Gay Talese lives on the East Side of Manhattan, in a four-story brownstone he moved into in 1958, at age 26. When we met there recently to talk about his iconic Esquire profile “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” we chatted in a room that, in a house of such grandeur, one would have to call the parlor. The second time we talked, we went downstairs, to his cellar-turned-bunker, where he works dressed like a natty banker. I told him I was surprised that he spent only 31 days researching the Sinatra piece. For a guy who famously takes years on a story — he’s finishing up a New Yorker piece that’s been gestating for three decades — a month didn’t seem like much time to gather material for the greatest profile ever written. “Don’t ever think I’m fast,” he said. We talked for nearly five hours. I drank Scotch. He drank water. My comments and questions are in blue; his are in red.
Storyboard: What was the genesis for this piece? Why did you want to write about Sinatra, and why in 1965?
Gay Talese: Harold Hayes, Esquire‘s editor, gave me a one-year contract to do six pieces. I was making $15,000, which was good money in those days. Six pieces didn’t seem like a lot, but it was. Hayes said, “You can do pieces you want, and you can do pieces we want.” What I wanted to do, in imitation of the writers I used to devour — Irwin Shaw, John Cheever, John O’Hara, F. Scott Fitzgerald — was to tell short stories. The first piece was what I wanted to do. It was about an obituary writer named Alden Whitman. It’s called “Mr. Bad News.” No one ever heard of the guy. It may be the most gratifying piece I ever did. Then I told Hayes I wanted to write about this great New York Times correspondent, Harrison Salisbury. He’d gone to Hanoi and was writing what the Pentagon didn’t want him to write. “Well, how about Sinatra?” said Hayes. “No,” I said. “Life magazine just did a piece on Sinatra. What can you say about Sinatra that hasn’t already been said?” “Look, Gay,” said Hayes, “it’s all set up. It’s a cover piece. His press agent, Jim Mahoney, will give you access to him. We’re gonna feature it big. Then after that, you can do what you want to do.”
Did Sinatra like the story? Did he read it?
The only thing I know is that, after he was dead, I was invited to Queens College to be on a panel of a Frank Sinatra event. Quincy Jones was there and Tina Sinatra, Frank’s daughter. And she was very friendly to me. She said, “I like that piece you did on my father.” I said, “You did?” Because I had never heard from anybody. I said, “Do you think he liked it?” She said, “You know, he would never tell you, but I think he did.”
Where does this fall in your hierarchy of Gay Talese pieces? Do you like it?
I like it, but I’d say “Mr. Bad News” comes closest to what I aspire to do, which is to write nonfiction about ordinary people. Sinatra was the opposite of this.
Why did this piece strike a chord with people?
I have no idea.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold”
By Gay Talese
FRANK SINATRA, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday. The story closes with one woman and opens with two. I’m curious about how the blondes “knew” not to force Sinatra to talk. This suggests that they knew him more than cursorily. Did they? Did you interview them? I didn’t know who they were and I still don’t know who they were. As far as I was concerned, they were just decoration. I interviewed minor characters excessively, but I didn’t see them as anything but atmosphere.
Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra — A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel — only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. This lovely, poetic sentence not only describes the hordes that surround Sinatra but it also signals to the reader that you spoke to, at the very least, “dozens of people.” How many people did you speak to? At least a hundred. Is that an unusual number for one of your profiles? No. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people — his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five — which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. You don’t delve into his financial holdings much beyond this sentence. Was it something you looked into? All this financial stuff — the acquisitions, the chairman of the board stuff — had been written about. It was all so well-documented at that point. There were articles in the New York Times about his financial holdings. All of this had been written about by other people. He seemed now to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants, anything, can do it because he has money, the energy, and no apparent guilt. In an age when the very young seem to be taking over, protesting and picketing and demanding change, Frank Sinatra survives as a national phenomenon, one of the few prewar products to withstand the test of time. He is the champ who made the big comeback, the man who had everything, lost it, then got it back, letting nothing stand in his way, doing what few men can do: he uprooted his life, left his family, broke with everything that was familiar, learning in the process that one way to hold a woman is not to hold her. Now he has the affection of Nancy and Ava and Mia, the fine female produce of three generations, It’s interesting that you describe the ladies in his life as “produce” when, a couple of sentences prior, you describe Sinatra as a “product.” It’s a sort of commercialization of the characters. I think so, yeah. and still has the adoration of his children, the freedom of a bachelor, he does not feel old, he makes old men feel young, makes them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it can be done; not that they could do it, but it is still nice for other men to know, at fifty, that it can be done.
But now, standing at this bar in Beverly Hills, Sinatra had a cold, and he continued to drink quietly and he seemed miles away in his private world, not even reacting when suddenly the stereo in the other room switched to a Sinatra song, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Where were you, relative to Sinatra? I was about where I’m sitting now and the bar was where the door is. Maybe 40 feet. There were tables on all sides of us and the dance floor was over towards the left. I had a direct vision of the bar. The lights were low, but there was almost a spotlight on the bar. Whereas we in the back at our tables were looking through a semi-darkness at people. So you could see his face? Yeah, I could.
It is a lovely ballad that he first recorded ten years ago, and it now inspired many young couples who had been sitting, tired of twisting, to get up and move slowly around the dance floor, holding one another very close. Sinatra’s intonation, precisely clipped, yet full and flowing, gave a deeper meaning to the simple lyrics — “In the wee small hours of the morning/while the whole wide world is fast asleep/you lie awake, and think about the girl….” — it was like so many of his classics, a song that evoked loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late-night needs, it became a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas — in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers; two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him. Such an extraordinary sentence. For a moment, you pluck the reader from the present and deposit him in different locales, different seasons, different generations. It’s so unusual. It’s not unusual, if you love the short story, as I do, and if you read enough Fitzgerald, as I have. That’s a Fitzgeraldian observation from afar. Look at my all-time favorite short story, “Winter Dreams.” You see this romantic notion of passion and longing.I was reading short stories as a college student at Alabama, and later on — reading The New Yorker stories, including my all-time favorite writer of theirs, Irwin Shaw. “Girls In Their Summer Dress”! “Sailor Off The Bremen”! No one has heard of these stories now. No one knows who Irwin Shaw is. But boy, he meant a lot to me. So, that stuff you quote, that’s just me. It’s like fiction. But it’s not necessarily fakery or fabrication. I grew up with the Sinatra songs and music, and it doesn’t require that much imagination to think that good, romantic music puts you in a romantic mood, whether you’re sitting on a beach or in a cabana or in some hotel. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.
The two blondes, who seemed to be in their middle thirties, were preened and polished, their matured bodies softly molded within tight dark suits. The punctuated alliteration is gorgeous — “preened and polished”; “matured” and “molded”. How much time would you spend on such a sentence? Oh, I could spend days. Sometimes these phrases come to you and sometimes they’re terrible. Sometimes you think, “Maybe that’s okay” and you let it in. I throw a lot of stuff away. What percentage of what you write for any given story do you get rid of? More than half. Because it’s so easily the case that it’s turgid or overwritten. Do you throw away more now, now that you use a computer? I don’t think so. I’ve always thrown a lot away, even when I was working on daily deadlines for newspapers. That was really expensive because at the New York Times we were typing what they called a “book” — it had seven or eight pieces of carbon. A thick thing. If you threw it away, you were destroying 11 cents worth of, well, something. They sat, legs crossed, perched on the high bar stools. They listened to the music. Then one of them pulled out a Kent and Sinatra quickly placed his gold lighter under it and she held his hand, looked at his fingers: they were nubby and raw, and the pinkies protruded, being so stiff from arthritis that he could barely bend them. He was, as usual, immaculately dressed. He wore an oxford-grey suit with a vest, a suit conservatively cut on the outside but trimmed with flamboyant silk within; his shoes, British, seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. He also wore, as everybody seemed to know, a remarkably convincing black hairpiece, one of sixty that he owns, most of them under the care of an inconspicuous little grey-haired lady who, holding his hair in a tiny satchel, follows him around whenever he performs. She earns $400 a week. Where did you get the information about the hairpiece? It seems like something Sinatra’s associates would’ve been disinclined to divulge. It came from a guy named Richard Bakalyan, who worked with Sinatra on moviemaking. He was an actor himself. Bakalyan told me about the lady and gave me her phone number and I looked her up. A couple of years ago, the New York Times magazine had an interview with the present Mrs. Sinatra, the widow, Barbara Sinatra, and she said to some guy — Andrew Goldman — that he never wore a hairpiece. Totally made up! Totally fiction! I called the Times right away. This was in the damn magazine. They issued a correction. I had her in my notes and I’d interviewed her. Fortunately, I save all my notes. The most distinguishing thing about Sinatra’s face are his eyes, clear blue and alert, eyes that within seconds can go cold with anger, or glow with affection, or, as now, reflect a vague detachment that keeps his friends silent and distant.
Leo Durocher, one of Sinatra’s closest friends, was now shooting pool in the small room behind the bar. I like that you don’t say — not ever — who Durocher is. He is, of course, the great Giants manager. Did you assume your readers would know who he was, or simply not care? I assumed people knew who Leo Durocher was, and to introduce him would be stupid. This is 1966, so he wasn’t so long removed from baseball. Standing near the door was Jim Mahoney, Sinatra’s press agent, a somewhat chunky young man with a square jaw and narrow eyes who would resemble a tough Irish plainclothesman if it were not for the expensive continental suits he wears and his exquisite shoes often adorned with polished buckles. Also nearby was a big, broad-shouldered two-hundred-pound actor named Brad Dexter who seemed always to be thrusting out his chest so that his gut would not show.
Brad Dexter has appeared in several films and television shows, displaying fine talent as a character actor, but in Beverly Hills he is equally known for the role he played in Hawaii two years ago when he swam a few hundred yards and risked his life to save Sinatra from drowning in a riptide. Since then Dexter has been one of Sinatra’s constant companions and has been made a producer in Sinatra’s film company. He occupies a plush office near Sinatra’s executive suite. He is endlessly searching for literary properties that might be converted into new starring roles for Sinatra. Whenever he is among strangers with Sinatra he worries because he knows that Sinatra brings out the best and worst in people — some men will become aggressive, some women will become seductive, others will stand around skeptically appraising him, the scene will be somehow intoxicated by his mere presence, and maybe Sinatra himself, if feeling as badly as he was tonight, might become intolerant or tense, and then: headlines. So Brad Dexter tries to anticipate danger and warn Sinatra in advance. He confesses to feeling very protective of Sinatra, admitting in a recent moment of self-revelation: “I’d kill for him.” How did you know this was a revelation? Did he admit this had just occurred to him? When he said it, I got the impression Brad Dexter never thought he would say that. I don’t think he ever said it again. He was just trying to impress me with his valor and commitment. Don’t forget, we’re talking about a heroic thing. He’d gotten in the water and saved this guy’s life. And I probably approached him to say I’d heard about what he’d done. That put him in the mood to talk, because it’s nice to talk about such things as when you save someone from dying.
While this statement may seem outlandishly dramatic, particularly when taken out of context, it nonetheless expresses a fierce fidelity that is quite common within Sinatra’s special circle. It is a characteristic that Sinatra, without admission, seems to prefer: All the Way; All or Nothing at All. This is the Sicilian in Sinatra; he permits his friends, if they wish to remain that, none of the easy Anglo-Saxon outs. But if they remain loyal, then there is nothing Sinatra will not do in turn — fabulous gifts, personal kindnesses, encouragement when they’re down, adulation when they’re up. They are wise to remember, however, one thing. He is Sinatra. The boss. Il Padrone.
I had seen something of this Sicilian side of Sinatra last summer at Jilly’s saloon in New York, which was the only other time I’d gotten a close view of him prior to this night in this California club. Jilly’s, which is on West Fifty-second Street in Manhattan, is where Sinatra drinks whenever he is in New York, and there is a special chair reserved for him in the back room against the wall that nobody else may use. When he is occupying it, seated behind a long table flanked by his closest New York friends — who include the saloonkeeper, Jilly Rizzo, and Jilly’s azure-haired wife, Honey, who is known as the “Blue Jew” — a rather strange ritualistic scene develops. That night dozens of people, some of them casual friends of Sinatra’s, some mere acquaintances, some neither, appeared outside of Jilly’s saloon. They approached it like a shrine. They had come to pay respect. Did Sinatra know you were there? No. Did you clear it with Mahoney? No, because this was New York. This was a public place and Jilly didn’t care because he liked publicity. In fact, I’d written a story about Jilly for the New York Times. I had a pal in Jilly because he loved the piece. So Jilly tipped you off that Sinatra was going to be there? I guess so. I didn’t hang around Jilly’s. It was nothing like Elaine’s. I went to Jilly’s with the express purpose of writing about Sinatra. They were from New York, Brooklyn, Atlantic City, Hoboken. They were old actors, young actors, former prizefighters, tired trumpet players, politicians, a boy with a cane. There was a fat lady who said she remembered Sinatra when he used to throw the Jersey Observer onto her front porch in 1933. There were middle-aged couples who said they had heard Sinatra sing at the Rustic Cabin in 1938 and “We knew then that he really had it!” Or they had heard him when he was with Harry James’s band in 1939, or with Tommy Dorsey in 1941 (“Yeah, that’s the song, ‘I’ll Never Smile Again’ — he sang it one night in this dump near Newark and we danced…”); or they remembered that time at the Paramount with the swooners, and him with those bow ties, The Voice; and one woman remembered that awful boy she knew then — Alexander Dorogokupetz, an eighteen-year-old heckler who had thrown a tomato at Sinatra and the bobby-soxers in the balcony had tried to flail him to death. Whatever became of Alexander Dorogokupetz? The lady did not know. Not that there’s a great place to ask this, but what did Sinatra smell like? This is the sort of detail that rarely ends up in a profile. I don’t know. I didn’t write about it and I didn’t think about it.
