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All right, Mr. Ken Lane, whenever you're ready, we're going to sing a few of these songs. We hope you enjoy them.
Yeah, we hope you enjoy them. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.
What are you staring at? [SINGING] Brassieres. I dig a broad with no brassieres.
This is a recording from 1962 of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. performing in a club outside Chicago. And like everything else about Frank Sinatra, what's fascinating about this recording is how many different people he's able to be all at once. Cutting up on the one hand, and then turning around and singing the most vulnerable possible love songs on the other.
[SINGING] When you're alone, who cares for starlit skies? Where does it hurt, baby? When you're alone.
Not three minutes later, he's lashing into a gossip columnist he hates, Dorothy Kilgallen.
I've met many, many male finks. But I never met a female fink until I met Dorothy Kilgallen. How's that for an opener? [LAUGHTER] I wouldn't mind if she was a good-looking fink.
"That such beautiful music should emerge from such vulgarity is one of life's great mysteries," The Washington Star once wrote.
The town where she came from, they had a beauty contest when she was 17 years old, and nobody won. There was a poor little Chinese kid. The boy was standing there. There was nobody else. They gave him the cup because he was better looking than the broads in the line.
Then there's the way he is on stage with Sammy Davis Jr. In 1962, it was still groundbreaking for a mainstream white performer to be integrating his night club act at all. But a good portion of the act is just Sinatra and Martin telling Davis to get off the stage, and Davis pleading with them to stay.
Sammy Davis Jr.
You asked me out here. Can I sing with you guys? A couple of--
Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey. I'll dance with you. I'll sing with you. I'll swim with you. I'll cut the lawn with you. I'll go to Bar Mitzvahs with you. But don't touch me.
A third of a century after this was recorded, what is, I think, most striking about it is how many of the jokes are simply about the fact that a black man is on stage with these white guys. I'm going to play you a big chunk of this because it's amazing.
Well, now that you're out here, you might as well do something.
Might as well leave.
Hey, how come he got a white stool?
Sammy Davis Jr.
I tell you what. Ladies and gentlemen, may I offer some impersonations for you nice folks?
Sam, that's a good idea. Why don't you do Paul Revere, get on your horse and get the hell out of here. I tell you what. Do James Meredith of Mississippi.
Sammy Davis Jr.
Ladies and gentlemen, my first impression is that of Mr. Frank Sinatra.
[SINGING] When somebody loves you, it's no good unless she loves you all the way.
Man, if you like him, you're going to be cuckoo about me. He's just-- you'll excuse the expression-- a carbon copy.
When Sammy Davis finally sings a duet with Sinatra, it is a duet between a black man and a white man that is unimaginable to hear it. You cannot imagine it being performed today by a black and a white man. It's one they performed for years, "Me and My Shadow."
Frank Sinatra And Sammy Davis Jr.
[SINGING TOGETHER, OVERLAPPING] Me and my shadow. Closer than pages that stick in a book. We're closer than ripples that play in a brook. Strolling down the avenue. Wherever you'll find him, you'll find me, just look. Closer than a miser or the bloodhounds to Liza, me.
In Frank Sinatra, we see the history of the 20th century. In Frank Sinatra, as a Chicago writer named Rennie Sparks puts it, we don't just see a man, we see every man.
Frank Sinatra is my father and my brother, my first boyfriend and my last. He's a frail boy crooner in a floppy bow tie. He's a thug smashing his fist through a wall when his shirts come back with too much starch. And he's a bewildered old man falling off his stool during "My Way." Shirley MacLaine says he let her stick her gum behind his ear during takes of Some Came Running. But he also liked to grab an ice cube from his drink thrusting it in the palm of a ga-ga fan and snarling, "Here, go skate around on it."
"I wish someone would hurt you," he told Shirley, "So I could kill them for you."
Well, today on our program, of course, Chairman of the Board.
Act One of our program, The Death of Frank Sinatra. Michael Ventura reads from his novel of the same name.
Act Two, A Modest Request to all of American Television from one Sinatra Fan on Her Knees.
Act Three, History Lesson. For the young people.
Act Four, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. We have Gay Talese on the program reading from his classic 1966 account of several weeks he spent following Frank Sinatra at the height of Sinatra Rat Pack power.
Act Five, A Restaurant Full of Cabbies Gets Choked Up Over Frank. Stay with us, pally.
Act One. The Death Of Frank Sinatra.
