I then headed down to the lobby to call Hayes, but he was involved in a conference, so I took a seat at the drugstore’s counter to order lunch and consider my options. First, I decided that it was pointless to further associate with Mahoney. Since he had nixed my meeting with Mrs. Sinatra, I suspected that he had been involved in canceling other interviews with people who had initially agreed to see me, then offered various excuses to avoid me—among them was Sinatra’s double, Johnny Delgado; the toupee lady, Helen Turpin; Sinatra’s sidekick, Leo Durocher; the actor Richard Conte, who had appeared in a few of Sinatra’s films but said he might be available if I wanted to write about him; and Sinatra’s valet de chambre and resident cook, George Jacobs, a handsome and raffish, 38-year-old, African-American ex-sailor who later worked as a process server in Los Angeles, then as a Rolls-driving chauffeur for the Hollywood talent agent Irving Paul “Swifty” Lazar.
Still, I knew that my predicament was not entirely attributable to Mahoney. He was merely following the orders of Sinatra’s attorney, Mickey Rudin, and no doubt the singer himself. I could also understand why my presence now would make these people so uncomfortable and uncooperative. Sinatra was a prideful artist who functioned best when he was entirely in control, and having a prying reporter on the scene was hardly desirable when he was clearly not in control—when he was uncertain about the full use of his voice; when he was presumably being targeted as a Mafia crony on a CBS show to be aired this upcoming Tuesday; when he was starring in Assault on a Queen, a film about which he had misgivings; when he was now required to rise above his ailments, doubts, and distractions and guarantee a knockout performance in Burbank this Wednesday at the taping of the NBC special Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music.
Under such stressful and demanding circumstances, how many other achieving and artistic individuals would make themselves available to reporters? Would Ella Fitzgerald? Would Elvis Presley? Pavarotti? Picasso? Such people, in my opinion, would be no more available than Sinatra. I also recalled James Baldwin’s comment after we had attended some of the promoter-arranged Patterson-Liston daily press conferences prior to their fight in Chicago: How would I like it if I were forced to answer inane questions every day concerning the progress of my work?
Indeed, Mahoney and I were not adversaries, but rather men caught in the middle. He had to answer to Sinatra, and I to answer to Harold Hayes, a tough ex-Marine who had ordered me uphill to do battle with a recalcitrant superstar. In this situation I likened myself to Herman Melville’s subordinate scrivener, whose “I would prefer not to” pleadings were overwhelmed by the determination of my boss at Esquire to have it his way—to push me to capitalize on Sinatra’s fame and satisfy magazine readers with a cover story that would send newsstand sales soaring.
Not for the first time did I remind myself that I was no longer the freewheeling, independent-minded young bachelor reporter I had once been, but now a married man with family obligations that demanded I make the best of my situation. Fortunately, while seated at the drugstore counter, I met two strangers at a booth nearby who offered to help me.
I had overheard them talking about Sinatra and their past experiences working with him. One was a casting director, Mike McLean, and the other was an actor, James Brolin.
Both were in their mid-20s and shared an apartment in Los Angeles, and, after I walked over to introduce myself, they invited me to sit with them and join their conversation. Brolin was particularly illuminating because the year before in Europe he had spent several weeks around Sinatra while the latter was starring in the World War II adventure film Von Ryan’s Express.
Sinatra portrayed Colonel Joseph Ryan, a U.S. P-38 pilot who is shot down in Nazi-occupied Italy, ends up in a P.O.W. camp with several Allied soldiers—Brolin played Private Ames—and then conceives their escape. The film was directed by Mark Robson, but, according to Brolin, Sinatra was frequently infuriated by the slow pace of the filming and once showed his displeasure by grabbing a machine gun and firing a whole round of blanks in the air. On another occasion, after the progress had again been stalled due to what Sinatra interpreted as excessive pondering by the director, the singer left the movie set, which was located in the outskirts of Rome, hopped into his helicopter, and landed on the rooftop of the RCA building in that city to record a few songs in the studio.
It was never boring being around Sinatra, Brolin continued, adding that he agreed that directors tended to take more time than necessary to shoot scenes and cared little when actors were expected to be on the set at six in the morning and then stand around for hours waiting for the cameras to roll. In movies featuring Sinatra, the cast arrived for work not much earlier than noon at his insistence, and after work he frequently took them out to dinner, followed by late-night parties.
I recalled James Baldwin’s comment: How would I like it if I were forced to answer inane questions every day concerning the progress of my work?
When the film work on Von Ryan’s Express shifted northward from the Rome area to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Italian Alps, and the production company took over part of the Cristallo Hotel—where the tennis courts’ nets and supportive poles were removed in order to create an unobstructed landing space for Sinatra’s helicopter—he hosted a birthday celebration for a cast member one night that got out of hand. People drank excessively, spritzed one another with bursts of champagne, tossed cream puffs around the room, bumped into lamps and knocked over vases, creating such damage that Sinatra on the following day, in order to make amends for their fun and frolic, slipped the hotel manager a thick roll of $100 bills, amounting to about $1,500 in cash. Brolin quoted Sinatra as saying, “It was worth it.”
But despite such nocturnal escapades, Brolin emphasized that everyone worked together smoothly on the film day after day, and, thanks to Sinatra’s influence, the shooting schedule was reduced from eight weeks to five. When Von Ryan’s Express was released in June of 1965, it was a box-office triumph, earning more than $17 million on a budget of $5.76 million.
Before I left the drugstore, James Brolin recommended that I look up a few other actors and agents who had been involved with the film—among them the publicist, Martin Fink, and a 34-year-old character actor of Armenian-Canadian ancestry named Richard Bakalyan, who had been cast as a corporal in Von Ryan’s Express and had earlier appeared in two other films with Sinatra, playing a gangster in the comedy Robin and the 7 Hoods and a rugged Marine vet in None but the Brave.
I reached Bakalyan first, and he agreed to meet me for breakfast on the following day at the drugstore. On this particular evening, I was scheduled to dine at the restaurant owned by the bodyguard Ed Pucci, the only individual within Sinatra’s circle who was friendly to me—no doubt because he was hoping that I could get Esquire’s Dining Out columnist to plug his restaurant, which was located in Encino, in the San Fernando Valley region, about 15 miles from Beverly Hills.
