The first thing I remembered when I heard that Frank Sinatra had died was his parting wish to a concert audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London one of the times I saw him perform there: “May you live to be 100,” he had said, “and may the last voice you hear … be mine!” And something like 10,000 British people had cheered wildly, as though death would surely lose its sting were it to be accompanied by the sounds of Sinatra. Certainly his voice had been present at so many of what the French call les petits morts the world over: How many kisses, how many climaxes had been reached with Sinatra singing in the background? His songs were not only his own autobiography but served as similar touchstones for all generations from the early 40’s to the present. My own serious teenage dating coincided almost exactly with the start of his epic-making theme albums of 1953, Swing Easy and Songs for Young Lovers, which essentially invented the album as an art form. And the most jubilant reaction I ever had to any Academy Award was when Sinatra won his Oscar for From Here to Eternity ; listening to the radio, I leapt up with such excitement that the rug slipped from under me and I almost broke my neck.
Those kind of memories of Sinatra are very much like countless others around the globe, but I did have a few personal encounters with the man himself between the mid-70’s and the start of the 90’s, and many of these came rushing back as I realized I would never see him or speak with him again. And memories of things I had heard about Frank from others who’d known him. From Barbara Ford, director John Ford’s daughter, for example, her father having directed the beautiful and talented Ava Gardner in probably her best performance, in Mogambo (1953), made in Africa during the lowest ebb in Sinatra’s life. Though he was madly in love with Gardner, his career was at its absolute nadir: his vocal cords having hemorrhaged, his records having stopped selling, his movie and recording contracts canceled.
Frank came to Africa, in desperate shape, to visit Ava. Ford used to order him around jokingly: “Make the spaghetti, Frank.” And Sinatra did, rather happily, Barbara told me. Gardner, at her hottest then, called Columbia studio head Harry Cohn and asked him as a favor to cast Frank for the Maggio role in From Here to Eternity (1953), and Sinatra did get the role. After he left Africa to start that picture, and Ava had finished the only role in her career for which she was nominated by the Academy for best actress, the photographer Robert Surtees and his wife accompanied Gardner to London, where she had an abortion, which Frank didn’t know about until after the fact and was devastated about. Sinatra and Gardner were divorced within a couple of years. I met Ava in the mid-80’s, and she still spoke fondly of Sinatra, and there was always a tender sound to Frank’s voice when her name came up.
The first actual contact I ever had with Sinatra was a nasty telegram he sent me. Cybill Shepherd and I were living together then, and I had just produced a Cole Porter album for her and sent copies to several performers we both admired, hoping for some endorsements we could use as liner notes. We got two or three, and then came Frank’s wire: “Heard the record. It’s marvelous what some guys will do for a dame. Better luck next time. Sinatra.” Well, Cybill and I tried to pretend to each other that there was a missing period after “marvelous,” and let it go. I finally met him not too long afterward, when he hosted the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement tribute to Orson Welles. I actually thanked him for his telegram, and he looked slightly bewildered; but when I added that we thought it was funny, he smiled a bit uncomfortably and said, “Yeah, I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” The subject never came up again.
The Welles gala was not really a very popular event in Hollywood–a lot of people thought there were many others who should have been honored before Orson. But Sinatra had always been very fond of Welles–they were both born the same year, 1915–and Orson had always spoken very warmly of him. Sinatra had been the first investor for Welles’ ill-fated version of Don Quixote ; in the mid-50’s, Sinatra gave Welles $25,000 to start the movie. Frank’s nickname for Orson was “Jake”–Welles didn’t know why–but Jake he always remained. The night of the tribute Sinatra sang with gusto a special version of “The Lady Is a Tramp” that translated to Orson’s being “a champ!”–at that time still a controversial opinion. But controversial never bothered Frank.
