Barbara Sinatra spent her life giving back
Long before she became a successful model, long before she met Frank Sinatra at the height of his career, married him, took his name and tamed him, Barbara Blakeley grew up “broke” in Bosworth, a Missouri town of fewer than 500 people.
Her father, Willis, had survived World War I, and he planned to outlast the Great Depression as well — and to help others weather it. The small town’s residents couldn’t afford the coffee, meat, shoes, horse feed and other supplies at Blakeley’s General Store. So Willis began accepting IOUS, which he fell asleep counting each night. But his family was broke.
They grew and raised their own food, and many nights Willis and his wife, Irene, would forgo eating so the children could. Barbara and her siblings’ toys were “made from offcuts of wood,” and her clothes were pieced together on her grandmother’s Singer sewing machine “and patched as they wore out,” she wrote in her memoir, “Lady Blue Eyes: My Life With Frank.”
That poverty informed her life, even as she entered the glitzy world accessible only to the upper echelon of Hollywood.
Barbara Blakeley died Tuesday as Barbara Sinatra, having been guided for much of her 90 years by the experiences of her first 20.
She drew strength from growing up in poverty, which she found useful while breaking into the modeling business.
Once, still poor and with no modeling experience, Barbara went to a hotel suite for one of her first auditions. When the two men in the room asked her to lift up her skirt, she realized this was no audition, shoving them out of the way and fleeing the room.
That strength also helped her tame the famously hot-tempered Frank Sinatra.
She pulled herself from poverty after World War II, when she was accepted into the Robert Edward School of Professional Modeling in Long Beach and became queen of the Belmont Shore pageant. From there, she answered the alluring call of New York City modeling jobs with bigtime publications such as Vogue and Life.
Eventually, she became a showgirl in Las Vegas and married Zeppo Marx of the Marx Brothers comedy team, which embedded her in the lives of the rich and famous.
Money was no longer a problem. But there was an emptiness to it all. Her childhood in Missouri had instilled in Barbara a desire to help others, and now she finally could.
She began doing charity work, often with Nelda Linsk, a friend she met at the Racquet Club, an exclusive California tennis club populated by celebrities like Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Dinah Shore.
Eventually, she and Marx divorced and she married Sinatra, with whom she had shared a years-long friendship.
With access to Sinatra’s money and his laundry list of celebrity friends who would happily appear at a charitable event, her philanthropy soared.
But it wasn’t until 1986 that she found her singular cause: the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center for abused and neglected kids, which she called in her memoir “a project very dear to my heart that has continued to be the focus of my life.”
Barbara Sinatra with her husband, Frank, in 1976.