Greeting me at the door with an exuberant 250-pound bear hug, Pucci proceeded to escort me around a large and crowded dining room, with a booming piano player in the back and an unctuous maître d’hôtel in the front named Fred Farouk, whom Pucci introduced as “King Farouk.” The first thing Farouk told me was that his favorite magazine was Esquire. After I had remarked on the beautiful jeweled wristwatch he was wearing, he said that it was a present from Pucci. When I turned to Pucci and asked why he had presented Farouk with such an impressive gift, he responded: “Because he minds his own business.”
As we sat down to dinner, we were joined by another guest whom Pucci had invited to sit next to me—a perky and heavily perfumed brunette in a red cocktail dress who, before the first course, had slipped me her phone number and volunteered to show me around town whenever I had free time. I had no proof, of course, but it occurred to me that she might have been part of Pucci’s ploy to put me in a compromising position for his benefit—or Sinatra’s benefit. Prudently, I never called her, although I did later relay Pucci’s desire for publicity to the editor of Esquire’s food column. The editor was not interested.
The next morning, Richard Bakalyan, an intense, rough-hewn, dark-haired individual with a resemblance to fellow actors John Garfield and Peter Falk, arrived for breakfast at the drugstore and, perhaps because of his falling-out with Sinatra earlier this year, was quite candid.
He said that he first got to know Sinatra in 1963 during the shooting of None but the Brave, a World War II film in which 16 Japanese soldiers stranded on a Pacific island are eventually joined by 19 Americans who survive the crash of their transport plane after it was shot down by a Japanese pilot.
Sinatra not only directed the film but also starred as a conscience-stricken medic who decides to treat a gravely wounded, doomed-to die Japanese officer; and while Bakalyan had only a small role as a corporal, he nevertheless closely observed the filmmaking progress every day and once was brash enough to offer advice to Sinatra. It seemed to Bakalyan that a scene shot in Hawaii did not match well enough with a connecting scene shot at the Warner Bros. Studio in Los Angeles; and, in the presence of other actors during a break in the action, he pointed this out to Sinatra.
“Frank went cold with anger,” Bakalyan recalled, “and he nastily asked me: ‘What are you, a fucking cutter?’ Then he looked at the other people standing around, including the executive producer Howard Koch, and said sarcastically: ‘Fucking actors are cutters now.’
“Nobody said anything, but I could see they were scared, especially Koch, who was always intimidated by Sinatra. I just threw up my hands and walked away, and from then Sinatra snubbed me. Then a couple of days later, Sinatra came over and said: ‘I want to talk to you before you leave today,’ and I thought: ‘Oh shit, I’m either going to be fired or get cut out of the film.’ I remember it was a Friday afternoon, and when Sinatra is on a film he always gives a party at the end of the workweek, on Fridays, not only for the actors but the entire technical crew. He orders in food and all kinds of drinks and usually is a gracious host. So as the party is beginning, I walk over and say, ‘You want to see me, Frank?,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, get a drink and come back.’ And when I do he says, ‘I want you to get in touch with your agent and say you’re not going to work as an actor anymore.’ ‘What?,’ I say, and he says: ‘You’re going to become my assistant.’”
Bakalyan did not know whether or not his forthrightness had belatedly gained Sinatra’s respect. “Frank never says ‘I’m wrong,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’” Bakalyan explained, “but he shows it in other ways.” For Bakalyan, it was shown in his sudden change of status on the set, the deference exhibited by the cast and technical crew, and by his gradual admission into Sinatra’s circle of friends and associates, which included Brad Dexter, Leo Durocher, the valet George Jacobs, Mahoney, Pucci, and others.
Sinatra was frequently infuriated by the slow pace of the filming and once showed his displeasure by grabbing a machine gun and firing a whole round of blanks in the air.
Sinatra also made it clear that after the completion of None but the Brave and two subsequent movies—Von Ryan’s Express and Assault on a Queen—Bakalyan would assume full-time duties as his assistant in the following year’s film Marriage on the Rocks, a comedy starring Sinatra along with Deborah Kerr and Dean Martin; but meanwhile Bakalyan was to familiarize himself with Sinatra’s way of working by accompanying him to Italy for Von Ryan’s Express and, in addition to playing Corporal Giannini, he was encouraged to share with Sinatra any suggestions about the film’s progress.
Prior to a pre-production flight to Italy for Von Ryan’s Express, Bakalyan joined Sinatra’s retinue for a weekend’s visit to New York, staying in the singer’s penthouse apartment near the East River in the 70s. He also had access to the always crowded table in the back room of the West 52nd Street saloon owned by Sinatra’s itinerant bosom buddy Jilly Rizzo, where he met the singer’s East Coast publicist, Henry Geni, and Jilly’s azure-haired wife, Honey, who, within this circle, was sometimes referred to affectionately as the “Blue Jew.”
Later in Rome, Bakalyan stayed with Sinatra and others at a villa outside the city, but on certain nights they would come to eat and drink at one of the sidewalk cafés along the Via Veneto, being inevitably swarmed by the paparazzi. And since Ed Pucci worked only in California, Bakalyan felt inclined at times to assume the role of Sinatra’s bodyguard, not only protecting him from the paparazzi but also aggressive women who wanted pictures taken with their arms around him.
Sinatra especially liked having Bakalyan close to him in Rome as he sought extra privacy during visits from his ex-wife whom he still loved—Ava Gardner, then working in Southern Italy under the direction of John Huston in The Bible. One day a photographer in Rome approached Bakalyan and said he would pay $15,000 if Sinatra would pose with Ava Gardner. Bakalyan relayed the message, and Sinatra made a counter-offer of $30,000 to break one of the photographer’s legs.
Once the scenes of Von Ryan’s Express in Italy were finished, Sinatra sponsored a celebratory cruise through the Mediterranean on a 210-foot rented yacht on which he hosted not only members of the cast but some Hollywood friends vacationing in Europe.
