own the places outright they had front men to do it for them. (We knew that.) With enemies like gossip columnists and his own big mouth, Sinatra needed friends; and later, when he was back on top, he repaid the favors. At the Villa Venice in suburban Chicago in the autumn of 1962, Sinatra and all his pals performed for nothing so that the Mob could fleece the punters (who were willing: that the gambling was illegal was part of the fun). He recorded radio jingles for a Chicago car dealer who was a friend of the Mob, and took his fee in Pontiacs. The Westchester Premier Theater in Tarrytown, New York was opened in 1976 and made millions with the help of Sinatra and his buddies; the Mob kept all the money and allowed the facility to go bankrupt within a year. (Sinatra was also photographed with a group of Mob bigshots, including Carlo Gambino.) So what? One hand washes the other, and there's always a developer to remake a site when the Mob is through with it.

When Sinatra wanted to settle with Tommy Dorsey in 1943, he probably phoned a few of his friends to see what they could do. But the Mob doesn't very often make offers that you can't refuse; if you can't do them this favor now, you can do them another later. Sinatra was leaving one of the most successful acts in the business to go solo; nobody knew he would turn into a gold mine. The Mob had its tentacles into the booking agencies and the entertainment unions; maybe they helped broker a deal that made everybody happy, but they would have been foolish to shove a pistol in Dorsey's mouth. A decade later Sinatra was at the bottom; he didn't look bankable, and the Mob wasn't going to tell Harry Cohn who to put in From Here To Eternity. Cohn allegedly wore Johnny Roselli's friendship ring, and Frank Costello allegedly made phone calls to Hollywood, but the muscle, if there was any, was not going to be conclusive; filmmaking was left to the filmmakers because lousy pictures don't make money. Besides, it was good for Sinatra to grovel a little; he had caused most of his own problems, and not too many years later Sam Giancana would be warning the others to beware what they said in front of Sinatra because he had such a big mouth. When Sinatra launched Reprise Records, maybe the muscle in record distribution saw to it that plenty of records were available on time, and that singles made it to the jukeboxes and were played on the radio; but it was Sinatra and Mo Ostin who saw to it that the artists were happy and that the pressings were of good quality. It was all good business. Let us imagine, for a moment, that one of the most dismal of Sinatra albums was made because the Mob wanted to do somebody a favor: this would have been an exception to prove the rule. There's not much money in a flop album.

There can be few show-business folk who have not crossed the paths of gangsters of one kind or another. In a filmed interview with Duke Ellington, Duke was asked about the people who ran the Cotton Club in the late 1920s, where he first became nationally famous; he replied with a sly smile: 'Gangsters?... You're talking about my friends!' Each entertainer handled the situation in his or her own way. Tony Bennett is a gentleman and a devout Catholic; his career had faltered when he was no longer making hit singles for Mitch Miller, perhaps because he preferred not to play certain places rather than become indebted to the wrong kind of people. Sinatra praised Bennett's singing in Life magazine in 1965, and his career picked up again; today he is more popular than ever, and has always been grateful to Sinatra, but never had any trouble keeping his own hands clean.

Dean Martin had a different kind of integrity of his own. Louis Buchalter, alias Louis Lepke, was the owner of the Club Alabam in New York City, where Martin worked in the 1940s before he teamed with Jerry Lewis. Lepke was a Mob hitman, wanted for murder; when he was finally awaiting execution, his wife was running the club in his absence. Martin was still young and unknown, but the family had given him work and he stuck by them, sitting with them during the execution and loyal to them afterwards. That was the kind of manners the Mob understood. They never gave Martin any trouble, but he never asked them for anything, either.

