"Nothing anybody's said or written about me ever bothers me, except when it does" -Frank Sinatra
"Frank had agreed to pay Nancy $2,750 a month in temporary support. Later, he wanted so much to be free that he signed an agreement to pay her one-third of his gross income up to $150,000, and ten percent of the gross above that figure until her death or remarriage, with the payments never to fall below one thousand dollars a month. In addition, Nancy kept the Holmby Hills home, stock in the Sinatra Music Corporation, their 1950 gray Cadillac, and custody of the children. Frank kept the Palm Springs house, a 1949 Cadillac convertible, and all his musical compositions and records.
Frank was in Reno establishing Nevada residency and singing at the Riverside Hotel. He’d also accepted a two-week engagement at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. A few days later, Ava arrived to stay with him, and again he invited the press in to say that they would be married as soon as he got a divorce. Over the Labor Day weekend, the couple went to Lake Tahoe with Hank Sanicola and his wife, Paula. Late in the evening of August 31, 1951, after a few hours of drinking and gambling at the Christmas Tree restaurant, Frank and Ava had another one of their terrible fights. It ended with Ava’s hurrying back to Hollywood while Frank, despondent and depressed, returned to his chalet at the Cal-Neva Lodge and took an overdose of sleeping pills.
His valet, George Jacobs, found him in a stupor. Jacobs immediately called Sanicola, who summoned a doctor to pump Frank’s stomach. The doctor, John Wesley Field, later told the sheriff, Frank identified himself as Henry Sanicola. With George and Hank in the room, the doctor examined Frank’s heart and pulse, and prescribed salts to induce vomiting and a stimulant to counteract the sleeping pills. Then, as required by law, he reported the incident to the sheriff, who sent a deputy sheriff to investigate. Three days later, the incident became national news, but by the time reporters showed up to ask questions, Frank and Ava were reunited and sitting together holding hands. The reporters wrote what they were told: Frank didn’t feel well, so he took “a couple” of sleeping pills, which produced an allergic reaction. Years later, George Jacobs confirmed that Frank had indeed tried to commit suicide that night over Ava Gardner. “Thank God, I was there to save him”, he said. “Miss Gardner was the one great love of his life, and if he couldn’t have her, he didn’t want to live no more.”
“Ava loved Frank, but not the way he loved her,” said Hank Sanicola. “Twice he went chasing her to Africa, wasting his own career.… 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.” Frank was so distraught that, according to Jimmy Van Heusen, he often vomited. Frank called Earl Wilson and begged him to print his plea for a reconciliation. When Ava saw the column she called Frank. Hemingway had asked that Ava be given the role of Cynthia -the Lost Twenties girl whom the big-game hunter had once loved and who dies during the Spanish Civil War- in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Ava was thrilled with the role, but Frank said she had to turn it down so she could be with him in New York. “But it’s the perfect part for me,” she said. “The perfect part for you is being my wife,” said Frank.
The camaraderie among the cast and crew of "From Here to Eternity" made the wrap party memorable. “We gave a party for the cast when it was over,” said Joan Cohn Harvey, “and I still remember Frank sitting there telling everyone that in sixteen more hours he would be with Ava. ‘She’s the most beautiful woman in the world. You know that, don’t you?’ he’d say. ‘Yes, Frank, we all know how beautiful Ava is,’ I’d say. ‘She’s not just one of the most beautiful women in the world; she’s the most beautiful,’ he’d insist. He thought that he was married to the most exquisite creature on the face of the earth, and he was desperately in love with her. It was kind of sad because all the rest of us knew that the marriage was held together by mere threads at that point.”
Ava related this incident to friends as evidence that the lovable Frankie she had married was now an overbearing, inconsiderate boor. “When he was down and out, he was so sweet,” she said, “but when he got back to the top again, it was hell. Now that he’s got successful again, he’s become his old arrogant self. We were happier when he was on the skids.” Frank argued that Ava had “a thing” amounting to aberrant jealousy. He said she constantly suspected he was involved in other romances, all of which he denied. “If it took seventy-five years to get a divorce, there wouldn’t be any other woman for me,” he said. His friends had advised him to give her up, saying Ava was too complex and full of problems for him. “Sure, it’s easy for somebody to say give her up—when they’re not in love with her.”
Ava went to Palm Springs while Frank poured his heart out to Louella Parsons in Las Vegas. “I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I love her,” he said. “Ava doesn’t love me anymore. If she did, she’d be here where she belongs—with me. Instead, she’s in Palm Springs having a wonderful time.” “Why, Louella, she didn’t even come to my opening here! Why would she do a thing like that to me? That’s only part of it. Ever since our marriage, I’ve been at her beck and call. No matter where she’s been, I’ve flown to her regardless of the fact that I also had some important engagements. But I was willing to neglect them for her.… She saw my mother. My mother said to her, ‘All this fighting is no good. Why don’t you telephone Frank?’”
Instead, Ava called her lawyer, Neil McCarthy, after seeing a photograph of Frank in the newspapers dressed as a clown at a Halloween party he threw at the Sands. Two gorgeous show girls flanked him. Ava told her lawyer that she wanted a divorce. On October 29, 1953, MGM announced that the marriage was over: “Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra stated today that having reluctantly exhausted every effort to reconcile their differences, they could find no mutual basis on which to continue their marriage. Both expressed deep regret and great respect for each other. Their separation is final and Miss Gardner will seek a divorce.” Ava announced that she was leaving for Rome to make The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart. She said she was in no hurry to file for divorce but nonchalantly dismissed the possibility of a reconciliation.