Sinatra then sailed to Monaco to visit Grace Kelly, followed by a flight to Spain (with Bakalyan on board) to relax for a few days in Madrid. While there, after Bakalyan learned that his girlfriend in Los Angeles was slightly ill, Sinatra made the production company’s telephone available so that Bakalyan could remain in regular contact with her; and after Sinatra learned that she liked owning items decorated with animals, he had a beautiful jeweled animal pin delivered to her.
At the end of 1964 Bakalyan returned to Los Angeles with Sinatra and the film crew to begin shooting some interior scenes of Von Ryan’s Express, and during the holiday season he and his girlfriend were invited to attend Sinatra’s large Christmas gathering at Chasen’s restaurant.
But at the start of the New Year and extending through February into March, Bakalyan gradually became aware of a cooling off in his relationship with Sinatra. He was no longer receiving frequent calls from Sinatra or anyone else in the singer’s office. At first he reasoned that Sinatra was just a much busier man in California than he had been in Europe; or that Sinatra was now burdened with responsibilities remote from the film business, namely his recordings and a concert tour that took him beyond the West Coast; or perhaps there were such personal matters as his grief in February over the death of his 45-year-old friend Nat King Cole, due to throat cancer; or maybe Sinatra was distracted by his on-and-off relationship with the 20-year-old Mia Farrow.
Whatever it was, Bakalyan decided that perhaps Brad Dexter might enlighten him, and, later in a phone call, Dexter did.
“We hear you’ve been putting Frank down,” Dexter began.
Bakalyan was momentarily speechless, shocked; this was absolutely untrue.
“This is high-school shit, Brad,” he then responded, “and you know it.”
“I don’t know it,” Dexter said. “I’m only telling you what I heard.”
“Where’d you hear it?”
“Can’t say, but word gets around.” Dexter then hung up.
Bakalyan soon thought that Dexter himself might be involved, trying to poison Bakalyan’s close relationship with Sinatra because Dexter was jealous or somehow felt threatened professionally.
Bakalyan next called the office of Jack Donohue, the director who was currently finishing Assault on a Queen while his next film, Marriage on the Rocks, was the one in which Bakalyan was to be Sinatra’s assistant; but he learned from one of Donohue’s aides that Marriage on the Rocks was being held up due to union problems and other issues. A day later, Bakalyan received a phone call from Sinatra’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin, who asked, “Are you looking for a settlement?”
“No,” Bakalyan answered, “I’m not looking for money. I’m just trying to find out what’s going on. And I can’t reach Frank.”
“He’s away,” Rudin said, “but I’ll let him know you’re trying to reach him.”
Weeks passed, and still no word from Sinatra. It was now near the end of March, and he had not seen Sinatra since the Christmas party. On March 25, he wrote a letter to Sinatra, slipping it under the door of his Los Angeles residence, which said: “If somebody is shooting me down, I’d like to know who they are.” Some days later, Sinatra telephoned him from an undisclosed location overseas and said in effect: “Don’t worry. Everything will be worked out. I’ll deal with it when I get back to L.A. in a week or so.”
Two weeks passed. Nothing was happening. Bakalyan was making no money, and he was eager to ask Frank directly: Am I going to be your assistant or not? Using a private telephone number that he had been reluctant to use before, being aware of Frank’s irregular sleeping hours and unpredictable nature, he called several times but all went unanswered until, finally, the valet, George Jacobs, picked up one afternoon and said Frank was sleeping but would return the call. He did not. Instead, someone from director Jack Donohue’s office telephoned, asking Bakalyan if he would like working under Donohue as the dialogue director on Assault on a Queen. This was not what Sinatra had promised him, so Bakalyan turned it down.
A day later, Brad Dexter telephoned. “You sure you don’t want the dialogue director’s job?”
“Stick it, Brad,” Bakalyan said, slamming down the phone.
And that was the end of it. From then on—from sometime in April of 1965 to the morning I was having breakfast with him in the Beverly Wilshire drugstore on this Tuesday, November 16—Bakalyan had lost all contact with Sinatra’s team and still had no idea what had caused the rupture.
Was it possible that he had inadvertently said something somewhere to someone that had been misinterpreted as a criticism of Sinatra and it had been brought to the attention of Brad Dexter? Bakalyan doubted it, but could he be entirely sure? Bakalyan also conceded to me the possibility that, after Sinatra had offered the job of assistant, and the intimate access that accompanied it, Bakalyan had perhaps taken it all for granted and been negligent in reinforcing his bond with Sinatra. No matter how busy Sinatra was, or perhaps because of it, Bakalyan should have known that he had to be very aggressive in remaining what he called “tight” with Sinatra, and thus less vulnerable to the singer’s gatekeepers who had apparently exiled him.
“If you want a friendship to last with Frank Sinatra,” Bakalyan conceded to me, “I guess you have to be there every minute.”
Just as he was saying this, I heard my name being announced on the drugstore’s loudspeaker. A call from my hotel room had been relayed to the cashier’s desk, and I was invited to respond to it there. Excusing myself from Bakalyan, I left the table and took the receiver from the cashier.
I heard Mahoney’s voice on the other end: “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to sound casual, although caught off guard.
“What are you up to?”
“Nothing much, Jim,” I went on.
“Why don’t you come over?”
“I can’t now,” I said, “but I can come over this afternoon.”
“I won’t be here then. I’ll only be here for an hour or so.”
“Sorry, Jim, I’m all tied up now, but I’ll check with you later tomorrow.”
As I hung up, I quickly looked around at the crowds of people seated at the soda fountain or at the white leather booths, and I wondered: Am I being watched? Did Mahoney have a spy in here tracking my whereabouts?
After hurriedly paying the check at the cashier’s counter, I returned to Bakalyan and said, “I can’t explain it now, but let’s get out of here.” Moments later, in the lobby, without sharing my suspicions about Mahoney, I asked Bakalyan if I could meet him later in the day somewhere outside the hotel. He said that he and his girlfriend were staying home that night, but that I could join them there and watch the CBS broadcast in which Walter Cronkite would be interviewing Sinatra. I gladly accepted, and, after writing down Bakalyan’s address and escorting him to a taxi, I headed toward one of the telephone booths in the lobby to contact Harold Hayes.
