Having left The New York Times on good terms to join Esquire in September of 1965, I had no difficulty in getting permission from the Times’s managing editor, Clifton Daniel, to revisit the building and conduct interviews with my selected list of Times people, including himself. He was one of four Times figures that Esquire’s editor, Harold Hayes, had agreed to let me portray in full-length articles, ranging in length from 4,000 to 7,000 words or more. Accustomed as I was to a 2,500-word limit at the Sunday Times Magazine, I greatly welcomed the space increase as well as having more time for research and writing, since Esquire was a monthly magazine.
On the downside, however, was my having to please Harold Hayes occasionally by interviewing a movie star or other celebrity. When he proposed that I write about Frank Sinatra, I tried to talk him out of it, and, while resisting the temptation of using Bartleby’s refrain—“I would prefer not to”—I did emphatically remind Hayes that there had already been several recently published pieces about Sinatra and I wondered what more could be said about him. I preferred to not write about celebrities because I knew from experience that few of them had much respect for writers, they were often late for interviews (if they showed up at all), and regularly insisted that their press agents or attorneys sit in on interviews and review the articles prior to publication.
I would never agree to this, nor would any newspaper or magazine of which I was aware, including Esquire, but Hayes still desired a big piece about Sinatra in his magazine and wanted me to do it. He reasoned that it was only fair that I sometimes try to help him increase newsstand sales with celebrity covers since he was allowing me to publish stories about journalists of whom few Esquire readers had ever heard.
In reviewing the four newspaper people on my proposed list, Hayes acknowledged being familiar with the Pulitzer Prize–winning foreign correspondent Harrison Salisbury, who had covered Russia during the Stalin years; but he knew little about the managing editor, Clifton Daniel, except that he was married to the daughter of the former president Harry Truman. And Hayes said he had no idea who my other two choices were: a young general-assignment reporter, John Corry, and a veteran copyreader named Alden Whitman, who had recently become the Times’s chief obituary writer.
Rather than begin my contract at Esquire by further sparring with my new boss, I agreed to do a profile on Sinatra.
Not Only Fun but Easy to Do
Honoring my earlier understanding with Harold Hayes, after he published my Whitman story, I would pursue his idea on Frank Sinatra. Hayes suggested that the story would not only be fun but easy to do. Sinatra’s representatives and the magazine had already reached an agreement. Esquire would devote its cover exclusively to the article while indicating it would not be a “hatchet job,” and the singer promised to make every effort to be available to the interviewer despite his very busy schedule during the winter of 1965.
On Monday, November 8, Sinatra was to appear at the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, outside Los Angeles, to record several songs for an NBC-TV special called Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, an hour-long program in color that would be broadcast during the evening of November 24. He was also finishing the final scenes of the movie Assault on a Queen, after which he would star in two others. He had already appeared in more than 40 films, beginning in 1944. Until then he had been known principally as a skinny crooner whose soothing voice and romantic manner on the radio and onstage appealed primarily to teenage girls known as “bobby-soxers.”
Within a little more than a month, on December 12, Sinatra’s family and friends would mark his 50th birthday with a celebration at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles. Hayes arranged for me to stay in the same hotel, but I would not be there long enough to attend the party, to which I most likely would not have been invited. I would arrive, however, in time for my November 5 meeting with Sinatra’s publicity director, who would provide my itinerary—which was to include witnessing the NBC recording session—and then Hayes expected me back in New York within a week.
Harold Hayes was known for his tight management and high expectations. Born in Elkin, North Carolina, he was the 40-year-old son of a Baptist minister, and during the Korean War he had served as an officer in the Marine Corps. Although at Esquire he wore Brooks attire and possessed an almost sommelier’s knowledge of fine wine, he nonetheless came across as a tall and rangy, bright-eyed, dark-haired country boy who downplayed his keen intelligence and awareness, and yet he accentuated his looming presence by walking around the office with metal tips clamped to the soles of his shoes.
In providing me with first-class airfare to Los Angeles, he was not only signaling the high priority he attached to the Sinatra assignment but also expressing confidence that what I later wrote would increase newsstand sales and thus justify his generosity toward me. During the last five years, beginning in 1960—using some of my vacation time and weekends off at the Times—I had written more than a dozen pieces for Esquire, some requiring air travel, but never before had Hayes voluntarily provided first-class accommodations.
In doing so now he seemed to be saying that my stature had risen in his estimation and I had fewer excuses for disappointing him. He said that once I returned from Los Angeles, he hoped that I would deliver the Sinatra piece in final form within a week or 10 days. I did not argue, especially after he said that I could then proceed with what I really wanted to do for Esquire, which was to provide a profile on Harry Truman’s son-in-law, Clifton Daniel, managing editor of The New York Times.
I left New York on an afternoon TWA flight to Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 3, arriving well ahead of my scheduled meeting with Sinatra’s press agent on Friday morning. This would be my third trip to Los Angeles for Esquire. The first was a success; the second, a disaster.
I preferred to not write about celebrities because I knew from experience that few of them had much respect for writers.
