13th April 1956: American actor and singer Frank Sinatra at London airport. (Photo by Peter Bolton/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This Dec. 12, Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 years old. James Kaplan’s two-part biography of the legendary singer only seems that long.
“The Chairman,” out this week, follows 2010’s “The Voice,” and covers the last 44 years of Sinatra’s life. Both books are documented and researched, but a little much for the casual fan. In 900 pages, Kaplan threatens to overwhelm the reader with exhausting trivialities.
Still, between the lemons — “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” anyone? — and the minutia, there’s plenty of stories that show why Sinatra was such a larger-than-life entertainer.
Luck be a lady
Between his marriages to Ava and Mia, Sinatra had hundreds of rumored flings including, from top left, Kim Novak, Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, Juliet Prowse, Judith Campbell Exner, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Frank’s affairs were as numerous as his songs. Between 1954 and 1971, in between brief marriages to Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow, he conducted an incomparable prolific love life with everyone from Hollywood royalty to cigarette girls, all the while, as daughter Tina writes, “failing to make a truly intimate connection with any of the 100s if not thousands of women he bedded.”
And picky! According to his longtime valet George Jacobs, “Kim Novak’s legs were too heavy for him but her face made up for it.”
Judith Campbell Exner, ex-girlfriend of Frank, JFK and mobster Sam Giancana is quoted as saying, “Each girl in Frank’s life has a certain amount of time allotted to her. Except for Ava, of course, who lingered like a haunting refrain.”
The marriage proposals were endless. London Evening Standard Columnist Thomas Wiseman reported, “Frank Sinatra and Lauren Bacall would marry within six months, baring an act of providence or Ava Gardner.” Other near-misses included Juliet Prowse, Gloria Vanderbilt, Marilyn Monroe, Pamela Churchill Hayward and Edith Mayer Goetz, daughter of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer.
The latter, when asked by Frank to marry him, famously responded, “why Frank, I couldn’t marry you . . . you’re nothing but a hoodlum.”
Lady sings the blues
Sinatra said Billie Holiday was the single biggest influence on his music.Photo: AP; Redferns
Billie Holiday, just eight months older than Sinatra, had been a success long before he was, recording hits while Frank was scrounging for singing gigs in Hoboken.
He was in love with the ragged texture of her voice and her incomparable laid-back phrasing, and in love, too, with Billie herself: her sultry, wounded, distant presence both regal and ravaged.
“It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me,” he said.
In July 1959, Holiday, a longtime narcotics addict, lay dying in Harlem’s Metropolitan Hospital. According to Jacobs, he and Frank visited a gaunt and wasted Lady Day in her hospital room, where three cops were stationed at the door. She was thrilled to see Sinatra, who made happy talk about how he’d loved her latest album and how much she’d influenced his phrasing.
“I may have showed you how to bend a note, Frankie, that’s all,” Holiday said. Then she leaned over to him and whispered, so the police couldn’t hear, “Will you cut the s–t, baby, and get me some dope?”
Sinatra, despite his hatred of drugs, tried to get heroin for Holiday as a medical necessity. When that didn’t work, Frank bought it himself from a dealer. With police outside Holiday’s door, though, there was no way to get the drugs through.
Billie’s liver failed, and she went into a coma and died on July 17, 1959. Sinatra was disconsolate, holed up in his apartment, drinking, weeping and playing her records over and over for four days.
Sinatra had thought about marrying Marilyn, just to save her.Photo: Getty Images
1954: American film star Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Mortenson or Norma Jean Baker, 1926 – 1962), relaxing on the grass in one of her over the shoulder poses. (Photo by Baron/Getty Images)
Frank was fond of Marilyn Monroe, even buying her a poodle she named Maf — short for “Mafia.” But Jacobs said that his boss was disgusted by Marilyn’s slovenliness and disdainful of her intellect.
Still, Sinatra had considered marrying Marilyn, just to save her.
“He felt if she were his wife, everyone else would back off, give her some space and allow her to get herself together,” a friend recalled. “ ‘No one will mess with her if she’s Mrs. Frank Sinatra,’ he said. ‘No one would dare.’ ”
When Marilyn died, Frank was “devastated,” his valet recalled. Joe DiMaggio was devastated, too, and furious. He blamed the Kennedys — “she was a toy for them,” he said — as well as Sinatra.
DiMaggio organized Marilyn’s funeral and would not invite a single movie star. Frank arrived at the cemetery with bodyguards and tried to force, then bribe, his way in. He was turned away.
Looking for a hit
Sinatra idolized the mob like a young boy would cowboys or soldiers.Photo: Getty Images
25th July 1953: American singer and actor Frank Sinatra performing during a visit to London. Original Publication: Picture Post – 6601 – He Keeps On Crooning – pub. 1953 (Photo by Ronald Startup/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Kaplan chronicles Frank’s lifelong attraction to the mob as deep, genuine and unfortunate.
His long relationship with mobsters Giancana, Joe Fischetti and others had far more to do with mutual admiration than affiliation — he idolized them all his life much as a small boy might idolize cowboys or soldiers.
What did the mob get out of it? Frank was a celebrity, very entertaining and he liked to party; he was Italian like them; they liked to go to the Copa with a broad on their arm to hear him sing “Chicago.”
But the love affair frayed in the summer of 1962. Giancana had agreed to help elect JFK, with the implicit promise that the feds would back off the mob.
When Robert Kennedy instead turned up the heat, Giancana was furious.