And they remembered when Sinatra was a failure and sang trash like “Mairzy Doats,” and they remembered his comeback and on this night they were all standing outside Jilly’s saloon, dozens of them, but they could not get in. So some of them left. But most of them stayed, hoping that soon they might be able to push or wedge their way into Jilly’s between the elbows and backsides of the men drinking three-deep at the bar, and they might be able to peek through and see him sitting back there. This is all they really wanted; they wanted to see him. And for a few moments they gazed in silence through the smoke and they stared. Then they turned, fought their way out of the bar, went home.
Some of Sinatra’s close friends, all of whom are known to the men guarding Jilly’s door, do manage to get an escort into the back room. But once they are there they, too, must fend for themselves. On the particular evening, Frank Gifford, the former football player, got only seven yards in three tries. Others who had somehow been close enough to shake Sinatra’s hand did not shake it; instead they just touched him on the shoulder or sleeve, or they merely stood close enough for him to see them and, after he’d given them a wink of recognition or a wave or a nod or called out their names (he had a fantastic memory for first names), they would then turn and leave. They had checked in. They had paid their respects. And as I watched this ritualistic scene, I got the impression that Frank Sinatra was dwelling simultaneously in two worlds that were not contemporary. Most writers tell us what the subject is doing. You tell us, here, what other people are doing to the subject. Using Sinatra’s fans as a prism through which to view him is illuminating. Do you strive to do this in all your work? I do it in all my work. I write about fight fans when I deal with Floyd Patterson. I write about what the fans are like, all around him, when he gets knocked out. You feel lovable, he said. So I’m always aware of the recognition of fans, whether it’s at a boxing match or a concert. They’re part of the story. It’s the roving eye, the camera, as if I were a director. It’s the movie director’s sensibility of having people play their part. Do you have a director in mind? No, I’m the director.
On the one hand he is the swinger — as he is when talking and joking with Sammy Davis, Jr., Richard Conte, Liza Minelli, Bernie Massi, or any of the other show-business people who get to sit at the table; on the other, as when he is nodding or waving to his paisanos who are close to him (Al Silvani, a boxing manager who works with Sinatra’s film company; Dominic Di Bona, his wardrobe man; Ed Pucci, a 300-pound former football lineman who is his aide-de-camp), Frank Sinatra is Il Padrone. Or better still, he is what in traditional Sicily have long been called uomini rispettati — men of respect: men who are both majestic and humble, men who are loved by all and are very generous by nature, men whose hands are kissed as they walk from village to village, men who would personally go out of their way to redress a wrong.
Frank Sinatra does things personally. At Christmas time, he will personally pick dozens of presents for his close friends and family, remembering the type of jewelry they like, their favorite colors, the sizes of their shirts and dresses. When a musician friend’s house was destroyed and his wife was killed in a Los Angeles mud slide a little more than a year ago, Sinatra personally came to his aid, finding the musician a new home, paying whatever hospital bills were left unpaid by the insurance, then personally supervising the furnishing of the new home down to the replacing of the silverware, the linen, the purchase of new clothing. Do you have any idea why Sinatra would do things like this? You don’t really hint at a motivation. And where did these stories come from? Bill Miller, a piano player, told me about the mudslide. I heard a lot of stories about that. Sinatra’s generosity, though, was well-documented in many pieces I read, before I even got the assignment. That’s not breaking news. What’s important is how you use this stuff. For example, the famous quote in the Joe DiMaggio piece. Marilyn Monroe, who just performed for troops in Korea, told DiMaggio, “You never heard such cheering.” “Yes, I have,” he said. People say, “Oh, Gay, how did you get that? What a great idea.” I didn’t get that. That quote was published. I lifted it out of a magazine article about Marilyn Monroe that was written by Maurice Zolotow. I just clipped it. I took it out and I stuck it in there, and it took on a meaningfulness, a dimension. Hell, I never interviewed Marilyn Monroe. So I sometimes incorporate what has gone obscure in other people’s work. It’s in another context that the quote becomes a gem. From what I remember of the DiMaggio piece, you don’t attribute it. No, I don’t. I didn’t attribute it because you couldn’t. If I did, the mood would be lost. It was such a quiet insertion and it had its impact.
The same Sinatra who did this can, within the same hour, explode in a towering rage of intolerance should a small thing be incorrectly done for him by one of his paisanos. For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with catsup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering catsup all over him. This is one of only three times in a 15,000-word piece that you use “apparently.” That’s quite remarkable for a write-around of such length. Were you unable to nail down Sinatra’s position on catsup? I can tell you exactly where it came from. It came from Ed Pucci, the bodyguard. Do I say who he threw the bottle at? No. Well, it’s Ed Pucci. The reason I didn’t use his name, probably, is it’s humiliating. Ed Pucci was a big guy, he used to be an NFL lineman. Most of the men who work around Sinatra are big. But this never seems to intimidate Sinatra nor curb his impetuous behavior with them when he is mad. They will never take a swing back at him. He is Il Padrone.
At other times, aiming to please, his men will overreact to his desires: when he casually observed that his big orange desert jeep in Palm Springs seemed in need of a new painting, the word was swiftly passed down through the channels, becoming ever more urgent as it went, until finally it was a command that the jeep be painted now, immediately, yesterday. To accomplish this would require the hiring of a special crew of painters to work all night, at overtime rates; which, in turn, meant that the order had to be bucked back up the line for further approval. When it finally got back to Sinatra’s desk, he did not know what it was all about; after he had figured it out he confessed, with a tired look on his face, that he did not care when the hell they painted the jeep. Where did this story come from? That came right from Brad Dexter.
Yet it would have been unwise for anyone to anticipate his reaction, for he is a wholly unpredictable man of many moods and great dimension, a man who responds instantaneously to instinct — suddenly, dramatically, wildly he responds, and nobody can predict what will follow. A young lady named Jane Hoag, a reporter at Life’s Los Angeles bureau who had attended the same school as Sinatra’s daughter, Nancy, had once been invited to a party at Mrs. Sinatra’s California home at which Frank Sinatra, who maintains very cordial relations with his former wife, acted as host. Early in the party Miss Hoag, while leaning against a table, accidentally with her elbow knocked over one of a pair of alabaster birds to the floor, smashing it to pieces. Suddenly, Miss Hoag recalled, Sinatra’s daughter cried, “Oh, that was one of my mother’s favorite…” — but before she could complete the sentence, Sinatra glared at her, cutting her off, and while forty other guests in the room all stared in silence, Sinatra walked over, quickly with his finger flicked the other alabaster bird off the table, smashing it to pieces, and then put an arm gently around Jane Hoag and said, in a way that put her completely at ease, “That’s okay, kid.” For what it’s worth, I’m realizing now that every story I’ve ever heard about Sinatra — quite a few — came from this piece. My ex-girlfriend told me the alabaster bird story in college. Was Jane Hoag the source? Absolutely. She worked for Shana Alexander. She’s dead now, but Shana Alexander was a writer and had a television show.
NOW SINATRA SAID A FEW words to the blondes. Then he turned from the bar and began to walk toward the poolroom. One of Sinatra’s other men friends moved in to keep the girls company. Brad Dexter, who had been standing in the corner talking to some other people, now followed Sinatra.
The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight, fanny-fitting Jax pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars and narrow tight pants, and Italian loafers. Do you have a photographic memory? I go over stuff so much, and go over it again and again and again, that I can remember it forever, almost. A couple of years ago, you told Chris Jones, “I don’t take notes in front of people.” Right. So what techniques to do you use to remember such a complicated scene or extended dialogue? You’re describing — in great detail — movement, wardrobe and the location of the various parties. This strikes me as something that would be difficult to capture even in real time. Every night, if I don’t sneak notes in during the day going to the bathroom or something — which I do — I go home and before I go to sleep I write down notes from the whole day, what’s in my mind.
It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.
Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.
Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.
“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”
“No,” Ellison said.
“Are they English boots?”
“Look, I donno, man,” Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.
Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: “You expecting a storm?”
Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”
“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra said.
“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison said, “but I dress to suit myself.”
Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, “Com’on, Harlan, let’s get out of here,” and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, “Yeah, com’on.”
But Ellison stood his ground.
Sinatra said, “What do you do?”
“I’m a plumber,” Ellison said.
“No, no, he’s not,” another young man quickly yelled from across the table. “He wrote The Oscar.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sinatra said, “well I’ve seen it, and it’s a piece of crap.”
“That’s strange,” Ellison said, “because they haven’t even released it yet.”
“Well, I’ve seen it,” Sinatra repeated, “and it’s a piece of crap.”
Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, “Com’on, kid, I don’t want you in this room.”
“Hey,” Sinatra interrupted Dexter, “can’t you see I’m talking to this guy?”
Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed, and his voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, “Why do you persist in tormenting me?”
The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges Harlan Ellison left the room. By this time the word had gotten out to those on the dance floor about the Sinatra-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club. But somebody else said that the manager had already heard about it — and had quickly gone out the door, hopped in his car and drove home. So the assistant manager went into the poolroom. How soon after this incident did you catch up with Ellison? In the next day or two. After Sinatra left, I asked, “What’s your name?” and I got Harlan Ellison’s name and address. Forgive the stupid question, but did Ellison know whom he was talking to? It’s not entirely clear that he did. Sure! I mean, everyone knew who Sinatra was. But these are young guys. They have a sense of, “Who the fuck cares about Sinatra?” Don’t forget, Sinatra was aggressive. Sinatra was being the bully. There were about 40 people in that room, so Ellison doesn’t want to look like a little wimp in front of his friends — fellow pool players and screenwriters — and Sinatra, I assume. Both men were reacting to their crowd.
“I don’t want anybody in here without coats and ties,” Sinatra snapped.
The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.
IT WAS THE MORNING AFTER. It was the beginning of another nervous day for Sinatra’s press agent, Jim Mahoney. Mahoney had a headache, and he was worried but not over the Sinatra-Ellison incident of the night before. At the time Mahoney had been with his wife at a table in the other room, and possibly he had not even been aware of the little drama. The whole thing had lasted only about three minutes. And three minutes after it was over, Frank Sinatra had probably forgotten about it for the rest of his life — as Ellison will probably remember it for the rest of his life: he had had, as hundreds of others before him, at an unexpected moment between darkness and dawn, a scene with Sinatra.
It was just as well that Mahoney had not been in the poolroom; he had enough on his mind today. He was worried about Sinatra’s cold and worried about the controversial CBS documentary that, despite Sinatra’s protests and withdrawal of permission, would be shown on television in less than two weeks. The newspapers this morning were full of hints that Sinatra might sue the network, and Mahoney’s phones were ringing without pause, and now he was plugged into New York talking to the Daily News‘s Kay Gardella, saying: “…that’s right, Kay…they made a gentleman’s agreement to not ask certain questions about Frank’s private life, and then Cronkite went right ahead: ‘Frank, tell me about those associations.’ That question, Kay — out! That question should never have been asked….” I’m surprised at the access. You never got the interview with Sinatra, but you were privy to an exchange like this. Where did Sinatra’s people draw the line with you? Mahoney never quite drew the line, except in the beginning, when he told me Sinatra wouldn’t talk to me. Mahoney never said he wouldn’t talk to me. He was officious, in a way, and accommodating, in a way. When the phone rang, and it was Kay Gardella, he didn’t tell me to leave. I was sitting across the desk. He took the phone call right in front of me. Did you witness anything during the reporting process that you were then asked not to write about? In a way. I got to the senior Nancy Sinatra. I had her phone number, which I got from Jane Hoag. She said I could see her. I was looking forward to it because not only would she be a terrific interview, but she was there from the very beginning. In a way, she would have been the best interview I would have had. When I was scheduled to see her, Mahoney called me up and said, “Why’d you call Nancy?” I said, “Well, I wanted to talk to her.” “You can’t.” “Well, she said I could.” “Well, you can’t.” “It’s scheduled already and she said I could go over at 1 (o’clock).” “Well, you can’t. I just talked to her.” I said, “Why’d you do that?” I was really pissed off. This was like a breakthrough interview for me. So that’s the one instance. I never did see her.
