Frank Sinatra in exclusive photographs
Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 on December 12. His wife Barbara reminisces about their life together, and imagines the centenary celebrations that might have been
Frank Sinatra would have so enjoyed reaching one hundred years of age. He’d have found it highly amusing to have defied the odds and lived so long. The man rightly dubbed “the Entertainer of the Century” touched the lives of so many people over the years, and the music he made has become the soundtrack to the lives of generation after generation.
An actor, director, conductor, producer, songwriter and, as he liked to say, saloon singer, Frank was one of the bestselling artists of all time, with more than 150 million records sold worldwide. He broke box office and Billboard records well into old age, as the hunger for the special brand of magic he possessed never diminished.
Hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world first learned to speak English listening to Frank Sinatra tunes. Whenever he visited those far-flung countries and took to the stage, he was always moved to tears by the throng of voices that rose as one to join him in a song.
Amazingly, Frank continues to reach people in this century too, and on the centenary of his birth that’s something he would have been enormously humbled by. And oh, what a party he’d have thrown to mark the occasion! Nobody could throw a party quite like Frank.
There would have been Jack Daniel’s whiskey, martinis and champagne flowing, all served by white-gloved waiters, with the finest Italian food, the best pizzas and pastas, followed by cheesecake from New York. Wearing an apron, he’d have stood at the stove and made his mother Dolly’s special tomato “gravy” for the pasta (holding the garlic), and ensured that everyone’s glass was permanently topped up.
He’d have made sure there was wonderful music, of course, a full orchestra rehearsed to perfection by the perfectionist, and — assuming his friends had made it that far too — there might have been Sammy Cahn or Jimmy Van Heusen on the piano while the likes of Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, or Sammy Davis Jr sang along.
Frank loved to laugh, so comedians would have been there in force — people like Pat Henry, Don Rickles, Tom Dreesen, and Dean Martin, perhaps the greatest natural comic of them all. Our dear friends such as Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, David Niven, Kirk Douglas, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan would have been guests of honour, along with family and other friends.
Frank considered presidents and statesmen his buddies, as much as his golfing partners or childhood friends were. A more disparate group of people you could never have met lounging around the pool or playing with Frank’s model railway set in his cabana. Smelling heavenly of lavender soap and always in the finest tailored suits and custom-made shoes, the inveterate romantic who’d married me in a mist of white orchids in 1976 would have found me some thoughtful gift — even though it was his birthday, not mine. Generous to a fault, he loved to give and was never that comfortable receiving — unless you presented him with a dog, of course. Frank adored all animals but especially our beloved dogs. What else do you give the man who had everything?
As Don Rickles once said, “Frank gets up in the morning and God throws money on him.” I’m not sure about that, but I do know he worked tirelessly his whole life and that he spent what he earned — mostly on others. He couldn’t care less about money, and I honestly think he planned on spending every dime he ever made — typically, on people who needed it more than he did.
His tipping was legendary, as were his anonymous donations to charities and individuals, as well as the benefit concerts that he’d throw at his own expense — for virtually any worthy cause. Most of all he was generous with his love, and boy, did I receive that in bucketloads! They ranged from lavish gifts to the romantic little billets-doux he’d leave me around the house, usually signed “Your Italian Lover”.
And how he loved to mark special occasions in some wonderful way — birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, and landmark dates known only to us. Mr Romantic was quite a guy to be around. Twenty-four years after we’d first started dating, we were still together, still in
love. Ours was a deep and lasting love, full of trust and loyalty.
There is no denying that Francis Albert Sinatra stole into my heart and changed my life. Over the next three decades, he flew me to the moon and back. Was he easy to live with, or to work with? Not always. Frank could be quite a handful. Was he calm? Rarely. Those of us around him never knew what drama each day might bring. But was it fun? Oh yes — a thousand times yes.
I was certainly never bored, and probably the bravest thing I ever did during my marriage was to organise a surprise 65th birthday party for Frank. The man who so enjoyed springing surprises on those he loved did not enjoy being surprised in return. In the months leading up to the big day, I asked him if he could have anything in the world, what it would be. After much cajoling, he eventually said he’d like a fantastic jazz orchestra playing just for him.
I decided to make that the finale to a party thrown in his honour, knowing there was always the risk that he’d walk out. He nearly did, but the sight of all our friends dressed up at a western-style cookout on our ranch amused him enough to persuade him to stay. I never made that mistake again, though.
No, Frank’s 100th birthday party would have been meticulously planned and organised by Ol’ Blue Eyes himself, I’m certain. He’d have made sure that others were the centre of attention. He would certainly have turned it into a charity event, which would have included the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Centre for Victims of Abuse, an organisation for which we broke ground in Rancho Mirage, California, on his 70th birthday.
Five years later, Frank celebrated his 75th birthday by performing at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. After the show, I threw a party for him at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, with 100 people attending from all over the world.
It was quite the affair. Picking up my glass of champagne in a toast, I told him from the heart, “Frank, darling, to the world you’ve given your music, but to me you have given the world.”
For Frank’s 80th birthday, the Empire State Building in New York was bathed in blue light, and he was the subject of an all-star televised tribute, 80 Years My Way, which, of course, he insisted be in aid of charity.
When he received a standing ovation on his arrival, he joked that he’d never before received a round of applause “just for being alive”.
Although he died almost 20 years ago, Frank will always live on in people’s hearts. Each year, I visit his desert gravesite on his birthday, and I am always touched by the gifts left by his devoted following, including tiny bottles of Jack Daniel’s, packets of his favourite Camel cigarettes, candies, posies of flowers, and tiny American flags next to his simple granite marker, which reads, “The best is yet to come”. He’d have loved that.
The man with the electrifying personality said once that he wanted to be remembered as someone who had a wonderful time living life. Well, I am among many thousands who can vouch that he did just that.
When he first retired from performing in 1971, before his triumphant later comeback, he thought long and hard about what song he’d like to go out on. He chose Angel Eyes.
A man who loved words, he selected it for the lyrics, which seem ever more appropriate as we mark the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. The message he so liked in this song gave him a chance to tell his fans to enjoy their lives and have fun, as the drinks and the jokes were on him.
Happy birthday, Frank.
This is Barbara Sinatra’s introduction to Sinatra: The Photographs by Andrew Howick (published by Abrams, $60).
Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin in a TV recording studio for The Judy
Garland Show in 1962, top; Sinatra with his wife Barbara at the 1977 World Series, above; Sammy Davis Jr, Martin, Sinatra and Joey Bishop stage a punch-up on the set of
Ocean’s Eleven in 1960, left; the singer displays his sense of humour in the early 1960s, right