One day a photographer in Rome said he would pay $15,000 if Sinatra would pose with Ava Gardner. Sinatra made a counter-offer of $30,000 to break one of the photographer’s legs.
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said, after I speculated about being followed. “I already sent a special-express letter that should shake up Mahoney. There’s probably a copy already waiting for you at your hotel desk. Go get it and read it.”
November 16, 1965
Mr. Jim Mahoney
120 El Camino
Beverly Hills, California
Dear Mr. Mahoney:
I am most distressed by the manner in which you have operated in processing our request for an interview with Frank Sinatra, and I really don’t think I ought to let your actions go by unrecorded and without complaint …
I have just received confirmation from Talese that our request for time with Mr. Sinatra has been denied. And that, further, Talese is not to be allowed on the set of the film that Mr. Sinatra is preparing and that, by implication, he is not to expect cooperation in preparing a story from any person close to, or sympathetic with, Mr. Sinatra.
As I told you earlier, it was our intention—and still is—to prepare a favorable story on Mr. Sinatra. We will now proceed on this story without your cooperation, and presumably without Mr. Sinatra’s, since I can only assume from what you have told Talese over the last few days that, somehow, this contretemps is all our making, and that you are damned sore that we’ve put you in such a position with your boss, and by extension, he’s sore too.
Let me assure you that I’m not sore, but I do feel I’ve gained some insight into the way the ball bounces at Jim Mahoney Associates … Sincerely, Harold Hayes, Editor.
· cc: Mr. Robert Stein, Editor, McCalls
· Mr. William Emerson, Editor, Saturday Evening Post
· Mr. Don Schanche, Editor, Holiday
· Mr. Sey Chassler, Editor, Redbook
· Mr. Frank Sinatra
My first reaction to the letter was that it was unnecessarily harsh with regard to Jim Mahoney’s agency. Instead of limiting the issue to Esquire and Sinatra, Hayes the leatherneck had widened the conflict by recruiting his high-level editorial friends from other magazines to ally themselves with his cause and perhaps create a kind of embargo that might not only negatively affect the future coverage of Frank Sinatra in five magazines but also that of many other performers that Mahoney and his assistants also represented—a list that included Liza Minnelli, Yul Brynner, Debbie Reynolds, Glenn Ford, Bob Newhart, and others whose framed photographs I had seen hanging on Mahoney’s office walls during my visit.
If what Hayes had in mind was to teach Mahoney a lesson, that was one thing; but if he wanted to cripple his entire business, then my sympathies were with Mahoney, together with his five dependent children and his youthful smiling wife whose photo I had seen on his desk. On the other hand, Hayes’s letter made it very clear that he was determined to get a story on Sinatra in Esquire; and although Mahoney had recently disinvited me to the NBC taping of Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music, which was to take place in Burbank on the next afternoon, I decided I would go anyway. I felt I had to. I had to get this piece behind me. I had to get Hayes off my back. I had already been in L.A. for more than two weeks, had rung up huge expenses, and so far had little to show for it. Yes, I repeated to myself, on the following day I had to get into my midsize Avis rental car, drive to Burbank, crash the party, and see how far I could get.
“We Rule the World”
During the 40-minute drive toward the Burbank studio, although I was never tempted to turn back, I did experience some anxiety about how I would be greeted. What would Mahoney do when he saw me there? Would the bodyguard Pucci still be friendly? Suppose I found myself face-to-face with Sinatra: What would I say to him?
At the same time, I thought I was being overly dramatic. Ever since arriving in Los Angeles I had perhaps acquired an exaggerated sense of reality because everything about Sinatra tended to be exaggerated—his power, his sexual appeal, his loneliness, his extravagance, his generosity, his vengeance, his quasi-membership in the Mafia.
I had been thinking about this during the previous evening when I was with Richard Bakalyan and his girlfriend Dolores, watching CBS’s Walter Cronkite interviewing Sinatra at the singer’s home in Palm Springs: a program that had been billed as an apocalyptic event, the inquisition of a crime-connected crooner, a scandalous exposé of his private life so damaging that his lawyer, Mickey Rudin, had threatened to sue CBS in advance of the broadcast—which of course prompted news coverage that heightened the controversy and foretold higher TV ratings for the network.
But the show itself was a letdown, a mellow evening during which the avuncular Cronkite sat across from the dark-suited dapper Sinatra and asked a series of softball questions that were accompanied by several film clips showing the singer onstage, at recording sessions, and at social gatherings mingling amiably with his closest friends and members of his family. A critic at the Associated Press described the program as a “nice little pussycat of a show,” while Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News wrote that Cronkite’s tough questions “were edited down to appease the temperamental star.” The New York Times critic Jack Gould commented that the Sinatra show “wasn’t authorized but it could have been.”
In other words, the program was yet another example of Sinatra hype, bombast, an extravaganza that had existed for decades, ever since the skinny, bow-tied, ballyhooed balladeer had first appeared before organized throngs of screaming bobby-soxers at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square in the 1940s; and it was perhaps with an inflated sense of significance that I was now contemplating conflict attached to my visit to the studio in Burbank.
Was I exaggerating the relevance of my arrival there? With all that Sinatra had on his mind, would he recognize me or even notice me if I were standing in front of him? And, moreover, what right did Mahoney have in banning me from this taping? It was being produced under the auspices of NBC, not Sinatra Enterprises. If he tried to block my entrance I could readily complain to NBC’s publicity department, or even to the show’s director, Dwight Hemion, who, though I never mentioned it to Mahoney, was a New York friend of mine. We lived in the same neighborhood, and we met regularly at an Italian family-style restaurant on Lexington near 61st Street called Gino’s, an old-fashioned first-come, first-served place that did not accept credit cards, would not hire waiters wearing earrings, and was distinguished for its tomato-red wallpaper decorated with leaping zebras dodging flying arrows.
