I stayed close to Mahoney as we entered the vast and clamorous television studio where hundreds of people were gathered in conversation around the elevated platform on which some seated musicians were warming up; and overlooking the bandstand was the glass-enclosed control booth in which the director and his assistants were testing their cameras and sound equipment in the hope that Frank Sinatra would battle through his cold today and offer a worthy performance.
After passing the bandstand, we continued walking until we reached the rehearsal room in the far corner of the studio. Mahoney paused to speak to some people who stood outside the door, introducing me to none of them. Three of them were well-dressed men in dark suits approaching middle age, and there was also a gray-haired woman wearing a floral-print dress who carried a small suitcase. I later learned her name was Helen Turpin, and that her full-time job was quietly following Sinatra around wherever he performed while bearing a suitcase filled with his hairpieces. As his toupee toter, she earned $400 a week.
Inside the rehearsal room, accompanied by a pianist, Sinatra was testing his voice. Since the door was partly opened, we could hear him frequently interrupt his singing to complain about something, and twice he even pounded his fists on the piano, while the accompanist pleaded with him, softly but repeatedly: “Try not to upset yourself, Frank.”
Those standing outside said nothing, but I guessed that they, like Mahoney, were closely associated with the singer and must have been shocked and concerned by what was going on. Mahoney might also have been displeased with himself for allowing me to be present when Sinatra was so clearly out of control.
“Come on,” Mahoney then said, taking me by the arm and leading me in the direction of a man in the near distance who was waving at him. “There’s someone I want to talk to.”
Soon he introduced me to Andy Williams, the recording artist of such hits as “Moon River” and the host of a weekly variety show on NBC. As the two men held a long and friendly conversation, I paid little attention because I was more interested in watching the stage lights on the bandstand being tested on Johnny Delgado, positioned behind a standing microphone. Then we were joined by a gregarious young brunette who was Andy Williams’s wife, Claudine Longet, a French-born actress and dancer.
How she first met Andy Williams five years before had been widely reported in the press. She was then a Folies Bergere dancer at a Las Vegas casino, and one afternoon, when she was stalled on the roadside with car trouble, he drove by and stopped to assist her. He was then 32 and she was 18. They began dating and were married a year later. He had earlier had a longtime love affair with a woman twice his age—Kay Thompson, a singer and vocal coach who had helped launch his career. She later wrote the Eloise children’s books. Following Andy Williams’s marriage to Claudine, Kay Thompson relocated to Rome.
After Claudine had joined her husband’s meeting with Mahoney, she did most of the talking, pressing Mahoney to escort them to Sinatra. “He’s busy and not feeling great,” Mahoney said.
But she insisted: “Frank adores Andy, and we’ll both cheer him up.”
“He’s rehearsing now, and I can’t interrupt him,” Mahoney said.
To which she replied: “We’ll wait outside for him. Please, I need to talk to him. It will make him feel better.”
Finally, Mahoney relented. “All right, let’s go over and see what’s going on. But I can’t promise anything.” Before leaving with the two of them, Mahoney turned to me and said, “Wait for me here, O.K.? I won’t be long.”
I remained in the middle of the crowded room, surrounded by masses of people I had never seen before. Mahoney had earlier mentioned that lots of beer salesmen and their families would be here—Budweiser was the NBC show’s sponsor—and also many secretaries and other employees from various offices within the Warner Bros. property. Finally I spotted someone whom I remembered seeing at the Daisy—Ed Pucci, the ex-N.F.L. lineman who was Sinatra’s bodyguard. He was headed in the direction of the rehearsal room, and, after catching up with him, I introduced myself as an Esquire writer profiling his boss.
“Esquire!,” Pucci repeated cheerfully. “That’s my favorite magazine. I read it all the time. I really like the Dining Out column. I’m a part owner of a terrific restaurant out here, and maybe you’d like to eat there with me some night, and maybe get me a write-up in Dining Out?”
“I’d love to join you,” I told him, “and I’ll be glad to alert the column editor to your restaurant.” I quickly jotted down Pucci’s phone number on the slice of cardboard I lifted out of my jacket, and we set a date to meet for dinner later in the week. It was my hope, of course, that Pucci would not mention this to Mahoney.
After Pucci had gone, and Mahoney had not yet returned, I noticed that Delgado and the lighting crew were taking a break near the steps of the bandstand, so I hurried over and found him quite cordial and receptive. I got his phone number and his promise of an interview as soon as his schedule allowed. He did explain that as a young aspiring actor in 1953 he had auditioned for a part in From Here to Eternity, but the casting director, impressed by his resemblance to Sinatra, hired him as the singer’s double.
Twice he pounded his fists on the piano, while the accompanist pleaded with him, softly but repeatedly: “Try not to upset yourself, Frank.”
Since then Delgado had been regularly employed as a stand-in when Sinatra was onstage or making a film in the United States or overseas. Sometimes when Delgado was off duty in foreign cities, and strolling through the streets or sitting in cafés, people mistook him for Sinatra and approached him for autographs and pictures—which, after clarification, he politely declined. Now and then, however, there were young women who pursued him romantically. In such situations, he admitted to me with a raised eyebrow and wink, he was not always so resistant.