Act One, The Death of Frank Sinatra. Michael Ventura grew up in the 1950s in New York.
I'm Sicilian on both sides of my family. And if you grew up as a Sicilian kid in the '50s in New York, it was like Sinatra was part of your family. He was the most famous Italian, except for some baseball stars. Literally, just a figure people gossiped about, and they listened to his songs, and he was held up to me by my father as an example. You see him? He can spit in anybody's eye and get away with it.
When Michael Ventura published a novel in 1996 called The Death of Frank Sinatra, Sinatra's people were not pleased. The book, however, is not literally about Frank Sinatra. It's about men like Michael Ventura whose sense of style and sense of self came, in part, from Frank's style.
What's it mean to you, The Death of Frank Sinatra?
The death of a style. The death of the last and greatest embodiment of a kind of street elegance, a style that is particularly and indelibly 20th century and that we will not see again.
Frank Sinatra himself only appears in the book once. In the scene that he's in, he's doing a concert. And one of the things that's interesting is that in a work of fiction, Michael Ventura could choose any era Sinatra concert to put in. And he decided to choose Sinatra in the mid-1990s. The reason why, he says, is because the Sinatra that exists for us today is the Sinatra of all of his ages. All of them come forward as he sings. We asked him to read his account of what Sinatra is, as rendered in this one concert.
As the old man walked out onto the stage, a curtain came up behind him to reveal a large orchestra. Every musician wore a tuxedo. The conductor was a small, round man sitting at a grand piano and wearing earphones. With a slash of the conductor's hand, the rhythm and brass burst into a loud, uptempo number, and Sinatra flashed a smile that made him look uncannily young, a young smile in the old, pasty face.
And his eyes were the same as they'd always been, brighter in person than they ever registered on screen. And like the smile, the eyes were young to the point of seeming unnatural. For though no makeup could conceal the sad ravages of the face, the eyes and the smile seemed untouched.
As though to put his listeners at ease with these contradictions, Sinatra grabbed the microphone from the top of the black grand piano and sang about how they made him feel so young. These strangers in this room had that power. They made him feel so young, and he would feel that way even when he was old and gray. The song itself was keeping him alive.
It was as though Sinatra's voice was living his entire life all over again at different stages throughout the song. The first bars were the voice of the old man, raspy, worn, unable to hold notes for longer than a beat. And only his mastery of rhythm kept the song alive and made each word surprising. Surprising, though everyone in the room knew the lyrics by heart.
Then on a high note, the voice cracked, and for an instant, the music soured, and the audience flinched as one person. But instead of retreating from that bad sound, Sinatra leaned into it. Sinatra bent the note further into a jazz-like harmony. And so he erased his mistake from memory by making it part of the performance.
And then, instead of softening after the mistake, Sinatra held the new note longer and louder as though diving into it, then took a quick breath and sang the next note louder still and fuller, until seamlessly, for several bars, it was the voice of 30 or 40 years ago, full and unfettered, resonant and suggestive, until again it began to crack.
And again, he used the cracking to modulate back into the voice and style of the old man, on pitch but raw, one note per beat, sometimes right on the beat, sometimes just off it, keeping the performance tense, until on the last note, the young man's voice returned, as though saluting the old man who sang it. And Sinatra let that note ride, and the audience cheered. It was a breathless performance, like watching a trapeze artist work without a net.
With barely a pause, he started to sing of how the best was yet to come, and wouldn't it be fine? An old man in some ageless space who could make them believe for the length of a song that the best indeed was yet to come. And the voice again going to and fro between strength and fragility, youth and age. Sinatra's foot tapped the beat with absolute certainty, while his posture was ever so slightly wobbly, as though his energy was too much for his body. And in his immaculate tuxedo with the surety of his presence and the reckless confidence of his style, he seemed to be demonstrating his legend without trading on it, without needing to.
The lyrics were trite, obvious, sentimental. Somehow, he made them true. The music was simple to the point of childishness. Somehow, he made it complex. They found themselves applauding and cheering at the songs and not in homage, but as the only way to release the energy it gave them.
The man was dispensing something, a kind of vitality that surged from his darkness with bright light. And he was giving it away with generous abandon as though he had no fear that he would not have more to give in the next song, the next show, the next anything. In such an old man, where could this vitality come from?