The first was in early February of 1962 when, after spending a few days in New York interviewing the former heavyweight champion Joe Louis, I accompanied him back to Los Angeles, where he was living with his third wife, Martha, a prominent and prideful African-American defense attorney in that city. Whenever her courtroom associates or friends would ask, “How in the hell did you meet Joe Louis?,” she would quickly reply: “How in the hell did Joe Louis meet me?”
The ex-champ was then 48, and, although I was aware of some of his memorable comments made during his prime—when asked in 1941 how he could catch up with such a fleet-footed and elusive contender as Billy Conn, Louis replied, “He can run, but he can’t hide”; and when questioned about fighting for virtually nothing as a private in World War II, Louis answered, “I’m not fighting for nothing, I’m fighting for my country”—I was nevertheless surprised during our talks by his absurd sense of humor.
For example, as we boarded the flight to Los Angeles, I decided to upgrade my coach ticket to first class in order to sit next to him, while at the same time I wondered aloud how the airlines could justify such a big difference in price. “First-class seats are up in front of the plane,” Joe Louis replied dryly, “and they get you to L.A. faster.”
My article, titled “Joe Louis: The King as a Middle-Aged Man,” appeared in the June 1962 issue. Hayes liked it and reimbursed me for the cost of the upgrade.
But later that same year, I was sent out coach-class to interview the movie star Natalie Wood, who was then at the peak of her long career, having begun as a child actress. In 1961 she had earned a best-actress Oscar nomination for Splendor in the Grass, followed by the hit musical West Side Story, and then in 1962 came her acclaimed performance in Gypsy. Between these, and her involvement with two forthcoming films, her press representative set aside three one-hour interviews for me. But Natalie Wood failed to show up for any of them; and since I was due to return to my job at the Times, I quit the assignment and flew back to New York, contented that at least my expenses over a three-day period were covered by Esquire—and contented, too, that Natalie Wood had inadvertently been responsible for my meeting a married couple in Beverly Hills that would become long-lasting friends.
They were attractive and personable, Jack and Sally Hanson, and they owned and operated a popular sportswear boutique for women called Jax, located on the corner of Bedford Drive and Wilshire Boulevard, two blocks from the Beverly Wilshire hotel, where I was not then staying. Hayes had booked me into a cheaper hotel on a nearby side street. The reason I went to Jax was to meet Natalie Wood, whose agent had initially invited me there for an introduction prior to our proceeding to our first interview over lunch. Ms. Wood was a regular customer at Jax. After she stood me up, I was taken to lunch by Jack and Sally Hanson, and I continued to see them not only in Los Angeles but later in Manhattan, where they had a Jax store on East 57th Street, between Third and Lexington Avenues.
In fact, there were then at least half a dozen Jax stores around the nation, including locations in Chicago, San Francisco, Palm Beach, Southampton, and three in Southern California. The 44-year-old Jack Hanson, a tall and ruddy onetime professional baseball player, and his 32-year-old second wife, Sally, a slender and stylish honey blonde in a ponytail, were millionaires who drove around town in Rolls-Royce convertibles—his was painted white, hers was powder blue—and they lived in a 15-room, white-columned, neo-Southern house that resembled Tara, the plantation manor in Gone with the Wind. Located on North Beverly Drive, a few blocks from their flagship store, it stood behind a wide lawn fronted with a gigantic magnolia tree and flanked by a dozen pine trees each more than 60 feet high.
Jack had bought the property in 1958, a year after marrying Sally, from the estate of the producer Hal Roach, who had gotten rich decades earlier with his Our Gang series, the comedies of Harold Lloyd, and more than a hundred films starring Laurel and Hardy. An avid tennis player, Roach had a court in the rear that was overlooked by a white, triple-arched portico; and in later years Jack Hanson, who also loved tennis, would play singles and doubles there on weekends with such friends as Paul Newman, Robert Duvall, the photographer Gordon Parks, the designer Oleg Cassini, the veteran tennis pro Pancho Segura, and the footballer turned actor Jim Brown.
Hanson’s own ambitions as a professional athlete were cut short when he entered the service in 1942. Before that, in 1940, after starring at Hollywood High School and the University of Southern California, he had signed a baseball contract with the Chicago Cubs organization and was assigned to a minor-league franchise in the Pacific Coast League. On the team bus, some of his teammates were amused, if not perplexed, by his practice of sitting with a sketchbook in hand, drawing pictures of women wearing sports outfits. While not discussing it with his fellow players, he had often thought that if he failed to make enough money playing ball, there might be a place for him in the world of fashion.
In 1945, after three years in the Army Air Force—during which he had befriended Sergeant Joe DiMaggio at the base in Santa Ana, California—he decided to quit baseball and invest his savings, plus a loan, in opening the first Jax store, south of Los Angeles on Balboa Island. In partnership with his first wife, Nina, with whom he had a son in 1946, they sold shorts, sportswear, and beach attire.
But he and Nina soon proved to be incompatible as co-owners. They had wed in 1939, during Jack’s senior year at U.S.C., and now as their marriage approached its eighth year, and with a child at home to be cared for, Nina ceased appearing at the store regularly and she was also increasingly unhappy at home. Making things no easier was her disapproval of how her husband was promoting the business. Unable to afford advertising, he had hired several young beach beauties to stand in the store’s front windows for a few hours each day striking alluring poses while wearing Jax merchandise. This stimulated traffic and sales but accelerated the termination of his union with Nina, especially after Jack had begun socializing after hours with some of his window models. The couple divorced in 1948.
