An Appreciation of Frank Sinatra: 1915-1998

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Frank Sinatra was back on top and in better form than ever before. His new albums sold well and steadily, despite the rise of Elvis Presley and rock & roll. Also, Frank's complex dramatic work in Suddenly, The Man With the Golden Arm, Some Came Running and Young at Heart  a surprisingly self-referential role as a bad-news, depressive saloon singer  showed that Sinatra's acting could be as dark and mesmerizing as his more serious musical efforts.

But Sinatra's new success didn't always bring out the best in him. He had long been known for a quick temper, and, like his mother, he didn't easily relinquish grudges. In the late 1940s, when his career was on the skids, Sinatra insulted several high-placed columnists whom he believed had been unfair in their coverage of him. He was particularly incensed by the writers who had made loud news about a misguided trip he made to Havana in 1947 to visit organized-crime figure Lucky Luciano. Sinatra railed at several columnists, calling them whores; made veiled threats against others; and even sent one of the most influential gossip writers of the time a tombstone with her name engraved on it. In one infamous episode, Sinatra punched a male columnist alongside the head for printing innuendo that the singer was a Communist. Sinatra paid a fine for the incident, but later, after the columnist had died, Frank visited the writer's grave and pissed on it.

Sinatra might have attributed some of this notorious behavior to the fury of youth or to the injury he felt as he watched his career plummet in the early 1950s and as he went through his wrenching relationship with Ava Gardner. But the ill-famed bouts of wrath and boorishness continued after Sinatra's rejuvenation. There are numerous (and credible) stories of Sinatra flying into rages at friends and lovers; attacking parking-lot attendants who didn't place his car in a favored space; and even threatening to ruin Capitol Records – the label that helped place him back on top  when the company would not accommodate his plans for his own label. Perhaps the ugliest stories came from a close friend of Sinatra's, actor Peter Lawford, who said he once saw Sinatra hurl a young woman through a plate-glass window at a party. (In one of Nancy Sinatra's biographies of her father, she writes that Frank told her that the woman was extremely drunk, and while being escorted from a party at his house, she reeled back and fell into a window. Sinatra, Nancy said, drove the woman to the hospital and covered her medical bills.) Lawford also claimed that he had seen Sinatra punch women on various occasions and that he had witnessed, in the Beverly Hills Hotel's Polo Lounge, one of Sinatra's sidekicks club a man with a heavy glass ashtray because Sinatra believed that the man had said something disparaging about him. It was as if Sinatra, despite the grace of his artistry and the brilliance of his commercial resurgence, felt he had to fight anew for every inch of his own domain  and that domain was wherever the singer allowed himself or his desires to roam.

In the late 1950s, Sinatra began to hold sway over a court of friends, singers and actors who shared his views and humor, and who respected his luster. The group  which included Sinatra, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford (and later Joey Bishop and Shirley MacLaine)  had originally been an irreverent, anti-Hollywood enclave that gathered around Humphrey Bogart and his wife, Lauren Bacall. After Bogart's death, in 1957, Sinatra became the center of the assembly. Under Sinatra's custody, the Rat Pack turned into more than a celebrity clique  it became a demonstration of Sinatra's new, well-protected way of life: high-flying, hard-living and frequently unforgiving of those who crossed his will or temper.

But the Rat Pack's most notable associate was the one friend of Sinatra's who would soon eclipse the singer's fame and power: Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had been a fan of Sinatra's, and the two men met around 1959, as the senator was preparing for his 1960 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sinatra and Kennedy recognized that they shared a certain kindred sensibility: Both were fortunate descendants of aspiring immigrants, and both had a sense of personal entitlement, counterbalanced by social liberalism. Kennedy attended Sinatra's and the Rat Pack's shows in Las Vegas, and Sinatra participated in Kennedy's history in mixed but significant ways. Sinatra reputedly introduced Kennedy to Judith Campbell Exner, the woman who later claimed to be both Sinatra's and Kennedy's lover  though at around the same time, Sinatra was alleged to have introduced her to the mob boss Sam Giancana. (If true, this means that a major American politician and a major crime boss were sharing the same lover – and that Sinatra had orchestrated the nexus.) Sinatra also went to work for Kennedy's presidential campaign and brought not just the Rat Pack into the cause but also a high-profile Hollywood contingent. But most important, according to some writers, Sinatra persuaded mob forces to turn out the vote for Kennedy in crucial districts of Chicago during the senator's tight race against the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. Frank Sinatra, some say, won John Kennedy the presidency and helped secure his lasting place in the country's history.

Sinatra hosted one of Kennedy's inaugural balls, and, for a time, he had favored access to the most powerful and illustrious figure in America. This proved useful when Sinatra wanted to make a film out of the novel The Manchurian Candidate, about a plot to assassinate a presidential candidate. The studio, United Artists, was squeamish about the content. At Sinatra's request, Kennedy  who had enjoyed the novel  intervened, and the film went into production. (After Kennedy was assassinated, in November 1963, Sinatra forbade the film's re-release. As a result, one of America's greatest postwar movies  and Sinatra's last meaningful acting work stayed out of circulation for twenty-five years.)

The good times between Sinatra and Kennedy didn't last long. In 1962, Attorney General Robert Kennedy's investigation of organized crime turned up more reports of Sinatra's affiliation with known racketeers. In particular, Robert Kennedy was disturbed by Sinatra's friendship with mob leader Sam Giancana and advised Sinatra to break off any such ties (the attorney general didn't know about Exner's tie to Giancana and the president). Sinatra declined to follow the advice. A short time later, John Kennedy canceled a planned visit to Sinatra's Palm Springs, California, home and stayed instead at the home of Bing Crosby. Sinatra was hurt and enraged, and reportedly felt that he had been betrayed by a man he befriended and helped. Although Kennedy and Sinatra continued communications on a less frequent and more discreet basis, Sinatra never again placed himself in such an unprotected and mortifying position.

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