As he spoke, Mahoney leaned back in his leather chair, his head shaking slowly. He is a powerfully built man of thirty-seven; he has a round, ruddy face, a heavy jaw, and narrow pale eyes, and he might appear pugnacious if he did not speak with such clear, soft sincerity and if he were not so meticulous about his clothes. His suits and shoes are superbly tailored, which was one of the first things Sinatra noticed about him, and in his spacious office opposite the bar is a red-muff electrical shoe polisher and a pair of brown wooden shoulders on a stand over which Mahoney can drape his jackets. Near the bar is an autographed photograph of President Kennedy and a few pictures of Frank Sinatra, but there are none of Sinatra in any other rooms in Mahoney’s public-relations agency; there once was a large photograph of him hanging in the reception room but this apparently bruised the egos of some of Mahoney’s other movie-star clients and, since Sinatra never shows up at the agency anyway, the photograph was removed. Where did this come from? Surely Mahoney wasn’t the source — a public relations man wouldn’t feed a reporter a story that might, even indirectly, aggravate his own clients. Oh, yeah. Mahoney was the source.
Still, Sinatra seems ever present, and if Mahoney did not have legitimate worries about Sinatra, as he did today, he could invent them — and, as worry aids, he surrounds himself with little mementos of moments in the past when he did worry. In his shaving kit there is a two-year-old box of sleeping tablets dispensed by a Reno druggist — the date on the bottle marks the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra, Jr. There is on a table in Mahoney’s office a mounted wood reproduction of Frank Sinatra’s ransom note written on the aforementioned occasion. One of Mahoney’s mannerisms, when he is sitting at his desk worrying, is to tinker with the tiny toy train he keeps in front of him — the train is a souvenir from the Sinatra film, Von Ryan’s Express; it is to men who are close to Sinatra what the PT-109 tie clasps are to men who were close to Kennedy The reference to the former president recalls the third paragraph of the story. It implies Sinatra’s influence and stature. I mean, Sinatra was like a king in the movie business. He not only made films, but he determined who was going to direct them and, more importantly, what hours he would work. He didn’t want to work in the morning. Most people get up at dawn and they accept it. Not Sinatra. He was going to start at noon. The power to decide what time to start a film is the ultimate power. – and Mahoney then proceeds to roll the little train back and forth on the six inches of track; back and forth, back and forth, click-clack-click-clack. It is his Queeg-thing.
Now Mahoney quickly put aside the little train. His secretary told him there was a very important call on the line. Mahoney picked it up, and his voice was even softer and more sincere than before. “Yes, Frank,” he said. “Right…right…yes, Frank….”
When Mahoney put down the phone, quietly, he announced that Frank Sinatra had left in his private jet to spend the weekend at his home in Palm Springs, which is a sixteen-minute flight from his home in Los Angeles. Mahoney was now worried again. The Lear jet that Sinatra’s pilot would be flying was identical, Mahoney said, to the one that had just crashed in another part of California. How do you decide which characters to really flesh out? Is it, at least to some degree, a product of access? Either access or lack of access determines what you do. So is access the top factor in who gets fleshed out? Not really. The temptation I have in using examples is to get away from why you’re here. But let me give you one small example of me not as a magazine writer, but as a daily journalist. I started as a sports writer. One of my early assignments, because I wasn’t covering the Yankees or big stories, was an NYU baseball game. It was somewhere downtown. It was a cold day. The assignment was to cover the game. But it wasn’t what I wrote. Why? Because when I got there it was cold and there weren’t many people there. There were about 15 people in the stands. And I saw a couple, a young woman and a young man — students, I assume — watching. I saw an older man who looked like he was dressed in a postman’s uniform. And I saw a few other people. I just sat on the bench. There was no press. So what’s the story? The story is not the ballgame. The story is how few people are at this game. And who are they? So I start interviewing people. One guy was there to watch his nephew, maybe the NYU catcher. Another person was asked to go to centerfield to work the scoreboard because the guy who was supposed to do it hadn’t shown up. He was offered three dollars an hour or something like that. And the girl, who was there with this guy, was breaking up with him. And I got their story. And watched her tell him how it was all over between them. It’s a wonderful little piece. The creativity in journalism is in what you do with what you have. You have an option of nine ways to do it. One is to cover the fucking game. NYU won, NYU lost. Who hit a home run, who was the winning pitcher. Now, I had the score, but I also wrote about the scorekeeper. These are characters. These are minor characters. You remember that so vividly. Was that a formative story for you? I wrote 70 stories like that.
ON THE FOLLOWING Monday, a cloudy and unseasonably cool California day, more than one hundred people gathered inside a white television studio, an enormous room dominated by a white stage, white walls, and with dozens of lights and lamps dangling: it rather resembled a gigantic operating room. In this room, within an hour or so, NBC was scheduled to begin taping a one-hour show that would be televised in color on the night of November 24 and would highlight, as much as it could in the limited time, the twenty-five-year career of Frank Sinatra as a public entertainer. It would not attempt to probe, as the forthcoming CBS Sinatra documentary allegedly would, that area of Sinatra’s life that he regards as private. The NBC show would be mainly an hour of Sinatra singing some of the hits that carried him from Hoboken to Hollywood, a show that would be interrupted only now and then by a few film clips and commercials for Budweiser beer. Prior to his cold, Sinatra had been very excited about this show; he saw here an opportunity to appeal not only to those nostalgic, but also to communicate his talent to some rock-and-rollers — in a sense, he was battling The Beatles. The press releases being prepared by Mahoney’s agency stressed this, reading: “If you happen to be tired of kid singers wearing mops of hair thick enough to hide a crate of melons…it should be refreshing, to consider the entertainment value of a video special titled Sinatra — A Man and His Music….” Was this television special the reason Sinatra initially agreed to talk to you? Come to think about it, I now will guess that the reason Esquire and the Sinatra press agent, Jim Mahoney, decided on that assignment was for PR for the NBC special, “A Man and His Music.” That’s probably right, because the piece would have been timed for that. Because you never say why you’re writing about him. I didn’t even know, to tell you the truth. I don’t think I thought about this until one minute ago. I didn’t know why I was out there. As I told you, I didn’t want to go out there. I thought the guy had been overdone. Why would you do another piece on Angelina Jolie? Can you imagine doing another piece on Angelina Jolie? Or Brad Pitt? Or George Clooney? Are you glad you did the piece? I am. Sometimes what you think you did, that you think was your best, other people don’t at all think that. And then you’re reminded again and again and again that they like this and you think, “Well, first of all, who am I to know?” People ask if there’s ever a piece I wish I hadn’t written. I can’t think of one. I’m very glad I did the Sinatra piece. Sometimes you do what you have to do. Since it was the only job I had going, and since I had a 1-year-old daughter, and since I had financial obligations — I didn’t have any money saved. In 1966, my net worth was just a few thousand dollars.
But now in this NBC studio in Los Angeles, there was an atmosphere of anticipation and tension because of the uncertainty of the Sinatra voice. The forty-three musicians in Nelson Riddle’s orchestra had already arrived and some were up on the white platform warming up. Dwight Hemion, a youthful sandy-haired director who had won praise for his television special on Barbra Streisand, was seated in the glass-enclosed control booth that overlooked the orchestra and stage. The camera crews, technical teams, security guards, Budweiser ad men were also standing between the floor lamps and cameras, waiting, as were a dozen or so ladies who worked as secretaries in other parts of the building but had sneaked away so they could watch this.
A few minutes before eleven o’clock, word spread quickly through the long corridor into the big studio that Sinatra was spotted walking through the parking lot and was on his way, and was looking fine. There seemed great relief among the group that was gathered; but when the lean, sharply dressed figure of the man got closer, and closer, they saw to their dismay that it was not Frank Sinatra. It was his double. Johnny Delgado.
Delgado walks like Sinatra, has Sinatra’s build, and from certain facial angles does resemble Sinatra. But he seems a rather shy individual. Fifteen years ago, early in his acting career, Delgado applied for a role in From Here to Eternity. He was hired, finding out later that he was to be Sinatra’s double. In Sinatra’s latest film, Assault on a Queen, a story in which Sinatra and some fellow conspirators attempt to hijack the Queen Mary, Johnny Delgado doubles for Sinatra in some water scenes; and now, in this NBC studio, his job was to stand under the hot television lights marking Sinatra’s spots on the stage for the camera crews. Is it easier to write a profile of someone who wants to cooperate, or someone who doesn’t? I don’t know, because in either case you do not know in advance what you have. You only know that you have curiosity. So until you get beyond that mere level of interest, unfulfilled, you don’t know what you have or what your story is. Sometimes you get their cooperation and, lo and behold, you find that you don’t want it. Have you ever written a story where you hoped the subject would not cooperate? I don’t think so.
Five minutes later, the real Frank Sinatra walked in. His face was pale, his blue eyes seemed a bit watery. He had been unable to rid himself of the cold, but he was going to try to sing anyway because the schedule was tight and thousands of dollars were involved at this moment in the assembling of the orchestra and crews and the rental of the studio. But when Sinatra, on his way to his small rehearsal room to warm up his voice, looked into the studio and saw that the stage and orchestra’s platform were not close together, as he had specifically requested, his lips tightened and he was obviously very upset. A few moments later, from his rehearsal room, could be heard the pounding of his fist against the top of the piano and the voice of his accompanist, Bill Miller, saying, softly, “Try not to upset yourself, Frank.”
Later Jim Mahoney and another man walked in, and there was talk of Dorothy Kilgallen’s death in New York earlier that morning. This gives a clue as to how long you worked on the story. Kilgallen died in November 1965; “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold” was published in the April 1966 issue of Esquire. She had been an ardent foe of Sinatra for years, and he became equally uncomplimentary about her in his nightclub act, and now, though she was dead, he did not compromise his feelings. “Dorothy Kilgallen’s dead,” he repeated, walking out of the room toward the studio. “Well, guess I got to change my whole act.”
When he strolled into the studio the musicians all picked up their instruments and stiffened in their seats. Here, again, you capture so well the reaction of others to Sinatra. Well, he’s the payday. It’s like a conductor. You go to the Metropolitan Opera, and Mr. Levine walks in, the orchestra stiffens in their seats. They get up, they applaud, they sit down. Sinatra cleared his throat a few times and then, after rehearsing a few ballads with the orchestra, he sang “Don’t Worry About Me” to his satisfaction and, being uncertain of how long his voice could last, suddenly became impatient.
“Why don’t we tape this mother?” he called out, looking up toward the glass booth where the director, Dwight Hemion, and his staff were sitting. Their heads seemed to be down, focusing on the control board.
“Why don’t we tape this mother?” Sinatra repeated.
The production stage manager, who stands near the camera wearing a headset, repeated Sinatra’s words exactly into his line to the control room: “Why don’t we tape this mother?”
Hemion did not answer. Possibly his switch was off. It was hard to know because of the obscuring reflections the lights made against the glass booth.
“Why don’t we put on a coat and tie,” said Sinatra, then wearing a high-necked yellow pullover, “and tape this….”
Suddenly Hemion’s voice came over the sound amplifier, very calmly: “Okay, Frank, would you mind going back over….”
“Yes, I would mind going back,” Sinatra snapped.
The silence from Hemion’s end, which lasted a second or two, was then again interrupted by Sinatra saying, “When we stop doing things around here the way we did them in 1950, maybe we…” and Sinatra continued to tear into Hemion, condemning as well the lack of modern techniques in putting such shows together; then, possibly not wanting to use his voice unnecessarily, he stopped. And Dwight Hemion, very patient, so patient and calm that one would assume he had not heard anything that Sinatra had just said, outlined the opening part of the show. And Sinatra a few minutes later was reading his opening remarks, words that would follow “Without a Song,” off the large idiot-cards being held near the camera. Then, this done, he prepared to do the same thing on camera.
This is the second character — Harlan Ellison is the first — who doesn’t immediately acquiesce to Sinatra.
He didn’t hear him. Hemion had the sound off. Sinatra was saying, “What the fuck is going on up there?” Dwight was tuned out, probably talking to somebody in the booth.
“Frank Sinatra Show, Act I, Page 10, Take 1,” called a man with a clapboard, jumping in front of the camera — clap — then jumping away again.
“Did you ever stop to think,” Sinatra began, “what the world would be like without a song?… It would be a pretty dreary place…. Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it?…”
“Excuse me,” he said, adding, “Boy, I need a drink.”
They tried it again.
“Frank Sinatra Show, Act I, Page 10, Take 2,” yelled the jumping guy with the clapboard.
“Did you ever stop to think what the world would be like without a song?…” Frank Sinatra read it through this time without stopping. Then he rehearsed a few more songs, once or twice interrupting the orchestra when a certain instrumental sound was not quite what he wanted. It was hard to tell how well his voice was going to hold up, for this was early in the show; up to this point, however, everybody in the room seemed pleased, particularly when he sang an old sentimental favorite written more than twenty years ago by Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers — “Nancy,” inspired by the first of Sinatra’s three children when she was just a few years old.
If I don’t see her each day
I miss her….
Gee what a thrill
Each time I kiss her….