One of Shirley MacLaine's stories concerns Martin. Ed Torres ran the Riviera in Las Vegas, and thought he was Dean Martin's boss. Martin owned a stake in the hotel and kept a suite there with his wardrobe in it; on one occasion he arrived a day early with Mort Viner (his agent as well as MacLaine's), and discovered that Torres had been renting the suite while Martin wasn't there. MacLaine tells the story:

Mort and Dean said nothing. Dean played his engagement, and on the last night Mort played rough. He paid off a bellboy to collect Eddie Torres' clothes and put them in the middle of the floor in Dean's suite. Just before Dean left the hotel, Mort set fire to Eddie's clothes and then rang the fire marshall and said that he smelled smoke on that floor. Eddie gave up his need to control Dean.

Martin never took any nonsense from Frank Sinatra, either. They were close friends for decades, but in the early years when Sinatra offered to help with Martin's career, Martin wanted to make it on his own. Later, during the Rat Pack period, if Martin didn't feel like partying he went home and watched television. Sinatra could have learned what real cool was from Martin. But when Sinatra was at his peak, and with so much money growing on trees, who cared whether a valise full of hundred-dollar bills belonged to Sinatra or to somebody else? ('There's plenty more where that came from,' he was heard to say.) There were coincidences over the years when people Sinatra didn't like got hurt or threatened. Buddy Rich got mugged when Sinatra was sore at him. Comedian Jackie Mason joked about Sinatra and Mia Farrow; so did Johnny Carson, but Carson was loveable, one of the biggest stars in show business and Sinatra's pal, while Mason was a comic for grownups, a former rabbi: even when his jokes were innocuous, they seemed close to the knuckle because Mason didn't laugh at his own jokes. Bullets were fired into Mason's hotel room; he was assaulted and his nose was broken. A food industry executive, Frederick R. Weisman, was having a drink with a friend in a room where Sinatra and his pals were making so much noise nobody could think; Sinatra's goons took exception to being shushed and Weisman ended up in a coma. Sinatra's friends of the period said that during the wait for news from the hospital was the only time they ever saw him frightened. But as soon as the injured man was on the mend, his family received threatening phone calls, and they refused to press charges.

Some of the stories can be verified, but there are too many of them: if hoodlums did Sinatra's bidding every time he got sore at somebody, they had to be awfully stupid hoodlums, because too many times Sinatra's big mouth and foul temper coincided. And it is precisely for that reason that the stories will follow him to his grave. Some of the best stories are suspect because gangsters too like to brag and exaggerate, especially if they live long enough to retire; but the story about Willie Moretti shoving a pistol in Dorsey's mouth isn't even first hand. It's just a rumor. Mickey Cohen had become a West Coast boss after Bugsy Seigel had been terminated, and later told a story that rings true: in the late 1940s, when Cohen knew his house was being watched night and day, Sinatra insisted on coming there to ask Cohen to stop Johnny Stompanato from seeing Ava Gardner. Cohen was disgusted, and told Sinatra to go back to his wife and kids; but the point of the story is that Sinatra's personal life was more important to him that the fact that Cohen house was being watched. This was not a man who could be trusted. He told Pete Hamill that if he ever allowed someone to write his biography, there would be a lot that could not be revealed; a man capable of discretion would not have said such a thing to a journalist.

The gangsters were thugs, or course; most of them, like Sinatra, subscribed to traditional values while they treated women like dirt. But like Sinatra, they didn't pretend to be anything they were not. Johnny Stompanato was one of the worst; he was present in the kitchen at Billy Berg's Hollywood club on New Year's Eve in 1948, when somebody got stabbed and Billie Holiday and her boyfriend John Levy were arrested. Stompanato bought the farm ten years later, when Lana Turner's daughter had enough of his violence and stabbed him to death; Levy is said to have been shot to death. Stompanato and Levy were minor hoodlums, wanna-be gangsters, but sometimes the worst people got to the top, and one of those was Sam Giancana.