I lit my cigarettes like he did. I wore the kind of clothes he wore. I still do. I tried to stand as he stood. I tried to walk as he walked. I still do. Not because I was imitating him but because I was imitating all the people who gave and taught me life, and they took so many of their cues from him.
And where had he taken his cues from? From peasants who came to America from an older, less sentimental world. Peasants who came with the intention of becoming aristocrats, and who almost as soon as they arrived began to stand and walk like those aristocrats they'd watched so closely, yet from afar, for generations. European princes had taught them grace. American streets taught them flare. They didn't need to learn violence from anyone. That they were born with.
And Sinatra blended all this better than any and sang as he did so. Sang of love and of pride, despairing of one and reveling in the other. And this is why Sicilians especially gave him respect in the peculiar way Sicilians use that word, meaning homage, deference, consideration, and that invitation to betrayal, loyalty. Now Sinatra sang about how they-- whoever they were-- couldn't take that-- whatever that was-- away from him. But somehow in the way she held her hat and the way she sipped her tea was beyond the world's possibility to destroy or erode.
There was a scrapbook of Sinatra's pictures. The pictures were all of Sinatra but he was never alone. Sinatra with Lyndon Johnson, with Adlai Stevenson, with Eleanor Roosevelt. He was holding her hand and looking into her eyes. With Jack Kennedy, Bobby, Jackie, Nixon, Reagan, Nancy. And Sinatra with very different people. Sinatra with Johnny Roselli, Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, Carlo's son Joey, Jimmy Fratianno, Sally Spatola.
And still another kind. Sinatra with Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington. That man on the stage, that old man was where it all connected. Who else had held the hand of Eleanor Roosevelt and shaken the hand of Carlo Gambino both and on equal terms. That man on the stage, that old man.
And why? Because he could sing love songs like no one else. History of a kind. History transfixed by love songs. That's life, that's what all the people say, the man is singing now. Some people get their kicks from stomping on a dream, but he don't let that get him down. And now he's singing that we're much too marvelous for words. The man was speaking now. "I'm just waiting for a downbeat, not a bus. Where you working tomorrow?" The musicians laughed. The conductor, that little round man, laughed. "That's my son, the guy with the earphones. I had to promise his mother I'd give the bum a job." More laughter.
But something was wrong on the stage. The music was playing, but Sinatra wasn't singing. He was looking around as though he's forgotten where he was. He started a lyric, then stopped. It didn't fit the music. He looked frightened, a scared boy in the body of an old man. He turned toward his son, whose presence seemed to remind him of who he was. He was Frank Sinatra. He was there to sing love songs to history.
And he wheeled around and began to beg, but in the proudest terms, that luck be a lady tonight, and that she keep the party polite, and that she not blow on some other guy's dice. But it had been an awful moment, to see that confidence suddenly abandoned with nothing in the man to take its place.
He sang more slowly now, that it seemed we'd stood and talked like this before, and he was right. That we'd looked at each other in the same way then, but there was no way to remember where or when. He sang in the young voice and the old, back and forth, where and when unknowable. And as the lyrics climbed to the final high note, he became in his voice younger and younger until we hit the last when roundly and fully and held that note a long time.
And when the note and the word were finally exhausted, the loose muscles of his fatty face trembled, as though they'd been unaccountably left behind, and his eyes were frightened again. He had to know that it was very possible that this was the last time his voice would rise to such a height. And he looked like an old man who had said an irreparable goodbye.
He took a few steps, tried to recover. Slowly, he started to speak. "I'm what they call a saloon singer." For most of the performance, he had been singing happily about love, jauntily. Perhaps that was, in part, a function of age. It was easier with that ravaged and undependable voice to sing faster tempos that gave him the flexibility to go through many changes and use many approaches. Slow, sad songs required rounded tones and more control, could not be played with as easily, were far more dangerous. He's risking humiliation every moment. Say what you like. That's a very brave man.
The song began. He's telling us to drink up, all we happy people. Nobody here looks very happy, but he's admitting that we're happier than him. He says he's paying for the drinks and the laughs. He's paying for everything because a woman with angel eyes is gone. And she's really gone. What a tenderness he has for her. What a terrible, generous, all-encompassing tenderness. He's not bitter. He's not angry at her. Those angel eyes had every right to look elsewhere.
He asks us to excuse him because he must disappear. And his voice is disappearing with him, a scratchy whisper like an old wax record played on an old machine. With unbearable politeness, with a tenderness close to death-- the death of his voice-- he is saying, excuse me, I must disappear. There are no angel eyes left in the room, no reason to stay.