A year later, Jack met Sally. She was then 18 and, like Jack, a graduate of Hollywood High School. When she first walked into the store on Balboa Island, it was not to apply as a window model, which Jack would have welcomed—she was a perfect size 10 and quite stunning—but as an aspiring fashion designer.
I had written more than a dozen pieces for Esquire, some requiring air travel, but never before had Hayes voluntarily provided first-class accommodations.
She had been born in Erie, Pennsylvania, and arrived in Los Angeles as a four-year-old in 1935 with her divorced mother who, like many mothers at that time and in that city, fantasized that her young daughter was the next Shirley Temple. As an eight-year-old, Sally did get to play a Munchkin in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. In 1940, she was one of the unborn children that Shirley Temple imagines in the fairy-tale film The Blue Bird. Sally made a brief appearance as well in Lassie Come Home, the 1943 movie starring 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor and 14-year-old Roddy McDowall.
But more than appearing before cameras, Sally enjoyed being offstage with the wardrobe mistresses, and from them she learned a lot about stitching, fitting, and styling.
As a 12-year-old, using her mother’s sewing machine, she began making all her own clothes. When she first walked into Jack Hanson’s shop, she discussed the possibility of introducing a unique item that he had never contemplated stocking—pants tailored exclusively for women.
Up to that time, except for factory-working females during the war years, few women wore pants in public. If they did, the cut of the garment was similar to the men’s: wide-legged trousers with pleats, side pockets, cuffs, and fly fronts, although for women the zipper was sometimes on the side. In any case, it was still a masculine look defying extensive social acceptance, notwithstanding the fact that such adventuresome actresses as Marlene Dietrich had often appeared in pre-war films dressed ostensibly as a man in trousers and jackets, usually together with a bowler or beret and a cigarette in hand.
As a fashion statement, however, Jack Hanson dismissed it as “Parisian lesbian,” but what Sally had in mind appealed to him immediately. She suggested creating hip-hugging women’s pants in which the zipper would be stitched into the back seam, thus accentuating and flattering the curvature of the rear; and there would be the elimination of pockets, further slenderizing the garment; and while the legs would follow a slim and elongated line, the fit would not be skintight. The pants would also be silk-lined so as to avoid showing wrinkles around the backs of the knees.
Sally made samples and returned to Jack’s store wearing a pair; then, after she had outfitted Jack’s young women to model them in the windows, there was such a boom in sales that it was difficult to keep them in stock. Sally soon became the chief designer not only of Jax pants but also shirts, pants suits, and other clothing; and, after opening the Beverly Hills store in 1952, the brand quickly caught on with movie actresses, one of the first being Marilyn Monroe, although at the time she was not yet a star.
She had received good notices in 1950 for her small part in The Asphalt Jungle, although her name was not on the film’s poster; and when Sally first met her and sold her a pair of pants priced at $50, Monroe was driving a battered 1937 Chevy. But a year later, in 1953, with leading roles in Niagara and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—and on the way to marrying Joe DiMaggio in 1954—Marilyn Monroe was spending lavishly at Jax, as would in time also Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, and Elizabeth Taylor, the latter once ordering $3,000 worth of merchandise in a single day.
In addition to enlarging their number of stores, Jack and Sally Hanson in 1962 bought a piece of property near the Beverly Wilshire hotel, at 326 North Rodeo Drive, and there they built a private club called the Daisy. It had a limited membership of 400, nearly all of them well-known figures in entertainment, fashion, and sports.
During the afternoons the members met for lunch within the sidewalk patio, and in the evenings, resonant with piped-in music, they sat at dozens of tables within a large, dimly lit room in which the ceiling was lined with crystal chandeliers bearing low-wattage, teardrop-shaped bulbs. Beyond the bar was a billiard room with two tables and several padded stools placed along the walls for the convenience of spectators watching, and sometimes placing bets on, the club’s hustlers competing at eight ball.
I had visited the Daisy once in 1964, as the Hansons’ guest, and after I called them from New York a year later to say that I was on a new assignment for Esquire and would be arriving in town on the evening of November 3, they invited me to join them for dinner on the following night at their table.
It would prove to be a fortuitous time for me to be at the Daisy. Standing in a dark corner of the bar that night, holding a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and flanked by two well-coiffed and besuited blondes, would be none other than Frank Sinatra.
The Most Famous Lonely Man in America
On the Trans World Airlines flight into Los Angeles I had read in a newspaper column that Sinatra was unhappy with the CBS broadcaster Walter Cronkite and was in fact threatening to sue the network because, in a forthcoming documentary to be broadcast in less than two weeks, Cronkite suggested that Sinatra was on friendly terms with members of organized crime.
Until then I had been unaware of the CBS documentary, and I wondered why, if Harold Hayes knew about it, he had not mentioned it. Hayes had led me to believe that Esquire had been promised cooperation, but after reading the item I wondered how open Sinatra might now be with journalists—and this was why, after noticing him at the bar, I resisted the impulse to get up from the Hansons’ table and make my way across the crowded room to introduce myself.