But on second thought, despite our being co-patrons of Gino’s, I knew that Hemion’s meal ticket was Sinatra. Still, what could Sinatra do to me? Have Pucci push me around?
Offer someone $30,000 to break one of my legs? Start a scene with me as he did with Harlan Ellison in the poolroom at the Daisy?
No, I again reminded myself as I pulled into the studio’s parking lot, I was being ridiculous. It was also raining heavily and I did not have an umbrella. So after slamming the car door, I ran across the lot and soon joined dozens of people who were squeezing through the entranceway without being stopped by security guards. To my surprise, there was absolutely nobody on duty there checking names or credentials, and so I kept moving ahead with all the others, many of whom I assumed were Warner Bros. employees or Budweiser sales reps and their families, until I got to within about 30 feet of the bandstand, and there I stopped.
Ahead of me I saw a smiling Frank Sinatra standing within a circle of associates and well-wishers shaking hands, embracing, and loudly engaged in cheerful conversation about the Cronkite interview the night before.
“Oh, it was a gas,” I heard Sinatra say, as I paused behind the backs of two people I recognized, Brad Dexter and Leo Durocher.
“It was the greatest, Frank,” Dexter said.
“You know what Jilly said after the show?,” Sinatra continued. “He sent me a wire saying: ‘We Rule the World.’ Golden words from a drunken saloonkeeper.”
“Absolutely right, Frank,” someone else said, although I wasn’t sure who said it. Around us were Sinatra’s valet, George Jacobs; his makeup man, Layne Britton; his toupee lady, Helen Turpin; his bandleader and arranger, Nelson Riddle; the composer Gordon Jenkins; and the singer Andy Williams, without his wife, Claudine. In the near distance, heading our way, were Pucci followed by Mahoney.
“They had so much more they could have used,” Sinatra went on, still referring to the Cronkite broadcast. “Did you see Jack Gould’s column in the Times this morning? He was right. There should have been more on the man, not so much on the music.”
“I agree,” Durocher said.
Then the bandleader, Nelson Riddle, took Sinatra by the arm and pulled him in the direction of the stage, saying, “Frank, we’re about ready.” But before he left, Sinatra reached out to shake a few more hands and, noticing me behind Dexter, extended a hand in my direction. I had no idea whether or not he knew who I was, but I reached out to him and said: “I also liked the CBS show last night, Mr. Sinatra. Congratulations.” He smiled and repeated: “They could have gotten more about the man.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here,” I quickly interjected. “I’ve been trying to get to you, but so far no luck.”
He looked at me directly and pleasantly, and, as Riddle pulled him away, he said almost apologetically: “I’ve been so busy.” And then he added, very softly—so softly that I might have heard what I wanted to hear rather than what he said or intended: “Maybe something can be worked out.”
I had perhaps acquired an exaggerated sense of reality because everything about Sinatra tended to be exaggerated—his power, his sexual appeal, his loneliness, his extravagance, his generosity, his vengeance, his quasi-membership in the Mafia.
After he left, I stood there momentarily in silence and yet aware that Pucci and Mahoney were near me and had witnessed my brief exchange with their boss; and I could sense, at least in the case of Mahoney, who shook my hand, that my status had risen. Mahoney, who days before had been so disobliging, was now very cordial.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said, “and we can talk.” Perhaps he had received Hayes’s letter. But it did not matter.
“Of course,” I said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Then he waved, turned, and walked away, followed by the amicable Pucci, whom I had not yet told that Esquire’s Dining Out editor had decided against publicizing his restaurant. As the two of them ambled off to rejoin their clique currently gathered in front of the bandstand, I remained where I was, pondering my situation.
Was I now free to remain in this studio, surrounded by a few hundred people, waiting for the taping to begin? Was I at least temporarily liberated from my minder, Mahoney? A few days prior he had quoted Sinatra as saying “no dice” to my being here, and yet here I was, and nobody was threatening to eject me.
And so, though at first keeping my distance from Sinatra’s circle of intimates, I spent the next two hours wandering more or less at will, and the NBC taping that I observed that afternoon was entirely different from the one I had witnessed here more than a week before. Sinatra’s voice was now fully recovered from his cold, and, from the first song through the 17 that followed, his beautiful baritone flawlessly intoned every word in such a way that the listener believed that whatever the lyricist wrote had emerged from the heart and soul of Sinatra’s wide-ranging and deeply experienced life.
Even when his singing was interrupted by a musician’s mistake or by a technical mishap, he remained gracious and imperturbable. As he was getting through “When We Were Young” a camera on wheels knocked over a white plastic tree that stood near the microphone. Sinatra stopped singing and casually turned around to face the orchestra.
“Hold it,” he said. “We’ve had a slight accident.” As the petrified cameraman apologized, Sinatra only shrugged. “Not to worry,” he said. “We can start over.”
If this collision had occurred during the first taping, when an ailing Sinatra was off-key, the cameraman’s clumsiness would have been dealt with in a less forgiving manner, I believe. But on this day—with Sinatra’s voice in splendid form, and with him no longer concerned about what Cronkite’s interview might do to his career—the prevailing atmosphere in the studio was blitheful, sanguine, and entirely devoid of the tension that had existed here nine days earlier—for example, between Sinatra and Dwight Hemion.
After Sinatra had on this occasion satisfactorily rehearsed “The Girl Next Door” and Hemion wanted to film it, he called down from the booth: “O.K., Frank, should we try one?”
Sinatra replied cheerfully: “I’m with you, Dwight.” Having sung six songs wonderfully, and about to start the seventh, Sinatra glanced up at Hemion and asked: “How about something warm after this? How about some toddy for the body?”
As the orchestra cheered in the background, Hemion responded: “You got it, Frank.” And so after the seventh song there was a 40-minute refreshment break during which the caterers served light snacks and drinks on the tables placed outside Sinatra’s dressing room.
As I slowly joined the gathering, I heard Sinatra talking to Durocher and others about the forthcoming fight in Las Vegas between Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali. Although the latter in 1964 had disavowed his “slave name” (Cassius Clay) in favor of the one chosen for him by his spiritual leader, Elijah Muhammad, Sinatra and his friends, and even some members of the press and Floyd Patterson as well, were still slow in accepting the Muslim name.