He's tired. He could not live unless he sang to us. But each time he sings, he dares humiliation. Let's us watch the dying relationship between him and his voice, him and his memory, him and that angelic one whom he could not hold, whom he was no man for, whom his tenderness could finally not sustain, whom his darkness drove away. Everything has ended. Everything is over.
He can't even say "excuse me" anymore. He thanks us. He's leaving us. He touched what we like to think was our history, and it has left him like this. And now he is leaving us. Everyone cheered as he walked off the stage. Do they know what they're cheering? Do they know they're watching a man rehearse his death?
We put one in every performance, if you've seen us perform before. And it's called a saloon song. I do one in each performance because somebody, somewhere, sometime, dubbed me the saloon singer. So I don't want to disappoint him. And it would happen to have a lot of truth, in fact, to that too, because when I was very young and I started working in joints in New Jersey and bars and grills and all kinds of places until one day, somebody came in and offered me a better job. Look what happened to me.
[MUSIC - "ANGEL EYES" BY FRANK SINATRA]
Act Two. One Sinatra Fan ... Versus All Of Network TV.
Act Two, One Sinatra Fan Versus All of Network TV. Our program today was first broadcast a few years back when Frank Sinatra was still alive. And in the original broadcast, writer Sarah Vowell made a plea to American television newscasters and a prediction about what would happen when Sinatra finally died. Here's what she said. I'll tell you at the end of her story whether her prediction came true.
Any day now, Peter Jennings will cut away from some freak mudslide story, casualties, six registered voters, face another camera, and announce Old Blue Eyes' death. Later, the World News Tonight credits will roll over a tasteful montage of Frank's film stills and album covers. The other networks will run similar tributes, as will the brainiacs at Entertainment Tonight and those swingers on The News Hour at PBS.
But you know what? It will not matter whether Sinatra's video wake is hosted by the tweedy Jim Lehrer or the perky Katie Couric because each and every remembrance will be accompanied by the same damn song, the most obvious, unsubtle, disconcertingly-dictatorial chestnut in the old man's vast and dazzling backlog-- "My Way." When the guy who generously gave us greats like "I Get a Kick Out of You" kicks it, we won't put on our Basie Boots or get a load of those cuckoo things he's been saying. We'll be bored terrifically, screaming at the TV set every time he and that sappy string section face the final curtain.
[SINGING] And now, the end is near. And so I face the final curtain.
Get it? He's dead and on tape from the grave talking about how the end is near. Spooky.
[SINGING] I've lived a life that's full.
The only way "My Way" has ever worked is if the person singing it is dumber than the song, which is why the only successful rendition of it was perpetrated by Sid Vicious. Frank-- and Elvis, for that matter-- was always too complicated, too full of rhythmic freedom to settle into the song's simplistic selfishness. "My Way" pretends to speak up for self-possession and personal vision when really, it only calls forth the temper tantrums of two-year-olds, or perhaps the last words spoken to Eva Braun.
Remember the stories from Belgrade, how each night when the government-controlled evening news aired, the townspeople blew whistles or banged on pots and pans so they wouldn't hear the state's lies? Keep that beautiful action in mind when Sinatra's dead, and all the TVs in your more boring democratic world are playing "My Way." Drown it out. Play something else to the montage in your own heart. Or just turn off the TV's sound. Have your stereo queued up and ready to go. He could keel over any second. I mean, he might not even make it through this hour-long radio show. Be prepared.
Why not play "Angel Eyes" for its subtle reference to the singer's Mediterranean windows to the soul, for its knowing, jaunty adieu.
[SINGING] Excuse me while I disappear.
Are you listening, Peter Jennings? Hear how great that would work under all those postwar black-and-white snapshots. How that nice Christian harp outro hints at Frank's unlikely salvation. Let's all listen again.
[SINGING] Excuse me while I disappear.
I admit this may not be quite stupid and obvious enough for network television, so if the staff of The Today Show is hearing my voice right now, here's another suggestion.
[SINGING] That's life. That's what all the people say. You're riding high in April, shot down in May.
If "Angel Eyes" is all periods and pauses, this song is all exclamation points. Picture please, Good Morning America staffers, quick-cut shots of Sinatra with Ava Gardner, Sinatra with daughter Nancy at age five, Sinatra with Kennedy. Sinatra with some mob boss no one will recognize anyway over these lyrics.
