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Books: A Thumb in the Public Eye His Way:The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra

5 minute read
John Skow

Shelley Winters decisioned him twice in 1951 (“slugging” him once and “slamming him over the head” another time) during squabbles over the filming of a forgettable movie called Meet Danny Wilson. “Bowlegged bitch of a Brooklyn blonde,” he called her. “Skinny, no-talent stupid Hoboken bastard,” she replied. Whap! She may be the only soul, living or dead, who comes out of Kitty Kelley’s gritty biography of Frank Sinatra looking wholesome. That includes two U.S. Presidents, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who cheapened their office by pal-ling around with Sinatra, the noted entertainer, bully and bar fighter who had another treasured friend in former Chicago Mafia Don Sam Giancana.

Sinatra filed a $2 million lawsuit in 1983 against Kelley, author of the tattletale biography Jackie Oh!, even before she had begun writing this book. His claim was unceremoniously dropped after a year of blustering, but it is no wonder that he tried to discourage Kelley; his life does not bear outside examination. “There’s a monster in him who wants to screw the world before it screws him,” said a onetime girlfriend, Actress Jacqueline Park. Kelley’s exhaustively researched account supports this assessment dead-on.

Ever since squealing, swooning teenage girls at Manhattan’s Paramount Theater gave him his first fame in the early ’40s, Sinatra, now 70, has swaggered about the world like a quattrocento tyrant, kissing the rings of bigshots and gangsters, throwing tantrums, shoving women around, and bloodying ordinary citizens who failed to grovel sufficiently. His messes have been cleaned up by bodyguards, lawyers and flacks, using money, the borrowed reputations of the influential and Sinatra’s own powers of retaliation.

Humphrey Bogart, a Hollywood tough guy who did not need bodyguards, liked Sinatra and thought him “amusing because he’s a skinny little bastard and his bones kind of rattle together.” But the stories Kelley has assembled are too numerous and grubby to be passed off as the forgivable sins of an amusing scamp, or of a tough-but-decent slum kid who made good. During the 1968 filming of Lady in Cement, according to Producer’s Assistant Michael Viner, a prostitute complained that Sinatra had asked her to stay for breakfast after an all-night party, and then used a knife and fork to eat an order of ham and eggs off her chest. She threatened to sue, said Viner, but 20th Century-Fox settled out of court. The late actor Peter Lawford, a Sinatra “Rat Pack” member who had married into the Kennedy family, recalled that “one time at a party in Palm Springs he got so mad at some poor girl that he slammed her through a plate glass window. There was shattered glass and blood all over the place and the girl’s arm was nearly severed . . . Frank paid her off later and the whole thing was hushed up, of course.”

Lawford and Jack Kennedy, then a Senator, stayed with Sinatra in Las Vegas at the Sands Hotel, in which the singer had a share. “Show girls from all over the town were running in and out,” said a Justice Department report. Lawford confided ruefully, “I was Frank’s pimp and Frank was Jack’s. It sounds terrible now, but it was really a lot of fun.” For his part, Sinatra introduced both J.F.K. and Giancana to a 25-year-old brunet named Judith Campbell (later Judith Exner); for over a year Kennedy, by then President, and the Mafia don shared the same mistress.

So goes the gossip, some new, some warmed over. Kelley’s narrative is as lengthy as a chronicle of the Hundred Years’ War, in part because even a selective list of Sinatra’s sexual skirmishes seems endless. The author ticks off affairs with, among many others, Marilyn Maxwell, Ava Gardner (his second wife), Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow (his third), Natalie Wood and Lauren Bacall. But the most important woman in the singer’s life, and Kelley’s most substantial contribution to the inside story, may have been Sinatra’s mother Dolly, an abortionist, ward politician and all-round force of nature who clawed her way up from poverty in Hoboken, saw to it that her high-school-dropout son always had slick clothes and spending money, and helped set up his first singing gigs.

Assuming that this biography of one of President Reagan’s Medal of Freedom winners is accurate, is it also fair? Kelley takes pains to point out that Sinatra’s callousness has often been balanced by a swaggering generosity. Ol’ Blue Eyes may have charged the gaudy anniversary ring he gave to Ava to her account, being down on his luck at the time. He also played benefits tirelessly for worthy causes, raised millions for charity, and impulsively paid bills for down-and-out show business acquaintances, and sometimes for people whose hard-luck stories he happened to see in newspapers.

What His Way acknowledges but cannot really convey is the gift that made Sinatra famous and kept him that way: the meticulous phrasing that changed the intonation of popular music, the velvety, plaintive baritone that was the most distinctive male singing voice between Bing Crosby’s and Elvis Presley’s. Sinatra’s character is a thumb in the public eye, but his songs continue to work a lonely magic. And not so lonely. Kelley notes that Frank, like everyone else, used Sinatra LPs as fail-safe aids to seduction.

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