Bar­bara Si­na­tra spent her life giv­ing back

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Travis M. An­drews

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.”

As­so­ci­ated Press file

Bar­bara Si­na­tra with her hus­band, Frank, in 1976.

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