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Frank Sinatra: Dark seducer behind those Ol' Blue Eyes

By Julia Molony

Published 12/12/2015

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow
Frank Sinatra with The Rat Pack

Considered the greatest singer of his generation, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 today. His voice was legendary, but the crooner with the boyish smile was almost as famous for his mafia connections and his well-deserved reputation as a hot-tempered womaniser.

When Dean Martin first heard that his friend and Rat Pack colleague Frank Sinatra was planning to marry Mia Farrow, he joked that he owned bottles of Scotch older than the bride.

Farrow was 19 years old and a virgin when she began a romance with Sinatra. He was 49, a global legend and a famous womaniser, with two train-wreck marriages already behind him. When he and Farrow tied the knot two years later, Sinatra's daughter Nancy was five years older than his new wife.

Farrow was quite unlike anyone Sinatra had been involved with before. By the time they met, he'd bedded half of Hollywood, including Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Lana Turner. His previous marriage to Ava Gardner had ended spectacularly badly.

Mia was a child-like, doll-featured ingenue. She was goofy and shy - a clean-living, yoga-practising vegetarian. Sinatra could not have been more different. He famously drank a bottle of whiskey a day and spoke proudly of his Mafia connections.

Farrow would claim Sinatra was the great love of her life, but their marriage was troubled from the first. Sinatra was a success at a lot of things, but wedlock wasn't one of them.

It wasn't just Sinatra's love life that was chequered and complicated. Having grown up in New Jersey in a southern-Italian family, he had known and mingled with the Mafia since childhood, but as his fame grew, he sustained and romanticised those connections.

"I would rather be a Mafia don than President," he once said. And this view sustained, even when others around him, including Gardner, expressed the opinion that his interest in the Mob was unhealthy and destructive.

He was never heavily enough involved to be in real danger, as it turned out. Sinatra lived to the ripe old age of 82, by which time his criminal connections had long-since faded and he succumbed, not to gangsters, but to heart disease. Still, a seam of violence and criminality runs through his life story.

Kitty Kelly found genuine reason to "beware the man" when researching her book about him.

"Interviewing hundreds of people to research his life story was frightening," she later said. "To a man and a woman, they were scared of physical violence that might come to them for talking to me."

Certainly he could be volatile. Some have said he would give the order to beat up people who crossed him. And he was not above getting involved in a brawl himself - he once cracked the skull of a guest in a hotel in Beverly Hills by launching a telephone at him.

Sinatra's fourth (and most successful) marriage lasted until his death in 1998. But even his most stalwart wife, the former model Barbara Blakely, spoke after his death of his volatile temper. She called him her "Jekyll and Hyde husband" and described his rages.

Born into a Sicilian family in New Jersey, he was an only child. According to James Kaplan, author of the most comprehensive Sinatra biography in print, the driving force in his early life was his domineering mother Dolly.

She was 19 when baby Frank arrived after a traumatic birth, which left both mother and baby almost dead. A rough forceps delivery left Sinatra with scars down the left side of his face. As a teenager, he was teased and nicknamed Scarface.

Frank's father, Anthony Sinatra, was a boxer, but a simple, gentle man. His mother was pretty, lively and fiercely ambitious for her son. She trained as a midwife and practised as an abortionist, earning herself the soubriquet Hat Pin Dolly. She, too, had an unpredictable temper and, according to Kaplan, "she alternately coddled him and abused him".

"She once pushed him down a flight of stairs, knocking him unconscious. She regularly beat him with a stick. In those days it was known as discipline," Kaplan writes.

Sinatra married his childhood sweetheart Nancy Barbato in 1939, when he was just 24. This starter-marriage, as it turned out to be, was an innocent, optimistic beginning to Sinatra's romantic life, which became one of the most notorious in Hollywood.

Having lost his virginity at 13, he spent his teenage years seducing girls in his neighbourhood and by the time he married, his identity as a prolific womaniser was already well formed. He and Nancy spent 12 years together and had three children. Their eldest, Nancy Sinatra, is herself a successful singer. But Frank was never faithful.

When, having recently moved to Hollywood with his wife and two eldest children, he first laid eyes on Lana Turner (then at the height of her fame) on-screen, he decided he had to have her, according to one biographer, J Randy Taraborrelli.