[SINGING] I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. I've been up and down and over and out, and I know one thing. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. That's life.
It's really a terrible choice, just as corny as "My Way," but at least it's got a little bit of the old ring-a-ding-ding. It swings. This is my ABMY vote-- Anything But "My Way." As for me, when I hear the big news, I'm tempted to think I'll be cranking up my favorite Sinatra side, "Come Dance With Me," but it's too disrespectfully cheerful to work as a dirge and kind of creepy, if taken literally. Who, except Tom Petty, wants to foxtrot with a corpse?
I've decided instead to blare the Capitol recording of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" It's the driving question behind the entire Sinatra research project, and it's a lovely pop song, suitably melancholy for morning, reflective, and wise. The orchestra starts off low. Enter a clarinet that's somehow lewd and ponderous at the same time. Frank scrawls the topic sentence, then repeats it, adding one word, this funny thing called love. It begins as a rhetorical question, and by the end, turns into a cosmic inquiry of God.
[SINGING] What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mysteries? And why should it make a fool of me?
Now, ET producers, are you paying attention? At the end of the song, Frank asks one more time to the Lord in heaven above, just what is this thing called love? And then he cuts out, as if he's off to face the creator in person.
[SINGING] That's why I ask the Lord up in heaven above, just what is this thing called love?
And then, once he's gone, the orchestra resolves to a sweet, final chord, as if they have the answer, but Frank Sinatra is no longer around to hear it. Can't you just see the freeze frame? Frank in the recording studio, the Capitol years, the hat askew, the tie loosened? TV producers of America, I bet you for all of us, for Frank. Ixnay on the "My Way." Excuse me now while I disappear.
[MUSIC - "MY WAY" BY SID VICIOUS]
Well, although Sarah Vowell's plea to network television was broadcast twice on our show and once on NPR'S All Things Considered, when Frank Sinatra died on May 14, 1998, just a month after we last played Sarah's commentary, every network newscast used the song "My Way" in its obituary. So much for the power of public radio to alter the national debate.
The one exception was ABC's Nightline, which is often a maverick force in TV news. The night Sinatra died, Nightline ended its special hour-long tribute to Sinatra by playing Sarah's radio story. In other words, the person who got the last word on American network news that day, the day of Sinatra's passing, was Sarah. Her essay is now collected in her book of radio essays, Take the Cannoli.
Coming up, Gay Talese on the road with Sinatra in '66. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Three. History Lesson.
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that theme with fiction, nonfiction, radio monologues, whatever we can think of. And the subject of today's show, what was his name again?
[SINGING] My name is Francis Albert.
[SINGING] Francis Albert Sinatra.
[SINGING] And I sing love songs, mostly after dark, mostly in saloons.
Yes, you cannot have a career as long and distinguished as Frank Sinatra's without some experiments that fail. Witness Frank Sinatra's cover of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" or the Rod McKuen poetry he recorded.
I can just about get through the day, but the night makes me nervous. Not for any reason except maybe that it catches you unaware and follows you the way a woman follows when she wants something.
What is that? The night makes Frank Sinatra nervous? Frank Sinatra? John Connors, who provides a lot of music for our radio program, and has a huge, huge Frank Sinatra collection, was playing me some of these Sinatra turkeys when we had this odd little moment. He was playing me Sinatra's cover of the Simon and Garfunkel hit "Mrs. Robinson."
[SINGING] So how's your bird, Mrs. Robinson? Dandy, Mrs. Robinson you say. Hey, hey, hey. Well, have you heard, Mrs. Robinson--
It's hard for me to think it's bad because for me, bad is--
-- is boring. And none of this is boring. I still like them. It's really weird. And it's really weird because these are the songs that made me like him. I'm just thinking of this now because when I was growing up, I didn't hear The Beatles. I heard The Chipmunks doing the Beatles.
Because you are post-baby boom.
I'm post-baby boom. But my mother was going out and was buying Sinatra singing "Mrs. Robinson." So this is the song. This is "Mrs. Robinson" to me. When I hear the Simon and Garfunkel version of "Mrs. Robinson," it's the new version. It's the cover. This is the original. The Simon and Garfunkel version is the cover.
Act Three, So What Makes Sinatra So Special Anyway? From the time of his big breakthrough as a solo singer in 1942, Frank Sinatra simply was more emotionally expressive, more vulnerable, more openly sensual than any male pop singer to that point. But the Frank Sinatra that we think of as Frank Sinatra did not appear until the 1950s.