Contributing to my caution was an earlier conversation I had had on the plane with a red-haired flight attendant named Betty Guy, who told me that Sinatra often traveled on Trans World Airlines and that, in her opinion, he was “Jekyll and Hyde”—sometimes very friendly toward her and his fellow passengers, while at other times, unpredictably, he could be ill-tempered, sullen, and mostly silent during the long flight between New York and Los Angeles. He was usually accompanied by a few men, she said, assuming they were his bodyguards or management assistants; but he ignored them as well as he sat alone at a window seat, alternating between drinking bourbon and sleeping, giving her the impression that he was perhaps the loneliest person on board.
As I sat at the Hansons’ big table with half a dozen other guests, participating in the general conversation while keeping an eye focused on Sinatra at the bar, Sally, sitting next to me, said: “He often comes here, and usually brings Mia.” She was referring to Mia Farrow, the 20-year-old actress whom Sinatra had been dating all year, but she was not in sight tonight. Sally did not know the names of the two blondes who sat at the bar, both in their middle 30s, but she was acquainted with a couple of Sinatra’s male friends who stood nearby, both wearing suits and ties.
One was Brad Dexter, a big, broad-shouldered character actor in his late 40s who had appeared in several films and television shows but was currently best known in Hollywood for having saved Sinatra from drowning a year before in Hawaii. Sinatra had then been directing and starring in None but the Brave, a World War II film involving the Japanese, and in it Dexter played a cigar-chomping sergeant. But during a break in the action, while Sinatra and the producer’s wife were taking a swim, they were swept out to sea by the outgoing tide and might have died were it not for the efforts of Dexter, who swam a few hundred yards to the rescue, being assisted by two surfers. After this, a grateful Sinatra hired Dexter as an executive within the Sinatra Enterprises operation and the two men became intimate friends.
The other man standing near Sinatra at the Daisy was 60-year-old Leo Durocher, whose longtime association with Sinatra went back to the mid-1940s, when Durocher was the loudmouthed manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and popularly known as “Leo the Lip.” In his earlier years, beginning in the mid-1920s, he had been an infielder with the Yankees during the Babe Ruth era; but no matter where Durocher was employed during his decades in baseball, both as a player and manager with a number of teams, he was distinguished for his combativeness and determination to win at all costs. The quotation that best characterized him, one that he himself co-opted though probably apocryphal, was “Nice guys finish last.”
Wanting to get a closer look at Sinatra and his friends, I excused myself from the Hansons’ table and made my way across the room, cutting through dozens of couples wiggling to folk rock from the stereo, and took a position in the shadows a few yards away from the bar. Sinatra’s back was to me, but even if he turned around or caught my reflection in the bar’s mirror, there was no reason I should be recognized. I had never met him before.
A red-haired flight attendant told me that Sinatra often traveled on Trans World Airlines and that, in her opinion, he was “Jekyll and Hyde.”
The only other time I’d seen him was at some distance earlier in the year at Jilly’s saloon on West 52nd Street in New York, where he sat at a big private table in the rear surrounded by close friends—Sammy Davis Jr. being one of them—and his daughters, Nancy and Tina. Earlier in the evening Sinatra had delivered a concert to a standing ovation in Forest Hills, Queens, and at Jilly’s he seemed to be in a very celebratory mood. There was lots of laughter, drinking, and embracing at the table.
But now at the Daisy it was very different. Sinatra stood silently sipping bourbon, and except for occasionally flicking his gold lighter under the extended cigarette of one of his female companions, he otherwise ignored them. He also said nothing to Durocher or Dexter standing nearby. I was reminded of how the TWA attendant, Betty Guy, had described Sinatra to me earlier: a lonely-looking individual sitting at the window seat sipping bourbon, avoiding everybody around him—so different from the friendly and vivacious figure that she had seen on other TWA flights. “Jekyll and Hyde.”
But to me on this occasion he seemed for the most part to be anxious and impetuous. I say this because when the phone rang at the bar and the bartender was slow in answering it, being several steps away putting drinks on a waiter’s tray, Sinatra suddenly rose on tiptoes and reached out to grab hold of the white, Bakelite, push-button landline resting on a towel on the far side of the bar. Holding the mouthpiece to his lips, Sinatra then curtly said, “Hello.” Without identifying himself, he listened for a second to the person on the other end, and then, after laying the phone down heavily on the bar, yelled in the direction of the bartender: “George, it’s for you.”
George, a stocky bespectacled man in his mid-40s, immediately stopped what he was doing and came running toward the phone, wiping his hands on a towel before picking it up. He then nodded in the direction of Sinatra, saying, “Thanks, Frank, sorry to bother you,” before greeting his caller. Sinatra had meanwhile turned away to resume sipping his bourbon while the two blondes conversed and smoked, and Dexter and Durocher leaned against the corner of the bar, drinks in hand, watching the young couples jumping around the dance floor.
Then, some minutes later, the phone rang again, and again Sinatra picked it up before the barman could get to it—this time he was bent low filling an ice bucket—and after Sinatra said, “George, it’s for you,” the barman not only again apologized but he might well have felt demeaned in failing to keep pace with his impatient and self-appointed secretary.