Giancana began as a driver for Al Capone, and eventually inherited Capone's Chicago-based business empire. After Albert Anastasia was murdered in his barber chair in Manhattan in 1957, there had to be a conclave of the Mob to find out what was going on, and it was foolishly decided to hold it in the tiny town of Apalachin in New York state. A local state trooper was puzzled at the number of black limousines buzzing around, decided to set up a road block, and sixty of the nation's biggest bosses were arrested. It was very embarrassing, but they all got off, claiming that they had all come to visit Joseph Barbara because he had a heart condition, and anyway there was no law against having a meeting. The Justice Department estimated that up to fifty more kingpins had got away, and Joseph Valachi, the first important insider to turn witness, claimed that Sam Giancana was one of them. Valachi was disgusted.

I'll tell you the reaction of all us soldiers when we heard about the raid. If soldiers got arrested in a meet like that, you can imagine what the bosses would have done. There they are, running through the woods like rabbits, throwing away money so they won't be caught with a lot of cash, and some of them throwing away guns. So who are they kidding when they say we got to respect them?

But short, balding Sam Giancana was respected. He had been arrested more than 70 times, served some time in prison, and was suspected of having ordered more than 200 murders. He wore Frank Sinatra's friendship ring. The irony is that the friendship between Sinatra and Giancana may have done as much as anything to convince the Nevada authorities to start cracking down on the Mob.

Sinatra hung out at the Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe as early as 1951, for it was there that he took some sleeping pills and had to be rescued by George Jacobs. (Whether this was a suicide attempt or not, he had to have his stomach pumped.) In 1960 Sinatra and his friends became the owners of Cal-Neva, with Giancana as the secret owner, who figured on taking his money out after a while, because the trouble with Cal-Neva was that it was only open from June until September. But Sinatra and his pals wanted to make it a year-round operation: they enlarged the casino, built more hotel rooms and constructed a showroom for entertainment. They needed to borrow money for this, and Giancana was overheard by Federal wiretappers complaining about not being able to borrow from a Teamsters' Union's pension fund; the heat was on Teamsters' leader Jimmy Hoffa at the time, and like any other businessman, sometimes he had to be careful to whom he lent other people's money.

Some of the biggest stars played the Celebrity Room at Cal-Neva, while slightly lesser acts (like Trini Lopez, under contract to Reprise) would play the Cabaret Lounge. In mid-1962 Sinatra officially owned more than a third of the place, and a year later he owned half of it; Hank Sanicola had a third and Sanford Waterman had a piece. Skinny D'Amato kept an eye on Giancana's investment, and it all should have been perfect, but trouble followed Sinatra everywhere. An employee was shot on the front steps. A few days before Marilyn Monroe died in Los Angeles of an overdose, she had her stomach pumped at Cal-Neva. A deputy sheriff stopped by to pick up his wife, who worked there as a waitress; Sinatra tried to throw him out and got thumped; the deputy was suspended from his job, and a couple of weeks later his car was forced off the road (he was killed and his wife badly injured. She decided not to go back to work at Cal-Neva).

But the worst problem was Giancana. Shirley MacLaine tells of an incident in Mexico City, when Giancana twisted her arm behind her back, Sammy Davis Jr broke it up, and Giancana punched Davis in the stomach. Giancana wasn't even supposed to be at Cal-Neva, but he got in fights there, too. He knew that he was under constant surveillance; in fact, he took the FBI to court for harrassment and won a victory of sorts: the FBI were fined $500 and told to stay at least one hole behind Giancana on the golf course. Yet he and Sinatra couldn't stay away from each other. Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow couldn't stand his Mob friends (and the Mob didn't like them either, because they didn't behave the way wives were supposed to behave), but Giancana and men like him were more important to Sinatra than his women. Nancy Sinatra's story is that Giancana was visiting his girlfriend, one of the singing McGuire Sisters, when they were working at Cal-Neva, and that her father didn't know he was there; but Giancana and Sinatra were seen together in Palm Springs, in Hawaii, in New York and at Lake Tahoe, and it was against the law for Sam Giancana to set foot in Nevada.