I backed away from him as I saw Mahoney headed my way with the Williams couple. Claudine seemed subdued, and she remained silent when I asked if she had seen Sinatra. Mahoney answered for her: “Frank was busy, but I’m glad to say he’s feeling better. He’ll be ready soon to begin.”
Five minutes later, accompanied by much cheering and hand-clapping, I noticed Pucci pushing through the crowd with Sinatra walking behind him. They were headed toward the bandstand. Sinatra was wearing a fedora and black horn-rimmed glasses, and he was carrying what I assumed was sheet music. He also had on brown slacks and shoes and a high-necked orange pullover sweater.
Orange was his favorite color. I learned this from Sinatra’s much-publicized haberdasher, Richard Carroll, whose Beverly Hills store I had visited during the weekend. Mr. Carroll, a prematurely gray-haired man in his early 40s who opened his place in 1949 and was appareled and accessorized as stylishly as the mannequins that surrounded him, told me that Sinatra bought luxurious orange Scottish cashmere sweaters not only for himself but for many of his friends and such employees as his pilot, who always wore an orange sweater when flying Sinatra around in the singer’s Learjet—which, incidentally, had orange carpeting, orange leather side paneling, and an orange stripe painted across its fuselage.
Through the years Richard Carroll’s tape measure has explored every inch of Sinatra’s body—his waist is 32 inches, his hips 39 inches, his trouser inseam 30 inches, the length of his jacket 29 1/4 inches, his hat size 7 1/4 inches, his shoe size 8. Although at five-foot-seven he is an inch taller than was Napoleon Bonaparte, Carroll knew that this brought little satisfaction to Sinatra, and so all his shoes were layered with lifts that elevated him close to five-foot-nine.
Carroll also knew, in consultation with Sinatra’s clothing valet Dominic Di Bona, exactly what the singer would be wearing on the three occasions he would have a wardrobe change while singing 18 songs during the forthcoming hour-long NBC special on November 24. The show would begin with Sinatra filmed in full stride crossing the length of the studio. Then, after tossing his hat into a corner, he would ascend a white platform and, with members of the orchestra playing in the shadows behind him, he would take hold of a microphone and begin singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
For this song, and the five that followed, he would be wearing a Carroll-designed beige tweed jacket with an orange vest, brown trousers, brown shoes, a brown-print silk tie, and a white dress shirt with tiny circular pearl cuff links. Also sprouting from his jacket would be an orange pocket square. For his seventh song, “It Was a Very Good Year,” Sinatra would change into a three-piece dark-gray suit with a pin-collar shirt, a gray silk tie, and a pocket square of reddish-orange hue.
His final wardrobe change would occur when he donned a tuxedo for his 15th song, “Come Fly with Me.” The black jacket was designed with raised shoulders and satin-faced lapels, and under a vest Sinatra would wear a white shirt with a wing-tipped collar, a black bow tie, and studded buttons. His trousers were tailored with a built-in cummerbund, and, again, his jacket was embellished with a tomato-red pocket square.
Carroll had already made the singer 40 tuxedos, but since formalwear was so ubiquitous to Sinatra’s presence as a performer, it was necessary to deliver 7 new tuxedos every year. Carroll said that it took his tailors about four weeks to make each one, and that two were in the process of being made at all times.
After Ed Pucci had opened a path through the crowd surrounding the bandstand, he stepped aside as Sinatra climbed onto the small white platform on which was a microphone, a music stand, and a white leather-cushioned stool; the stool was flanked by white plastic trees with branches bearing dozens of artificial orange-colored marigolds. Removing his glasses and tucking them into the breast pocket of his sweater—all of his sweaters came with pockets for his glasses—he turned around and looked up toward the rows of seated musicians; most of them now tooting their horns and testing their strings while positioned about 10 yards behind Sinatra and several feet above him.
Sinatra smiled and pointed up toward a trombone player who stood to take his photograph and then, looking around, asked aloud: “Where’s Nelse?”
Nelson Riddle, the bandleader and arranger—a hefty, dark-haired, modest, and mellow man in his 40s who had been Sinatra’s musical collaborator for more than a decade—quickly appeared from the left side of the platform and said: “Ready to go, Frank.” Five minutes later, with Riddle behind the podium and his baton in motion, and with his 43-piece orchestra in vibrant response, the voice of Frank Sinatra, accompanied by his fingers snapping behind the microphone, reverberated through the sound system:
“I’ve got you under my skin / I’ve got you, deep in the heart of me / So deep in my heart that you’re really a part of me … ”
He stopped singing before finishing a third of the song because this was merely an orchestra-accompanied warm-up, not intended for taping, and also because he was interrupted by the show’s director, Dwight Hemion, calling down from the control booth.
Although at five-foot-seven he is an inch taller than was Napoleon Bonaparte, Carroll knew that this brought little satisfaction to Sinatra, and so all his shoes were layered with lifts that elevated him close to five-foot-nine.
“Voice sounds great, Frank, but would you mind coming up here for a moment to take a look? We might have too much hand movement.”