After Sinatra’s false retirement (1971-73)–a sign of feeling unwanted, an exit that had to precede another entrance–he came back with an album titled Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back . Orson, who had known Frank since the 30’s in New York, when Sinatra was with Harry James and then with Tommy Dorsey, laughed at that one. “Where’d the ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ come from? No one’s ever called him that before!” It was always Frankie or the Voice; the Chairman of the Board came later, from New York deejay William B. Williams. On radio’s Your Hit Parade , it was “F.S. for L.S., Frank Sinatra for Lucky Strike, saying .… ‘Put Your Dreams Away …'” After Humphrey Bogart died, Sinatra eventually took over Bogie’s title as Leader of the Rat Pack. But with “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” Sinatra had reinvented himself again, as he had when he went from the almost femininely vulnerable lover-mama’s boy of the 40’s to America’s top swinger of the 50’s and 60’s.
A year or so after the Welles tribute, Cybill and I were invited to be guests at the Sinatra table at Caesar’s Palace, where he was performing. It was the first time either of us had seen him sing in person, and was especially memorable because we were seated (across from one another) with our shoulders quite literally leaning against stage center, and he not only introduced us to the audience from our seats, but played much of the show directly to us, even slanting some of the songs to the sort of attitude he thought we might like, kidding some of the cornier material; when he got to “My Way” for the first time he instead sang: “I did it … sideways!” Being physically so close to him was quite literally overwhelming–he towered right above us–and the intensity of his dramatic numbers was extraordinarily impressive. He would tell me that for him each song was something like a one-act play for one player. Apart from the brilliance of his singing, he was the most superb actor of songs.
In the early 80’s, Sinatra and I almost did a picture together. It was a Las Vegas comedy-drama called Paradise Road which I had envisioned to star him and James Stewart, Lee Marvin, Charles Aznavour, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, all playing degenerate gamblers. Although Martin and Lewis had broken up in the mid-50’s, Sinatra had brought them together briefly in the 70’s on one of Jerry’s TV telethons; nevertheless, they had not bonded again and so when I suggested to Frank that they would play two guys who were in the same group but never spoke to each other in the whole movie, only through intermediaries, he thought this was funny but not easy to achieve. Still, he said he’d try to get Dean, and I should try to get Jerry, who’s a friend. One afternoon, Frank called me, excited. “I spoke to Dean,” he said. “He’ll do it.” I was amazed and thrilled. “Yeah,” said Frank, “I asked if he wasn’t bothered about Jerry, and Dean said, ‘Aw, who gives a fuck!'” Sinatra laughed, delightedly. Jerry agreed, too, but the business people and middlemen got in the way and things never worked out.
In 1981, I went to Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs to talk about this project and to screen my film with Audrey Hepburn, They All Laughed , for him. He had allowed me to use on our soundtrack four cuts from his latest album, Trilogy (he had sent me one of the first copies the previous year, signed “Francis”), including his rendition of our title song by the Gershwins as well as his hugely successful “New York, New York.” Because our budget was small, he arranged for us to get all rights to the four for an unheard-of $5,000. Normally, each song would have cost 10 times that; he bent the composers’ arms, too, I guess, and got me the whole package for “no,” as they used to say on the New York streets. He had a few Palm Springs friends over to dinner, then we ran the picture, which takes a while to reveal what sort of movie it is. But at a certain point, Frank called out, “It’s a romantic comedy!” and everyone relaxed. Later that evening, he played for us a just-completed mix of his new album, She Shot Me Down . It was a challenging saloon-song collection, eloquently moody and evocative of that “quarter-to-three-A.M.” sadness of which he was the master. Before each cut played, he always gave credit (as he did in all his concerts) to the composers and arrangers. And it was touching to see, after all those years of recording, how vulnerable and excited he still was playing a brand-new work of his.
The next day was a Sunday and I came over in the morning for a talk about our proposed picture. We sat across from each other at a card table, and he seemed as up about it as I was. At one point, talking about returning to form with a vengeance, we coincidentally both at the exact same moment moved our chairs forward with happy intensity. It spoke of a kind of uncynical enthusiasm on his part that delighted me. During this conversation, I asked him who his favorite composer was and he answered, “Mozart.” A little later, I commented on the moving tribute to Billie Holiday he had recorded on the 1970 Sinatra & Company album. Titled “Lady Day,” it was the only cut marked with an asterisk that identified it as “Produced by Frank Sinatra.” I said that the way the orchestra had all played the melody line with him had reminded me of a Verdi aria and he said, pleased, “Yeah, that’s what we had in mind.”