Out of his mind with grief over Ava, Frank flew to New York en route to a nightclub engagement at the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. He began frightening friends by telephoning in a gloomy voice, “Please see that the children are taken care of,” and hanging up. On November 18, 1953, songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen, Sinatra's close friend, who had an apartment on Fifty-seventh Street, found Frank on the floor of the elevator with his wrists slashed. Van Heusen immediately called a doctor and rushed Frank to Mt. Sinai Hospital, but not before paying the man at the front desk of his building fifty dollars to keep quiet about the incident. Frank remained in Mt. Sinai while his representatives fielded questions from the press. His agent said that Frank was “not seriously ill”; his doctor said he was suffering from “complete physical exhaustion, severe loss of weight, and a tremendous amount of emotional strain.” The slashed wrists were dismissed as “an accident with a broken glass,” and Frank signed himself out two days later, saying he felt “just fine.”
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner at the premiere of "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman" in Los Angeles, on 10th January 1952
“It was Ava who did that, who taught him how to sing a torch song,” said Nelson Riddle. “That’s how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life, and he lost her.” Critic George Simon wrote that Frank “produced some of his most emotional recordings during this period”. Brooding over Ava, Frank barely weighed a hundred and twenty pounds. He did everything he could to endear himself to her, hoping to change her mind about the divorce; he called her repeatedly and sent her all his records. He even had a large coconut cake delivered by Lauren Bacall, who was going to Rome to join her husband, Humphrey Bogart, Ava’s co-star in The Barefoot Contessa.
“She couldn’t have cared less,” said Lauren Bacall. “She wanted me to put it down on some table she indicated—not a thank-you, nothing.… Her reaction had only to do with Frank—she was clearly through with him, but it wasn’t that way on his side.” It was no secret that Ava had started a love affair with a Spanish bullfighter, Luis Miguel Dominguin, who, after Manolete’s death, was considered the greatest bullfighter in the world and revered in Spain as no movie star had ever been. Sinatra remained so tortured by Ava’s affair with the great matador that years later, when he was approached to play Manolete, he turned the part down, claiming that the American public didn’t like bullfighting. And even after the divorce, Frank still kept talking about his beautiful ex-wife. “He never got her out of his system,” said Nick Sevano. “She had a hold over him no other woman ever had.”
Frank fell into many arms trying to recover from Ava, and reached out to every woman around him for comfort. “He was wonderful and I liked him very much,” said Vanessa Brown, “but I just didn’t want to marry him. He asked me several times, but I think he was looking for someone to take care of him—a basic, old-fashioned girl who would cook and clean and keep house. He needed that. It bothered him very much that I never had any food in the house. He said, ‘Can’t you make some pasta or something?’ ”
“He always told me one of the things that fascinated him about Ava was that there was no conquest,” said comedian Shecky Greene. “He couldn’t conquer her. He couldn’t control her or dominate her. He’d get drinking and tell me how she always called him a goddamned hoodlum and a gangster. He’d never take that from anyone else but Ava.”
Frank’s psychiatrist analyzed his generosity as the need to dominate people as his mother did. When Joi Lansing, who was a regular bedmate of Frank’s for years, was dying of leukemia, he paid for all of her hospital bills. “His generosity means that he himself is the ever-bountiful, giving person,” said Dr. Ralph Greenson. “He was real good to his girls”, said his makeup man, Beans Ponedel. “He gave them all parts in his movies. He did it for Gloria Vanderbilt in Johnny Concho, but she walked out; he did it for Shirley MacLaine (Some Came Running), he did it for Joi Lansing (A Hole in the Head); he did it for Natalie Wood (Kings Go Forth).”
Although Frank dated other women, his secret relationship with Lauren Bacall was already being whispered about among their close friends. As New Year’s party in Palm Springs ended, Frank asked the Bogarts to stay on. Lauren Bacall wanted to, but her husband insisted they leave. In the car going home she said, “We should have stayed.” Her husband disagreed. “No, we shouldn’t,” he said. “You must always remember we have a life of our own that has nothing to do with Frank. He chose to live the way he’s living—alone. It’s too bad if he’s lonely, but that’s his choice. We have our own road to travel, never forget that—we can’t live his life.”
There was no one in Hollywood whom Frank admired more than Humphrey Bogart. He worshiped the cynical, outspoken fifty-six-year-old actor as an artist, and looked up to him as a kind of mentor, continually asking him what books to read, knowing that Bogart had a thorough grounding in the classics. Bogart had attended Trinity and Andover in preparation for Yale, but had joined the navy instead of going to college. He was everything Frank wanted to be—educated, sophisticated, respected. On screen, Bogie was the ultimate tough guy and in person he had an intractable sense of self. Bogart, in turn, was amused by Frank’s mercurial temperament. “He’s fighting people who don’t want to fight,” he said. Much as he enjoyed Sinatra’s company, Bogart said, “I don’t think Frank’s an adult emotionally. He can’t settle down.” Later, he told reporters that “Frank’s idea of paradise is a place where there are plenty of women and no newspapermen. He doesn’t realize it, but he’d be better off if it were the other way around.”