As Sinatra sang these words, though he has sung them hundreds and hundreds of times in the past, it was suddenly obvious to everybody in the studio that something quite special must be going on inside the man, because something quite special was coming out. He was singing now, cold or no cold, with power and warmth, he was letting himself go, the public arrogance was gone, the private side was in this song about the girl who, it is said, understands him better than anybody else, and is the only person in front of whom he can be unashamedly himself. It’s a smart, clever way to introduce this relationship. You couldn’t get Sinatra to talk to you about Nancy, so the song provides a segue. That’s right. But it’s a device I use often. You can find that in the Turner Catledge section of The Kingdom and the Power. There’s a flashback to the Civil War. Why? Because Turner Catledge had a grandfather who fought with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Klan. The surname of the grandfather on his mother’s side was Turner. I go from there to how the Times covered the Civil War. All that’s flashback, all because of one factual connection between Turner Catledge, who was overseeing the Times‘ coverage of the Civil Rights movement of 1964 or ’65, including the march on Selma. That’s where creative nonfiction comes in. If you know your material so well, you can control it, like a bunch of circus animals. They jump through the hoop.
Nancy is twenty-five. She lives alone, her marriage to singer Tommy Sands having ended in divorce. Her home is in a Los Angeles suburb and she is now making her third film and is recording for her father’s record company. She sees him every day; or, if not, he telephones, no matter if it be from Europe or Asia. When Sinatra’s singing first became popular on radio, stimulating the swooners, Nancy would listen at home and cry. When Sinatra’s first marriage broke up in 1951 and he left home, Nancy was the only child old enough to remember him as a father. She also saw him with Ava Gardner, Juliet Prowse, Mia Farrow, many others, has gone on double dates with him…. What are the ellipses for? I probably didn’t have anything else to say. I wanted to sort of fade out.
She takes the winter
And makes it summer….
Summer could take
Some lessons from her….
Nancy now also sees him visiting at home with his first wife, the former Nancy Barbato, a plasterer’s daughter from Jersey City whom he married in 1939 when he was earning $25 a week singing at the Rustic Cabin near Hoboken.
The first Mrs. Sinatra, a striking woman who has never remarried (“When you’ve been married to Frank Sinatra…” she once explained to a friend), lives in a magnificent home in Los Angeles with her younger daughter, Tina, who is seventeen. There is no bitterness, only great respect and affection between Sinatra and his first wife, and he has long been welcome in her home and has even been known to wander in at odd hours, stoke the fire, lie on the sofa, and fall asleep. When you researched this story, did you know that Sinatra had cheated on his first wife, that she was embarrassed by his affair, and that she had an abortion in 1946? I didn’t know about that. She had an abortion? I didn’t know about it. Frank Sinatra can fall asleep anywhere, something he learned when he used to ride bumpy roads with band buses; he also learned at that time, when sitting in a tuxedo, how to pinch the trouser creases in the back and tuck the jacket under and out, and fall asleep perfectly pressed. But he does not ride buses anymore, and his daughter Nancy, who in her younger days felt rejected when he slept on the sofa instead of giving attention to her, later realized that the sofa was one of the few places left in the world where Frank Sinatra could get any privacy, where his famous face would neither be stared at nor cause an abnormal reaction in others. She realized, too, that things normal have always eluded her father: his childhood was one of loneliness and a drive toward attention, and since attaining it he has never again been certain of solitude. Upon looking out the window of a home he once owned in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, he would occasionally see the faces of teen-agers peeking in; and in 1944, after moving to California and buying a home behind a ten-foot fence on Lake Toluca, he discovered that the only way to escape the telephone and other intrusions was to board his paddle boat with a few friends, a card table and a case of beer, and stay afloat all afternoon. But he has tried, insofar as it has been possible, to be like everyone else, Nancy says. He wept on her wedding day, he is very sentimental and sensitive…. Did you get this information from Nancy? At this point in the story, it’s hard to tell if you spoke to her. I know. Before I left California, I had a very good evening with her. I didn’t see Nancy’s mother, as I told you, but I was able to see her because I had access to the attend the recording of “A Man and His Music.” After the recording was over, Sinatra was feeling really good about himself. They were feeling not so bad about me, either. I was with Mahoney, as always. He was my minder. I didn’t go anywhere without him. He was feeling good, too. So Nancy Jr. agreed to see me after the show was over. I drove her home. If everyone was feeling so good, couldn’t you have gotten an interview with Sinatra then? I could have had an opportunity there. I probably could’ve. I didn’t want to do it. I was a fringe character. So at the moment, you actually considered it? I guess I didn’t. I sort of, at that point, was okay. So once you were told you didn’t have access to Sinatra, you didn’t actually try again to get access. To tell you the truth, having not wanted the piece in the first place, even if he did give me access, I didn’t really have any great curiosity about him.
WHAT THE HELL are you doing up there, Dwight?”
Silence from the control booth.
“Got a party or something going on up there, Dwight?”
Sinatra stood on the stage, arms folded, glaring up across the cameras toward Hemion. Sinatra had sung Nancy with probably all he had in his voice on this day. The next few numbers contained raspy notes, and twice his voice completely cracked. But now Hemion was in the control booth out of communication; then he was down in the studio walking over to where Sinatra stood. A few minutes later they both left the studio and were on the way up to the control booth. The tape was replayed for Sinatra. He watched only about five minutes of it before he started to shake his head. Then he said to Hemion: “Forget it, just forget it. You’re wasting your time. What you got there,” Sinatra said, nodding to the singing image of himself on the television screen, “is a man with a cold.” Then he left the control booth, ordering that the whole day’s performance be scrubbed and future taping postponed until he had recovered.
SOON THE WORD SPREAD like an emotional epidemic down through Sinatra’s staff, then fanned out through Hollywood, Who did you speak to in Hollywood about Sinatra’s cold? How did they find out about his ailment? And how did you know that they knew? Oh God, they knew. Of course, you start with Mahoney. Who but Mahoney would know about that? Mahoney’s the guy who told me about it in the first place. Mahoney is connected to Brad Dexter. Dick Bakalyan, who was an insider-outsider, knew about the cold. NBC was losing a fortune. The scheduled event, when you put an orchestra of 65 pieces in place — this guys are getting paid. There’s the studio, Burbank. And then the thing is cancelled? Every beer salesman from Budweiser knows it. It was a public event! So it was no secret. Of course it was no secret. The damn thing was cancelled. Why? Because he coughed. He couldn’t sing with a fucking cold. then was heard across the nation in Jilly’s saloon, and also on the other side of the Hudson River in the homes of Frank Sinatra’s parents and his other relatives and friends in New Jersey.
When Frank Sinatra spoke with his father on the telephone and said he was feeling awful, the elder Sinatra reported that he was also feeling awful: that his left arm and fist were so stiff with a circulatory condition he could barely use them, adding that the ailment might be the result of having thrown too many left hooks during his days as a bantamweight almost fifty years ago.
Martin Sinatra, a ruddy and tattooed little blue-eyed Sicilian born in Catania, boxed under the name of “Marty O’Brien.” In those days, in those places, with the Irish running the lower reaches of city life, it was not uncommon for Italians to wind up with such names. Most of the Italians and Sicilians who migrated to America just prior to the 1900′s were poor and uneducated, were excluded from the building-trades unions dominated by the Irish, and were somewhat intimidated by the Irish police, Irish priests, Irish politicians.
One notable exception was Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly, a large and very ambitious woman who was brought to this country at two months of age by her mother and father, a lithographer from Genoa. In later years Dolly Sinatra, possessing a round red face and blue eyes, was often mistaken for being Irish, and surprised many at the speed with which she swung her heavy handbag at anyone uttering “Wop.” Was Sinatra reluctant to let you speak to his family? You know, that’s interesting. Obviously, he would have said no, originally. But by the time I got back to New York, here’s the change: Sinatra is no longer worried about Walter Cronkite, the Mafia and CBS. Not only that, but Sinatra comes off great in the CBS interview. Number two, Sinatra has now completed the album on television. That’s behind him. All the anxiety that had preceded my visit to California — a month later, it’s a different guy. And where am I? I’m back in New York. See, that’s interesting. Reading this piece, it’s impossible to tell that, as time goes by, things are starting to look up for you. Well, they looked up for him. He’s feeling better about the world and I’m a part of the world. So you could have met with Sinatra then. Maybe I could have. But I had invested all that time talking to all those people. And I liked the idea of him having a cold, because I never thought that a common thing like a cold — which we have every year, all of us — could have made so much difference in a person’s life. This guy with a cold — Jesus! It affects the whole industry. Who cares about a cold? Well, Sinatra cared about a cold.
By playing skillful politics with North Jersey’s Democratic machine, Dolly Sinatra was to become, in her heyday, a kind of Catherine de Medici of Hoboken’s third ward. She could always be counted upon to deliver six hundred votes at election time from her Italian neighborhood, and this was her base of power. When she told one of the politicians that she wanted her husband to be appointed to the Hoboken Fire Department, and was told, “But, Dolly, we don’t have an opening,” she snapped, “Make an opening.”
They did. Years later she requested that her husband be made a captain, and one day she got a call from one of the political bosses that began, “Dolly, congratulations!”
“Oh, you finally made him one — thank you very much.”
Then she called the Hoboken Fire Department.
“Let me speak to Captain Sinatra,” she said. The fireman called Martin Sinatra to the phone, saying, “Marty, I think your wife has gone nuts.” When he got on the line, Dolly greeted him:
“Congratulations, Captain Sinatra!”
Dolly’s only child, christened Francis Albert Sinatra, was born and nearly died on December 12, 1915. It was a difficult birth, and during his first moment on earth he received marks he will carry till death — the scars on the left side of his neck being the result of a doctor’s clumsy forceps, and Sinatra has chosen not to obscure them with surgery. It defies convention that this paragraph — so standard now in profiles — appears halfway into the story. It usually appears closer to the beginning. Why did you put it off? Yeah, well, I thought that’s where it belonged. I was talking to the mother and who knows better than her? The day of birth never seemed like it belonged anywhere other than where it was. It wasn’t important enough for me to think about until then. It’s really the mother’s story at that point. And it probably wasn’t the first time she’d been interviewed about that. I mean, this woman had been interviewed a lot. Don’t think I had first access to these people. I was there, and I got what I got, but I wasn’t the first. It isn’t important to be the first, anyway.
After he was six months old, he was reared mainly by his grandmother. His mother had a full-time job as a chocolate dipper with a large firm and was so proficient at it that the firm once offered to send her to the Paris office to train others. While some people in Hoboken remember Frank Sinatra as a lonely child, one who spent many hours on the porch gazing into space, Sinatra was never a slum kid, never in jail, always well-dressed. He had so many pants that some people in Hoboken called him “Slacksey O’Brien.” How did you make contacts in Hoboken? Jilly Rizzo set this up for me. He went with me. I picked him up and he drove me there. How the hell do I know how to get to Hoboken? Rizzo was favorably disposed to me because I’d already written about him.
Dolly Sinatra was not the sort of Italian mother who could be appeased merely by a child’s obedience and good appetite. She made many demands on her son, was always very strict. She dreamed of his becoming an aviation engineer. When she discovered Bing Crosby pictures hanging on his bedroom walls one evening, and learned that her son wished to become a singer too, she became infuriated and threw a shoe at him. Later, finding she could not talk him out of it — “he takes after me” — To whom did she say this? She said that to me. She said a lot of things to me. I got stuff about Ava Gardner from her. she encouraged his singing.
Many Italo-American boys of his generation were then shooting for the same star — they were strong with song, weak with words, not a big novelist among them: no O’Hara, no Bellow, no Cheever, nor Shaw; yet they could communicate bel canto. This was more in their tradition, no need for a diploma; they could, with a song, someday see their names in lights…Perry Como…Frankie Laine…Tony Bennett…Vic Damone…but none could see it better than Frank Sinatra.