Hemion was a soft-spoken, sandy-haired gent in his early 30s, moving around soundlessly in sneakers while wearing a suit and tie. In the past decade he had won several Emmy Awards for directing musical variety shows, most recently one starring Barbra Streisand.
As Sinatra, followed by Nelson Riddle, went up to review the monitors with Hemion, there was a 10-minute pause in the proceedings. Since Sinatra was apparently healthy enough to perform, there were expressions of joy and relief coming from his friends and associates gathered in a circle near the bandstand. In addition to Mahoney and Andy Williams and his wife, Claudine, the group now included Brad Dexter, Leo Durocher, my new best friend, Ed Pucci, and several other people I had not seen before. With Mahoney busy talking to Dexter, I quietly asked Pucci who they were, and he identified them as Mo Ostin, an executive with Sinatra’s Reprise record company; Layne Britton, Sinatra’s makeup artist; Al Silvani, a boxing trainer and ex-stuntman who appeared in many of Sinatra’s movies; and John Lillie, Sinatra’s golfing partner and insurance broker.
Standing not far away I noticed the toupee lady, Helen Turpin. I briefly slipped away to introduce myself to Ms. Turpin and was pleased to get her phone number and her willingness to later schedule an interview.
Meanwhile, Frank Sinatra had returned to the platform and was standing near the music stand in conversation with Hemion, Riddle, the composer Gordon Jenkins, and a few lighting technicians. They were discussing how Sinatra should be positioned after he had finished singing the second number, “Without a Song,” and then faced the television camera to read the opening lines from the script, which began: “Did you ever stop to think what the world would be like without a song? … It would be a pretty dreary place … Gives you something to think about, doesn’t it?”
After reading the line once, Sinatra coughed. “Excuse me,” he said, adding, “Boy, I need a drink.”
“Take it slow, Frank,” Hemion said encouragingly, and, then from behind him and the other men on the platform, a brunette woman suddenly slipped through and placed an arm around Sinatra’s shoulders, then whispered something into his ear. Sinatra did not seem to mind her presence, but from in front of me I heard Jim Mahoney yelling and pointing to the platform: “What the hell is Claudine doing up there?”
Furious and red-faced, Mahoney turned toward the man standing beside him, Andy Williams, to whom he had previously been so solicitous, and repeated the question. Shrugging and apologizing, Williams rushed up to the platform and took his wife by the hand, then escorted her down the steps and toward the rear of the studio, far away from Mahoney.
“Did you ever stop to think what the world would be like without a song?” Sinatra repeated, this time without coughing, and then, with the orchestra accompanying him, he managed to flawlessly get through parts of the show’s third number, “Don’t Worry About Me,” after which he directed his attention to Dwight Hemion, now returned to the control booth, and asked: “Why don’t we tape this mother?”
Hemion paid no attention; so Sinatra repeated: “Why don’t we tape this mother?”
Immediately, the production stage manager, standing below the platform and wearing a headset, repeated Sinatra’s words up to Hemion exactly: “Why don’t we tape this mother?”
Sinatra was becoming very impatient. He had been standing under the hot lights for 20 minutes, had already invested his energy in three songs, and still the NBC crew was not ready to roll. There were no less than 30 NBC employees under Hemion, plus 20 stagehands, and they frequently bumped into one another as they ran around adjusting camera angles, moving scenery, re-aligning the orchestra’s seating, and debating how spread out Sinatra’s shadows should be when the singer was perambulating onstage with a microphone in hand. Johnny Delgado was sometimes summoned to stand in Sinatra’s spot and create shadows on the stage that would be filmed and later be represented as Sinatra’s.
Since formalwear was so ubiquitous to Sinatra’s presence as a performer, it was necessary to deliver seven new tuxedos every year.
One of the contraptions in the studio that required testing and re-testing was a leaf blower that, when Sinatra was to begin singing the fourth verse of “It Was a Very Good Year”—“By now the days are short / I’m in the autumn of the year … ”—this elevated machine was to release a fluttering cascade of orange-colored leaves that were supposed to twirl slowly around in the air for a while before falling and spreading out to all parts of the floor around the microphone. But regrettably the blower frequently malfunctioned and the leaves remained blocked in the container. As Sinatra stood watching the unreliable apparatus, he shook his head in annoyance and remarked, “It’s like waiting for your kid to be born.”
In his long career as a troubadour and movie star, Sinatra was notoriously known for his confrontations with directors and particularly his wrath when he thought that his work pace was being delayed due to their lack of preparation or their excessive fastidiousness. He believed that a well-organized film director should be able to shoot a scene in one or two takes, and not expect an actor to repeat it several times because of avoidable mishaps on the set or perhaps a director’s false notions of what constituted perfectionism.
As for Dwight Hemion, a courteous and accomplished master of concert-performance specials, Sinatra certainly could not blame him for overshooting scenes, but rather the opposite. Hemion was seemingly so mired in minutiae that he was shooting no scenes at all—and Sinatra was tired of waiting. He wanted to go to the dressing room, take off his sweater, put on his jacket and tie, and return to the stage to start the show for real.