“Everybody knew about Betty and Frank. We just hoped Bogie wouldn’t find out. That would have been more killing than the cancer.” -said playwright Ketti Frings, who visited Bogart at home during his last days. On Monday, January 14, 1957, Humphrey Bogart died, three weeks after his fiftyseventh birthday. Frank was performing in New York at the Copa when he got the news. He canceled his next two appearances, telling his agents, “I can’t go on. I wouldn’t be coherent.” He called Lauren Bacall in California and offered her his house in Palm Springs for two weeks, then canceled three more shows. But he still couldn’t bring himself to fly to the West Coast for the funeral.
It was months of what Bacall described as an “erratic” courtship. Frank would be “wildly attentive” one minute, and sullen the next. “He’d had so many scars from so many past lives—was so embittered by his failure with Ava—he was not about to take anything from a woman,” she said. Frank vacillated until the evening of March 11, 1958, fourteen months after Bogart’s death, when he finally proposed. Ava Gardner called Frank from Spain. “I hear you called off the marriage to Betty Bacall”, she said. Ava gleefully related the story every time the Sinatra-Bacall affair was mentioned to her. Not so gleeful was Lauren Bacall, who wrote in her autobiography years later: “He was too cowardly to tell the truth—that it was just too much for him, that he’d found he couldn’t handle it. But the truth also is that he behaved like a complete shit.” Frank resented her book. “I think it was unfair, because there is another side to it,” he said, “but I’m not going to give it. Some things should rest.”
Still of Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Vivian Blaine in "Guys and Dolls" (1955) directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Frank wanted the role of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront so that he could return to Hoboken as a conquering hero. The producer, Sam Spiegel, wanted Marlon Brando to play the part. “I wanted Frank to play the priest, but he wanted to play the Marlon Brando role,” said Spiegel. Smarting over losing the lead to Brando, an actor he despised—Sinatra called Brando “Mumbles” and “the most overrated actor in the world”—Frank sued Sam Spiegel for $500,000, claiming breach of contract. He and Spiegel later settled the lawsuit amicably, without any exchange of money. In 1954 and 1955 Frank made more movies than any other star in Hollywood. He played a psychopathic assassin in Suddenly; a saloon pianist in Young at Heart; a physician in Not as a Stranger; a theatrical agent in The Tender Trap; the proprietor of “the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York” in Guys and Dolls; and a drug-addicted card dealer, Frankie Machine, in The Man with the Golden Arm, which was his favorite movie and the one that earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Asked if Sinatra was unprofessional, Billy Wilder said, “I think this: if, instead of involving himself in all those enterprises, nineteen television shows and records by the ton and four movies all at once and producing things and political things and all those broads—his talent on film would be stupendous. That would be the only word. Stupendous. He could make us all, all the actors that is, look like faggots.”
“Dolly, who always praised Ava Gardner, wasn’t impressed with Mia Farrow at all, but she was putting on a good show for Frank,” said Al Algiro, a close friend of Dolly and Marty who had helped with the dinner. “It was a great party. After everyone left, Dolly said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ she said. ‘She doesn’t talk. She doesn’t eat. What’s she do?’ Then she shook her head and said, ‘It won’t last long, so I guess it’s a good thing they weren’t married in the Church... ”
Devastated by the firing, George Jacobs reminisced about the years he worked for Sinatra : "I nursed him through his suicide attempt in Lake Tahoe. I helped him get through Ava, who was the only woman he ever loved. I was even the nurse after his hair transplants from Dr. Sammy Ayres, who had done Joey Bishop first. I drove all the girls to Red Krohn [Dr. Leon Krohn] for their abortions, and I treated each one of those dames like a queen because that’s what he wanted me to do. The women that man had over the years!" -"His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra" by Kitty Kelley (2010)
"I was married to Zeppo Marx, the youngest of the famous comedy brothers. Our next-door neighbor Frank Sinatra had recently divorced for the third time and was dating some of the world’s most desirable women. I’d met his second wife, Ava Gardner, and Mia Farrow, his third. I’d seen Marilyn Monroe when she stayed with him not long before she died, and would meet Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak, Juliet Prowse, and Judy Garland, all of whom he’d stepped. Not that I was a complete naïf. As a young model and the wife of a gambler named Bob Oliver, I’d been wooed by John F. Kennedy. As a Las Vegas showgirl, I’d resisted Frank’s advances, and I’d lived with a television host named Joe Graydon. I’d been chased by some of the world’s most drop-dead, knockout movie stars, none of whom had anything on Frank. He had a sexual energy all his own. Even Elvis Presley, whom I’d met in Vegas, never had it quite like that. By the time he turned his attentions to me, he was a fifty-five-year-old living legend who’d grown accustomed to getting his own way. He had money, power, and friends, all of which helped occupy his restless mind. The one thing he didn’t have, though, was love.
He asked if anyone wanted “more gasoline” and offered to fix me a fresh martini. Taking my arm, he led me to the den. It was my turn to watch as he swirled vodka around a glass, reached for an olive and then some ice. A cigarette balanced on his bottom lip, a curl of blue smoke rising. He handed me my drink with a Salute! and then added softly, “Come sit with me awhile.” Inhaling his heady scent of lavender water, Camel cigarettes, and Jack Daniel’s, I could do nothing but savor the moment of intoxication, oblivious to the consequences. As we settled onto a couch, our eyes met, and then he pulled me into his arms and kissed me. I knew with that first kiss that I was about to become another Sinatra conquest, and the thought snatched away what little breath he’d left me.