After a while, his wife, Barbara, came into the room, and walking behind me, clearly made a high sign to Frank. He nodded, then asked me, “Are you Catholic?” I said No, I didn’t belong to any religious group. He said, “Well, we’re going to church–you wanna come?” I said O.K. and he smiled and, standing up, said, “Sure, what the hell–it’s only an hour.”
Soon after the three of us piled into their station wagon, Frank dressed in tie and tweed sports jacket; he drove to the ultramodern-looking church that had been dedicated to his mother, Dolly Sinatra, and the mass did indeed take about an hour, both Barbara and Frank eating the wafer at the end. Afterwards, we drove to his stables and Barbara rode her Tennessee walking horse while Frank and I talked.
When I asked him about his legendary dislike of doing more than one take per movie scene, he said he would do more for me. But when I said I understood his desire to keep things fresh, he responded, “Yeah, otherwise it’s like singing a song twice for the same audience.” Something he rarely did: Sinatra used to come to a recording session, let the musicians rehearse the arrangement, and then he’d sing the song down once, maybe twice, straight through and that would be it. Shooting a movie scene over and over–and from numerous different angles–was anathema to him, and so it’s no wonder that two of his best performances were for directors who often liked to shoot an entire scene in one continuous take: Otto Preminger on The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and Vincente Minnelli on Some Came Running (1958). Speaking about Minnelli, he told me with warm amusement of the time Minnelli (who was known to be very artistic but somewhat absent-minded and dreamy) had come on the location and been very upset about the placement of a huge Ferris wheel. He wanted it moved a few feet. Frank quietly had suggested he simply move the camera, and Minnelli had been delighted with the solution. As he told the story, Sinatra smiled affectionately.
A few days later, we were talking about the casting of his female love interest in our Paradise Road ; the woman arrives in Las Vegas and Sinatra’s character is extremely troubled when he sees her, tries to avoid her. It turns out they had been very much in love some 20 years before, she had left him, and he had been heartbroken, was still somewhat carrying the torch. So, of course, discussing who should play that part, I said, “What about Ava?” There was a slight pause, then Frank said, “Too close to home, kid.”
Sinatra often had a kind of surprising vulnerability when he wasn’t acting a song or a role. In the banter with Dean Martin, he was never quite as fast nor as comfortable as some of the others in the Rat Pack; he wasn’t quite as quick with the improv, but he loved to laugh at it. One of the things I remember most about him was the sometimes cool but nonetheless sad look in his eye. Just a couple of weeks before he died, I acted in a few scenes in a movie with Mia Farrow and we spoke of Frank. She said she had been speaking with him or his two daughters nearly every day. When they had been married briefly in the late 60’s, there had been a 30-year difference in their ages, Mia was saying, which of course had its shortcomings. “Frank would be talking about his days with Tommy Dorsey,” Mia told me, “and I’d say, ‘Who’s Tommy?'” She shook her head. “And he’d be so patient and sweet and explain to me who Tommy Dorsey was and everything.” And that was one of the characteristics I remembered about him, too, a tough quality of kindness.
In one of our last conversations, around 1991, I told Frank I was planning a comedy drama with several ghosts in it, and that I wanted him to play one of the ghosts. He said, “I can do that.” Of course he could. That’s an aspect of what he had played most of his life to most people. Only a handful of the world ever really met him, talked to him, sat with him–compared to the millions for whom he was a shadow on the screen, a voice in the air, a ghost image on the old black-and-white tube. And he would be all of these forever, but especially his voice–the most honest and naked in its romantic vulnerability–more than any other American male singer of the 20th century.