At one point, Giancana’s underling (and Frank’s occasional houseguest) Johnny Formosa suggested a remedy to Giancana.
“Let’s shoot ’em,” Formosa said. “Let’s show those a–hole Hollywood fruitcakes that they can’t get away with it as if nothing’s happened. Let’s hit Sinatra. Or I could whack out a couple of those other guys. Lawford and that Martin, and I could take the n—-r and put his other eye out.”
“No,” Sam said. No matter how scathing Giancana’s personal feelings toward Sinatra, the gangster’s weakness for Frank’s singing kept him coming back for more.
That famous temper
Sinatra ruined a friend’s Norman Rockwell painting after a dispute with Desi Arnez (above).Photo: CBS via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES – JANUARY 12: Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo in the I LOVE LUCY episode, “Lucy Becomes a Sculptress.” Season 2, episode 15. Original air date, January 12, 1953. Image is a screen grab. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)
Frank and Desi Arnaz had been friendly acquaintances for years. But Giancana hated “The Untouchables,” which was produced by Arnaz’s Desilu studio.
Sinatra took it upon himself to give his old pal Arnaz a piece of his mind. Frank found Desi and two bodyguards at a restaurant in Palm Springs, and he expressed what he and some of his influential Italian friends thought about the show making the Italians gangsters.
“What do you want me to do — make them all Jews?” said Desi. He said that he wasn’t afraid of Frank’s friends and the argument went on from there — with Desi reportedly suggesting Sinatra was a failure in the television industry.
Sinatra was incensed, but hitting Desi, then a powerful figure in Hollywood, wasn’t really an option. Instead, Frank went back to friend Jimmy Van Heusen’s house.
In an alcohol-fueled tantrum of epic proportions, Frank grabbed a carving knife from the kitchen and slashed Van Heusen’s most treasured possession, a Norman Rockwell portrait of him sitting at the piano in his pajama top, a special gift from the artist. Several days later, Frank sent Van Heusen an expensive Japanese print as an apology.
A further display of Frank’s temper was a meltdown during his world tour in 1962 benefiting children’s charities. During the Hong Kong performance, a failed lighting cue caused Frank to trash his dressing room and his suite at the elegant Peninsula hotel. He ripped a priceless antique screen and shattered a Ming vase. Money made it all better.
This famous charity
#FrankSinatra peforms “That’s Life” live, 1966 in living color. For more on Sinatra, read stargayzing.com
In 1951, when Sinatra was waning in popularity and swallowing pills in a halfhearted suicide attempt after an especially nasty quarrel with Ava, old friend Paul “Skinny” D’Amato booked him into his 500 Club in Atlantic City.
When Frank got to town, Skinny took him around to all his favorite joints, showed him off and boosted his ego. Skinny bought Frank a gold watch, and when he gave it to Frank he said, “Don’t ever think you’re down and out, pal. This is to remind you that when you come back, you’re going to be bigger than ever.”
Skinny was right — Sinatra was soon booked in Las Vegas and was huge again. He never forgot Skinny’s generosity. Even as the fortunes of the 500 Club and Atlantic City turned, Sinatra would return there multiple times and play for free.
A man and his music
Sinatra during a recording session in a studio at Capitol Records in 1953.Photo: Getty Images
American singer and actor Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998) gestures with his hands while singing into a microphone during a recording session in a studio at Capitol Records, early 1950s. (Photo by Murray Garrett/Getty Images)
“I have to be as good as or maybe better than every musician in the studio.” That was his goal. So he prepared himself. Frank greatest joy no doubt was his musical talent. He is best described as a highly intuitive, infinitely impatient thoroughbred. He didn’t read music but had an ear. He knew when someone was flat and he knew enough to change directors and composers and musical direction often so as not to get stale. “An audience is like a broad; if you’re indifferent, endsville.”
Frank always had great respect for the orchestra, he just didn’t throw praise around.
Milt Bernhart, trombone player, recalls a time when Sinatra praised the French horn player Vince DeRosa on executing a difficult passage by telling the band, “I could have hit him in the mouth!” the band knew what Frank meant, “he had loved it…that’s Sinatra. He could sing with the grace of a poet, but when he’s talking to you, it’s Jersey!”
Frank recorded some wonderful albums during his time with Capitol records, Billy May’s “Come Swing with Me”; The wonderful collaboration with Nelson Riddle, “Tell Her You Love Her”; Only the Lonely”; ”In the Wee Small Hours.”
Riddle on his work with Sinatra: “Most of our best numbers were in what I call the tempo of the heartbeat…Music to me is sex — it’s all tied up somehow, and the rhythm of sex is the heartbeat.”
September of his years
Sinatra performing at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1975.Photo: Getty Images
1975: American singer and actor Frank Sinatra (1915 – 1998) in concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. (Photo by Joe Bangay/Evening Standard/Getty Images)
Sinatra was king of the comeback. He reinvented himself as a movie star in the 1950s, then as leader of the Rat Pack in the ’60s.
When the entertainment world had written him off in the 1970s, Sinatra became a top-selling concert-tour performer. Between 1976 and 1990, Sinatra played more than 1,000 shows.
During live performances, Frank had the incomparable ability to manipulate human emotion with the sheer power of his voice.
The climax of each show was the song that would become his signature, the one Paul Anka wrote for him.
“We will now do the national anthem, but you needn’t rise,” Sinatra said at Madison Square Garden, before singing “My Way.”