Sunday 25 September 2016

Sinatra: The dark seducer with the boyish smile

Considered the greatest vocalist of his generation, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 next Saturday. His voice was legendary, but the crooner with the boyish smile was almost as famous for his mafia connections and his well-deserved reputation as a hot-tempered and compulsive seducer. Julia Molony remembers Ol' Blue Eyes

Julia Molony

Published 07/12/2015 | 02:30

Ava with Frank Sinatra
Ava with Frank Sinatra
In love: Frank married Mia Farrow, who was just 19, but the relationship ended in divorce after two years.

When Dean Martin first heard that his friend and rat-pack colleague Frank Sinatra was planning to marry Mia Farrow, he joked that he owned bottles of Scotch older than the bride.

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Farrow was 19-years-old and a virgin when she began a romance with Sinatra. He was 49, a global legend and a famous womaniser, with two train-wreck marriages already behind him. When he and Farrow tied the knot two years later, Sinatra's daughter Nancy was five years older than his new wife.

Farrow was quite unlike anyone Sinatra had been involved with before. By the time they met, he'd bedded half of Hollywood, including Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner. His previous, tabloid-fodder marriage, to Ava Gardner had ended spectacularly badly.

Mia was a child-like, doll-featured ingénue. Despite being the daughter of a famous director and film-star, she was goofy and shy - a clean-living, yoga-practising vegetarian.

Sinatra could not have been more different. He famously drank a bottle of whiskey a day and spoke proudly of his Mafia connections.

Despite the chasm in age and interests which lay between them, Farrow would later claim that Sinatra was the great love of her life. But their marriage was troubled from the first - due in no small part to her inexperience and his unpredictable and controlling behaviour. It lasted only two years. But the romance sparked a friendship and a warmth that would last a lifetime and Farrow has remained very much part of the Sinatra family.

Sinatra was a success at a lot of things but marriage wasn't one of them. A legendary singer and Oscar-winning actor, it has been speculated that he suffered from bipolar disorder. If true, this may have contributed to his personal struggles.

What's sure is that, besides his possible mental health struggles, he was a bad drunk with a fierce temper. Later in life, he seems to have a degree of self-awareness and insight into, and perhaps even a sense of humour about, his own character. Kitty Kelly - his unofficial biographer and, as a result, life-long nemesis, wrote that outside his ranch in Palm Springs he had mounted a sign which read: "Forget the dog, beware of the man."

It wasn't just Sinatra's love life that was chequered and complicated. Having grown up in New Jersey in a southern-Italian family, he had known and mingled with the Mafia since childhood, but as his fame grew, he sustained and even romanticised those connections. For Sinatra, the criminal underworld held a particular kind of allure and he was proud of his links to it. This was almost certainly motivated by a peculiar sort of vanity.

Perhaps he enjoyed the image of machismo he borrowed from his shadow-land friends. "I would rather be a Mafia don than President," he once said. And this view sustained, even when others around him, including Ava Gardner, expressed the opinion that his interest in the Mob was unhealthy and destructive. "These creeps are going to bring you down," she once told him. "One of these f***ing days, Francis, you are going to end up at the bottom of a river, wearing cement shoes."

He was never heavily enough involved to be in real danger, as it turned out. Sinatra lived to the ripe old age of 82, by which time his criminal connections had long-since faded and he succumbed, not to gangsters, but to heart disease. Still, a seam of violence and criminality runs through his life story. He wasn't afraid of using intimidation or even force when crossed.

Kitty Kelly found genuine reason to "beware the man" when researching her book about him. "Interviewing hundreds of people to research his life story was frightening," she later said. "To a man and a woman, they were scared of physical violence that might come to them for talking to me. This told me more than I ever wanted to know about the brutality, about the rage in Frank Sinatra's life. . . . I interviewed grown men who were convinced they, and in some cases their families, would be killed if they talked to me about Sinatra."

Certainly he could be volatile. Some have suggested that he would give the order to beat up people who crossed him. And he was not above getting involved in a brawl himself - he once cracked the skull of a fellow guest in a hotel in Beverly Hills by launching a telephone at his head, nearly killing him.