After a career slump, after his second marriage with Ava Gardner broke up, he went into the studio to record songs with a much more tough, more swinging sound than he had done before. His public image was becoming the character who we know now-- half tough guy, half sentimental saloon singer. And Nelson Riddle invented this sound for these albums with heavy input, apparently, from Sinatra. The '50s are the era of nearly everything we think of today as a Sinatra standard.
[SINGING] Those fingers in my hair, that sly come hither stare that strips my conscience bare, it's witchcraft.
Music writer Will Friedwald says that the sound that Riddle invented for Sinatra is built around bass trombone, flute, muted trumpet, and strings. And there's this lightness to the orchestration with a much more complicated mix of melodies and counter melodies on different instruments than other composers were using then on pop records. Witness, for example, how Riddle used trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison.
Essentially, he was not hired as a trumpeter to sit in the section, but he was hired strictly as a soloist or an obligatist. And he would not sit in the section. He would sit to the side and had his own special microphone. And so Sweets would just improvise these little trumpet fills here and there on the muted trumpet.
And when he plays, he's only playing almost in between the breaths.
Well, as Gary Giddins points out, Sweets essentially plays three kinds of solos-- beep, beep beep, and beep beep beep.
Let me play a little bit of this. He comes in here, if I understand, right after Sinatra sings "with people she'd hate."
[SINGING] She loves the theater, but never comes late. She'd never bother with people she'd hate. That's why the lady is a tramp.
It's going to come back again in a couple seconds.
[SINGING] She'll have no crap games with sharpies and frauds. And she won't go to Harlem in Lincolns or Fords. And she won't dish the dirt--
Act Four. Sinatra Has A Cold.
Sinatra's at his peak in the '50s and the early '60s. These are the years of his greatest recordings, of his movies, of the Rat Pack. And this all brings us to our next act. Act Four, Sinatra Has a Cold. If we want a glimpse into the life that Sinatra led during his heyday, one of the most famous accounts is by journalist Gay Talese. First published in Esquire magazine in 1966, called Sinatra Has a Cold. It's this long, funny, sad story with many, many, many scenes. We only have time for an excerpt here, which Gay Talese agreed to read for us.
Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of a bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing. He had been silent during much of the evening except now, in this private club in Beverly Hills, he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and the semi-darkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk rock music blaring from the stereo.
The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra's four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his 50th birthday. Sinatra had been working on a film that he now disliked and could not wait to finish.
He was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the 20-year-old Mia Farrow who was not in sight tonight. He was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendships with mafia leaders. He was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra, A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing 18 songs with a voice that, at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain.
Sinatra was ill. He was a victim of ailments so common that most people would consider it trivial, but when it gets to Sinatra, can plunge him into a state of anguish and deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold. Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel, only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence.
And it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond, as surely as a president of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
For Frank Sinatra was now involved with many things involving many people-- his own film company, his record company, his private airline, his missile parts firm, his real estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of 75, which are only a portion of the power he is and has come to represent. He now seemed to be also the embodiment of the fully emancipated male, perhaps the only one in America, the man who can do anything he wants. Anything. Can do it because he has the money, the energy, and no apparent guilt.
All the way. All or nothing at all. This is the Sicilian in Sinatra. He permits his friends, if they wish to remain that, none of the easy Anglo-Saxon outs. But if they remain loyal, then there is nothing Sinatra will not do for them-- fabulous gifts, personal kindnesses, encouragement when they're down, adulation when they're up. They are wise to remember, however, one thing. He is Sinatra, The Boss, Il Padrone.
Or better still, he is what in traditional Sicily have long been called uomini rispetatti-- men of respect. Men who are both majestic and humble. Men who are loved by all and are very generous by nature. Men whose hands are kissed as they walk from village to village. Men who would personally go out of their way to redress a wrong.
Frank Sinatra does things personally. At Christmastime, he will personally pick dozens of presents for his close friends and family, remembering the type of jewelry they like, their favorite colors, the size of their shirts and dresses. The same Sinatra can, within the same hour, explode in a towering rage of intolerance should a small thing be incorrectly done for him by one of his paisanos. For example, when one of his men brought him a frankfurter with ketchup on it, which Sinatra apparently abhors, he angrily threw the bottle at the man, splattering ketchup all over him.