The state's Gaming Control Board had a booklet distributed to law enforcement officers with pictures and details of eleven gangsters who were not allowed in the state, Giancana prominent among them; but he had to be Sinatra's honored guest whenever he felt like hanging out. True, half of the resort was in Nevada and half in California; Sinatra joked to his audience that 'This is the only place in America where you can walk across the lobby and get locked up for violating the Mann Act.' That was an obsolescent law against transporting woman across state lines for immoral purposes, but it was not a joke: it got Chuck Berry a jail sentence because of a teenaged hat-check girl who had a record for prostitution; and Cal-Neva was crawling with Federal agents because of an alleged prostitution ring there that used girls from California. Yet nothing could stop Sinatra from sucking up to Giancana.

Italian, Irish and Jewish mobsters had a lot in common: they were all members of minority groups, their families recent immigrants, and they all hated Irish cops. Sinatra resented U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy for several reasons (that's why he decided to campaign for Hubert Humphrey in 1968, after Bobby entered the race), but also because his gangster friends hated him. Sinatra would never hear a word against John Kennedy, but the Mob hated all the Kennedys, and also hated Fidel Castro, because Havana had once been their playground; and meanwhile, such was the confusion in America in those years that one branch of Federal power was stalking Giancana while the other half may have been hiring the Mob to rub out Castro; and a little later Sinatra's hero John Kennedy got rubbed out instead. Yet Sinatra couldn't help groveling at the seat of perceived power: shut out of the White House he needed the adulation of the gangsters even more.

Finally the state of Nevada could not ignore all the flagrant violations that were going on, and the reports they were getting from the FBI, so Ed Olsen, the Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission, insisted on interviewing Sinatra, who of course was as insulting as possible, using the banal don't-fuck-with-me variety of tough-mouth. (This allegedly astonished even Giancana, who knew when to keep his mouth shut.) Even so, Olsen tried to go easy on Sinatra, knowing that Sinatra would only lie to him anyway; but then Sinatra attempted to bribe two audit agents from the Commission. This was not a serious attempt at bribery, only a childish attempt to insult the agents, but they reported it, and Olsen sought a revocation of Sinatra's license at Cal-Neva (and at the Sands in Las Vegas, where Sinatra had a holding of 9 percent). And finally Hank Sanicola had had enough. He had his own money invested in Cal-Neva and he didn't want to lose it, so he wanted out, unless he could get assurances from Sinatra that Giancana would never set foot there again. 'Out of Cal-Neva, out of everything,' Sinatra decreed; short of cash, he gave Sanicola music publishing holdings worth far more than the stake in Cal-Neva, and they parted for good. It was Sanicola who had convinced Sinatra to keep going when he was with the Harry James band, depressed that the band wasn't doing well and he wasn't becoming a star quickly enough; Sanicola had stuck by him through everything, but gangsters were more important.

During this period, President Kennedy toured the state of Nevada, and put in a good word for Sinatra with Governor Grant Sawyer, who also reported phone calls from people who promised big contributions to his next election campaign; and Mickey Rudin hired a Las Vegas attorney (who later became the first Federal judge to be convicted of tax evasion) to defend Sinatra. But when they realized how much evidence the state had, they had to give up, and Sinatra announced that he was getting out of the gaming industry to concentrate on entertainment. That is when Jack Warner came to the rescue, leasing Sinatra's Nevada holdings from him, selling him one-third of Warner Brothers Records and buying two-thirds of Reprise, making a movie deal and giving Sinatra the title of assistant to the president of the company, to help save his face. Such was Sinatra's public identification with the Mob that a rumor arose that the Mob was taking over Warner Brothers, which Warner angrily denied.