Sinatra's fourth (and most successful) marriage lasted until his death in 1998. But even his most stalwart wife, the former model Barbara Blakely, spoke after his death of his volatile temper. She called him her "Jekyll and Hyde husband" and described his rages.

"I was aware that a big part of Frank's attraction was the sense of danger he exuded like an underlying, ever-present tension," she wrote in her memoir. However, she insisted he was never physically violent towards her.

Born into a Sicilian family in New Jersey, he was an only child. According to James Kaplan, author of the most comprehensive Sinatra biography in print, the driving force in his early life was his domineering mother Dolly.

She was 19 when baby Frank arrived after a traumatic birth, which left both mother and baby almost dead. Despite only ever reaching 5 foot 7 as an adult, the infant Frank was said to have weighed in at over 13lb. A rough forceps delivery left Sinatra with scars down the left side of his face. As a teenager, he was teased and nicknamed 'Scarface.' Once he became famous, he wore make-up to cover the blemish, and for the rest of his life, when photographed he would always turn with his right.

He was a man riven with insecurities - not just with respect to the scars that he felt to be disfiguring. More than one biographer has commented that behind that infamous temper was a tissue-thin sense of self-esteem that always threatened to break.

Frank's father Anthony Sinatra was a boxer, but a simple, gentle man. His mother was pretty, lively and fiercely ambitious for her son. She was unconventional, to say the least - she trained as a midwife and practised as an abortionist, earning herself the soubriquet "Hat Pin Dolly." She too had an unpredictable temper and according to Kaplan, "she alternately coddled him and abused him." Clashes between mother and son happened often.

"The child was spirited and so was the mother," Kaplan writes. "She once pushed him down a flight of stairs, knocking him unconscious. She regularly beat him with a stick. In those days it was known as discipline."

Initially, Dolly tried to discourage her son's avid interest in music, hoping he'd become a doctor or a civil engineer, but once she saw the extent of his commitment, she determined to help him succeed, lending him money for equipment and lobbying a local nightclub owner to secure him a performance slot.

At high school, young Frank was in the Glee club. His first break came when he won a talent contest as part of a band called the Hobokken Four, but as for real fame, that came only about as a result of relentless grafting and plenty of grit. By Kaplan's description he was "like a whole-body case of restless leg syndrome".

Sinatra married his childhood sweetheart Nancy Barbato in 1939, when he was just 24. This starter-marriage, as it turned out to be, was an innocent, optimistic beginning to Sinatra's romantic life, which became one of the most notorious in Hollywood.

Having lost his virginity at 13, he spent his teenage years seducing girls in his neighbourhood and by the time he married, his identity as a prolific womaniser was already well formed. He and Nancy spent 12 years together and had three children. Their eldest, Nancy Sinatra, is herself a successful singer. But Frank was never faithful. He considered his marriage vows no impediment to the fulfilment of his every sexual whim. When, having recently moved to Hollywood with his wife and two eldest children, he first laid eyes on Lana Tuner (then at the height of her fame) on-screen, he decided he had to have her, according to one biographer, J Randy Taraborrelli. He got her phone number through a mutual contact and set about trying to seduce her. Within weeks of the start of their affair, he had fallen for her and asked Nancy for a divorce. As his celebrity grew, so did scrutiny of his personal life and his failure to conceal his many dalliances caused his wife terrible embarrassment.

It was his romance with Ava Gardner, once dubbed "the most irresistible woman in Hollywood", however, that was the final nail in the coffin of his marriage. Sinatra had first met the fiery, fiercely independent sex symbol when she arrived in Hollywood at the age of 18. But it wasn't until they met again at a party, several years later, that he began to pursue her in earnest.

She was 23 by then and already twice-divorced. She'd had a short starter marriage with Mickey Rooney, followed in quick succession by another with Artie Shaw. At the time she got together with Frank, she was being squired around Los Angeles on the arm of the tycoon Howard Hughes. This time, the attraction between them was instant. Certainly, from the outset they had a lot in common - both were hard-living, hot-tempered, heavy drinking, and sexually voracious. They were equally unconcerned by convention or contemporary mores. Together, they were wild.