Though he sang through much of the night at the Rustic Cabin, he was up the next day singing without a fee on New York radio to get more attention. Later he got a job singing with Harry James’s band, and it was there in August of 1939 that Sinatra had his first recording hit — “All or Nothing at All.” He became very fond of Harry James and the men in the band, but when he received an offer from Tommy Dorsey, who in those days had probably the best band in the country, Sinatra took it; the job paid $125 a week, and Dorsey knew how to feature a vocalist. You seem pretty knowledgeable about the Big Band era. Is that something you were familiar with going into this story, or did you have to educate yourself as you went along? I read a book about it. There’s a book by an English writer, Robin Douglas-Home, about Sinatra and his music. I read it before I went out to California. That’s just standard journalism. All that stuff, where Sinatra is talking about how to sit in a suit without it getting wrinkled — I got that out of that book. Oh, really? Oh, yeah. All kinds of stuff. Can I ask you about that? I think there’s now a different standard to which editors hold reporters. They’d make you attribute that stuff. I have attributed stuff, but there’s times you don’t want to attribute. The times have changed. It could be that I’m open for criticism. Just to go back to the DiMaggio piece — if I had said, “‘Oh, Joe, you never heard such cheering,’ Marilyn said, according to Maurice Zolotow in Glamour magazine,” it would kill it. So you take what is a part of the public record; that quote was probably published two or three years before. Now, if I had had an appendix, I’d have cited it. But it didn’t seem like I could put it in without messing up the whole atmosphere. You couldn’t do that. If you did it, you’d blow it. The quote wouldn’t resonate the way it did. Right. We’re not talking about daily journalism, remember. This is part of the New Journalism. It takes certain liberties, if you will, from formal journalism — formulaic journalism. What you’re talking about is formulaic journalism. I am insistent on acknowledging sources. This piece I’m doing now, I’ve been waiting 30 years because I wouldn’t let the guy go off the record. If you’re writing a piece today, and you do something like this, do you cite that quote? If I was doing a piece for, say, the New York Times or the New York Observer, I would probably approach it very differently. With the DiMaggio piece, I never spoke to Marilyn Monroe. I read about her from other writers. This quote had been in my files and when I got to writing about DiMaggio I thought of it. I picked it up and put it in there. I never thought it was going to have the reaction it did. I just thought it belonged there. It’s a great quote. It didn’t seem like a great quote at the time. How many people had read that and didn’t call it a great quote? I mean, how come if it’s a great quote for me, why wasn’t it a great quote first? I mean, it was either in the Saturday Evening Post or some big magazine. It wasn’t in the New York Review of Books, I’ll tell you that. So why wasn’t it great for him? Maybe he got it from somebody else. How do I know where it came from? Maybe the piece didn’t get traction. Well, how come? Who knows? “Who knows?” That’s not enough. It’s a great quote. And it was already out there in a big way in some magazine. If you’re a great player and you’re playing on the Houston Astros, are you going to get as much attention if you’re a great player and you’re playing for the Yankees? But if you’re in a national audience, which Zolotow was… But was his story as good as your story? I don’t know. Yet Sinatra was very depressed at leaving James’s band, and the final night with them was so memorable that, twenty years later, Sinatra could recall the details to a friend: “…the bus pulled out with the rest of the boys at about half-past midnight. I’d said good-bye to them all, and it was snowing, I remember. There was nobody around and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights disappear. Then the tears started and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band, I hated leaving it….” Who was this friend and why was he granted anonymity? I believe that came out of Douglas-Home’s book, too.
But he did — as he would leave other warm places, too, in search of something more, never wasting time, trying to do it all in one generation, fighting under his own name, defending underdogs, terrorizing top dogs. It sounds like he terrorized underdogs, too. Well, he throws ketchup at his bodyguard — if you call that terrorizing. He threw a punch at a musician who said something anti-Semitic, espoused the Negro cause two decades before it became fashionable. He also threw a tray of glasses at Buddy Rich when he played the drums too loud.
Sinatra gave away $50,000 worth of gold cigarette lighters before he was thirty, was living an immigrant’s wildest dream of America. Where did this incredible figure come from? Everything in this piece, whether Zolotow or Home, comes from other writings about Sinatra, except where I am witnessing it. It’s just part of the public record, like a big mass of material. So it wasn’t from Mahoney? It could well be from Mahoney. He arrived suddenly on the scene when DiMaggio was silent, when paisanos were mournful, were quietly defensive about Hitler in their homeland. Sinatra became, in time, a kind of one-man Anti-Defamation League for Italians in America, the sort of organization that would be unlikely for them because, as the theory goes, they rarely agreed on anything, being extreme individualists: fine as soloists, but not so good in a choir; fine as heroes, but not so good in a parade. This is a particularly lovely sentence. How long did it take you to write it? It could be two days. Sometimes you write one sentence over and over and over til you get it the way you think is the best you can do. I characteristically do not write a page a day. I might, near the end of the piece, when I have everything in my head clear, but it is rare for me to have any clarity of mind. My mind is very overwhelmed with confusion and opportunities to go in different directions. You mean generally? It takes me a great amount of time to decide what is it I want to say and how do I want to say it. Both are important. Inasmuch as I try to always underwrite, to make it quietly interesting and seamless — those quotes attributed would knock out that whole seamlessness. It absolutely would. And inasmuch as I have an awareness that I’m not making it up, and that it’s accurate — because it’s been published enough times that if it was wrong I would’ve known about it — I trust that when I quote, or even when I lift stuff, I probably believe it’s not sloppily reported by somebody else. Sometimes you don’t know. But you hope they have the same standards that you do. If you’re getting something out of Life magazine, I assume there are factcheckers. Because in those days there really were factcheckers. I know how good the Esquire factcheckers were. It’s not like The New Yorker, but — Actually, The New Yorker factcheckers were perhaps not so good back then. They were famously bad when they were factchecking In Cold Blood. At the time, they only checked names, distances and dates. Is that right? Well, you’re telling me something I didn’t know.
When many Italian names were used in describing gangsters on a television show, The Untouchables, Sinatra was loud in his disapproval. Sinatra and many thousands of other Italo-Americans were resentful as well when a small-time hoodlum, Joseph Valachi, was brought by Bobby Kennedy into prominence as a Mafia expert, when indeed, from Valachi’s testimony on television, he seemed to know less than most waiters on Mulberry Street. Many Italians in Sinatra’s circle also regard Bobby Kennedy as something of an Irish cop, more dignified than those in Dolly’s day, but no less intimidating. Together with Peter Lawford, Bobby Kennedy is said to have suddenly gotten “cocky” with Sinatra after John Kennedy’s election, forgetting the contribution Sinatra had made in both fundraising and in influencing many anti-Irish Italian votes. This is interesting. You place Sinatra nearly on par with the president and a cut above the attorney general of the United States. That’s an extraordinary amount of influence. When I’m writing about Sinatra and Civil Rights and the Mafia and minorities, I’m writing from personal experience a lot. If I was writing about Malcolm X and Martin Luther King I wouldn’t be doing that. But when I’m writing about Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Bonanno, Frank Costello — I’m writing about a subject that I grew up with. From an Italian father, born in Italy, the idea of being an outsider, an immigrant, occasionally addressed as a wop and dago — I’m writing from personal experience. When someone says, “Hey, dago,” I know what that’s like. So when I’m writing about Italians, Italian-Americans, I’m as much of an authority on that subject as anybody in the United States. James Baldwin’s got the black vote. Or Bill Kennedy writes about the Irish, okay? Or Roth writes about the Jews. Fine. But when Gay Talese writes about Italian-Americans, there are very few people in this country who can tell me more than I know about that subject. So, you feel very comfortable — Fucking confident. I’m really comfortable. — basically saying, “This is where Sinatra is in the culture”? I can say that with as much certitude as anybody can refute me. There might be another Italian-American writer — I don’t know who it would be, because Mario Puzo wouldn’t refute me. It’s a subject just like Roth — who is my favorite writer, incidentally — writes about the Jews where you know that he is the supreme authority. He doesn’t need Isaac Bashevis Singer to tell you you’re wrong. Lawford and Bobby Kennedy are both suspected of having influenced the late President’s decision to stay as a house guest with Bing Crosby instead of Sinatra, as originally planned, a social setback Sinatra may never forget. Peter Lawford has since been drummed out of Sinatra’s “summit” in Las Vegas.
“Yes, my son is like me,” Dolly Sinatra says, proudly. “You cross him, he never forgets.” And while she concedes his power, she quickly points out, “He can’t make his mother do anything she doesn’t want to do,” adding, “Even today, he wears the same brand of underwear I used to buy him.” Did you get that from Dolly? Yeah, I got that from her, I think. Do you believe it? This seems unlikely. I don’t know. Who knows?
Today Dolly Sinatra is seventy-one years old, a year or two younger than Martin, and all day long people are knocking on the back door of her large home asking her advice, seeking her influence. When she is not seeing people and not cooking in the kitchen, she is looking after her husband, a silent but stubborn man, and telling him to keep his sore left arm resting on the sponge she has placed on the armrest of a soft chair. “Oh, he went to some terrific fires, this guy did,” Dolly said to a visitor, nodding with admiration toward her husband in the chair.
Though Dolly Sinatra has eighty-seven godchildren in Hoboken, and still goes to that city during political campaigns, she now lives with her husband in a beautiful sixteen-room house in Fort Lee, New Jersey. This home was a gift from their son on their fiftieth wedding anniversary three years ago. The home is tastefully furnished and is filled with a remarkable juxtaposition of the pious and the worldly — photographs of Pope John and Ava Gardner, of Pope Paul and Dean Martin; several statues of saints and holy water, a chair autographed by Sammy Davis, Jr. and bottles of bourbon. In Mrs. Sinatra’s jewelry box is a magnificent strand of pearls she had just received from Ava Gardner, whom she liked tremendously as a daughter-in-law and still keeps in touch with and talks about; and hung on the wall is a letter addressed to Dolly and Martin: “The sands of time have turned to gold, yet love continues to unfold like the petals of a rose, in God’s garden of life…may God love you thru all eternity. I thank Him, I thank you for the being of one. Your loving son, Francis….” Was Dolly eager to talk to you? She seemed to be eager, yeah. But don’t forget, this was set up by Rizzo. You had an emissary. Absolutely. How would I have gotten in there without him? I asked him to do it and he did it.
Mrs. Sinatra talks to her son on the telephone about once a week, and recently he suggested that, when visiting Manhattan, she make use of his apartment on East Seventy-second Street on the East River. This is an expensive neighborhood of New York even though there is a small factory on the block, but this latter fact was seized upon by Dolly Sinatra as a means of getting back at her son for some unflattering descriptions of his childhood in Hoboken.
“What — you want me to stay in your apartment, in that dump?” she asked. “You think I’m going to spend the night in that awful neighborhood?”
Frank Sinatra got the point, and said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Fort Lee.” How was this story factchecked? Did Esquire have a factchecking department in 1966? Esquire had a very active department. Did you give the phone numbers — Everything! My notes, everything! I do that all the time. I do that with The New Yorker. This was probably my twenty-fifth piece for Esquire. I had written a lot for them a lot, since 1960. My memory is I never had a letter protesting what I wrote, asking for a correction. During the factchecking of this piece, did the factcheckers push back at anything? Say that you were wrong? No. The piece I filed was close to word-for-word what was published.
After spending the week in Palm Springs, his cold much better, Frank Sinatra returned to Los Angeles, a lovely city of sun and sex, a Spanish discovery of Mexican misery, a star land of little men and little women sliding in and out of convertibles in tense tight pants.
Sinatra returned in time to see the long-awaited CBS documentary with his family. At about nine p.m. he drove to the home of his former wife, Nancy, and had dinner with her and their two daughters. Their son, whom they rarely see these days, was out of town. Where did this information come from? Nancy Jr. She was there.
Frank, Jr., who is twenty-two, was touring with a band and moving cross country toward a New York engagement at Basin Street East with The Pied Pipers, with whom Frank Sinatra sang when he was with Dorsey’s band in the 1940′s. Today Frank Sinatra, Jr., whom his father says he named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, lives mostly in hotels, dines each evening in his nightclub dressing room, and sings until two a.m., accepting graciously, because he has no choice, the inevitable comparisons. His voice is smooth and pleasant, and improving with work, and while he is very respectful of his father, he discusses him with objectivity and in an occasional tone of subdued cockiness.
Concurrent with his father’s early fame, Frank, Jr. said, was the creation of a “press-release Sinatra” designed to “set him apart from the common man, separate him from the realities: it was suddenly Sinatra, the electric magnate, Sinatra who is supernormal, not superhuman but supernormal. And here,” Frank, Jr. continued, “is the great fallacy, the great bullshit, for Frank Sinatra is normal, is the guy whom you’d meet on a street corner. But this other thing, the supernormal guise, has affected Frank Sinatra as much as anybody who watches one of his television shows, or reads a magazine article about him….
“Frank Sinatra’s life in the beginning was so normal,” he said, “that nobody would have guessed in 1934 that this little Italian kid with the curly hair would become the giant, the monster, the great living legend…. He met my mother one summer on the beach. She was Nancy Barbato, daughter of Mike Barbato, a Jersey City plasterer. And she meets the fireman’s son, Frank, one summer day on the beach at Long Branch, New Jersey. Both are Italian, both Roman Catholic, both lower-middle-class summer sweethearts — it is like a million bad movies starring Frankie Avalon. . . .