I stood watching and wondering why Sinatra was doing this. Why was he answering the barman’s phone? Maybe he was just a control freak, I thought, one predisposed to take charge, to command the phone, to preside over the entire club. Or maybe Sinatra, having such a delicately tuned musical ear, was hypersensitive to the grating sound of this meddling instrument; while a convenience to the bartender, it was a nuisance to such individuals as Sinatra, especially during evenings when he was not feeling well.
Or maybe he was answering the phone as a favor to George, whom he perhaps saw as an overburdened bartender with a dependent wife or girlfriend at home calling to say that she was lonely and needed him and wanted to know how late he would be working. How would such a woman react if she knew that the first voice she had just heard on the telephone belonged to the most famous lonely man in America?
Or it was possible that Sinatra was so eager to pick up the bar phone because he hoped that the call would be from Mia Farrow trying to reach him, needing him!
As I was pondering, the Daisy’s disc jockey suddenly switched from rock music to “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” a beautiful ballad that Sinatra had recorded 10 years earlier, in 1955, when he was miserably married to the movie star Ava Gardner, whose independent spirit and aloofness both frustrated him and enhanced her desirability—and the song’s lyrics probably reflected the sense of longing that he had then felt:
“In the wee small hours of the morning / while the whole wide world is fast asleep / you lie awake and think about the girl …”
Sinatra stood silently sipping bourbon, and except for occasionally flicking his gold lighter under the extended cigarette of one of his female companions, he otherwise ignored them.
As the music swept through the room, and as the dance floor was now jammed with slow-moving couples holding one another very close, and as the two blondes sitting at the bar now turned around to watch the dancers and shift their own bodies to the soft rhythm of Nelson Riddle’s orchestra that accompanied Sinatra’s mellifluous voice, I kept my eye on the man himself, expecting that he would soon change his posture, would turn around and join the moment and pay respectful attention to the Capitol Records classic that he had completed 10 years earlier.
But he did not move. There seemed to be no connection between his recorded voice and his physical presence, except that he now personified the image of himself featured on the Wee Small Hours album—a melancholy man, dapper, wearing a fedora, cigarette in hand, standing alone on the corner of a shadowy street late at night near a lamppost.
I had thoughts buzzing in my head that I wanted to write down before I forgot them, so I left the bar area and headed toward the men’s room. Whenever I want to make notes in private, preferring not to call attention to myself as a reporter, which too often alters the relationship between the observer and the observed, I remove myself to such places as a bathroom, often behind the closed door of a toilet stall; and instead of writing on flimsy pieces of overlapping paper, or on a pocket-size pad—the latter typically bound by circular wiring that frequently gets caught on the inner lining of my jacket—I write on the white surface of a piece of shirt folderboard that comes with my laundry.
Once a dress shirt is washed and ironed, the laundry worker either places it on a hanger or folds it around a 14-by-8-inch section of cardboard that the customer usually throws away after putting on the shirt. But I always save these cardboard sections and stack them in a pile near my desk at home; before going out for an interview, I take a scissor and cut a folderboard sideways into five pieces, after which I trim and round off all the edges. I thus create a firm and handy little pack of seven-by-three-inch writing surfaces that easily slip in and out of my jacket pocket; on certain occasions, I might even tuck a single slice inside the cuff of my shirt and surreptitiously scribble a few words on the cardboard’s edge when I think there is little risk of being observed.
I would never dare make notes in a crowded room, especially in the proximity of Sinatra’s pals and protectors, and even in the privacy of the bathroom I do not linger long with my writing. All I do on these strips of cardboard is jot down in abbreviated form a reminder of what I’d seen, felt, and thought while watching Sinatra—ergo:
FS brooding at bar
FS mood music lures dancers
FS voice airy aphrodisiac?
FS lyrics >multitudes love-making in parked cars, penthouses, rented rooms, etc.
FS being stood up tonight by Mia?
During the time I was away, Sinatra and his pals, Durocher and Dexter, had left the blondes at the bar with the singer’s bodyguard Ed Pucci, a 250-pound ex-lineman who had played pro ball with Washington, and made their way into the poolroom. There they joined about 50 or 60 young people who were standing or sitting on stools watching the eight-ball competition in progress at the two tables.
When I had settled myself inconspicuously within a crowd near the door, I noticed that Sinatra, drink in hand, was sitting with his back against the wall on the other side of the room. He was wearing a well-cut, three-piece Oxford-gray suit with a pocket square, and the jacket had red silk lining. Sitting with his legs crossed, he displayed highly buffed burgundy shoes of British design that seemed to be shined even on the bottom of the soles. I also noticed that on at least two occasions he removed a white handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his nose; I learned later that he had a cold.
Only he and his companions, Dexter and Durocher, were attired in suits and ties, while the others were more casually, though not inexpensively, dressed—cashmere sweaters, Gucci loafers, tailored jeans, and, of course, prevalent among the women members of the club, Jax pants. Although everyone seemed to be comfortable in Sinatra’s presence, having seen him there often in the past and being used to having famous people as fellow members, they still kept a respectful distance, being mindful of his volatile nature.