And so he again glanced up at the glass booth and called out to Hemion:
“Why don’t we put on a coat and tie and tape this?”
Continuing silence from Hemion. Maybe the switch in his booth was off. Or maybe he was simply in no rush to answer, being a deliberative individual of inculcated calmness who routinely proceeded through life on his own terms and at his own tempo. And then, at last, Hemion’s voice, in a relaxed and muted tone, was heard saying, “Frank, would you mind going back over … ”
“Yes, I would mind going back,” Sinatra suddenly snapped. “When we stop doing things around here the way we did them in 1950, maybe we … ” Sinatra continued with his rant, but he got no rise from the tuned-out Hemion; so Sinatra went on shouting: “What the hell are you doing up there, Dwight? Got a party or something going on up there, Dwight?”
Sinatra remained standing alone on the stage, arms folded, waiting for a reply that never came. The inactive musicians seated behind him were undoubtedly restless as well, and perhaps that was why Nelson Riddle soon joined Sinatra onstage, put a hand on his shoulder, and engaged him in quiet conversation for a few minutes.
Riddle then returned to the bandstand and signaled for his orchestra to begin playing the fifth number listed on the program: “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” This was one of the signature tunes in Sinatra’s vast repertoire; it was written more than 20 years before by Jimmy Van Heusen and Phil Silvers, and was associated with the birth of the singer’s firstborn and presumably favorite child, Nancy: “If I don’t see her each day / I miss her / Gee what a thrill / Each time I kiss her / Believe me I’ve got a case / On Nancy with the laughin’ face … ”
Soon Sinatra himself was accompanying the orchestra, and because of his peerless phrasing and distinct enunciation, his audience could clearly hear every word that the lyricists had written. The writer Pete Hamill once suggested that multitudes of newcomers to America familiarized themselves with English by listening to Sinatra sing.
“She takes the winter and makes it summer / Summer could take some lessons from her / Picture a tomboy in lace / That’s Nancy with the laughin’ face … ”
Sinatra completed this song satisfactorily, but when Nelson Riddle led him through parts of the sixth song—“My Kind of Town”—his voice emitted raspy notes and twice cracked completely. The orchestra suddenly stopped as Sinatra bent over and sneezed. Getting through “Nancy” was probably all that he had in his voice on this day, and so, after removing a handkerchief from his hip pocket and blowing his nose, he left the stage and headed up to the control room to tell Hemion that the rehearsal was over. It would have to be rescheduled.
As a result, everything that happened today would be scrapped, except for the bill of perhaps $200,000 or more that would nevertheless have to be paid to cover the day’s expenses—such items as the rental fee for the studio, the assemblage of the 43-piece orchestra, the salary of the stagehands, the security guards, the NBC crew, and its director.
Before saying good-bye to Sinatra, Dwight Hemion sat with him briefly in front of the screen, watching him trying to get through “My Kind of Town” while being betrayed by his voice. “This should’ve been stopped before this,” Sinatra said, his words heard through the sound system. “We shouldn’t have gone on this long.” Hemion did not disagree.
Regarding the image of himself on the screen, Sinatra said: “That’s a man with a cold.”
“Keep Doing What You’re Doing”
While driving me back to my hotel, Mahoney told me that Sinatra had gone to his desert home in Palm Springs to recover and that meanwhile my interview with him was on hold.
“For how long?” I asked.
“I won’t know until I speak to Frank,” Mahoney said, repeating that the Sinatra organization would arrange to have my expenses covered if I wanted to quit the assignment and return to New York.
“Jim, you know I can’t make that decision,” I said, adding: “When I get back to my room, I’ll contact Harold Hayes and let you know what he says.”
But even before I called him, I assumed that Hayes had too much pride as an editor to consider such a proposal, and moreover, knowing how keen he was on getting a Sinatra article into print, I felt obliged to accommodate him. Years before, when I was still employed as a reporter at the Times, I peremptorily canceled an Esquire freelance assignment in Los Angeles due to Natalie Wood’s tardiness, but my situation now was different. Now I was a 33-year-old writer with a one-year contract that made me answerable exclusively to Harold Hayes. Also, my wife and I recently had our first child, and Esquire was our main source of income. And finally, I felt both loyalty and gratitude toward Hayes for allowing me to write more freely and at greater length than would have been possible for me at the Times.
After I had called him from my hotel and recounted what Mahoney had told me, Hayes responded as I thought he would by rejecting Mahoney’s offer as ridiculous. He also disregarded my suggestion that we reduce Esquire’s expenses by transferring me from the Beverly Wilshire to a cheaper hotel.
“Stay where you are,” he said, “and keep doing what you’re doing. Keep talking to whoever talks to you out there.”
Among the people I hoped to talk to, without Mahoney’s awareness, of course, was Nancy Sinatra Jr., whose home phone number I obtained from Sally Hanson, who knew Nancy as a member of the Daisy.
Another individual whom I believed might influence Frank Sinatra to my benefit was the heavyweight fighter Floyd Patterson, a longtime friend of mine whom Sinatra also liked. He was betting on him to defeat Muhammad Ali in two weeks in their heavyweight title fight in Las Vegas, on November 22. Sinatra not only planned to attend the event, Mahoney told me, but he was sending to the Patterson camp in advance a 55-year-old functionary, Al Silvani, who had once been a renowned boxing trainer and presently had a strategy that could presumably help Patterson defeat Ali.