In the privacy of my bedroom, I’d learned how to jitterbug, but it was ages before I’d dare try it in public. It was sitting in the local drive-in as a bored fifteen-year-old that I first heard the singer everyone was talking about. Sinatra-mania had gripped the country, and I’d seen Sinatra’s photograph in countless teen and movie magazines. The number I first heard him sing was a romantic ballad called “I’ll Walk Alone”, and I shivered to the toes of my bobby sox. Oh, how we sighed. Bing Crosby may have been the most popular vocalist of the day, but Frank was younger and far more handsome, with his sharp cheekbones and megawatt smile.
I was offered work with Vogue and Life magazines, although not quite what I’d imagined. In one shoot for Noxzema sun cream, I was plastered in bright red makeup to make me look sunburned. The caption read: “Don’t Fool with Sunburn!” I was so embarrassed by the results, but Bob cut out the advertisement and proudly showed it to everybody in his favorite West Side bar. As our baby grew inside me, so did my nausea. Work became a disaster because I kept throwing up or passing out. In the end, Eileen Ford peered at me through her enormous spectacles in her brownstone offices on Fifty-fourth Street and informed me that no one else would hire me. She offered me dry congratulations when I finally admitted my condition and bade me a brisk farewell.
It was the summer of 1956 when Joe and I moved into a small furnished apartment at the back of the Sahara Hotel. Our neighbors were casino employees and wait staff, most of whom slept during the day and worked all night. The sprawling metropolis of Las Vegas was unrecognizable from the days I’d first gone there with Bob Oliver. Then it was a small western town that still held rodeos and boasted just four casinos on its Strip—Hotel Last Frontier, the Thunderbird, the Flamingo, and El Rancho Vegas.
I spotted an advertisement in the Las Vegas Sun for showgirls at the Riviera. “Minimum five feet nine inches tall”, the ad insisted, but I figured half an inch wouldn’t matter by the time I slipped on some heels. I met Howard Hughes a couple of times and would smile as I was obliged to, but I saw the way he harassed the other girls so I always tried to avoid eye contact after that. Elvis Presley was working in Vegas, so he was a regular too, but he was after every girl in the place, and I avoided men who drank too much or got high. The top acts in town that year included the Minsky Girls (the first topless showgirls in Vegas), Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra, who opened at the Sands soon after his divorce from Ava Gardner.
“I’ve been torching you for over a year,” Zeppo finally reminded me one night in Chasen’s restaurant. He was very convincing, and when he saw my hesitation, he added softly, “I’ll take good care of you, Barbara.” “Will you marry me?” he asked. I took a deep breath. “Sure”, I heard myself saying. “I’ll marry you, Zep.” On September 18, 1959, Zeppo and I were married in the place where we met—the Riviera Hotel in Vegas. Zeppo had already bought me a six-carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring, and on our wedding day he presented me with a simple goldband. Zep and I spent the rest of our weeklong honeymoon taking in shows like the one at the Copa Room of the Sands with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. Although Zeppo bought me a car and a mink coat, he wasn’t extravagant with his gifts and only ever gave me one important piece of jewelry—a ruby and diamond bracelet. He didn’t want me to have my own money. It was jealousy, I think, and fear that, if I had the means, I might escape.
Marilyn Monroe, Tony’s lover when they’d starred together in Some Like It Hot, came to the Racquet Club a couple of times when Frank Sinatra was in town. When my son, Bobby, heard that the woman of his boyhood dreams was Frank’s guest somewhere just beyond the hedge, his eyes virtually came out on stalks. I saw Marilyn at the club a couple of times, and she was certainly very beautiful with a voluptuous figure. I could see why she’d attract the likes of Mr. Sinatra, among others. She was married to the playwright Arthur Miller at the time, but her dependence on drugs and alcohol left her vulnerable. We had a casual conversation and she seemed sweet, but we were never going to be close. A few years later she was dead. Someone told me she was playing Frank’s music the night she died.
Ava Gardner, another woman who’d featured so prominently in Frank’s life, came to the Springs as well. Knowing Ava was an avid tennis player, Frank built a court for her at the Compound, even though she was staying only a few days. I hardly knew him then. Then one day, shortly before Ava was due to arrive in town, Frank called me out of the blue. “Barbara, it’s Frank Sinatra,” he said. I sat up and took notice. This wasn’t someone who called every day. “A friend of mine’s coming into town. I’d like to set up a tennis match for her. You know everybody at the Racquet Club. Can you please organize a doubles match for her, and get someone go od in?” “I’d be happy to”, I told him.
Frank appeared, and I felt nervous in his company, not least because he tried to make Ava jealous by flirting with me. At one point he even cornered me up against the chain-link fence, but by then I’d figured out his game. “You know, Frank,” I told him, “I’ve had a wonderful day and I enjoyed my drink, but I really have to go home to Zeppo now.” My parting sight of Frank that day was his watching his ex-wife openly flirting with her handsome tennis partner. Frank had the strangest expression in those eyes of his, which swirled with every emotion. I think he held a torch for Ava his whole life.