“They have three children. The first child, Nancy, was the most normal of Frank Sinatra’s children. Nancy was a cheerleader, went to summer camp, drove a Chevrolet, had the easiest kind of development centered around the home and family. Next is me. My life with the family is very, very normal up until September of 1958 when, in complete contrast to the rearing of both girls, I am put into a college-preparatory school. I am now away from the inner family circle, and my position within has never been remade to this day…. The third child, Tina. And to be dead honest, I really couldn’t say what her life is like….” This is a massive quote… This came from Frank Sinatra Jr. Can you walk me through the process of how this was recorded and verified? I know you don’t use a tape recorder. The reason I don’t use a tape recorder is I don’t want the tape recorder to contradict what I think is potentially a better quote. My idea of interviewing is to get as best I can out of the mouth of somebody else their best thought — the most ideal representation of what they think, not what they say. I don’t believe what people say, most of the time, until I go over it again and again. So how do you do it? It’s a long quote. I’ll tell you how: You take a piece of paper and a pencil or a pen. And you talk to the person. You ask questions. They give you an answer, you interrupt them. You ask them to go over and over it. Then the second sentence, then third sentence. Except you don’t take notes. Wait a minute! Sometimes I do. I didn’t know that. It depends on the relationship. Because you’d said you never took notes while you’re interviewing someone — I usually don’t. But when I own a person, like Floyd Patterson — in A Writer’s Life, I said he was my literary property — and if you can get to a point where there’s a lot of familiarity and trust, then I can take notes in front of him. I make them almost a coauthor of the quote. What I want people to be is to be the coauthor of the quote they give me. Is that what happened here, with Frank Sinatra Jr.? I was taking notes in front of him. He was so cooperative.
The CBS show, narrated by Walter Cronkite, began at ten p.m. A minute before that, the Sinatra family, having finished dinner, turned their chairs around and faced the camera, united for whatever disaster might follow. Were you in the room? That would have come from Nancy. Sinatra’s men in other parts of town, in other parts of the nation, were doing the same thing. Sinatra’s lawyer, Milton A. Rudin, smoking a cigar, was watching with a keen eye, an alert legal mind. Other sets were watched by Brad Dexter, Jim Mahoney, Ed Pucci; Sinatra’s makeup man, “Shotgun” Britton; his New York representative, Henri Gine; his haberdasher, Richard Carroll; his insurance broker, John Lillie; his valet, George Jacobs, a handsome Negro who, when entertaining girls in his apartment, plays records by Ray Charles. Did each man individually confirm this? I called each of them, probably, because I was in touch with these guys.
And like so much of Hollywood’s fear, the apprehension about the CBS show all proved to be without foundation. It was a highly flattering hour that did not deeply probe, as rumors suggested it would, into Sinatra’s love life, or the Mafia, or other areas of his private province. While the documentary was not authorized, wrote Jack Gould in the next day’s New York Times, “it could have been.”
Immediately after the show, the telephones began to ring throughout the Sinatra system conveying words of joy and relief — and from New York came Jilly’s telegram: “WE RULE THE WORLD!”
THE NEXT DAY, STANDING in the corridor of the NBC building where he was about to resume taping his show, Sinatra was discussing the CBS show with several of his friends, and he said, “Oh, it was a gas.”
“Yeah, Frank, a helluva show.”
“But I think Jack Gould was right in The Times today,” Sinatra said. “There should have been more on the man, not so much on the music….” Who were these friends? Was one of them the source for this scene? The friends were the guys mentioned below — Dwight Hemion, Pat Lawford, Andy Williams…
They nodded, nobody mentioning the past hysteria in the Sinatra world when it seemed CBS was zeroing in on the man; they just nodded and two of them laughed about Sinatra’s apparently having gotten the word “bird” on the show — this being a favorite Sinatra word. He often inquires of his cronies, “How’s your bird?”; and when he nearly drowned in Hawaii, he later explained, “Just got a little water on my bird”; and under a large photograph of him holding a whisky bottle, a photo that hangs in the home of an actor friend named Dick Bakalyan, the inscription reads: “Drink, Dickie! It’s good for your bird.” In the song, “Come Fly with Me,” Sinatra sometimes alters the lyrics — “…just say the words and we’ll take our birds down to Acapulco Bay….” This is such a wonderful, odd fact about Sinatra. Was his love of “bird” common knowledge? I never heard about it until Dickie Bakalyan told me about it.
Ten minutes later Sinatra, following the orchestra, walked into the NBC studio, which did not resemble in the slightest the scene here of eight days ago. This is useful. Without drawing attention to it, you give the reader a timeline. Right. On this occasion Sinatra was in fine voice, he cracked jokes between numbers, nothing could upset him. Once, while he was singing “How Can I Ignore the Girl Next Door,” standing on the stage next to a tree, a television camera mounted on a vehicle came rolling in too close and plowed against the tree.
“Kee-rist!” yelled one of the technical assistants.
But Sinatra seemed hardly to notice it.
“We’ve had a slight accident,” he said, calmly. Then he began the song all over from the beginning.
When the show was over, Sinatra watched the rerun on the monitor in the control room. He was very pleased, shaking hands with Dwight Hemion and his assistants. Then the whisky bottles were opened in Sinatra’s dressing room. Pat Lawford was there, and so were Andy Williams and a dozen others. The telegrams and telephone calls continued to be received from all over the country with praise for the CBS show. There was even a call, Mahoney said, from the CBS producer, Don Hewitt, with whom Sinatra had been so angry a few days before. And Sinatra was still angry, feeling that CBS had betrayed him, though the show itself was not objectionable.
“Shall I drop a line to Hewitt?” Mahoney asked.
“Can you send a fist through the mail?” Sinatra asked.
He has everything, he cannot sleep, he gives nice gifts, he is not happy, but he would not trade, even for happiness, what he is….
He is a piece of our past — but only we have aged, he hasn’t…we are dogged by domesticity, he isn’t…we have compunctions, he doesn’t…it is our fault, not his….
He controls the menus of every Italian restaurant in Los Angeles; if you want North Italian cooking, fly to Milan….
Men follow him, imitate him, fight to be near him…there is something of the locker room, the barracks about him…bird…bird….
He believes you must play it big, wide, expansively — the more open you are, the more you take in, your dimensions deepen, you grow, you become more what you are — bigger, richer….
“He is better than anybody else, or at least they think he is, and he has to live up to it.” –Nancy Sinatra, Jr.
“He is calm on the outside — inwardly a million things are happening to him.” –Dick Bakalyan
“He has an insatiable desire to live every moment to its fullest because, I guess, he feels that right around the corner is extinction.” –Brad Dexter
“All I ever got out of any of my marriages was the two years Artie Shaw financed on an analyst’s couch.” –Ava Gardner
“We weren’t mother and son — we were buddies.” –Dolly Sinatra
“I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers or a bottle of Jack Daniel.” — Frank Sinatra What is the narrative purpose of these quotes? Some of those quotes I thought were very interesting, and belonged in this piece somewhere. The most succinct, and I thought interesting, way to do it would be to produce these quotes — many of them contradictory — in the same place, without having to explain them, to say, “On the other hand, Ava Gardner says. … On the other hand, Frank Sinatra’s mother said…” This is part of my whole style. For example, I did this in “The Ethics of Frank Costello.” It’s interesting… It’s a different way of breaking away from formulaic journalism. I never liked “New Journalism” because I never thought it was new journalism. It was writing short stories with real names. But it’s not very interesting to put it that way. Right. When you choose not to attribute Zolotow, or these quotes, it is a literary device which predicates the most important thing is form. It’s not as important as fact, but form and fact break the barrier between nonfiction and fiction as a method of communication. If you are asked, “Where did you get this? Where did you get that?”, which is what you’re doing, you can say this is where I got this information. “Why didn’t you quote it?” Because I didn’t want to quote it. Because if I had quoted it I would be losing the point of having this form, the uninterrupted voice of the writer. The difference between writing and reporting is voice. Writers, whether Philip Roth in fiction or Tom Wolfe or Halberstam or Breslin or John McPhee or me or whoever in nonfiction, the voice is very important. And there are times when you cannot interrupt the voice if you have it. It carries an atmosphere. By having the quotes stand alone, aren’t you ceding the voice? It’s Dos Passos! It’s out of Dos Passos.
FRANK SINATRA WAS TIRED of all the talk, the gossip, the theory — tired of reading quotes about himself, of hearing what people were saying about him all over town. It had been a tedious three weeks, he said, and now he just wanted to get away, go to Las Vegas, let off some steam. So he hopped in his jet, soared over the California hills across the Nevada flats, then over miles and miles of desert to The Sands and the Clay-Patterson fight.
On the eve of the fight he stayed up all night and slept through most of the afternoon, though his recorded voice could be heard singing in the lobby of The Sands, in the gambling casino, even in the toilets, being interrupted every few bars however by the paging public address: “…Telephone call for Mr. Ron Fish, Mr. Ron Fish…with a ribbon of gold in her hair…. Telephone call for Mr. Herbert Rothstein, Mr. Herbert Rothstein…memories of a time so bright, keep me sleepless through dark endless nights….”
Standing around in the lobby of The Sands and other hotels up and down the strip on this afternoon before the fight were the usual prefight prophets: the gamblers, the old champs, the little cigar butts from Eighth Avenue, the sportswriters who knock the big fights all year but would never miss one, the novelists who seem always to be identifying with one boxer or another, the local prostitutes assisted by some talent in from Los Angeles, and also a young brunette in a wrinkled black cocktail dress who was at the bell captain’s desk crying, “But I want to speak to Mr. Sinatra.” President Kennedy has a real presence in your story. It’s an odd coincidence that the fight took place on the second anniversary of his assassination (Nov. 22, 1965). Did that event cast a shadow over the fight? No. I didn’t even know myself.
“He’s not here,” the bell captain said.
“Won’t you put me through to his room?”
“There are no messages going through, Miss,” he said, and then she turned, unsteadily, seeming close to tears, and walked through the lobby into the big noisy casino crowded with men interested only in money.
Shortly before seven p.m., Jack Entratter, a big grey-haired man who operates The Sands, walked into the gambling room to tell some men around the blackjack table that Sinatra was getting dressed. He also said that he’d been unable to get front-row seats for everybody, and so some of the men — including Leo Durocher, who had a date, and Joey Bishop, who was accompanied by his wife — would not be able to fit in Frank Sinatra’s row but would have to take seats in the third row. When Entratter walked over to tell this to Joey Bishop, Bishop’s face fell. He did not seem angry; he merely looked at Entratter with an empty silence, seeming somewhat stunned. This is so clever — readers see firsthand how even a perceived slight from Sinatra wounds his entourage. It certainly hurt Bishop.
“Joey, I’m sorry,” Entratter said when the silence persisted, “but we couldn’t get more than six together in the front row.”
Bishop still said nothing. But when they all appeared at the fight, Joey Bishop was in the front row, his wife in the third.
The fight, called a holy war between Muslims and Christians, was preceded by the introduction of three balding ex-champions, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis, Sonny Liston — and then there was “The Star-Spangled Banner” sung by another man from out of the past, Eddie Fisher. It had been more than fourteen years ago, but Sinatra could still remember every detail: Eddie Fisher was then the new king of the baritones, with Billy Eckstine and Guy Mitchell right with him, and Sinatra had been long counted out. One day he remembered walking into a broadcasting studio past dozens of Eddie Fisher fans waiting outside the hall, and when they saw Sinatra they began to jeer, “Frankie, Frankie, I’m swooning, I’m swooning.” This was also the time when he was selling only about 30,000 records a year, when he was dreadfully miscast as a funny man on his television show, and when he recorded such disasters as “Mama Will Bark,” with Dagmar.
“I growled and barked on the record,” Sinatra said, still horrified by the thought. “The only good it did me was with the dogs.” To whom did Sinatra say this? You don’t specify. No. This was published. It was probably in some magazine. Okay. I just didn’t feel I had to attribute.
His voice and his artistic judgment were incredibly bad in 1952, but even more responsible for his decline, say his friends, was his pursuit of Ava Gardner. She was the big movie queen then, one of the most beautiful women in the world. Sinatra’s daughter Nancy recalls seeing Ava swimming one day in her father’s pool, then climbing out of the water with that fabulous body, walking slowly to the fire, leaning over it for a few moments, and then it suddenly seemed that her long dark hair was all dry, miraculously and effortlessly back in place.
With most women Sinatra dates, his friends say, he never knows whether they want him for what he can do for them now — or will do for them later. With Ava Gardner, it was different. He could do nothing for her later. She was on top. If Sinatra learned anything from his experience with her, he possibly learned that when a proud man is down a woman cannot help. Particularly a woman on top. Was this belief Sinatra’s or yours? It’s my voice. It’s my deduction of all the research I did. The point is to establish the voice. What I don’t like, if I can avoid it, are direct quotes. If I can avoid a direct quote — and sometimes you cannot or should not — I will. Because what you do, with a direct quote, is surrender your voice. If you know what you’re talking about, and think you can be declarative in terms of sentences and attitude, then go with it. That’s your voice. And if you surrender to the direct quote, the quote more often than not is not considered and it’s not literary. A direct quote out of a person’s mouth is not a written sentence. When you write that sentence you might write it a dozen times. A single sentence. What is the point? It’s to try to establish language that is both specific and has a tone that is in concert with the voice. And that is what makes for smoothness in writing style and makes the departure from journalism to literary writing — sometimes called literary journalism. You cannot fracture it with direct quotes. You are then surrendering to the subject that you’re quoting, and they become the writer. And they don’t write very well. In other words, it was better for you to say this than for — I find that in 80 percent of the cases it’s better to say it, or to take the essence of your research and put it in your own words. And you either stand or fall by it. But did you think Sinatra also believed this? That is what I would have thought Sinatra would have thought. I don’t give Sinatra the right to say this or that, any more than he gives me the right to choose a song he’s going to sing. He chooses it!