Ava later revealed in her ghost-written memoirs, that on their first date, they drove along the streets of Palm Springs shooting at car lights and shop windows with a .38.

"I damn well knew he was married,' Ava recalled, "and married men were not high on my hit parade. But he was handsome, with his thin, boyish face, bright blue eyes and incredible grin. He was so enthusiastic and invigorated, clearly pleased with life, in general, himself in particular, and, at that moment, me."

They fell hard for each other and this time, Sinatra was not prepared to let Nancy stop him getting what he wanted. After a long dispute he agreed a generous settlement with Nancy and filed for divorce. Ten days after the paperwork came through, in 1951, he and Ava were married.

But things were already troubled between them by the time they tied the knot. Their fights were legendary. Though Gardner would later attribute the breakdown of their relationship to his womanising, the truth was that neither of them was faithful. According to one report, just before they were due to wed, Gardner received a letter from a prostitute who claimed that Sinatra had been availing of her services for months, yet she married him anyway. Both Frank and Ava were emotionally unstable. As one friend of the couple's, Gloria Cahn observed, being with the pair was often "like sitting on cracked eggs. You never knew if there were going to be verbal daggers. And Frank was so subservient to her. He was insane about that woman."

Sinatra particularly quickly proved himself to be a man fond of a melodramatic gesture - once in the middle of a heated argument over the phone with Ava, he fired a gun into his mattress. Later, after a vicious row, he was said to have swallowed a handful of pills. Already a man who struggled to weather the storm of his own disordered emotions, the relationship drove him close to the edge of despair.

It didn't help that at the time of their marriage Frank was going through a difficult time with his career - the golden boy was in a temporary rut, his record sales were stalling. This professional drought of the late 1940s and early 1950s was arguably one of his most difficult periods. The talent agent Irving Lazar declared him effectively "a dead man" in 1952.

Ava, meanwhile, had become one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses. In the end, it was she who finally called time on the relationship. Their sexual chemistry, previously powerful, was starting to fizzle out. "You, of all people, know I like it rough," a frustrated Gardner confessed to her ex-husband Artie Shaw. 'With Frank, it's impossible. It's like being in bed with a woman. He's so gentle. It's as if he thinks I'll break."

She finally left him for a Spanish bullfighter named Luis Miguel Dominguin whom she met while working on location in Europe.

"I was happier married to Frank than ever before. If I'd been willing to share him with other women, we could have been happy," she later said. He, meanwhile, was left desolate, even slitting one of his wrists.

Though the end of the marriage was a low ebb for Frank, things were about to change.

While Ava had been away filming and pursuing her bullfighting beau, Frank was back in America filming From Here to Eternity. He'd fought tooth and nail to get the part, even going so far as to waive his fee, agreeing to work instead for expenses of $1,000 a week, which is an indication of just how low his stock in Hollywood had fallen. The release of the film in 1954 was the watershed of a spectacular comeback. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his portrayal of Private Angelo Maggio - his first non-singing role.

Though the romance with Ava Gardner was over, the two of them remained close for the rest of their lives. The passion between them eventually mellowed into a warm friendship and mutual respect.

Sinatra spent much of the decade fronting the Rat Pack, who performed a regular slot at Caesar's Palace. By then, his standing as a legend was already secured and his personal life a Who's Who of the stars of the day. In 1961, he had a short and mostly unsatisfactory affair with Marilyn Monroe - neither seemed to have held the other in very high regard and it was during this period too that he formed a close friendship with the then-President JFK - whom Sinatra nicknamed "chickie baby."

By the time Sinatra married for the fourth and final time, in 1976, he was already into his 60s and had no doubt mellowed. It reveals something about the man that, despite the unflattering aspects of his public reputation, he remained, until his death, on the whole respected and admired by the women who had loved him.

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan is out now priced €44.99

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