On at least two occasions he removed a white handkerchief from his hip pocket and wiped his nose; I learned later that he had a cold.
Leo Durocher, meanwhile, had gotten hold of a cue stick and had insinuated himself into a game at the near table. He quickly demonstrated why he had often been described in newspapers as a pool shark, one who’d grown up playing the game and had greatly augmented his income while hustling teammates during his years as a baseball player. As he skillfully slammed the billiard balls back and forth across the green felt surface, Sinatra and Dexter took turns clapping and shouting out words of encouragement; but then Sinatra abruptly shifted his attention toward a short young man who stood behind Durocher wearing a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, brown corduroy slacks, a tan suede jacket, and game-warden boots.
In time I would learn that this sharp-featured, five-foot-five-inch individual with blondish hair and squared eyeglasses was a prolific 30-year-old writer of science-fiction stories and screenplays named Harlan Ellison. But what most impressed Sinatra about Ellison were his boots.
“Hey,” Sinatra asked in a loud voice, sniffling a bit from his cold, “those Italian boots?”
“No,” Ellison replied, turning and staring at Sinatra. The room suddenly went quiet. Durocher, who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low, just froze in that position for a second.
“Spanish boots?” Sinatra asked.
“No!” said Ellison.
“Look, I don’t know, man,” Ellison said impatiently, frowning and turning toward Durocher, perhaps seeking his intercession. Durocher did not move. Sinatra then stepped away from the stool and walked with a slow, arrogant swagger toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes the only sound in the room. Looking directly at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: “You expecting a storm?”
Ellison moved a step to the side and said, “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”
“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra said.
“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison said, “but I dress to suit myself.”
Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, “C’mon, Harlan, let’s get out of here.” Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, “Yeah, c’mon.”
But Ellison stood his ground.
Sinatra asked, “What do you do?”
“I’m a plumber,” Ellison said.
“No, no, he’s not,” another young man quickly called out from across the table, “He wrote The Oscar.”
“Oh, yeah,” Sinatra said, “well, I’ve seen it, and it’s a piece of shit.”
“That’s strange,” Ellison said, “because they haven’t even released it yet.”
“Well, I’ve seen it,” Sinatra repeated, “and it’s a piece of shit.”
Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, and very big opposite the tiny figure of Ellison, said, “C’mon, kid, I don’t want you in this room.”
“Hey,” Sinatra interrupted Dexter, “can’t you see I’m talking to this guy?”
Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed. His voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, “Why do you persist in tormenting me?”
The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges, Harlan Ellison and a buddy of his left the room, and I soon followed them, my interest in Sinatra temporarily put aside. I felt I had to speak to Ellison, and if I did not catch up with him now, I might have a difficult time tracking him down later.
Tapping him on the shoulder and apologizing for my intrusion, I introduced myself and asked if he would talk to me for a few minutes outside the club.
“Sorry, I have to go somewhere now,” Ellison said. “Call me tomorrow.” He gave me his number and I quickly wrote it down on a slice of cardboard: BR9-1952.
After Ellison had left the club and I had rejoined the Hansons’ table, I noticed that Sinatra, along with Dexter and Durocher, had returned to the women and the bodyguard at the bar, but I was satisfied that on this particular evening I had seen enough. I now wanted to hurry back to my hotel, and to my Olivetti portable traveling mate, and do what I always do before going to bed while on assignment: take some typing paper and write a page or two or more describing what I had so far observed that day, the people I had seen and my impressions of them, getting it all down while still fresh in my memory.
I began by typing the day’s date at the top of the lead page [“Thursday, Nov. 4, 1965”]; where I was doing the typing [“in my room #451 at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel”]; and, after referring to my cardboard jottings: FS brooding at bar … FS “Wee Small hrs” … FS voice airy aphrodisiac? … FS>Harlan Ellison. I then began expanding the material and creating scenes as if I were a short-story writer, while at the same time reminding myself that I was a reporter striving for accuracy.
Although everyone seemed to be comfortable in Sinatra’s presence, they still kept a respectful distance, being mindful of his volatile nature.
Although I did not take notes in the pool room, I felt confident as I typed that I was faithfully reproducing the dialogue I had heard earlier involving Sinatra and Ellison. This is not to suggest that I have “total recall”—that would be Truman Capote’s claim while researching In Cold Blood—but during my decades of listening to people sans tape recorder I think I have cultivated a fairly high degree of retentiveness.
Still, I planned to go over everything with Harlan Ellison when I later met with him, not only to confirm and perhaps enlarge upon what I remembered but also to ask Ellison what he himself was feeling as he was being targeted by Sinatra. Was he surprised by the encounter? Did he think that Sinatra might throw a punch at him? Or throw a drink at him?
What was in Ellison’s head the whole time? As a reporter I am always interested in describing what my subjects are thinking as well as what they are doing and saying. And I am also interested in what I myself am thinking while I’m devoting my attention to other people. For example, what was on my mind as I observed Sinatra in his contrasting moods at the Daisy? On this evening I had most recently seen him behaving aggressively in the pool room, while earlier at the bar he had been a quiet and isolated figure. He did not even react to the playing of “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” although this romantic music promptly drove dozens of couples to the dance floor; and as I stood watching while they held one another very close, I was thinking that Sinatra’s voice was an airy aphrodisiac—the very words I would write on cardboard in the men’s room—and I had visions of these young couples later leaving the Daisy and making love in their beds at home, or in rented rooms, or in any of a dozen other places—all sorts of places, including in parked cars, while Sinatra’s music was playing on the radio and the batteries were burning low.