“Floyd’s got the equipment,” I heard Sinatra say.
“Yeah, but Clay’s got the reach,” replied Durocher.
“But I’ll tell you,” Sinatra went on, “if Clay does against Floyd what he did against Liston—moving back, lowering his hands, and leaving his head open—Floyd will hit him 60 times. Floyd has the fastest hands … ”
“Hope you’re right, Frank,” said Brad Dexter.
Then somebody in the rear called to Dexter, saying that the comedian George Jessel, who had previously appeared with Sinatra at a club date, was trying to reach the singer.
“Oh, don’t worry about Jessel,” Dexter said. “He wears a toupee … ”
“And so does some Italian singer I know,” the other person answered, someone I could not identify. But Sinatra only laughed, then he lifted a bottle of bourbon, poured a shot into a plastic cup, and gulped it down. “Toddy for the body,” he repeated. His dulcet voice was sometimes referred to within his circle as “bourbon baritone.”
After he had changed clothes for another set of songs, Sinatra returned to the platform and the program continued smoothly and swiftly. If at times he had to stop, it again did not seem to irritate him, as when, after missing a beat while singing—“When I was 21, it was a very good year … ”—he offhandedly said to the composer Gordon Jenkins, “We got some sand in there, let’s start over.” At the conclusion of his final song—“Put Your Dreams Away (For Another Day)”—he spun around from behind the microphone, pointed to Gordon Jenkins, and exclaimed, “Beautiful, Gordie.” Then he invited his cronies up to the control room to see a replay of the program on the monitor.
Between 20 and 30 people gradually made their way up the steps to assemble behind where Hemion and his staff sat, to be joined quickly by Sinatra. Since no one objected, and since I felt invisible, I joined the procession and soon found myself squeezed into the third row of standees behind one of the show’s writers, Sheldon Keller.
Across the way, standing in the second row right behind Sinatra and Hemion and concentrating on the monitor, were Durocher, Mahoney, Andy Williams, and Brad Dexter, who was always the first to applaud after each completed song. “Great, Frank, just great,” Dexter kept saying. After hearing about a dozen songs, he said in a loud voice: “Frank, this is going to be the greatest show I’ve ever seen.”
Sinatra then turned around and said, lightly, “Shut up, Brad.”
This did not discourage Dexter, however, nor did Sinatra really seem to mind the continuous flow of adulation from his followers. He himself was clearly pleased and impressed, and near the end of the show, resplendent in his tuxedo, he leaned closer to Hemion and said: “If people still like music, I think this show will do.”
After the final song, “Put Your Dreams Away,” everyone returned to the tables outside Sinatra’s dressing room to resume the party. Mahoney then approached Sinatra holding a small piece of paper, explaining that the CBS producer Don Hewitt wanted to reach him.
“Isn’t Hewitt the guy who caused this whole mess-up?,” Sinatra asked, having heard that Hewitt had been pushing Cronkite to add Mafia questions to the program.
“Yes, he’s the guy,” Mahoney said. “How should I answer him?”
Sinatra replied: “Can you send a fist through the mail?”
“Pulling the Wings off a Butterfly”
In Mahoney’s office on the following day, where I was greeted in the same friendly fashion as I had been in Burbank, he asked if I was interested in accompanying him to the Patterson-Ali fight, adding that he could also arrange a pre-fight interview for me with the veteran boxing trainer in Patterson’s corner, Al Silvani, who had long been on Sinatra’s payroll doing odd jobs and most recently served as a production assistant on the singer’s film in progress, Assault on a Queen.
I was more than surprised by Mahoney’s offer because, suspecting that the phone in my hotel room was tapped, I deduced that he knew of my private calls to Patterson (who had already set aside a ticket for me); and now perhaps Mahoney was trying to enlist me as a traveling companion so that he could keep an eye on me in Las Vegas to make sure that I did not aggressively pursue Sinatra as I might if I were on my own.
Still, I saw no reason to refuse Mahoney because being with him probably meant that I would at least be on the fringe of Sinatra’s circle. And so, as suggested, we flew together to Las Vegas on Monday morning, November 22, and, after taking a taxi to the Sands Hotel and Casino, where we would be staying, we were met in the lobby by the casino’s boss, a genial giant named Jack Entratter, a dark-haired, smartly dressed 50-year-old who stood six-foot-four and weighed 250 pounds and who in the 1940s had already gained popularity as a well-mannered, backslapping bouncer at the Stork Club in New York.
Mahoney had told me on the plane that Jack Entratter and Sinatra had been friends since the early 1950s, which was when Entratter had shifted from his position as manager of the Copacabana nightclub in New York to helping to introduce the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Having already become acquainted with many leading entertainers during his time at the Copacabana, and using his diplomatic skills to draw backing from investors, including some investors with gangland connections, Entratter soon established the Sands as the city’s most luxurious casino, made millions for himself, and stood alone in featuring such top-flight entertainers as Sinatra and the latter’s Rat Pack companions, like Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Sammy Davis Jr.
Two of these would be performing with Sinatra tonight onstage at the Sands after the fight, Mahoney had said, adding that Entratter would get me a ticket to the show, which he promptly did. Entratter proved to be even more accommodating than Mahoney had described. After checking us into our suites, confirming our luncheon reservation in the dining room with the trainer Al Silvani, and taking us to his office to get our fight tickets, Entratter then sat talking with me alone for about 10 minutes while Mahoney was elsewhere, I assume checking in with Sinatra, who had arrived the night before in his private plane. When in Las Vegas, Sinatra always stayed at the Sands.
“Frank and I are about the same age, and I’m also wealthy and successful,” Entratter began. “I own houses here and there, and I could afford a Learjet if I wanted one. Since my dear wife’s passing four years ago, I am alone and free to do as I wish. And I wish I could live like Frank Sinatra. But I can’t.”