He got her phone number through a mutual contact and set about trying to seduce her. Within weeks of the start of their affair, he had fallen for her and asked Nancy for a divorce.

It was his romance with Ava Gardner, once dubbed "the most irresistible woman in Hollywood", however, that was the final nail in the coffin of his marriage.

Sinatra had first met the fiery, fiercely independent sex symbol when she arrived in Hollywood at the age of 18. But it wasn't until they met again at a party, several years later, that he began to pursue her in earnest.

She was 23 by then and twice-divorced. She'd had a short marriage with actor Mickey Rooney, followed in quick succession by another with band-leader Artie Shaw. At the time she got together with Frank, she was on the arm of the tycoon Howard Hughes.

The attraction between them was instant. Certainly, from the outset they had a lot in common - both were hard-living, hot-tempered, heavy drinking, and sexually voracious. They were equally unconcerned by convention or contemporary mores. Together, they were wild.

Ava later revealed in her ghost-written memoirs that on their first date they drove along the streets of Palm Springs shooting at shop windows with a .38 Special.

"I damn well knew he was married and married men were not high on my hit parade. But he was handsome, with his boyish face, bright blue eyes and incredible grin. He was so enthusiastic and invigorated, clearly pleased with life in general, himself in particular, and, at that moment, me," she recalled.

This time Sinatra was not prepared to let Nancy stop him getting what he wanted. After a long dispute he agreed a generous settlement with Nancy and filed for divorce. Ten days after the paperwork came through, in 1951, he and Ava were married.

But things were already troubled between them by the time they tied the knot. Their fights were legendary. Though Gardner would later attribute the breakdown of their relationship to his womanising, the truth was that neither of them was faithful.

According to one report, just before they were due to wed, Gardner received a letter from a prostitute who claimed that Sinatra had been availing of her services for months, yet she married him anyway. Both Frank and Ava were emotionally unstable. As their friend Gloria Cahn observed, being with the pair was often "like sitting on cracked eggs, you never knew if there were going to be verbal daggers and Frank was so subservient, he was insane about that woman".

Already a man who struggled to weather the storm of his own disordered emotions, the relationship drove Sinatra close to the edge of despair. It didn't help that at the time of their marriage Frank was going through a difficult time with his career. The golden boy was in a temporary rut, his record sales were stalling. This professional drought of the late 1940s and early 1950s was arguably one of his most difficult periods.

Ava, meanwhile, had become one of Hollywood's most sought-after actresses. In the end, it was she who ended the relationship. Their sexual chemistry, previously powerful, was starting to fizzle out.

"You, of all people, know I like it rough," a frustrated Gardner confessed to her ex-husband Shaw. "With Frank, it's impossible. It's like being in bed with a woman. He's so gentle. It's as if he thinks I'll break."

She finally left him for Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin, who she met while working on location in Europe.

"I was happier married to Frank than ever before. If I'd been willing to share him with other women, we could have been happy," she later said.

He, meanwhile, was left desolate, even slitting one of his wrists.

Though the end of the marriage was a low ebb for Frank, things were about to change. While Ava had been away filming and pursuing her bullfighting beau, Frank was back in America filming From Here to Eternity. He'd fought tooth and nail to get the part, even going so far as to waive his fee, agreeing to work instead for expenses of $1,000 a week, which is an indication of just how low his stock in Hollywood had fallen.

The release of the film in 1954 was the watershed of a spectacular comeback. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his first non-singing role.

Though the romance with Gardner was over, the two of them remained close for the rest of their lives.

Sinatra spent much of the decade fronting the Rat Pack, who performed a regular slot at Caesars Palace. By then, his standing as a legend was already secured and his personal life a Who's Who of the stars of the day.

In 1961, he had a short and unsatisfactory affair with Marilyn Monroe - neither seemed to have held the other in very high regard.

By the time Sinatra married for the fourth and final time, in 1976, he was already into his 60s and had no doubt mellowed. It reveals something about the man that, despite the unflattering aspects of his reputation, he remained, until his death, respected and admired by the women who had loved him.

Sinatra: The Chairman by James Kaplan is out now priced £30

Belfast Telegraph

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