I not only imagined such a scene, and got a first draft of it on paper, but many weeks later, when I submitted my article in final form to Harold Hayes, it had obviously been guided by what I had typed on my Olivetti on the night of November 4 in the Beverly Wilshire hotel, albeit in a more polished and fully realized form:
“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” … like so many of his classics, a song that evokes loneliness and sensuality, and when blended with the dim light and the alcohol and nicotine and late night needs, it becomes a kind of airy aphrodisiac. Undoubtedly the words from this song, and others like it, had put millions in the mood, it was music to make love by, and doubtless much love had been made by it all over America at night in cars, while the batteries burned down, in cottages by the lake, on beaches during balmy summer evenings, in secluded parks and exclusive penthouses and furnished rooms, in cabin cruisers and cabs and cabanas—in all places where Sinatra’s songs could be heard were these words that warmed women, wooed and won them, snipped the final thread of inhibition and gratified the male egos of ungrateful lovers; two generations of men had been the beneficiaries of such ballads, for which they were eternally in his debt, for which they may eternally hate him. Nevertheless here he was, the man himself, in the early hours of the morning in Beverly Hills, out of range.
As Far as I Can Go
On Friday morning, November 5, I walked from my hotel to the nearby office of Sinatra’s publicist, Jim Mahoney, an affable, broad-shouldered, sandy-haired man of 37 who greeted me while wearing a custom-tailored nut-brown suit, a tan silk tie, and a striped shirt with his initials J. M. monogrammed on the breast pocket.
His leather briefcase was lying flat on his desk, next to a thick stack of unopened mail. After waving me to a seat opposite him, he carelessly pushed aside the mail, allowing some pieces to fall to the floor. “Bills, bills,” he said, in a bemused manner. “No money, just bills, bills …” He left the fallen envelopes on the floor.
Then his secretary walked in to say that Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News was on the line. After apologizing to me for the interruption, he grabbed the phone and leaned back in his leather chair, listening for a moment, and then in a loud voice said: “That’s right, Kay, I’m telling you that CBS played Frank dirty. They lied to him, Kay, they made a gentleman’s agreement to not ask questions about Frank’s private life and then Cronkite went right ahead: ‘Frank, tell me about those associations.’ That question, Kay—out. That question should never have been asked.”
As their conversation continued, I glanced around the room and noticed an autographed photo of President Kennedy hanging on the wall, a few photos of Sinatra standing next to Mahoney at public events, and one of Mahoney posing with his wife and their five children. On the shelves were a number of Mahoney’s golf trophies, and also on display was a mounted wood photocopy of the $240,000 ransom note that Sinatra received in 1963 from the kidnappers of his 19-year-old son, Frank Jr., who was then launching his musical career at Harrah’s Club Lodge in Lake Tahoe. It was Mahoney who delivered the cash that freed Frank Jr. The F.B.I. soon caught and imprisoned the criminals, and nearly all the ransom money was recovered.
After Mahoney had hung up on Kay Gardella, his secretary again came in to say that a certain gentleman was on the line.
“Does he know that I’m here?,” Mahoney asked.
“No,” she said.
“Well, tell him I’m not here.”
Then, turning to me, he said, “I’m really sorry to burden you with what’s going on, but Frank isn’t feeling well and I’m afraid your talking to him will have to be put off for a while.”
“For how long?,” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Frank is nursing a cold, and he just left earlier today to spend the weekend at his place in Palm Springs, where he expects to recover in time to record some songs this Monday at the NBC taping in Burbank. But there’s another matter that’s bothering him and his attorney, Mickey Rudin, and this concerns you.”
“They’re really upset about being betrayed by Cronkite and his coming CBS interview, and they would like you to sign an agreement allowing Rudin to review your article before it’s published.”
“Jim, you know I can’t do that,” I said quickly. “I couldn’t do it at the Times, and I can’t at Esquire, or any other place that I know of.”
“Unfortunately, this is all out of my hands,” Mahoney said. “But Frank and Mickey Rudin need some assurance or else we can’t proceed with this interview.”
“I can assure them that I won’t associate Sinatra with the Mafia in my piece,” I said, “but that’s as far as I can go.”
“That might not be far enough,” Mahoney said.
“Harold Hayes will hate hearing this,” I said, adding that I had flown in with the understanding that Esquire and Sinatra’s people had reached an agreement, and furthermore I was not expected to remain in Los Angeles for much longer than a week. “Now I have to call Hayes and tell him the deal is off, and, as I already said, I’ll bet he’ll be furious.”
“Again, I’m sorry,” Mahoney said. “Maybe we can find a way to pick up your expense and fly you back ourselves.”