He paused, then repeated, “I wish I could. But I can’t, because I really don’t know how to live. I’m like a lot of 50-year-old guys who in our early days knew excitement and adventure. But then, in spite of doing well, our lives have evened out and gone flat. In my case, it’s probably because I’m inwardly conservative.” He explained that he was religious, having served in Las Vegas as the congregational president of Temple Beth Sholom, and he also said that he did not gamble, smoke, or drink. He admitted to having a girlfriend, Lari Laine, but did not mention that she had been a cover girl on such magazines as Playboy.
“Lari is a lovely person,” he said, “but I do not think I could ever marry her. Somehow it would be against the teachings I’ve given to my two daughters. I don’t know. I’m caught up. I feel trapped. But when I’m in Frank’s company, everything suddenly changes. He is exciting to be around. He lives every moment. He refuses to grow old. He has great talent, yes, but also knows how to have fun. That’s how it is with so many of us who hang around Frank. He sets an example of how to live and have fun. It’s infectious. He lives our lives for us.”
Mahoney then returned to Entratter’s office, and, after saying our farewells, we headed toward the dining room through the gambling area, where only Sinatra’s recorded music echoed through the sound system. Along the way we passed a writer friend who waved at me from one of the slot machines.
“Isn’t that Norman Mailer?,” Mahoney asked, pausing to get a longer look.
“That’s him,” I said. “Mailer’s a fight buff. I see him at all the big fights.”
“Is he rich?”
“I don’t know how rich he is,” I said. “He’s a best-selling writer, so I assume he does O.K.”
“Well, why does he wear such sloppy shoes that are practically falling off his feet? Why doesn’t he dress better?” Mahoney was, as usual, neatly attired, wearing an expensive pair of buckled leather slip-on shoes, a white striped shirt with a maroon tie, and a cashmere blazer sprouting an orange-paisley pocket square. I believe all were purchased at Sinatra’s favorite men’s shop in Beverly Hills, Carroll & Co.
With Sinatra’s voice in splendid form, the prevailing atmosphere in the studio was blitheful, sanguine, and entirely devoid of the tension that had existed here nine days earlier.
“You want to send Mailer to Frank Sinatra’s haberdasher?,” I asked, forcing a smile. “That would be ridiculous. Mailer isn’t into wearing fine clothes like you and Mr. Sinatra.”
Mahoney said nothing as we got closer to the dining area, but I was thinking that, clothes aside, Mailer and Sinatra actually had much in common. Both had enormous egos, both were prodigiously productive, both had achieved fame and success at an early age, and both spent the rest of their lives trying to retain it.
Norman Mailer’s celebrated first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948 when he was only 25, and, like Sinatra, Mailer also had an early interest in directing and acting in films and engaging in politics and social activism. He and Sinatra were drinking men, prizefight aficionados who had also taken boxing lessons, and both were known for having physical encounters with confrontational men while at the same time craving the presence of admiring women. The 42-year-old Norman Mailer, whose current wife was an actress named Beverly Bentley, had so far been married four times.
In the dining room, after Mahoney had introduced me to Al Silvani, I shook hands, sat down, and wished him the best of luck in helping Patterson tonight. Silvani had been enlisted by Sinatra to serve in Patterson’s corner after the latter’s longtime trainer, Dan Florio, had died a month earlier.
“I think Patterson can win,” said Silvani, a broad-shouldered, muscular, gray-haired man in his mid-50s. Silvani, among others, had given Sinatra boxing lessons in the early 1940s and since then had divided his time between training top-ranked professional fighters—among them Jake LaMotta, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, and Rocky Graziano—and assisting Sinatra in film production and playing bit parts in movies.
“If I didn’t think Patterson had a good chance of beating Clay,” Silvani continued, “I would not have left the Bahamas, where Johnny Delgado and I were doing some water scenes for Assault on a Queen, and come all the way over here to Vegas just to pick somebody off the floor. I traveled nearly 3,000 miles to get here, and so I repeat: I came because I think Patterson can win.”
He then removed from his jacket pocket a white index card on which were notes printed in pencil, and, after handing it to me, he said: “Here, read this. Here’s my advice telling Patterson what, and what not, to do in the fight tonight.”
On the card were four succinctly expressed statements, and as I read them aloud to Silvani and Mahoney, seated across from me, Silvani listened while nodding with his eyes closed.
1. Always hands up. Weave body side to side. Follow Clay, but if he dances backward, don’t run after him.
2. Never wing punches from distance. Get in close. Forget his head. Direct right cross / left hook to Clay’s body.
3. Never hold in a clinch. Rip short right uppercuts. Follow with elbow aiming at his chin. Be mean. No pals.
4. By weaving side to side you avoid Clay’s left jabs. Don’t talk to him. He’ll talk to you, but don’t answer. At weigh-in, and the referee’s instructions before the bell, ignore Clay. Just look directly at his chest.
I returned the card to Silvani with thanks while believing that nothing written on it would save Patterson from defeat, much as I wished otherwise. Whether one referred to him as “Cassius Clay” or “Muhammad Ali,” Patterson’s opponent was a bigger, taller, harder-hitting, and more talented heavyweight, who had twice destroyed Liston, who had twice destroyed Patterson, and there was no way I could imagine Patterson ending up a winner tonight. Still, Al Silvani was a very experienced and respected individual in the boxing world, so I kept my thoughts to myself, even while wondering if Silvani might have been touting Patterson highly because Sinatra had taken a liking to the fighter and was betting on him.
I also felt somewhat awkward about having this luncheon with Silvani, which I had not sought; it had been Mahoney’s idea—probably an attempt on his part to show Hayes that he was cooperating with me. Mahoney had never acknowledged receiving Hayes’s condemning letter of a week before, but I was inclined to believe that he had both read it and felt threatened by it, and therefore he was now, for the first time, getting me to meet someone who was close to Frank Sinatra. Mahoney would not, or could not, get me a one-on-one interview with the great man himself, but he was nevertheless hoping that trading downward might produce positive results with Hayes. Knowing Hayes as I did, I thought it unlikely.