In Las Vegas, after the last show at The Sands, the Sinatra crowd, which numbered about 20, all got into a line of cars and headed for another club. It was 3 o'clock. The night was young. They stopped at The Sahara, taking a long table near the back and listened to a bald-headed little comedian named Don Rickles, who was probably more caustic than any other comic in the country. His humor is so rude, in such bad taste, that it offends no one because it's too offensive to be offensive.
Spotting Eddie Fisher among the audience, Rickles proceeded to ridicule him as a lover, saying it was no wonder that he could not handle Elizabeth Taylor. And when two businessmen in the audience acknowledged that they were Egyptians, Rickles cut into them and their country's policy toward Israel. And he strongly suggested that the woman seated at one table with her husband was actually a hooker.
When the Sinatra crowd walked in, Don Rickles could not be more delighted. Pointing to Sinatra's pal Jilly Rizzo, Rickles yelled, "How's it feel to be Frank's tractor? Yeah, Jilly keeps walking in front of Frank, clearing the way." Then, nodding to Leo Durocher, a former baseball player, Rickles said, "Stand up Leo, show Frank how you slide."
Then he focused on Sinatra, not failing to mention Mia Farrow, nor that he was wearing a toupee, nor to say that Sinatra's washed up as a singer. And when Sinatra laughed, everybody laughed. And Rickles pointed toward Joey Bishop and said, "Bishop keeps checking with Frank to see what's funny."
Then, after Rickles told some Jewish jokes, Dean Martin stood up and yelled, "Hey, you're always talking about the Jews, never about the Italians." And Rickles cut him off, "What do we need the Italians for? All they do is keep the flies off our fish." Sinatra laughed. They all laughed. And Rickles went on this way for nearly an hour until Sinatra, standing up, said, "All right, all right. Come on, get this thing over with. I've got to go."
"Shut up and sit down," Rickles yelled, "I had to listen to you sing."
"Who do you think you're talking to?" Sinatra yelled. "Dick Haymes," Rickles replied. And Sinatra laughed again. And then Dean Martin, pouring a bottle of whiskey over his head, entirely drenching his tuxedo, pounded the table.
By 4:00 AM, Frank Sinatra led the group out of The Sahara, some of them carrying their glasses of whiskey with them, sipping it along the sidewalk and into the cars. And then, returning to The Sands, they walked into the gaming casino. It was still packed with people. Frank Sinatra, holding a shot glass of bourbon in his left hand, walked through the crowd. He, unlike some of his friends, was perfectly pressed, his tuxedo tie precisely pointed, his shoes unsmudged.
He never seems to lose his dignity, never lets his guard completely down, no matter how much he has drunk nor how long he's been up. He never sways when he walks like Dean Martin, nor does he dance in the aisles or jump up on the tables like Sammy Davis. A part of Sinatra, no matter where he is, is never there. There's always a part of him, though sometimes a small part, that remains Il Padrone
The crowd that had gathered around him now opened to let him through. But a woman stopped in front of him, handing him a piece of paper. He signed it, and then he said, thank you. In the rear of The Sands' large dining room was a long table reserved for Sinatra. The dining room was fairly empty at this hour with perhaps two dozen other people in the room, including a table of four unescorted young ladies sitting near Sinatra.
On the other side of the room, at a long table, sat seven men shoulder to shoulder against the wall, two of them wearing dark glasses, all of them eating quietly, speaking hardly a word, just sitting and eating and missing nothing. The Sinatra party, after getting settled and having a few more drinks, ordered something to eat. The table was about the same size as the one reserved for Sinatra whenever he's at Jilly's in New York. And the people seated around this table in Las Vegas are mainly the same people who are often seen with Sinatra at Jilly's Restaurant in New York or at a restaurant in California or in Italy or in New Jersey, wherever Sinatra happens to be.
When Sinatra sits to dine, his trusted friends are close. And no matter where he is, no matter how elegant the place may be, there's something of the neighborhood showing because Sinatra, no matter how far he has come, is still something of the boy from the neighborhood. Only now, he can take his neighborhood with him. In some ways, the quasi-family affair at the reserved table in a public place is the closest thing Sinatra now has to home life.
Act Five. How Sinatra Affects Us.
Act Five, How Sinatra Affects Us. We have this account of everyday life from Camden Joy in New York.