Frank was witty and charming—the perfect host, especially when he insisted that nobody was allowed to leave early, which secretly delighted me. As I was soon to discover, he liked to drink long hours and never wanted people to go because he needed company. If they drank too, they were in. Friends like Bill Holden, Robert “Mother” Mitchum, John Wayne, Glenn Ford, and Orson Welles (whom Frank called “the Big Man”) were most definitely in. People like Tony Bennett, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, and Henry Fonda, who didn’t drink much and liked to turn in early, weren’t often included.
Meantime, he was flirting with every female at the party but always so discreetly that few but the women noticed. I watched how he worked the room and prayed it would never be my turn. It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle Frank—I’d been a showgirl, after all—but I was worried about Zeppo’s increasing jealousy.
Frank’s two-bedroom suite at the Hôtel de Paris, with its penthouse view of the harbor on three sides, was the finest I’d ever been in. Large French doors opened out onto a terrace. Classical music drifted up from below. Exquisite silks adorned the windows; the beds and sofas were comfortingly overstuffed. The whole place looked like a movie set. As Frank opened the bottle of champagne that was waiting on ice, I wandered out to the balcony of that big white wedding cake of a building, and the view almost stopped my heart. Car lights traced a line along the coastal highway all the way to Cap Ferrat. Stars twinkled high above. If my first night at the Ittlesons’ had seemed like an earth-based dream, then surely this was heaven. Lucky girl, Barbara Blakeley, I thought to myself. Remember this moment. Frank handed me a champagne flute, and we toasted each other. Setting our glasses down, we moved closer, and then he enfolded me in the gentlest embrace.
In the summer of 1961, Frank invited us to the grand reopening of the Cal Neva Lodge and casino in Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. Having shared in the success of Vegas, he’d applied for a gambling license of his own, bought the lodge with a group of investors, and had it completely refurbished. Cocktails were at five o’clock, and then all the ladies would be handed three hundred dollars’ worth of chips to ensure we had a good time. Boy, did we have fun in the place billed as “Heaven in the High Sierra.” The Cal Neva became controversial in Frank’s life later when some claimed he was too closely involved with the Mob there, but most of his show business friends knew more gangsters than he ever did. Even Zeppo consorted occasionally with those he called “the boys” when he co-owned the El Rancho casino. “JFK” as he was now known, had been in Palm Springs two years earlier, immediately before his election as the thirty-fifth president of the United States. As Frank Sinatra had rallied his showbiz friends to support “the Jack Pack,” the president naturally stayed at the home of his staunchest supporter.
Frank Sinatra and John Kennedy at the Sands, February, 1960
Frank Sinatra was devastated by the assassination of JFK, whom he described as “the brightest star in our lives.” As he had when Marilyn Monroe died the previous year, he mourned by locking himself alone in a room for days at a time. He was quoted around that time as saying, “I’m for whatever gets you through the night—be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.” Then to add to his woes, his father, Marty, died. I met Marty once, at a party Frank threw at the Compound. Marty was a great cook, as was Frank’s mother, Dolly, who’d stay up all night making what she called the “gravy” for the pasta while Jilly dipped bread into it. Marty made the best gnocchi I ever tasted.
Frank Sinatra smoking on the set of "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955) directed by Otto Preminger
Frank had so many people stay with him at the Compound. Tony Bennett, who Frank always said was “the best singer in the business”, came once with his girlfriend of the time, Peggy Lee. Ella Fitzgerald was a guest. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton came too, during their most tempestuous phase, in the late sixties. They drank too much and argued all the time in front of people; it was like the movie Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One day I came in off the tennis court and found them sitting by the pool. As I walked past, Richard turned to Frank and said, “Wow! Those are some legs on that girl!” Elizabeth, who was coming to the end of her Hollywood heyday, looked up and complained, “I suppose my legs are terrible?”
“They’re stubby”, Richard replied, taking a slug from his whiskey, “and so are your fingers.” Furious, she jumped up and rounded on him. “Then I want the biggest fucking diamond ever to go on my stubby fingers!” she cried. In due course, Richard did just as he was told and bought her the sixty-nine-carat “Taylor-Burton” diamond for over a million dollars from Cartier. Frank always said that was my fault. Frank began to quiz me about my life before Zeppo. When I told him that I’d been a showgirl at the Riviera, he asked, “How come I didn’t meet you in Vegas then? Didn’t you come to any of my shows?” I replied. “I did see you one night. You were in the bar at the Sahara with all your pallies. I was walking past the door with some girlfriends and you asked me to come in, but I kept on walking.” “Why?”
“I didn’t want to deal with a drunk” I told him flatly. From the look on his face, I could tell that kind of hit him in the stomach. Frank Sinatra didn’t get too many rejections. It was at Pinyon Crest one night that our spirited game of charades ended with his hurling the clock against the door after I’d called time. I’ll never forget the fire in Frank’s eyes and the way he looked at me. His expression was full of anger and frustration, but there was something else—desire. Frank smiled and asked, “Will you come and have dinner with me tonight, Sunshine Girl?” Frank offered to fix me a martini in the den. When he pulled me into his arms, I was caught completely off guard, but I found myself returning his kiss with just as much ardor. There was no way to avoid that flirtation. Besides, I was as lost and lonely as he was. My marriage was all but dead.