Hours later, close to fight time, I met Mahoney in the Sands lobby and we shared a ride to the Las Vegas Convention Center one mile away. In the car Mahoney was quite talkative, but I paid little attention. I was very worried that my longtime friend Floyd Patterson—who was 30 years old, had undergone nearly 50 professional fights, and had been knocked down several times since the early 1950s—would become seriously injured tonight while facing the ferocious and fleet-footed 33-year-old Muhammad Ali in the prime of his career.
At a news conference earlier in the day, which I had watched on television just before leaving my hotel room, I noticed that Patterson had ignored Silvani’s instructions by getting testy with Ali at the weigh-in, persistently calling him “Cassius Clay” and promising to reclaim the heavyweight title from the “Black Muslim” and “return the crown to America,” the inference being that the Louisville-born Ali was a foreigner because of his spiritual affiliation with the Nation of Islam and that it was Patterson’s “patriotic duty” to overcome him. Ali responded by calling Patterson an “Uncle Tom” and predicting that once the bout began Patterson would be running around the ring like a “scared rabbit.”
“That’s how it is with so many of us who hang around Frank. He sets an example of how to live and have fun. It’s infectious. He lives our lives for us.”
Sadly for Patterson’s supporters, this is pretty much what happened. Before losing by a technical knockout in the 12th round, the six-foot, 196-pound Patterson seemed to be absolutely helpless against a foe who outweighed him by nearly 15 pounds, was three inches taller, and had an eight-inch reach advantage that penetrated Patterson’s defenses at will; at the same time, Ali was too elusive to ever allow Patterson to get close enough to score a significant retaliatory blow.
Mahoney and I were not sitting together. I sat two rows behind him while he was in the second row with some of Sinatra’s crowd, overlooking the front row where Sinatra sat at ringside flanked by Jilly Rizzo and Dean Martin, accompanied by Joey Bishop, Jack Entratter, and the latter’s girlfriend, Lari Laine.
In the fourth row with me were a number of magazine writers and authors who were devotees of prizefighting. In addition to Norman Mailer, there was the novelist Budd Schulberg, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for On the Waterfront; and George Plimpton, the tall and patrician Harvard-educated editor of The Paris Review who was also an amateur sportsman known for competing with professional athletes and then writing wittily about his experiences.
In one of his books—Out of My League, published in 1961—Plimpton described pitching batting practice to Major League stars in an exhibition game. On an earlier occasion, in 1959, at Stillman’s Gymnasium on 54th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, he sparred a few rounds against the African-American light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, who was gentlemanly enough to limit Plimpton’s punishment to breaking part of the cartilage in his nose, causing it to bleed. This led the trumpeter Miles Davis to ask afterward, “Archie, is that black blood or white blood on your gloves?,” to which one of Plimpton’s friends replied, “Sir, that is blue blood.”
Throughout the Patterson-Ali fight, which went on longer than most of the writers had expected but whose outcome was never in doubt, it was generally agreed that Ali could have easily knocked out Patterson in an early round but instead preferred to toy with him, shaming and peppering his ears with insults—“Come on, America!”—and frustrating him by dancing menacingly and merrily around the ring while putting on a show that the boxing reporter for The New York Times compared to watching someone “pulling the wings off a butterfly.”
In the 11th round, with Patterson fatigued from unleashing several wild long-distance punches that ignored Silvani’s instructions, he injured his back and could no longer maintain his position properly. Between rounds, Silvani tried lifting him from behind in an attempt to untangle the muscle knots, but he did not succeed. Later in the 12th round, with Patterson hardly able to defend himself at all, the referee stopped the fight and declared Ali the winner by technical knockout.
As the triumphant Ali boasted aloud into the microphone of the ring announcer, and as Patterson’s handlers wiped his battered brow and lifted a robe around his shoulders, I watched the solemn figure of Frank Sinatra leaving ringside and walking slowly toward the exit, being trailed by his friends. I guessed that they were headed back to the Sands, where Sinatra was soon scheduled to appear onstage with Joey Bishop and Dean Martin.
Mahoney was also with them, but I did not follow because I preferred attending the post-fight news conference in Patterson’s dressing room, joining members of the working press and others such as myself who were regular guests of the promoter’s publicist. Standing in the back of the room next to Plimpton and Patterson’s pilot, Ted Hanson, who would fly the fighter back to New York that night, I listened for several minutes while the reporters up front were questioning Patterson about his back problems.
“No excuse for losing this fight,” Patterson responded, seated on a training table with a towel around his head. He admitted that his opponent (still called “Clay”) was clearly the better boxer and was in a class by himself among the world’s professional heavyweights.
With a doctor on one side of him, and his manager, Cus D’Amato, and Al Silvani on the other, Patterson continued to answer questions patiently, but he spoke so softly at times that it was difficult for me to hear him. Near the end of the interview, however, I thought I heard my name being called aloud. I paid no attention. Then I heard it again, this time more clearly.
“Is Gay Talese here?” It was the voice of Floyd Patterson.
The reporters up front all turned around and stared, and then Plimpton, after regarding me quizzically, nudged me on the shoulder and said: “He’s talking to you.”
I straightened up, raised my right arm, and called loudly, “I’m back here, Floyd.”
“Did you ever have a chance to get to Frank Sinatra?” he asked.
I was too surprised to answer, so he repeated: “Did you ever have a chance to get to Frank Sinatra?”
It was such an absurd and unexpected question coming from this uncommon prizefighter who had within the hour been humiliated in full view of a worldwide TV audience, his career in boxing perhaps ended, and yet here he was remembering a request I’d recently made for his help on my annoying magazine assignment!
How could one explain Floyd Patterson? How did his mind work? Maybe the famous Durocher quote applied here: “Nice guys finish last”—surely within the brutal world of boxing. I had written more than 30 articles about Patterson through the years, but I remained mystified.
Nevertheless he was still looking at me, waiting for a reply. So I gave it to him.
“Thank you very much, Floyd, and, yes, I did get to Frank Sinatra,” I lied.
Excerpted from Gay Talese’s new book, Bartleby and Me: Reflections of an Old Scrivener, to be published on September 19 by Mariner