“I doubt that Hayes would agree,” I said, although I was not so sure. Maybe he would agree and cancel the Sinatra assignment, and consequently free me to do what I preferred doing—interviewing the Times’s managing editor, Clifton Daniel. In any case, it was Harold Hayes’s decision to make, and so as I stood to leave Mahoney’s office I told him that I’d go back to my hotel and try to reach Hayes, and I would let Mahoney know the results.
“No, wait,” Mahoney said, “I might have a better idea. Let’s not call Harold Hayes until we know how Frank feels this Monday, after he does the NBC rehearsal in Burbank. I was planning to take you with me to the recording session. You’ll be able to watch him sing, but not to try to interview him then. You must give me a chance to see if I can smooth things out. Is that agreeable?”
After I agreed, he said he would pick me up in front of my hotel at 10 a.m. sharp on Monday—and he was there promptly as promised, sitting behind the wheel of his Mercedes convertible. During the half-hour drive to Burbank, in response to my questions, he told me about himself.
As I stood watching while they held one another very close, I was thinking that Sinatra’s voice was an airy aphrodisiac—the very words I would write on cardboard in the men’s room.
He was born about five miles south of Beverly Hills in Culver City, which was well known as the site of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. His father, a housepainter, was often hired to work on the residences of MGM movie stars, and one such individual was Clark Gable, who occupied a nine-room ranch house on a 20-acre property in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley.
As a teenager, Jim Mahoney sometimes accompanied his father to jobs, and that is how he met Clark Gable, who soon took a liking to him and arranged for him to work as an assistant to MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Strickling. One day in 1953, Strickling assigned Mahoney to drive the MGM star Ava Gardner, then married to Sinatra, to the airport for her flight to Africa to be featured with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly in Mogambo.
When Mahoney arrived at Ava Gardner’s home in Nichols Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills, she was not quite ready, so she told him to come in and make himself a drink. As he entered the living room and headed to the bar, he was interrupted by a male voice demanding: “Who the fuck are you?” Frank Sinatra was sitting on a stuffed chair in a shaded corner of the living room, obviously in a foul mood.
“I’m from Strickling’s office,” Mahoney said, “and I’m supposed to take Mrs. Sinatra to the airport.”
Sinatra’s attitude softened and he stood up, saying, “That’s fine, kid. What are you drinking?”
But moments later, as Ava Gardner came down with her luggage and said good-bye to her husband, Mahoney noticed tears in Sinatra’s eyes. Mahoney later heard that she was determined to get away from Sinatra, that she had recently aborted their child, and that Sinatra was so depressed that he had on at least one occasion attempted suicide. In addition to personal problems, he had financial ones prompted by his declining stature in the entertainment business. He had already tested for what would become his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity, but at this point he did not know that he had won the part.
Years later, after Sinatra’s triumphant career had been fully restored, Mahoney met him a second time on the MGM lot, where Sinatra was starring in Kings Go Forth. Mahoney was helping with the promotion, and one day Sinatra asked: “When are you going to get out of this hokey business?”
“When something better comes along,” Mahoney replied.
“Something just did,” said Sinatra. He offered him a big raise and a position as the singer’s exclusive publicist. That was in 1958, and since then, said Mahoney, “I’ve been with him through the good years, the lean years, and the in-between years.”
While Mahoney drove into the parking lot of the sprawling 60-acre Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, which consisted of dozens of soundstages resembling airplane hangars, I noticed several people unloading musical instruments from their cars and entering the side door of one particularly busy building. I was also aware of a very familiar male figure stepping out of a limousine wearing an orange sweater, a snap-brimmed fedora, and carrying under one arm a briefcase and a raincoat on this cloudy and unseasonably cool California day.
“Jim,” I called out, “isn’t that Frank Sinatra!”
Mahoney stopped his car and squinted through his windshield in the direction of the individual I was pointing to.
“No,” he said. “That’s not Frank. That’s his double, Johnny Delgado.”
I was surprised to hear that Sinatra had a double, but I said nothing, knowing instinctively that whatever I was thinking was best kept secret from Mahoney. He had warned me not to approach Sinatra, but he’d said nothing about the double. Johnny Delgado was the type of subsidiary character who always appealed to me as a writer. The same might be said of many others who worked for, or who were socially connected with, Frank Sinatra—a list that included his publicist Mahoney, his lawyer Rudin, his bodyguard Pucci, and dozens more, including some of his special household servants and countless backstage characters and hangers-on.
In any case, were I not beholden to Harold Hayes and the fulfillment of my assignment, I would have much preferred profiling the double than the real thing; and in my mind I had already assembled many questions for Delgado. How did he ever get this job? What were its pleasures, perks, and pitfalls? Knowing that Sinatra was currently working on Assault on a Queen, a film being shot along the Pacific coastline, I guessed that Delgado was sent out to appear in the water scenes while Sinatra stayed dry on the beach, but what was Delgado doing here today at the recording session? Could he carry a tune? Was he once an aspiring singer or an actor? If so, what were his experiences? Did he have a personal relationship with Sinatra?
If I pursued him, would he talk to me? Or would he avoid me, fearing he’d lose his job? I would know the answer only if I could get to him, but before I could do that I would have to somehow circumvent Jim Mahoney.
Excerpted from Gay Talese’s new book, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, to be published on September 19 by Mariner