Yet there is another version of the story which is just as plausible: that the record and film deal was already going down, and Warner told Sinatra that the deal was off if Sinatra kept squabbling with the state of Nevada. Giancana was Sinatra's friend, and he did not want anyone telling him who he could consort with; but he was also always interested in working with juvenile delinquents, and is supposed to have told a group of boys about crime, 'It's a mug's game. For half the brains and guts it takes to stay alive and out of jail in the rackets, you can be a big shot, sleep safe at night, and have twice as much.' Yet he was loyal to his gangster pals to the point where he lost his playpen.

During Sinatra's marriage to Mia Farrow his bad temper seemed to reach new depths. She had already been a big star on television, a medium Sinatra never mastered; and Farrow famously cut off her very long blonde hair just as Sinatra's 50th birthday was dominating the showbiz news: perhaps her tender years did not preclude an instinct for publicity of her own. He still performed at the Sands in Las Vegas, but no longer had a stake in it; by then it was owned by Howard Hughes, and when he signed a new contract with the Sands, he made it a condition that Hughes would buy Jack Warner's lease in Cal-Neva. But Hughes wasn't cooperating; and when the Sands cut off Sinatra's credit because he was losing heavily, he started tearing the place up, and ended by being punched in the face by Carl Cohen, the executive in charge of the casino. Cohen weighed about 250 pounds, and Sinatra had to have two teeth repaired; this was at the time of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and a Las Vegas comedian cracked, "I told Frank not to fight with a Jew in the desert!' (In her most recent book, Nancy Sinatra credited her father with making the joke.)

Jack Entratter was another executive at the Sands, who had once been manager of the Copacabana. Elaine Brown was a guest in Sinatra's home in 1965; she recorded an incident (in her book A Taste Of Power: A Black Woman's Story) when Sinatra threw a heavy brass bowl full of cigarettes at Entratter, causing blood to trickle down his forehead, and then made Entratter pick up all the cigarettes. Despite everything, they had been pals for 20 years, but after the trouble at the Sands Sinatra never spoke to Entratter again.

He signed a contract with Caesar's Palace, and later, in 1970, the flow of pocket money from the tables there stopped too, because an IRS agent was watching. Sanford Waterman, one of the former investors in Cal-Neva, had become the Caesar's casino manager, and the last thing he needed was trouble with the Internal Revenue; businessmen and tax collectors can agree on where the lines have to be drawn, but not Sinatra. When his credit was stopped he began winding up for a tantrum, and Waterman pulled a pistol on him. Waterman had to be questioned about the incident, but this time even the sheriff had to pretend to be fed up, and Sinatra had to pretend not to care if he ever worked in Las Vegas again. This does not sound like the fate of a card-carrying member of the Outfit.

His third marriage had quickly flopped, his latest album and his latest film had flopped, and now he had washed himself up in Vegas. No wonder Sinatra retired. He certainly had enough money; in 1969 he is said to have sold his holdings in Warner Brothers, including Reprise, for more than 22 million dollars. His retirement, though temporary, marked quite a few changes in his life and career, but the cushy days of the Mob in Vegas were running out anyway. Within another decade or so the Nevada Gaming Control Board's procedures and accounting started to take effect, because (if for no other reason) the Mob was taking too much money out: Las Vegas had become one of the famous towns in the world, and if Nevada was going to be famous for a glitzy toilet, at least the citizens wanted a decent return on the deal. By the mid-1980s the regulations and rigorous checks meant that the Mob had to deal with both bureaucracy and shareholders, and they apparently gave up. In that decade, too, the casinos shed a lot of talent, switching to tape recordings and and synthesizers: at least the Mob had employed musicians. In the 1990s the last remaining wing of Bugsy Seigel's Flamingo was pulled down, along with the Dunes, once a notorious Mob hangout; and today Las Vegas has been made safe for families, a theme park in the desert whose murder rate is no higher than that of any other American city.