One of the things that most moved me during the world’s first reaction to his death on May 14 was when the Empire State Building, an unofficial symbol of New York, New York, turned its lights blue the night of his passing: a poignant tribute from a city to a 70’s invention of Sinatra’s, only the last in a career that began as the voice of the 40’s. It reminded me of my reaction to hearing that all the lights of Las Vegas had been turned off for a minute the night they heard Frank’s pal, Dean Martin, had died. Both were gestures more potent that lowering a flag to half-mast, from both the private sector and the public, a bow of respect to say in silence that someone very special had gone from our midst.
The Man Who Knew How to Say Goodbye
When I was growing up in the 1940’s, during World War II, an impressionable acne-speckled youth in parochial school being insulted daily by the Irish, I also knew I was on the wrong side of the war because most of my uncles and older cousins were in Mussolini’s army, fighting against the Allied invasion of my immigrant father’s hometown in the Southern Italian hills. While this hardly made me feel secure as an American, the reason I was not emotionally driven underground during this time was the music on the radio being sung by a skinny crooner who was the star of the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. To me in those days the only thing that did not seem so terrible about being Italian was Frank Sinatra.
What other Italian-Americans were there in the American mainstream? There was, to be sure, the ever-silent and self-centered Joe DiMaggio, who, while he also served in the American Army, never spoke out in defense of anyone, including himself. He was and has remained an interior man, ever distant, cautious, never in the forefront with a social conscience. At best, a male Garbo.
In the political arena there was, of course, the famous Little Flower, Fiorello La Guardia. But he was born in a manner that was less typically Italian, less insular, more savory; he had a Jewish mother, and he was a Protestant. And the other ethnic Italian headliners in those days were the wiseguys–Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and their confederates in the Mafia.
What I am perhaps overemphasizing here is that the Italian-American experience during the World War II years was marked by a good deal of shame and self-loathing; and for most of the next 50 years, from the 1940’s to the end of the century, the only national figure of Italian origin who spoke out against prejudice and injustice, and who managed to find broad acceptance within the vast American landscape, was Francis Albert Sinatra. To those of us among the 14 million Americans of Italian origin, Sinatra more than anyone else embodied egalitarian opportunism, and was a one-man force for affirmative action, defending not only his own kind but all other minorities .
He was also the one Italian-American movie actor who in his films–wearing a sailor suit with Gene Kelly, singing his songs, having access to the women–played romantic roles in ways not done today even by such active Italian-American actors as De Niro and Pacino, to say nothing of all those antisocial Italo types who are habitually cast as overheated heavies–except for this year’s newcomer aboard the Titanic , young Leonardo. Before Sinatra, to find an Italian-American matinee idol who dressed with any stylish elegance on the screen and got the girl, one had to extend back to the silent era of Rudolph Valentino.
Sinatra also had the capacity to change his life, to take risks, to say goodbye and move out, which is inherent in the nature of every true immigrant, to uproot one’s self from all that is familiar and predictable. This is a nation navigated by boat people, but the Italian immigrants’ offspring in America tended to be conservative, politically and socially, marrying within, identifying with a group, searching for security and a guaranteed existence. Sinatra was about stepping out and many goodbyes–leaving the plumber’s daughter in Hoboken, for instance, to remarry with Ava Gardner, which in my view is not necessarily a social step up. Still, it was Frank breaking the patterns and breaking hearts, a quintessential American’s quest for the kind of fantasy fulfillment that he also sang about.
America made love to his music, necked and lied to one another in parked cars in unacknowledged gratitude to his singing. But I remember talking once to Sinatra’s valet in Los Angeles, back in the 1960’s when I was doing a magazine article, and hearing the valet concede that he sometimes overheard Sinatra dialing one telephone number after the other, trying without luck to get a Saturday night date.
I do think that Sinatra was often very lonely, although he lived luxuriously within loneliness. In this loneliness, in this solitude, there was a kind of narcissism where his art dwelled in a most selfish and singular way. He could not appease his creative craving and his romantic relationships simultaneously for very long, for I think he was possessed by an overriding need to experience affection on a massive scale, to have one-night stands with the world.