Nevertheless, despite a tired voice, some deep emotion seeped into his singing during this time. One particular song that is well remembered even now is “I’m a Fool to Want You,” and a friend who was in the studio when Sinatra recorded it recalled: “Frank was really worked up that night. He did the song in one take, then turned around and walked out of the studio and that was that….” This is such a complimentary thing to say. Why is the source anonymous? Who cares? You say that’s rather flippant, rather arbitrary? No, I didn’t think that bringing in extra voices or personalities on the stage — you are already overloaded with people, as it is. There are times when I don’t quote directly because I feel not doing so makes the piece stronger. Unless it’s something that demands credit because they came up with something that is, like, a discovery or an insight — but this is quiet backmatter.
Sinatra’s manager at that time, a former song plugger named Hank Sanicola, said, “Ava loved Frank, but not the way he loved her. He needs a great deal of love. He wants it twenty-four hours a day, he must have people around — Frank is that kind of guy.” Ava Gardner, Sanicola said, “was very insecure. She feared she could not really hold a man…twice he went chasing her to Africa, wasting his own career….”
“Ava didn’t want Frank’s men hanging around all the time,” another friend said, “and this got him mad. With Nancy he used to be able to bring the whole band home with him, and Nancy, the good Italian wife, would never complain — she’d just make everybody a plate of spaghetti.” All of these quotes seem to come from the Sinatra camp. Did you talk to Ava Gardner? No. I got information about Ava Gardner from Dolly Sinatra, who knew her, and from Nancy Jr. I never even saw her. She wasn’t around. She lived in Spain, I think.
In 1953, after almost two years of marriage, Sinatra and Ava Gardner were divorced. Sinatra’s mother reportedly arranged a reconciliation, but if Ava was willing, Frank Sinatra was not. He was seen with other women. The balance had shifted. Somewhere during this period Sinatra seemed to change from the kid singer, the boy actor in the sailor suit, to a man. Even before he had won the Oscar in 1953 for his role in From Here to Eternity, some flashes of his old talent were coming through — in his recording of “The Birth of the Blues,” in his Riviera-nightclub appearance that jazz critics enthusiastically praised; and there was also a trend now toward L.P.’s and away from the quick three-minute deal, and Sinatra’s concert style would have capitalized on this with or without an Oscar.
In 1954, totally committed to his talent once more, Frank Sinatra was selected Metronome’s “Singer of the Year,” and later he won the U.P.I. disc-jockey poll, unseating Eddie Fisher — who now, in Las Vegas, having sung “The Star-Spangled Banner,” climbed out of the ring, and the fight began. The preceding seven paragraphs are an exceptional digression, away from the fight and into Sinatra’s past. Why did you decide to structure this story this way? And how much input did you receive from your editor? Nothing. This piece was not touched.
Floyd Patterson chased Clay around the ring in the first round, but was unable to reach him, and from then on he was Clay’s toy, the bout ending in a technical knockout in the twelfth round. A half hour later, nearly everybody had forgotten about the fight and was back at the gambling tables or lining up to buy tickets for the Dean Martin-Sinatra-Bishop nightclub routine on the stage of The Sands. This routine, which includes Sammy Davis, Jr. when he is in town, consists of a few songs and much cutting up, all of it very informal, very special, and rather ethnic — Martin, a drink in hand, asking Bishop: “Did you ever see a Jew jitsu?”; and Bishop, playing a Jewish waiter, warning the two Italians to watch out “because I got my own group — the Matzia.”
Then after the last show at The Sands, the Sinatra crowd, which now numbered about twenty — and included Jilly, who had flown in from New York; Jimmy Cannon, Sinatra’s favorite sports columnist; Harold Gibbons, a Teamster official expected to take over if Hoffa goes to jail — all got into a line of cars and headed for another club. It was three o’clock. The night was young. Did reporting this story take a physical toll on you? Why? I don’t know, just being out at three in the morning… I was pretty young then. It’s wasn’t a big deal because 3 in the morning in Vegas is 2 in the afternoon. I mean, there is no time out there.
They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back, and listened to a baldheaded little comedian named Don Rickles, who is probably more caustic than any comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one — it is too offensive to be offensive. Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor; and when two businessmen in the audience acknowledged that they were Egyptian, Rickles cut into them for their country’s policy toward Israel; and he strongly suggested that the woman seated at one table with her husband was actually a hooker.
When the Sinatra crowd walked in, Don Rickles could not be more delighted. Pointing to Jilly, Rickles yelled: “How’s it feel to be Frank’s tractor?… Yeah, Jilly keeps walking in front of Frank clearing the way.” Then, nodding to Durocher, Rickles said, “Stand up Leo, show Frank how you slide.” Then he focused on Sinatra, not failing to mention Mia Farrow, nor that he was wearing a toupee, nor to say that Sinatra was washed up as a singer, and when Sinatra laughed, everybody laughed, and Rickles pointed toward Bishop: “Joey Bishop keeps checking with Frank to see what’s funny.”
Then, after Rickles told some Jewish jokes, Dean Martin stood up and yelled, “Hey, you’re always talking about the Jews, never about the Italians,” and Rickles cut him off with, “What do we need the Italians for — all they do is keep the flies off our fish.”
Sinatra laughed, they all laughed, and Rickles went on this way for nearly an hour until Sinatra, standing up, said, “All right, com’on, get this thing over with. I gotta go.”
“Shaddup and sit down!” Rickles snapped. “I’ve had to listen to you sing….”
“Who do you think you’re talking to?” Sinatra yelled back.
“Dick Haymes,” Rickles replied, and Sinatra laughed again, and then Dean Martin, pouring a bottle of whisky over his head, entirely drenching his tuxedo, pounded the table.
“Who would ever believe that staggering would make a star?” Rickles said, but Martin called out, “Hey, I wanna make a speech.”
“No, Don, I wanna tell ya,” Dean Martin persisted, “that I think you’re a great performer.”
“Well, thank you, Dean,” Rickles said, seeming pleased.
“But don’t go by me,” Martin said, plopping down into his seat, “I’m drunk.”
“I’ll buy that,” Rickles said.
BY FOUR A.M. FRANK SINATRA led the group out of The Sahara, some of them carrying their glasses of whisky with them, sipping it along the sidewalk and in the cars; then, returning to The Sands, they walked into the gambling casino. It was still packed with people, the roulette wheels spinning, the crapshooters screaming in the far corner.
Frank Sinatra, holding a shot glass of bourbon in his left hand, walked through the crowd. He, unlike some of his friends, was perfectly pressed, his tuxedo tie precisely pointed, his shoes unsmudged. He never seems to lose his dignity, never lets his guard completely down no matter how much he has drunk, nor how long he has been up. He never sways when he walks, like Dean Martin, nor does he ever dance in the aisles or jump up on tables, like Sammy Davis.
A part of Sinatra, no matter where he is, is never there. There is always a part of him, though sometimes a small part, that remains Il Padrone. Even now, resting his shot glass on the blackjack table, facing the dealer, Sinatra stood a bit back from the table, not leaning against it. He reached under his tuxedo jacket into his trouser pocket and came up with a thick but clean wad of bills. Gently he peeled off a one-hundred-dollar bill and placed it on the green-felt table. The dealer dealt him two cards. Sinatra called for a third card, overbid, lost the hundred. You have a keen ability to abruptly shift the tone of the story. Half a page ago Dean Martin doused himself in alcohol and now Sinatra sits, almost zen-like, at a blackjack table. Do you make a point of jarring the reader? No, no. I just write what I see. Sometimes I write what I feel when I don’t see it. You become so captured by the research, you’re overwhelmed with it. You then inhabit the research, which is another person’s life, or many lives. And you become part of another person’s attitude, as well as the factual formations of their lives in many stages. Like Sinatra’s youth and middle age and elderly years. And you speak to the reader out of this knowledge with your voice.
Without a change of expression, Sinatra put down a second hundred-dollar bill. He lost that. Then he put down a third, and lost that. Then he placed two one-hundred-dollar bills on the table and lost those. Finally, putting his sixth hundred-dollar bill on the table, and losing it, Sinatra moved away from the table, nodding to the man, and announcing, “Good dealer.”
The crowd that had gathered around him now opened up to let him through. But a woman stepped in front of him, handing him a piece of paper to autograph. He signed it and then he said, “Thank you.”
In the rear of The Sands’ large dining room was a long table reserved for Sinatra. The dining room was fairly empty at this hour, with perhaps two dozen other people in the room, including a table of four unescorted young ladies sitting near Sinatra. On the other side of the room, at another long table, sat seven men shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall, two of them wearing dark glasses, all of them eating quietly, speaking hardly a word, just sitting and eating and missing nothing.
The Sinatra party, after getting settled and having a few more drinks, ordered something to eat. The table was about the same size as the one reserved for Sinatra whenever he is at Jilly’s in New York; and the people seated around this table in Las Vegas were many of the same people who are often seen with Sinatra at Jilly’s or at a restaurant in California, or in Italy, or in New Jersey, or wherever Sinatra happens to be. When Sinatra sits to dine, his trusted friends are close; and no matter where he is, no matter how elegant the place may be, there is something of the neighborhood showing because Sinatra, no matter how far he has come, is still something of the boy from the neighborhood — only now he can take his neighborhood with him.
In some ways, this quasi-family affair at a reserved table in a public place is the closest thing Sinatra now has to home life. Perhaps, having had a home and left it, this approximation is as close as he cares to come; although this does not seem precisely so because he speaks with such warmth about his family, keeps in close touch with his first wife, and insists that she make no decision without first consulting him. Maybe it’s a generational difference, but I read this and think, “Man, Sinatra is a control freak.” Did you think of him like that? No. How many men, when they get separated or divorced, want to wash their hands of that whole thing? Maybe it was representative of a controlling guy, but Sinatra is a controlling guy. If you’re Sinatra, how can you not be a controlling guy, because you have to control so many parts of other people? Because of who you are. And who you are affects everybody. And here he is, married with three children to this woman. He chose to keep her as part of his life. You say that’s controlling? Maybe it’s controlling, but maybe it’s also a manifestation of a person that does not break with the past. That keeps the past and the present part of himself. You can spin it either way you want. He is always eager to place his furniture or other mementos of himself in her home or his daughter Nancy’s, and he also is on amiable terms with Ava Gardner. When he was in Italy making Von Ryan’s Express, they spent some time together, being pursued wherever they went by the paparazzi. It was reported then that the paparazzi had made Sinatra a collective offer of $16,000 if he would pose with Ava Gardner; Sinatra was said to have made a counter offer of $32,000 if he could break one paparazzi arm and leg.
While Sinatra is often delighted that he can be in his home completely without people, enabling him to read and think without interruption, there are occasions when he finds himself alone at night, and not by choice. He may have dialed a half-dozen women, and for one reason or another they are all unavailable. So he will call his valet, George Jacobs.
“I’ll be coming home for dinner tonight, George.”
“How many will there be?”
“Just myself,” Sinatra will say. “I want something light, I’m not very hungry.”
George Jacobs is a twice-divorced man of thirty-six who resembles Billy Eckstine. He has traveled all over the world with Sinatra and is devoted to him. Jacobs lives in a comfortable bachelor’s apartment off Sunset Boulevard around the corner from Whiskey à Go Go, and he is known around town for the assortment of frisky California girls “frisky” — this is an interesting descriptive. he has as friends — a few of whom, he concedes, were possibly drawn to him initially because of his closeness to Frank Sinatra.
When Sinatra arrives, Jacobs will serve him dinner in the dining room. Then Sinatra will tell Jacobs that he is free to go home. If Sinatra, on such evenings, should ask Jacobs to stay longer, or to play a few hands of poker, he would be happy to do so. But Sinatra never does.
THIS WAS HIS SECOND night in Las Vegas, and Frank Sinatra sat with friends in The Sands’ dining room until nearly eight a.m. He slept through much of the day, then flew back to Los Angeles, and on the following morning he was driving his little golf cart through the Paramount Pictures movie lot. He was scheduled to complete two final scenes with the sultry blonde actress, Virna Lisi, in the film Assault on a Queen. As he maneuvered the little vehicle up the road between the big studio buildings, he spotted Steve Rossi who, with his comedy partner Marty Allen, was making a film in an adjoining studio with Nancy Sinatra.
“Hey, Dag,” he yelled to Rossi, “stop kissing Nancy.”
“It’s part of the film, Frank,” Rossi said, turning as he walked.
“In the garage?”
“It’s my Dago blood, Frank.”
“Well, cool it,” Sinatra said, winking, then cutting his golf cart around a corner and parking it outside a big drab building within which the scenes for Assault would be filmed. Were you on the lot as well? Yeah, I was on the set, so I heard all that stuff.