Recently, a room full of people were almost killed by Frank Sinatra. I was there. I know. The scene was a Turkish kebab house in Lower Manhattan. This is my neighborhood hangout, the sort of place where only the employees are permitted to smoke. I go there because so do a lot of others-- Muslim cabbies on their breaks, fashion students from Kyoto, elegant immigrants from Tehran.
So there we all were the other day, eating grilled lamb and deep-fried balls of chickpeas off Styrofoam plates with plastic forks and knives, when suddenly we heard a new sound. A television. Now many of you have already seen televisions, and most of us had too, but the surprise of it in my local kebaberie is that thus far, we'd only heard Turkish radio. So with all due respect, we turned to look at it, as tradition tells you to do whenever anyone switches on a television in your presence.
There was a black and white movie. There was a man twitching on a train. There was a woman wearing pearls and a great deal of mascara, hairspray, and lipstick. There was Janet Leigh, and there was Frank Sinatra.
There are moments in a crowd when America makes so much sense, when you want to scream, bring me your tired, your poor, your hungry, and let's all dig Frank Sinatra. I mean to say this was one such moment. So all of us fell silent as, again, custom holds is the courteous thing to do when a television plays in a public setting. And through the steam of onions browning in olive oil, we watched The Manchurian Candidate.
Now, I've always wondered why you can never go into a place and hear my favorite Sinatra albums-- his sad albums, like No One Cares or In the Wee Small Hours-- and instead, you only hear songs like "New York, New York." Well, there's a reason. And it's the same reason restaurants have to be careful when his movies are on TV. It's a possible health code violation. You can die from Sinatra.
In the movie, Sinatra is coming apart. He sets a cigarette between his lips, and it falls into his Scotch and water. He looks around, embarrassed. Only Janet Leigh is watching. He tries to light a match, drops it, manages to light one, but his hands shake too badly, and the match goes out. He asks Janet Leigh whether she minds if he smokes, and their eyes meet, and they fall in love. She tells him she doesn't mind at all. Please do. He tries to light one up again, looks like he's going to vomit, bursts out of his chair, knocks over his drink, and runs.
There in the Turkish kebab house our mouths were full of baba ghanoush and hummus and baby lamb. But all of us had stopped chewing. We were too struck by what we were seeing. A man we all recognized was on the television about to break down. Sinatra has tried to flee the woman, but she follows him. She asks him where his home is. He can't look at her. His voice catches on every syllable as he tells her he's in the Army. His eyelids flutter. He sucks on the cigarette she has lit for him. He sighs, apparently at everything.
We all know people who hate Frank Sinatra for all sorts of reasons, mostly for how he treats other human beings in so-called real life. And they dismiss the undeniable beauty of his talent. I wonder if these people had been in the Turkish kebab house with us what they would think, seeing this scene. As with his best albums, Sinatra doesn't seem to be going from any script. There aren't printed-up lyrics and dialogue for this kind of thing. It's the real stuff. In this scene, he says almost nothing. He exhales and sweats and looks away. He's standing before us letting his feelings utterly overwhelm him. It's scary.
It's time I mention what else was happening in our Turkish kebab house, and that was that all of us-- employees, bike messengers, cabbies-- felt Sinatra's confusion so completely that we ourselves were about to cry. We would have been crying, that is, if our throats weren't clogged up with Turkish cuisine. Sinatra can barely talk. We could barely breathe.
On the television, Janet Leigh starts to tell Sinatra who she is. Then she stops. Instead, tells him her address, tells him the apartment number, her phone number. She gently asks him if he can remember it. His larynx closes up as he tells her, yes. You aren't sure how to take this response, because he still can't look at her. Janet Leigh repeats the phone number, and he turns even further from her, shakes his head slightly, closes his eyes in weariness.
In that moment, finally, after attentively watching this, the whole group of us in the kebaberie began to cough. Most everyone was choking back tears. But by this time, many of us were choking on shish kebab too. We were gagging into napkins, downing our sodas, poking ourselves in the ribs, crossing our hands at our throats. And then, abruptly, just like that, it was gone. We were OK. We would be fine.
We looked up at the television. Sinatra, our would-be killer, was breathing easier too.
Well, our program was produced today by Peter Clowney and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike, contributing editors Sarah Vowell, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.
To buy a cassette of this program, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago-- 312-832-3380-- or visit our website, where you can also listen to our shows for free, www.thislife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia who, of course, we always refer to as--
The Boss. Il Padrone.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI, Public Radio International.