Sinatra had long been an avid boxing fan, with many ex-fighters and their attendants on his gift list and payroll. Sinatra’s Sicilian-born, blue-eyed father, Marty, before becoming a fireman and bar owner in New Jersey, had been a bantamweight boxer with 80 professional fights, until he broke both wrists and was forced to retire.
Sinatra himself took boxing lessons early in his singing career from Henry “Hank” Sanicola, a song plugger and onetime fighter who eventually became Sinatra’s first manager. In 1942, when Sinatra started performing at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square, Sanicola rented space in the building in order to spar with Sinatra and teach him the fundamentals of self-defense. Sanicola was a powerful, barrel-chested man of 200 pounds, and, wanting to avoid facial injury to the singer, he insisted that while jabbing they limit contact to one another’s shoulders and resist hitting above the neck.
But one day while sparring, and perhaps unable to resist the temptation to intimidate the larger man, Sinatra rammed his fist against Sanicola’s jaw. More surprised than physically hurt, Sanicola instinctively retaliated with a punch to the belly that sent Sinatra sprawling to the floor. Sinatra remained there momentarily, saying nothing. And then he slowly climbed to his feet and, with a half-hearted smile, apologized to Sanicola.
Sinatra was notoriously known for his confrontations with directors and particularly his wrath when he thought that his work pace was being delayed.
When Mahoney told me that Sinatra would be going to the Patterson-Ali fight, I neglected to tell him that I also planned to be there, having attended more than a dozen of Patterson’s fights since he first won the heavyweight title in 1956, at the age of 21.
During that year and the years that followed, I wrote more than 30 pieces about him in the Times, plus a profile in Esquire—articles that dealt with his challenges in the ring as well as those within his private life.
I reported on his upbringing as an impoverished Black youth in Brooklyn, a truant and petty thief who at 10 was sent to the Wiltwyck School for Boys—a reform school in upstate New York that truly reformed him. There he was trained to accept discipline and personal responsibility, and as a 14-year-old who received boxing lessons in a gym, he finally experienced within the ropes a place where he did not feel inferior.
At 17 he won a gold medal as a middleweight in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, after which he turned pro, gained weight, and signed on with an ascetic, Bronx-born manager named Cus D’Amato, who wore dark suits and a bowler and once contemplated the priesthood despite being known in the neighborhood as a street fighter undeterred by a permanent eye injury. D’Amato not only served as Patterson’s matchmaker but also his patriarch until 1962, when Patterson—who had just turned 27 and had regained his heavyweight title from Ingemar Johansson—defied D’Amato by signing a contract to fight Sonny Liston, a much larger and more powerful brawler with a disproportionally long reach.
The event was set for September 25 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and a few days before the fight I visited Patterson’s camp in suburban Elgin, Illinois, about 40 miles northwest of the Loop, bringing with me a novelist friend, James Baldwin. I had met Baldwin two years before at an Esquire party celebrating the monthly magazine’s issue of July 1960, a special issue to which we both contributed and was devoted entirely to people and places within New York City.
After that, I often had Baldwin to dinner at my home with my wife, close friends, and sometimes a few colleagues from the Times—pleasant occasions for the most part, except for one evening when Baldwin got into an argument with the paper’s political correspondent, Tom Wicker, whose expressed white-liberal sympathies and suggestions Baldwin dismissed and ridiculed with such ardor that Wicker’s wife, Niva, soon left the dinner table in tears, beseeching, “How can you talk to Tom that way?”
In Chicago, before the Patterson-Liston fight, I was surprised to see Baldwin in the elevator of my hotel; and, after he’d explained that he was in town to describe the event for Nugget magazine, I convinced him to drive with me to Patterson’s camp, stopping along the way to buy a couple of Baldwin’s books that I wanted him to inscribe to the fighter.
Following an hour-long ride, during which Baldwin said he’d ceased caring much about boxing ever since the debt-ridden 37-year-old Joe Louis was knocked out by the 28-year-old Rocky Marciano in 1951, I parked my rental car on a muddy lot in the woods on a hill near a two-story white clapboard house with green shutters and a goat in the front yard tied to a stake.
This was where Patterson was staying, and behind it were smaller houses of similar design occupied by his sparring partners, a trainer, and a second trainer who doubled as a cook. Patterson was just waking up from a midafternoon nap when we arrived, and here was how Baldwin remembered the occasion and later described it in Nugget magazine:
“He greeted Gay, and took sharp, covert notice of me, seeming to decide that if I were with Gay, I was probably all right. We followed him into the gym … watched him jump rope, which he must do according to some music in his head, very beautiful and gleaming and far away, like a boy saint helplessly dancing and seen through the steaming windows of a storefront church.