For decades most of the entertainers had been in the loop in one way or another; the Mob needed them and paid well. Only Sinatra was so in thrall that he lost Cal-Neva, the best plaything he ever had, and from then on he was associated in the public mind with the Mob. He was investigated and subpoenaed on various occasions; sometimes he simply said 'I don't know', or was suspected of lying, and often the various law enforcement agencies weren't cooperating closely enough, so that evidence such as the Federal wiretaps was not available. In 1969 Dolly moved to Palm Springs, because she had lost Marty, and partly because Sinatra could not set foot in New Jersey: there was a subpoena to be served by a state commission investigating rackets, and Sinatra sued the commission, going all the way to the Supreme Court, on the grounds that the subpoena was unconstitutional, and lost. He was then being threatened with extradition from California; he gave in, and testified in Trenton in February 1970. The commission asked a lot of silly questions about the Cosa Nostra and the Mafia, of which there are no membership lists. They had nothing on Sinatra, and his lack of respect for their competence was justified.

Often enough it was a case of politicians making names for themselves, just as in the old days of the gossip columnists. Sinatra had made himself such a big shot amongst the gangsters that they tossed his name around even when there was nothing in it. The New Jersey commission asked him about Angelo 'Gyp' DeCarlo, who had bragged over the phone to another mobster that he was going to get money from Sinatra, but no connection could be proven. After Sinatra had become friendly with Republican politicians, DeCarlo was serving 12 years for extortion, and Nixon commuted his sentence in December 1972. There were more whispers, but DeCarlo died of cancer in 1973; there seems no reason why he should not have died in prison, but also no reason why Nixon's commutation of his sentence had not been a simple-minded humanitarian gesture. In July 1972 Sinatra was threatened with yet another subpoena, and testified voluntarily before a Congressional committee investigating racketeering in sports; there were rumors about a racetrack in Massachusetts that Sinatra was supposed to have invested in, and again it came to nothing. His letter in The New York Times that month was published, more than a little self-righteous, but Sinatra had divested himself of his gaming interests, and made the valid point that he had been forced to testify about nothing during an election year, saying 'If this sort of thing could happen to me, it could happen to anyone, including those who cannot defend themselves properly.'

After Sinatra's retirement was over, Sanford Waterman was in trouble with the law and no longer a manager at Caesar's Palace, and Sinatra worked there again. In 1981 Sinatra applied for a Nevada gaming license as a 'key employee', which he did not need to perform there; the necessary investigation cost him half a million dollars, but he got his license back, which was important to him: he thought he had cleared his name. But the stories about Sinatra will never lie down, even the ones that aren't true; he often said that he was persecuted because his name ended in a vowel, and maybe he actually believed that himself. Meanwhile, Sam Giancana had been murdered in 1976; his empire had come crashing down, and he had been living in Mexico. The Mob connection with plans to assassinate Fidel Castro was being investigated, and maybe Ginacana was getting ready to sing; for whatever reason, even the Mob had had enough of him.

The American experiment is as confused as ever. The old East Coast establishment that gave rise to Presidents as recent as George H.W. Bush can probably no longer get elected (his son was selected in 2000 by an out-of-control energy industry), and the bloom is certainly off the Kennedy dynasty. Most of today's movie stars are good for little more than tabloid magazine covers, and all the best mobsters are dead; the most powerful people in the USA since this book was first published seem to have been trash like Kenneth Lay, Tom DeLay and Karl Rove. The USA may have to learn to get along without any aristocracy at all.

But then again, maybe not. As recently as April 1996, there was a news item about George Seminara, author of Mug Shots, a collection of police photographs of famous people who had been arrested. Thinking that Sinatra had been arrested in Las Vegas after one of his more violent temper tantrums, and reasoning that there must have been a mug shot, Seminara was trying to find it. He received a phone call from the office of lawyer Bruce Culter: 'We understand you're looking for information on Mr Sinatra. Mr Sinatra would greatly appreciate it if you would cease and desist.' Culter was the lawyer for John Gotti, the New York City neighborhood hero and alleged mobster who was sent to prison in the early 1990s. Mr Seminara decided to desist.

« Previous [Table of Contents] Next »