“Where’s the fat director?” Sinatra called out, striding into the studio that was crowded with dozens of technical assistants and actors all gathered around cameras. The director, Jack Donohue, a large man who has worked with Sinatra through twenty-two years on one production or other, has had headaches with this film. The script had been chopped, the actors seemed restless, and Sinatra had become bored. But now there were only two scenes left — a short one to be filmed in the pool, and a longer and passionate one featuring Sinatra and Virna Lisi to be shot on a simulated beach.
The pool scene, which dramatizes a situation where Sinatra and his hijackers fail in their attempt to sack the Queen Mary, went quickly and well. After Sinatra had been kept in the water shoulder-high for a few minutes, he said, “Let’s move it, fellows — it’s cold in this water, and I’ve just gotten over one cold.”
So the camera crews moved in closer, Virna Lisi splashed next to Sinatra in the water, and Jack Donohue yelled to his assistants operating the fans, “Get the waves going,” and another man gave the command, “Agitate!” and Sinatra broke out in song. “Agitate in rhythm,” then quieted down just before the cameras started to roll.
Frank Sinatra was on the beach in the next situation, supposedly gazing up at the stars, and Virna Lisi was to approach him, toss one of her shoes near him to announce her presence, then sit near him and prepare for a passionate session. Just before beginning, Miss Lisi made a practice toss of her shoe toward the prone figure of Sinatra sprawled on the beach. As she tossed her shoe, Sinatra called out, “Hit me in my bird and I’m going home.”
Virna Lisi, who understands little English and certainly none of Sinatra’s special vocabulary, looked confused, but everybody behind the camera laughed. She threw the shoe toward him. It twirled in the air, landed on his stomach.
“Well, that’s about three inches too high,” he announced. She again was puzzled by the laughter behind the camera.
Then Jack Donohue had them rehearse their lines, and Sinatra, still very charged from the Las Vegas trip, and anxious to get the cameras rolling, said, “Let’s try one.” These days movie studios are generally reluctant to allow reporters on set. Did Donohue and his benefactors require much convincing? Listen, I didn’t sneak in. So I got on there. I wasn’t hanging out with Sinatra, but I was part of the entourage. How do you think I got to watch Sinata lose a hundred bucks? I watched him. Donohue, not certain that Sinatra and Lisi knew their lines well enough, nevertheless said okay, and an assistant with a clapboard called, “419, Take 1,” and Virna Lisi approached with the shoe, tossed it at Frank lying on the beach. It fell short of his thigh, and Sinatra’s right eye raised almost imperceptibly, but the crew got the message, smiled.
“What do the stars tell you tonight?” Miss Lisi said, delivering her first line, and sitting next to Sinatra on the beach.
“The stars tell me tonight I’m an idiot,” Sinatra said, “a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing….”
“Cut,” Donohue said. There were some microphone shadows on the sand, and Virna Lisi was not sitting in the proper place near Sinatra.
“419, Take 2,” the clapboard man called.
Miss Lisi again approached, threw the shoe at him, this time falling short — Sinatra exhaling only slightly — and she said, “What do the stars tell you tonight?”
“The stars tell me I’m an idiot, a gold-plated idiot to get mixed up in this thing….” Then, according to the script, Sinatra was to continue, “…do you know what we’re getting into? The minute we step on the deck of the Queen Mary, we’ve just tattooed ourselves,” but Sinatra, who often improvises on lines, recited them: “…do you know what we’re getting into? The minute we step on the deck of that mother’s-ass ship….”
“No, no,” Donohue interrupted, shaking his head, “I don’t think that’s right.”
The cameras stopped, some people laughed, and Sinatra looked up from his position in the sand as if he had been unfairly interrupted.
“I don’t see why that can’t work…” he began, but Richard Conte, standing behind the camera, yelled, “It won’t play in London.”
Donohue pushed his hand through his thinning grey hair and said, but not really in anger, “You know, that scene was pretty good until somebody blew the line….”
“Yeah,” agreed the cameraman, Billy Daniels, his head popping out from around the camera, “it was a pretty good piece….”
“Watch your language,” Sinatra cut in. Then Sinatra, who has a genius for figuring out ways of not reshooting scenes, suggested a way in which the film could be used and the “mother” line could be recorded later. This met with approval. Then the cameras were rolling again, Virna Lisi was leaning toward Sinatra in the sand, and then he pulled her down close to him. The camera now moved in for a close-up of their faces, ticking away for a few long seconds, but Sinatra and Lisi did not stop kissing, they just lay together in the sand wrapped in one another’s arms, and then Virna Lisi’s left leg just slightly began to rise a bit, and everybody in the studio now watched in silence, not saying anything until Donohue finally called out:
“If you ever get through, let me know. I’m running out of film.”
Then Miss Lisi got up, straightened out her white dress, brushed back her blonde hair and touched her lipstick, which was smeared. Sinatra got up, a little smile on his lips, and headed for his dressing room.
Passing an older man who stood near a camera, Sinatra asked, “How’s your Bell & Howell?”
The older man smiled.
“It’s fine, Frank.”
In his dressing room Sinatra was met by an automobile designer who had the plans for Sinatra’s new custom-built model to replace the $25,000 Ghia he has been driving for the last few years. He also was awaited by his secretary, Tom Conroy, who had a bag full of fan mail, including a letter from New York’s Mayor John Lindsay; and by Bill Miller, Sinatra’s pianist, who would rehearse some of the songs that would be recorded later in the evening for Sinatra’s newest album, Moonlight Sinatra.
While Sinatra does not mind hamming it up a bit on a movie set, he is extremely serious about his recording sessions; as he explained to a British writer, Robin Douglas-Home: “Once you’re on that record singing, it’s you and you alone. If it’s bad and gets you criticized, it’s you who’s to blame — no one else. If it’s good, it’s also you. With a film it’s never like that; there are producers and scriptwriters, and hundreds of men in offices and the thing is taken right out of your hands. With a record, you’re it….”
But now the days are short
I’m in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life
As vintage wine
From fine old kegs….
It no longer matters what song he is singing, or who wrote the words — they are all his words, his sentiments, they are chapters from the lyrical novel of his life.
Life is a beautiful thing
As long as I hold the string…. These are several excerpts of Sinatra songs in your story. How did you select them? I thought they were appropriate. I mean, “The Days Are Short” — I’m writing about a guy who’s in the senior years of his career. Just like when I selected “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” it was the wee small hours of the morning in Beverly Hills. This is taking control of your material.
When Frank Sinatra drives to the studio, he seems to dance out of the car across the sidewalk into the front door; then, snapping his fingers, he is standing in front of the orchestra in an intimate, airtight room, and soon he is dominating every man, every instrument, every sound wave. Some of the musicians have accompanied him for twenty-five years, have gotten old hearing him sing “You Make Me Feel So Young.”
When his voice is on, as it was tonight, Sinatra is in ecstasy, the room becomes electric, there is an excitement that spreads through the orchestra and is felt in the control booth where a dozen men, Sinatra’s friends, wave at him from behind the glass. One of the men is the Dodgers’ pitcher, Don Drysdale (“Hey, Big D,” Sinatra calls out, “hey, baby!”); another is the professional golfer Bo Wininger; there are also numbers of pretty women standing in the booth behind the engineers, women who smile at Sinatra and softly move their bodies to the mellow mood of his music:
Will this be moon love
Nothing but moon love
Will you be gone when the dawn
Comes stealing through….
After he is finished, the record is played back on tape, and Nancy Sinatra, who has just walked in, joins her father near the front of the orchestra to hear the playback. They listen silently, all eyes on them, the king, the princess; and when the music ends there is applause from the control booth, Nancy smiles, and her father snaps his fingers and says, kicking a foot, “Ooba-deeba-boobe-do!”
Then Sinatra calls to one of his men. “Hey, Sarge, think I can have a half-a-cup of coffee?”
Sarge Weiss, who had been listening to the music, slowly gets up.
“Didn’t mean to wake ya, Sarge,” Sinatra says, smiling.
Then Weiss brings the coffee, and Sinatra looks at it, smells it, then announces, “I thought he’d be nice to me, but it’s really coffee….”
There are more smiles, and then the orchestra prepares for the next number. And one hour later, it is over.
The musicians put their instruments into their cases, grab their coats, and begin to file out, saying good-night to Sinatra. He knows them all by name, knows much about them personally, from their bachelor days, through their divorces, through their ups and downs, as they know him. When a French-horn player, a short Italian named Vincent DeRosa, who has played with Sinatra since The Lucky Strike “Hit Parade” days on radio, strolled by, Sinatra reached out to hold him for a second.
“Vicenzo,” Sinatra said, “how’s your little girl?”
“She’s fine, Frank.”
“Oh, she’s not a little girl anymore,” Sinatra corrected himself, “she’s a big girl now.”
“Yes, she goes to college now. U.S.C.”
“She’s also got a little talent, I think, Frank, as a singer.”
Sinatra was silent for a moment, then said, “Yes, but it’s very good for her to get her education first, Vicenzo.” This is somehow heartbreaking. And unexpected! The exchange, during which Sinatra gently informs his old friend he won’t help his daughter, might be the most tender, complicated scene in the entire story. Well, it might be, but I understood it because I’m an Italian. My position, with regard to Sinatra and DiMaggio and Joe Bonanno and Joe Girardi — all those people — comes out of what Roth in his own world would recognize as his profitable and personal and prescient place in an ethnic culture. I have that in the Italian-American. And when I see this guy — Vincent DeRosa, who I hadn’t met and never saw after that — I, Gay Talese, can understand it. Every time I go to a journalism class, invited by some guy at NYU or Columbia, after the class is over, and I’m about to leave to go to dinner somewhere, somebody comes up to me. “Mr. Talese, can I have your address? I’d like to write to you.” I say, “Listen, I’m here now to talk to you, but I’m going back home and maybe I’m going to leave town because I have something I want to write.” Because you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to send me a novel, a short story, an article. And they’re going to want me to place it for them. “How do I publish this? Do you know how I can get an agent?” And what’s going to happen then is I’m going to possibly disappoint them enormously. Or two things might happen: I’m going to read what they wrote and it’s going to be terrible. Or maybe it’s going to be good. Then I have to find an agent or try to place it with an editor. And they turn it down. Then I have to go back to this NYU student who thought I was Ernest Hemingway and say, “Look, I can’t do that anymore because I can’t guarantee I’ll get it published.” Christ, I can’t get my own stuff published some of the time! “Ali in Havana” got turned down by 11 or 12 editors. The last thing Sinatra wants to do is to be the godfather to this girl at USC. Right. It’s nonfiction. It’s fact-reporting. It’s beautiful.
Vincent DeRosa nodded.
“Yes, Frank,” he said, and then he said, “Well, good-night, Frank.”
After the musicians had all gone, Sinatra left the recording room and joined his friends in the corridor. He was going to go out and do some drinking with Drysdale, Wininger, and a few other friends, but first he walked to the other end of the corridor to say good-night to Nancy, who was getting her coat and was planning to drive home in her own car.
After Sinatra had kissed her on the cheek, he hurried to join his friends at the door. But before Nancy could leave the studio, one of Sinatra’s men, Al Silvani, a former prizefight manager, joined her.
“Are you ready to leave yet, Nancy?”
“Oh, thanks, Al,” she said, “but I’ll be all right.”
“Pope’s orders,” Silvani said, holding his hands up, palms out.
Only after Nancy had pointed to two of her friends who would escort her home, and only after Silvani recognized them as friends, would he leave. This is revealing, too. We find that Sinatra’s employees, who will go so far to please him, will not cross his daughter. This is a 27-year-old woman, for Christ’s sake! She was already divorced from Tommy Sands. I got a lot of stuff out of her. I took her to dinner. This was the big score for me.
THE REST OF THE MONTH was bright and balmy. The record session had gone magnificently, the film was finished, the television shows were out of the way, and now Sinatra was in his Ghia driving out to his office to begin coordinating his latest projects. He had an engagement at The Sands, a new spy film called The Naked Runner to be shot in England, and a couple more albums to do in the immediate months ahead. And within a week he would be fifty years old….
Life is a beautiful thing
As long as I hold the string
I’d be a silly so-and-so
If I should ever let go…
Frank Sinatra stopped his car. The light was red. Pedestrians passed quickly across his windshield but, as usual, one did not. It was a girl in her twenties. She remained at the curb staring at him. Through the corner of his left eye he could see her, and he knew, because it happens almost every day, that she was thinking, It looks like him, but is it?
Just before the light turned green, Sinatra turned toward her, looked directly into her eyes waiting for the reaction he knew would come. It came and he smiled. She smiled and he was gone. You told the Nieman audience that you spoke to the girl. Where were you at the moment of this silent exchange? Were you on the curb? In the car? No, no. I got this from two people. One was the onetime girlfriend of Ed Pucci and the other was Jane Hoag.
Elon Green writes for The Awl and contributes to Longform.org. This is his fourth annotation for Storyboard. For his first three, he spoke to Amy Wallace, Sebastian Junger and Leslie Jamison. For the full Annotation Tuesday! archive, go here.