“We followed him into the house when the workout was over, and sat in the kitchen and drank tea; he drank chocolate. Gay knew that I was somewhat tense as to how to make contact with Patterson—my own feeling was that he had a tough enough row to hoe, and that everybody should just leave him alone; how would I like it if I was forced to answer inane questions every day concerning the progress of my works?—and told Patterson about some of the things I’d written. But Patterson hadn’t heard of me, or read anything of mine.
“Gay’s explanation, though, caused him to look directly at me, and he said, ‘I’ve seen you someplace before. I don’t know where, but I know I’ve seen you.’ …
“Gay suggested that he had seen me on TV. I had hoped that the contact would have turned out to be more personal, like a mutual friend or some activity connected with the Wiltwyck School, but Floyd now remembered the subject of a TV debate he had seen—the race problem, of course—and his face lit up. ‘I knew I’d seen you someplace!’ he said, triumphantly, and looked at me for a moment with the same brotherly pride I felt—and feel—for him.”
Sinatra completed this song satisfactorily, but when Nelson Riddle led him through parts of the sixth song—“My Kind of Town”—his voice emitted raspy notes and twice cracked completely.
The two of them continued to get along nicely during the remaining half-hour of our visit, and near the end I reached for the two best-selling Baldwin books I’d bought—Another Country and Nobody Knows My Name—and asked the author to inscribe them to the fighter. “For: Floyd Patterson,” Baldwin wrote. “Because we both know whence we come, and had some idea of where we’re going.” In saying good-bye at the door, Patterson not only thanked Baldwin for the books but for expressing the hope that he would emerge the winner in the fight with Sonny Liston.
But on the following day, as Baldwin and I and dozens of others among the working press visited Liston’s camp in Aurora, Illinois, about 20 miles south of Patterson’s site in Elgin, we were impressed by Liston’s superiority in size over Patterson. The 215-pound, six-foot-one Liston outweighed the six-foot Patterson by more than 20 pounds in addition to possessing an arm-reach advantage of 13 inches. After sitting near ringside at Liston’s camp watching him pulverize his sparring partners as if they were punching bags, Baldwin and I conceded that Floyd Patterson was probably overmatched.
Indeed, the outcome at Comiskey Park in Chicago turned out to be even more one-sided than we had imagined. Liston knocked Patterson out within a little more than two minutes of the first round, thus becoming the heavyweight champion. And in their rematch 10 months later, in Las Vegas, Patterson did no better; Liston again knocked him out in the first round.
It would seem that Patterson’s career was now over and that Liston would be dominant in the heavyweight division for a prolonged period—except in February of 1964, in Miami Beach, Liston, a seven-to-one favorite, lost his crown after the sixth round to the faster and surprisingly stronger six-foot-three Muhammad Ali; and furthermore Liston failed to regain the title in Lewiston, Maine, in May of 1965, when Ali demolished him in the first round.
Because of this, and perhaps for political reasons as well, Floyd Patterson was able to sign a contract in 1965 challenging Muhammad Ali for the world title in Las Vegas on November 22. Patterson was fortunate in being a contender at a time when the heaviest hitters in the sport were unpopular with most boxing fans. Liston was burdened by his earlier criminal record—two years in jail for larceny and armed robbery—while Ali was openly associated with the Black Muslims and often publicized as unpatriotic, especially after refusing the draft during the war in Vietnam. When compared with these two, Patterson retained a certain box-office appeal by default.
In addition to his moral advantage and the tendency of many people to root for the underdog, Patterson was singled out by writer Norman Mailer as “the first of the black fighters to be considered, then used, as a political force. He was one of the liberal elite, an Eleanor Roosevelt darling, he was political mileage for the NAACP … a man of the nicest, quietest, most private good manners.”
While Patterson had been ineffective against Liston, and had probably been knocked down more times than any highly ranked heavyweight in history—he went down seven times in a single fight in 1959 while losing his title to Sweden’s Ingemar Johansson—it was just as true that Patterson was the all-time heavyweight leader in getting up off the floor. He was climbing to his feet after Johansson had decked him for the final time in 1959, but the referee stopped the fight. In the second Liston fight in 1963, the referee stopped it as the twice-floored Patterson was trying to rise a third time.
So no matter how unqualified Patterson might have seemed to be in the upcoming title fight with Muhammad Ali, he nevertheless was advertised by the promoters as an exemplar of perseverance, a man who never quit and always tried to get up. And among the many boxing fans who still believed in him was Frank Sinatra, an individual who knew firsthand about the possibility of making a big comeback.
“The Unhappy Ones”
During the time when Sinatra was trying to recover from his cold in Palm Springs, and I was having headaches dealing with Jim Mahoney in Beverly Hills, I did manage to track down Floyd Patterson at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, and, with no coaxing on my part, he promised to put in a good word for me with Sinatra.
Although I did not have Sinatra’s home number in Palm Springs, Patterson said that he could probably get it from the singer’s associate Al Silvani, the ex-trainer who was due to arrive in a day or two to help in the preparation for the Ali fight. Patterson also said that Sinatra himself planned a pre-fight visit to Patterson’s camp and therefore I should be assured that my appeal for an interview would be heard.