Frank was tender and kind, generous and funny. He’d walk past my chair humming “I’ve Got a Crush on You” or brush his fingers against my shoulder as if by accident. He was probably the most gentlemanly person I’d ever met—opening doors, helping with my coat, jumping up to freshen my glass. Everywhere he went he’d stop to buy extravagant gifts for friends and family, shipping parcels home or having surprise packages and flowers delivered to our rooms. He remembered everything from friends’ favorite colors to what kinds of cologne they wore. He addressed store and hotel staff by their first names, recalling them from previous visits. He led Nancy and me into a jewelry shop and almost bought the place out. He chose me some beautiful earrings and a ring and then later went back on his own to buy me something else, telling me, “You’d look maaarvelous in this!” (using an intonation he’d picked up from his friend Noël Coward). Frank never stopped pursuing me, and whenever we saw each other, he’d try to get me on my own. He’d walk away from me singing “If It Takes Forever I Will Wait for You” or some other tune that I knew was intended for me.
Eden Marx, Groucho’s third wife, owned a small house right near the golf course off Tamarisk that she wanted to sell. It would be perfect for me, but unsure what I’d be able to afford, I hesitated in making an offer. To my surprise, Frank stepped in and bought it. Even though the house was his, Mr. Generous put it in my name and had his lawyer hand me the deed. By then everyone knew that Zeppo and I were divorcing, so I accepted Frank’s offer, packed my bags, and moved out of my marital home. Frank and I officially became a couple and I his constant companion. A few weeks later he took me as his guest to the party of the year in Palm Springs—the prestigious New Year’s Eve affair at the home of his friend Walter Annenberg, American ambassador to the United Kingdom. Walter, who was also a media magnate and philanthropist, told me I was the “best thing in the world for Frank.” He added, “If that idiot ever sees sense and asks you to marry him, you must have your wedding here at Sunnylands.”
Frank went on to perform at a White House dinner where President Nixon asked him, “What are you retired for? You really should sing.” I liked Nixon and met him several times, usually at the White House. I always found him charming and refreshingly unshowy. I was seated next to him once during a meal, and we got chatting about food. He told me of his Quaker childhood on a ranch in Orange County and how much he loved home-cooked food, especially beans. “Why, Mr. President, I love beans too!” I told him. “I have ever since the days my grandmother used to grow them and can them back in Missouri.” After that, beans became our connection. “Barbara”, the president would tell me with a conspiratorial smile every time I saw him, “you and I have got to go out and get that bean dinner together.”
Frank went back into the studio with his old friends the producer Gordon Jenkins and the arranger Don Costa and recorded his bestselling album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, featuring some interesting and new material he’d never sung before. The song he chose as the opening track was “You Will Be My Music” written by his friend Joe Raposo, which I watched him record in New York. That was such a romantic moment in a lifetime of romantic moments—Frank looking directly at me as he sang that song with all the tenderness in his heart: Wanting you is everything You will be my music Yes, you will be my song. The words were so lovely, and he told me afterward, “This is our story, baby.” It was a difficult song to sing and a little too rangy for him, but he liked the words so much he sang it time and again, always dedicating it to me as “the love of my life.” Another number he’d often sing to me was called “You’re So Right (for What’s Wrong in My Life),” which had the lines, “You just fill every void in my life” and “Through the darkness of night, you’re my one shining light.”
Frank Sinatra never apologized to anybody. Ever. Period. Not even to me. One time years later when I was packing to leave him after a fight we’d had about something stupid, I told him I’d only stay if he said sorry. Under duress, he finally admitted, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” It was a half-assed apology, but it was the only one I ever got. He always said, “There are two things I never do—yawn in front of the woman I love, and apologize.” The latter was not in his psyche, for to apologize would be to admit that he might have been wrong. “Here, beautiful,” he’d say, above the sirens of the police motorcycle outriders howling as we set off. Presenting the rose to me with a kiss, he’d smile and add almost shyly, “This is for you.” There was rarely any sitting around after the show like some performers do, swathed in warm towels. If ever there was a lineup of visitors outside his dressing room door, that would be before a show, not after. Once a show was over, the night was just beginning, and Frank needed to be away from the theater. He wanted companionship and chatter, his drinking buddies and me.
Frank was, without doubt, the most romantic man I had ever met. Not only did he make a point of telling me how much he cared for me every day but he’d leave little notes and cards around the place for me to find. He’d draw a smiley face wearing a bow tie, and then beneath it he’d write something thing like “Good morning, pretty—I love you, F.” He’d often sign himself Charlie Neat because it was the perfect moniker. Charlie was a name he used whenever he wanted to be incognito on the telephone, at a hotel or venue, and he was obsessively neat. I have kept every one of the notes he wrote me, and I still have them, pasted into a scrapbook. Even in the middle of a world tour with its punishing rehearsal and performance schedules, Frank always took time out to surprise me with dinner plans. He claimed I had a “black belt” in shopping, but then who wouldn’t when repeatedly told, “Get what you want, baby—the sky’s the limit.” Even though I could buy myself whatever I wanted, he continued to shower me with gifts. Knowing how fond I am of jewelry, he’d pick me out something like a set of “poils” from Japan and present them to me, often in the most unlikely way. One night we were preparing to go out for a gala dinner in Monte Carlo, and I was having my hair done in our suite. Not yet dressed, I was wearing a smock while a hairdresser tended to me at my dressing table. Frank strolled in wearing his tux and asked, “What are you wearing tonight, sweetheart?”
