Friday 17 January 2020

Obituary: Nancy Sinatra Snr

Frank Sinatra's long-suffering first wife and mother of three of his children

NANCY WITH THE LAUGHING FACE: Frank and Nancy Sinatra Snr leaving a Hollywood nightclub in October 1946. Photo: AP
NANCY WITH THE LAUGHING FACE: Frank and Nancy Sinatra Snr leaving a Hollywood nightclub in October 1946. Photo: AP

Nancy Sinatra Snr, who has died aged 101, was Frank Sinatra's first wife and the mother of his three eldest children.

The daughter of a plasterer, she was born Nancy Barbato on March 25, 1917 into a large Italian-American family, and was 17 when she met the 19-year-old Sinatra in 1934 at the New Jersey holiday resort of Long Branch, where he was working as a lifeguard.

When they began dating, Sinatra's indomitable mother Dolly was initially suspicious but soon decided that a meek little girl from a devout Catholic family would not stand in the way of her son's ambitions.

When they got engaged, Sinatra was so broke he did not have the money to buy Nancy a ring, so he gave her his mother's. Yet even then Sinatra was indulging in the womanising that would eventually destroy his marriage.

In 1938 Dolly orchestrated a job for her son as a $15-a-week singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, where in November Sinatra became involved in a dispute between Nancy and Toni Della Penta, another girl he was dating. When Toni tried to tear off Nancy's dress in a jealous rage, Sinatra told Toni he intended to marry Nancy because she was pregnant (untrue as it turned out).

Furious, the rejected girlfriend then went to the police claiming that Sinatra was refusing to honour a marriage proposal he had made to her before sleeping with her. Sinatra was arrested for seduction, his initial charge sheet stating that "on the second and ninth days of November 1938 at the Borough of Lodi" and "under promise of marriage" he "did then and there have sexual intercourse with the said complainant, who was a single female of good repute". When it emerged that Toni was married, Sinatra was arrested a second time and charged with adultery.

Both charges were eventually dropped and in 1939 Sinatra kept his word to Nancy by marrying her at Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic church in Jersey City, having, it was said, promised never to look at another woman again.

There were lean years after they married. Nancy made her own clothes and sewed her husband ties from old dresses. She would order spaghetti with tomato sauce because meat sauce was too expensive.

They had three children: Nancy, born in 1940; Frank Jr, born in 1944; and Tina, born in 1948. But within a year of their marriage, Frank was cheating on Nancy and by the time they moved to Los Angeles from New Jersey, he was becoming involved in numerous liaisons, shunning home comforts as he embarked on a jet-set life.

One of his relationships, with a showgirl called Dorothy Bunocelli, resulted in the birth of a daughter, born in 1943.

According to the memoirs of Tina Sinatra, Nancy was deeply hurt by her husband's infidelities, though the pair only separated after Sinatra's affair with Ava Gardner made world headlines in 1949.

In 1950 Nancy was granted a legal separation because of her husband's mental cruelty, though it was only in 1976, after Sinatra's marriage to his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, that he had his marriage to Nancy annulled by the Catholic Church. (A newspaper headline asked, "Did Frank Make the Vatican an Offer It Couldn't Refuse?").

Yet Nancy remained close to her ex-husband until his death in 1998. Indeed it was said that they saw more of each other after their marriage ended than they had before.

In an article in Vanity Fair in 2015, their granddaughter AJ Lambert recalled: "Throughout the many years after they split, my grandfather came to visit whenever his crazy life would allow it. I can remember times when she would be on the phone with her ex-husband, and the next thing I knew some eggplant was coming out of the freezer to thaw so that she could make him some sandwiches when he showed up."

When Sinatra died, though he left most of his assets to his widow Barbara, he gave a $250,000 cash bequest to Nancy and $200,000 apiece to the couple's three children, in addition to existing trust funds.

Nancy Sinatra never remarried, though she had offers. Once asked why, she replied sardonically: "After Sinatra?"

Nancy Sinatra Sr, who died on July 13, is survived by her two daughters. Her son, Frank Jr, died in 2016.

© Telegraph

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