I was both relieved and gratified after speaking with Patterson. Having hung around the Beverly Wilshire hotel for more than a week without much hope of getting to Sinatra, I now suddenly felt a shift in the momentum. I was further encouraged that same afternoon when, while trying to contact Sinatra’s daughter Nancy, her mother picked up the phone and engaged me in very friendly conversation.
“Yes, I’ve heard of you and the article you’re doing,” Nancy Sr. said after I had introduced myself. “My daughter’s not here now, but she will be at six o’clock, and if you want to drive over here then you can speak for a little while to the two of us.”
“I’d be honored,” I said, barely suppressing my enthusiasm. She then offered directions to their residence, at 700 Nines Road in Bel Air, and reminded me to enter via the east gate.
After hanging up, I sat next to the phone in my hotel room for a few minutes, quietly celebrating my luck. I was soon to meet the first Mrs. Sinatra, the petite brunette secretary whom Frank married in 1939 when he was a singing waiter in New Jersey. She would later make all the bow ties that he wore with his suits and tuxedos while performing onstage as the heartthrob of the bobby-soxers.
Despite divorcing her to marry Ava Gardner in 1951, Frank and Nancy, along with their three children, maintained a loving relationship through the years, and from my perspective as an interviewer there was no one anywhere who knew Frank longer and better than the woman I was scheduled to meet at six o’clock.
I did manage to track down Floyd Patterson at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas, and, with no coaxing on my part, he promised to put in a good word for me with Sinatra.
Then the phone rang in my hotel room, and the angry voice on the other end asked: “Didn’t I tell you not to talk to Frank’s daughter?” It was Mahoney.
“I didn’t talk to her,” I quickly replied. “I talked to her mother.”
“But didn’t I warn you not to pull any of this stuff?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I talked to her mother, who was very nice to me, and she also invited me over there tonight at six.”
“Well, you can forget it.”
“What do you mean, ‘forget it’?”
“I’ve canceled it,” he said. “She won’t see you.”
“How dare you!,” I shouted. “You’re not her publicist! You’re working for Frank, not his former wife. You have a hell of a nerve interfering.”
“She won’t see you,” he repeated. “So don’t even bother driving over there. The guards at the east gate won’t let you in.” He then hung up.
Infuriated but not knowing what to do, I sat gazing idly around the room for a while, and then up at the ceiling, wondering if my room might be bugged. How else would Mahoney have known so quickly about my conversation with Mrs. Sinatra? It certainly would not have been difficult in this town, where Sinatra had so much influence and power, for someone on his staff to bribe one of my hotel’s maintenance workers to install somewhere in my quarters a tiny listening device.
From that point on I began using the pay phones in the lobby when requesting interviews or communicating with Harold Hayes. Indeed, I had already compiled a list of prospective sources that included some people who might dislike Mahoney, Sinatra, or the people around them—including some people who had perhaps once been part of Sinatra’s inner circle but had then been ousted and might be willing to discuss it.
When I began at the Times, the staff’s most famous member was the Washington-based columnist James Reston, whose recurring advice to fellow journalists was “Talk to the unhappy ones.” In creating my own list of unhappy people who might talk about Sinatra, one name near the top of the list was that of Warren Cowan, the publicist whom Sinatra fired before hiring Mahoney.
In calling Cowan’s office requesting an appointment—he was a partner in the firm of Rogers & Cowan—I did not initially mention Sinatra but rather introduced myself as a newly hired contract writer for Esquire who was interested in discussing Mr. Cowan’s longtime experience in the world of entertainment.
Within a day or two I had an appointment, but when I sat in his office and alluded to his relationship with Sinatra, Cowan promptly terminated the interview. “I must tell you that while I’m indeed sorry I no longer represent Mr. Sinatra, I still consider him a very good friend that I hope to regain someday as a client. Before I say anything about him, I prefer to clear it with him first, and since he is very busy it might take some time.” Mr. Cowan then stood up, thanked me for stopping by, and from then on was unavailable to me.
This would be my experience as well with others on my presumed-unhappy list. I had heard that the screenwriter, playwright, and producer Rod Serling was infuriated with Sinatra because the latter had tampered with Serling’s script for Assault on a Queen, the movie scheduled for release in 1966 starring Sinatra and the Italian actress Virna Lisi.
“I turned in a good script, but that scrawny little bastard pissed all over it,” Serling told me over the phone, after refusing to see me in person and insisting on not being quoted by name in my Esquire article. He did concede that Sinatra was a “fine instinctive actor,” if not a great one; and that while few films starring Sinatra were masterpieces, most of them still made money that enriched the lives of everyone from the studio heads down to the stagehands—which was partly why the producers and directors deferred to him, allowing him to edit scripts, shape scenes, and influence the length of a shooting schedule.
Hollywood executives were generally afraid of him, Serling went on, knowing that before his comeback many of these people had cut him down and lived to regret it, and now nobody was making that mistake again. Serling concluded by reminding me that the entertainment industry was a risky business in which huge sums were invested in projects that often failed. And since nobody at the top could confidently predict what the public would accept or reject, the decision-makers at the studios shared a collective sense of anxiety and panic at the prospect of being blamed for a box-office bust—in which case they might be deprived of indulging in the luxurious lifestyle to which they had become accustomed in and around Beverly Hills.