“That oyster silk gown you like,” I replied, smiling at his reflection in the glass. “What jewelry?” “Oh, I don’t know. I might wear my ruby and diamond choker, but I haven’t decided.” He reached into the pocket of his dinner jacket and pulled out the most incredible necklace I had ever seen in my life. There was no velvet box, no fancy wrapping, just a necklace dripping with diamonds and emeralds, ending in a final drop of a rock the size of a quail’s egg. “Try this” he said, casually slipping it into the pocket of my smock. “It was made for Madame Cartier.” I held my breath. This was the Cartier Necklace, the talk of Monte Carlo. It had been the centerpiece of the Boutique Cartier window next door to the casino. Only the previous day I’d stopped and stared at it in awe with some of my girlfriends. Speechless, I draped it around my neck as Frank fixed the clasp.
George Raft had a tax bill he couldn’t pay, Frank gave him a signed check but didn’t fill in the amount. “Use what you need,” he said. There was definitely a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to Frank’s character, and he was undoubtedly a complicated individual. Frank always said he hated women who couldn’t hold their drink, who wore too much makeup or heavy perfume. He claimed to be allergic to perfume, and the only one he could stomach was Fracas, a scent by the Parisian perfumier Robert Piguet. Frank also disliked women who smoked—he thought smoking was “unfeminine.” Dolly was a feisty little dame who had a hold over Frank like no one else. They had such a love-hate relationship, and I think she was probably the only person Frank was afraid of his whole life. A Catholic who became more devout the older she got, she despaired of his three failed marriages and wanted Frank to find a “good, Catholic” girl and settle down. She was fun, with a terrific sense of humor; I could certainly see where Frank got his from. Standing less than five feet tall, she swore like a trooper and had a filthy nickname for everyone, but she cooked like an angel.
One night at the Waldorf in New York, I was in the old Cole Porter Suite in the Towers and Frank was down in the bar with a bunch of friends when Jilly called me at around four in the morning. “Will you please come down here, Barbara?” he whispered into the telephone. “Frank’s going to tear the place up if you don’t.” When I walked in, Frank looked up, bleary-eyed, and said, “What are you doing down here?” “I came to get you.” He looked around at his buddies and said, “Well, maybe I’m not ready to be got yet.” I shrugged my shoulders and walked back toward the door. Turning, I said, “Frank, I’m going to take the elevator now, and I’m going back to bed. I’d like it very much if you came with me.” He looked right back at me and then downed the last of his drink. “Well then, why didn’t you say?” He stood up and followed me out like the puppy that he really was.
Frank Sinatra was an event, and it wasn’t always the easiest of tasks to talk him down off the ledge, but usually beneath even his most frightening temper there was an element of humor. When the divorce was eventually settled, Zeppo agreed to pay me a fifteen-hundred dollar monthly allowance for ten years and let me keep the 1969 Jaguar he’d given me four years earlier. Frank, not to be outdone, immediately upgraded it to the latest model. Even though my divorce was finalized and I was a woman of independent means, thanks in the end to Zeppo’s unexpected generosity, I was still worried about where Frank and I were heading. As soon as Frank and I had let off steam, we’d limp back to each other’s arms and only enjoy the making up all the more. We had such rapport. That’s when Frank would be his most sweet and kind and loving. He’d say things like “If you want that mountain, Barbara, I’ll get it for you. All you have to do is tell me what you want. If you want the moon, darling, it’s yours.” I’d never had anybody talk to me like that.
We flew to Switzerland to begin with and then to England before traveling on to the Middle East. He was still bringing the house down across Europe in scenes that were reminiscent of his frenzied early years in the business. In London he joked that the Royal Albert Hall should be renamed the Francis Albert Hall. Ava Gardner, who’d moved to London by then because she thought the British had “more class”, came to see him perform. I met her again backstage. She was very polite, and we got along fine, but I noticed that there was even more drinking going on this time. Frank was as attentive as ever with Ava and had never stopped sending her gifts or paying her medical and other bills. He was similarly generous with his other ex-wives, Nancy and Mia, if ever they needed anything. I secretly admired the way he took care of the women in his life even if they were no longer a part of it.
Someone once asked me about his relationship with Ava in front of Frank, and I said, “Oh, that could never have worked!” Frank looked up and asked, “Why?” “Too much hurt”, I said. That hit him hard, but after thinking about what I’d said, he admitted I was right.
Frank was still so protective of Ava, not least because she’d frequently call him up and tell him what was going wrong in her life. Once, she was badly bitten breaking up a fight between her dogs, so Frank offered to pay her medical bills. Another time she called to tell him she had pneumonia and needed to go to Barbados to recuperate, so he arranged it. He was always sending her money; that was the type of heart he had. He took care of people he loved.
“Well, aren’t you going to look at them?” he asked impatiently. I focused first on an enormous pear-shaped diamond that I later learned was twenty-two carats. It dazzled me with its perfection. Blinking back tears of happiness, I recalled how I’d told Frank a long time before that, if he ever asked me to marry him, I’d like a pear-shaped diamond just like one I’d seen in a magazine. This was almost identical. The second stone was even larger—a perfect green emerald. I didn’t know what to say. “You can have them set any way you want,” Frank said as my eyes met his. Seeing the look of childish expectation on his face, however, I realized that it was probably the closest I was going to get. Relenting finally, I ran to his arms and let him enfold me in his loving embrace. That reunion, of all our reunions, was surely the sweetest. As we lay together for the rest of the day and night telling each other over and over how much we loved each other, I was filled with such happiness that I never wanted to break the spell. We did eventually have to get dressed, of course, and then Frank sent me to see a friend of his in the jewelry business.
Praying that I was doing the right thing, I asked the friend to set the diamond in an engagement ring setting. Claudette Colbert was a great friend of Frank’s and was in a show in Chicago at the time. She advised him what to do. “Put the ring in Barbara’s soup during dinner,” she suggested. “No way, Frenchy!” Frank told her, alarmed. “She might eat it!” The next night Frank invited Claudette and her beau for dinner with us in a smart Chicago restaurant. As we were sipping champagne and chatting, I suddenly spotted what I thought at first was a chunk of ice in the fluted stem of my glass. Then I got it. “What’s this?” I cried, feigning surprise. Reaching in, I fished out my ring. “Is this for me?” I asked, giving him a knowing look. “Yes, beautiful”, Frank replied, suddenly coy. “Why don’t you put it on?” I was truly the happiest woman on the planet.
Two weeks later we were at the Compound, sitting out by the pool. All of a sudden Frank looked up from his crossword and said, “Sweetheart, don’t you think we ought to set the date?” I thought to myself, Well, I guess that’s a proposal. He was romantic in every other way, but for some reason he just couldn’t bring himself to say the words “Will you marry me?” Maybe it was because he’d said them three times before, and each time the marriage had ended disastrously. Frank’s mother, Dolly, and I had resolved our differences by the time her only son told her we were getting married. Several times a month, she’d invite us over for delicious Italian suppers that she’d spent the entire day preparing. Frank always teased her a lot, and one night he took along a can of pork and beans and put it on his plate. The look on her face as she was about to serve him her famous meatballs was priceless. At around this time, I decided to convert to Catholicism. Dolly, that tough old dame from Hoboken, became my catechism coach and enlisted her favorite priests, Fathers Rooney, Blewitt, and Geimer, to help us. As she trained me in the finer points of Catholicism, we finally became friends. I think she realized at last what so many people had been saying—that I was good for Frank.
On the morning of our wedding, July 11, 1976, I awoke to the sound of the telephone ringing. “Good morning, sweetheart,” Frank said. “I can’t wait to marry you today. How long are you going to be?” My wedding gown was made by the designer Halston and was off one shoulder in beige. He’d added drifts of chiffon and a single flowing sleeve. He made me an almost identical dress in pink satin for the evening party; both of them were my “something new.” My “old” was an emerald and diamond brooch belonging to Bee, my “borrowed” was a lace handkerchief from my mother, and I wore a blue garter. I asked Frank to wear a brand-new beige silk and linen suit to match my dress and he carried the baby rings he’d given his children as his something old and borrowed. He wore a blue cornflower in his lapel.
Then when we went to collect our marriage license a few weeks before the wedding, he asked me if I had the twentydollar fee. As I reached into my purse and pulled out the money, he took it from me with a grin that let me know it was a setup for the words he wanted to say. “This will be the last thing you ever have to pay for”, he told me with a kiss. I had no reason to doubt him. Frank was often buying me something, and he would always let me know how he felt about me. For a man who was so macho in every other way, the purity of his feelings for me and his unashamed openness about them knocked me out. I’d never known anything like it in my life—not from my father, Bob, Joe, or Zeppo. Apart from making sure to tell me he loved me every night before we went to sleep, if Frank was sitting by the pool or in the den and I was in another part of the house, I’d hear him call, “Where are you, gorgeous girl?” Or he’d suddenly yell: “I love that woman!” or “I’m in love with Barbara Sinatra!”
One day we were having brunch with George Schlatter and his wife, Jolene, whom Frank called Injun because of her olive skin. Jolene had been a Vegas showgirl and she and I had modeled together, so we went back a long way. I opened the package to find a velvet Van Cleef & Arpels box with an enormous emerald nestling inside. Frank loved emeralds; they were his favorite stones, and he used to sit with Mr. Arpels in the back room of his store poring over the finest gems. My husband had once again chosen exceptionally well, and I was over the moon. I had the emerald set at the end of a diamond necklace, a piece I still proudly possess.
Thinking of Lee Annenberg’s advice when I married Frank, to “be nice, be sweet, be adorable, but look the other way,” my Plan B was to look the other way, if ever I had to. I had a great life, traveling the world with the man I loved, who went out of his way, every day, to please me. From the day he’d married me, I felt cherished from dawn till dusk. He’d named a plane and a boat after me. He bought me the most exquisite things and took me to the finest places. If ever I was unwell, he’d sit with me and take care of me in the sweetest and most attentive way. I was confident that he truly loved me and that we’d both finally found contentment and tranquillity in each other’s arms. And he never gave me cause to think otherwise. With my own unhappy past and for a man like Frank, that was no mean feat. He could have had anyone he wanted. He could have left me at any point, but he never did; he never even came close. There were some who did their utmost to split us up, but that only made us more determined to stay together and prove them wrong. Ours was a deep love that would stand the test of time. I knew from the moment he kissed me on the terrace of his hotel suite in Monaco that I was the luckiest girl alive, and my luck—thank goodness—never ran out". -"Lady Blue Eyes: My Life with Frank" (2011) by Barbara Sinatra