“They have it so good that they don’t want to risk anything,” said Peter Bart, a friend of mine from the Times newsroom who now headed the paper’s Los Angeles bureau. “Everybody here is so rich—everybody but reporters and process servers have swimming pools.” The privileged world to which he referred I had observed myself during this and earlier visits to Beverly Hills: the magnificent homes erected along palm-lined boulevards; the expansive lawns and private tennis courts; and the abundance of beautiful people like Sally Hanson, often stalled bumper-to-bumper on Wilshire Boulevard while seated in her Silver Cloud Rolls convertible with the top down on a sunny afternoon, who lent a touch of glamour to a traffic jam.
I sat gazing idly around the room for a while, and then up at the ceiling, wondering if my room might be bugged. How else would Mahoney have known so quickly about my conversation with Mrs. Sinatra?
It seemed to me that almost everyone I saw in the Beverly Hills area, men as well as the women, were physically fit and attractive, perhaps being the offspring of people who, generations ago, from all parts of the country, had been voted “Best Looking” in their high-school yearbooks and then headed to Hollywood dreaming of making it big in the film business. Although few of them would ever come close to having a successful career in front of a camera, they did pass on their physical attractiveness to their children and grandchildren. Some of these California people with whom I came in contact—waiters and waitresses, car-rental agents, haberdashers, hairstylists, counter clerks in the drugstore of my hotel—were perhaps embodied in a slender and graceful blue-eyed chambermaid who each morning came to clean my room. She told me she was taking acting lessons and enjoyed an acquaintanceship with such full-time residents of the Beverly Wilshire hotel as the actor Warren Beatty and the chairman of the William Morris Agency, Abe Lastfogel.
None of these working people whom I met ever gave me the impression that they were unhappy or unhopeful here. Maybe, like my chambermaid, they were influenced by their acting lessons or by the ambience of unreality that surrounded them. In any case, with one notable exception, they smiled a lot and seemed to be self-assured and contented even in their servitude.
The exception was represented by the low-paid and frequently stiffed young males who worked through the day and past midnight as valet-parking attendants outside some of the city’s better restaurants and private clubs. These were the men holding claim tickets who stepped forward to greet, while receiving a minimum of personal acknowledgment from, the newly arrived drivers of expensive cars that in some cases cost more than the attendants earned in two or three years—Bugattis, Ferraris, Daimlers, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys. Many of these cars were custom-fitted with so-called “valet keys,” which unlocked the side doors but not the trunks or glove compartments in which valuables might be stored: jewelry, cash, plastic sandwich bags stuffed with cocaine, or other possessions that the owners wished to keep out of the reach of these temporary caretakers of their cars.
Nowhere in Hollywood did the Haves and Have-Nots coexist in such close proximity as they did along the curbs of valet stands. The concierge at my hotel and another individual who once worked as a valet manager told me that while some nighttime car parkers were students working to help pay for their tuition, the majority were malcontents who were otherwise unemployable and whose sour personalities were further aggravated by the disrespect they commonly received from the rich and privileged people who owned the cars: film moguls, or superagents, or the spoiled grown-up children of movie stars who were similar in age to the parkers but otherwise had little in common with them and not much to say to them as the car keys were transferred and the owners went off to dinner (sometimes with female companions as decorative and stylized as the hood ornaments that adorned the front end of the automobiles) while the valet drivers, before driving these classics toward a nearby garage or parking lot, took a joyride around the block and asserted themselves by adjusting the seat and mirror, revving the engine and blasting the stereo, and then (I’d like to think) sticking their head out the window and yelling aloud to everyone within hearing distance in this tinsel town of pretense and make-believe: “Why not me?”
And again, louder: “Why not me?”
Having more or less recovered from his cold at his desert retreat in Palm Springs, about 120 miles east of Beverly Hills, Frank Sinatra decided that the taping for the NBC special that he had earlier canceled would be rescheduled for Wednesday, November 17, at the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, but I was disappointed to learn that my name would not appear on the guest list.
Jim Mahoney had so informed me two days prior to the event, in a noonday phone call to my hotel room that began:
“Well, Gay, it happened as I expected it would.”
“What happened?,” I asked.
“Frank said ‘no dice.’”
“He said ‘no dice’ to what?”
“Because you wouldn’t live up to the deal, he wouldn’t go along with it,” Mahoney said.
“There wasn’t any deal, except that one you cooked up,” I said, referring to his request that Sinatra’s lawyer review my manuscript prior to its publication in Esquire.
“Well, that’s the way it is,” Mahoney went on.
“You mean I won’t be able to follow Sinatra around, or go with you to the taping in Burbank?”
“No, you won’t,” he said.
There was silence for a few seconds.
“Okay, Jim,” I said finally, “I’ll call Harold Hayes and tell him.”
“Don’t make me look too bad on this,” Mahoney said.
“Of course, Jim,” I said.
“I mean, explain to Hayes that there was nothing I could do.”
“Of course, Jim,” I repeated, and hung up.
Excerpted from Gay Talese’s new book, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, to be published on September 19 by Mariner