A Very Good Year

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(Pictured: Frank Sinatra talks with Walter Cronkite.) 

Maybe once a year I read a book so good I am literally sad that it ends. This year it was James Kaplan’s gigantic two-volume biography, Frank: The Voice (2010) and Sinatra: The Chairman (2015). If you choose to read it, pack a lunch: there’s something like 1800 pages between the two volumes. This week’s posts are all inspired by the book.  

By 1965, Frank Sinatra was firmly entrenched as America’s #1 pop star, Non-Elvis Division, his career revitalized since his Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and a string of classic albums. For Sinatra’s 50th birthday that year, CBS News planned a documentary on his life and career. Producer Don Hewitt very badly wanted him to sit for an interview with Walter Cronkite, but Sinatra famously hated reporters. Hewitt got him by telling Sinatra that if he spoke to Cronkite, he would be occupying “the same seat Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson sat in.” The appeal to Frank’s ego—that the special would treat him as if he were a president of the United States—was enough. Not only did he agree to the interview, he permitted the CBS crew to film him recording “It Was a Very Good Year.” And in fact, CBS News crews followed Sinatra around for six months.

CBS had done other profiles of serious artists, such as Pablo Casals and Isaac Stern. Sinatra believed his would be the same kind of reverent retrospective on the performer and his art. But in October, when Walter Cronkite came to Sinatra’s home to film the interview, there were fireworks. Cronkite asked about his hot temper. With anger flashing in his eyes, Frank insisted that he had grown “gentler” in recent years, a claim belied by a montage of newspaper headines about his confrontations with reporters and photographers. Then Cronkite asked about Sinatra’s Mafia connections, which caused Sinatra to bolt.

Hewitt followed him into a bedroom, where Sinatra claimed he’d been promised there would be no Mafia questions. Hewitt said he’d never agreed to that.

“I ought to kill you,” Sinatra said.

“With anyone else, that’s a figure of speech,” Hewitt said. “But you probably mean it.”

“I mean it,” Sinatra replied. Hewitt fled the house, and Sinatra withdrew his consent for the special. The New York Times explained that he “objects to stress on matters not related to his profession.”

Somehow, an agreement was reached, and Cronkite was permitted to ask about the mob, although what he got in response wasn’t much: “I do meet all kinds of people in the world because of the natural habitat from day to day in theatrical work and nightclub work, in concerts, wherever I might be, in restaurants, you meet all kinds of people. So there’s really not much to be said about that, and I think the less said the better, because it’s—there is no—there’s no answer.”

Sinatra (which you can see in its entirety here) aired on November 16, 1965, with a script written by Andy Rooney. In addition to the Cronkite interview and the studio footage, Sinatra sang several songs, including one at a prison (highlighted among his many charitable works), and was seen hanging out with family and friends in his favorite saloon. Afterward, TV critics panned the show as a puff piece for not asking hard questions about the Mafia or anything else, including his colorful love life, which currently starred Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior, who would soon become his third wife. Variety called it “an unmitigated rave for Frankie Goodfellow, star performer, tycoon with a heart of gold, family man (yet), and all around ball-haver.”

In December 1965, “It Was a Very Good Year” hit the radio, eventually reaching #25 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart—the very recording that Sinatra had made on the night CBS cameras were in the studio. And although Sinatra had been a pop star for 25 years by then, his greatest period of sustained singles chart success began with that song. In a 55-week period between June 1966 and June 1967, Sinatra would occupy the #1 spot on the Easy Listening chart for 22 weeks with five different singles: “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Somethin’ Stupid,” and “The World We Knew.” Two of them, “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid,” a duet with Nancy, would also go to #1 on the Hot 100. For a man who had just turned 50, it was indeed a very good year.

In the next installment: Sinatra’s life was filled with capers, none stranger than one that temporarily cost him $239,985.

5 thoughts on “A Very Good Year

  1. Wesley

    Sinatra the artist I admire wholeheartedly. Sinatra the man, well … I’ve heard enough horror stories about his ego to temper any enthusiasm in that regard. Sure, he laughed it up when Don Rickles first picked him out of the audience and cracked, “Hey Frank, make yourself at home. Hit somebody!” And he had a good rapport being interviewed with Larry King. But then I read things like Joe Smith in his 1987 book Off the Record barely disguising his disgust with his old friend being about the only recording artist who refused to do an interview about his life in pop music. And Leonard Goldenson, head of ABC-TV, recounting how disdainful the Chairman of the Board was in doing his hyped TV series for the network in 1957, which turned out to be a huge flop. Or when he did his 1968 TV special Francis Albert Sinatra Does His Thing, where after taping the dress rehearsal, he told the producers to just use that tape and not do a full production.

    The same can extend to his recording work as well. Jimmy Bowen recounted how he basically had to confront Frank to get an acceptable strong take of That’s Life, for one. It all comes off to me that he was a belligerent bully who had people do things his way (no pun intended, Paul Anka) or he wouldn’t do anything with them.

    Don’t get me wrong. The man sold everything from Cycles to New York New York with more strength and panache than the next ten adult contemporary male singers combined. He’s a stylist often imitated and never duplicated. I just wish his personality was as smooth, relaxed and occasionally humorous as his vocals almost always were.

  2. mikehagerty

    I’ll always love some of Frank’s music (especially the album “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim”), but as a human….

    Take the 1966 incident in which former Hunt Foods President Frederick R. Weisman and his wife, at the Beverly Hills Hotel Polo Lounge, were disturbed by loud and vulgar language from Sinatra and company in a neighboring booth. This is how the incident is described on the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation page:

    “Before Weisman became nationally recognized as a contemporary art collector, one of his greatest claims to fame was telling Frank Sinatra and some of his Rat Pack pals to be quiet, and living to tell the tale. But just barely. The year was 1966. The locale was the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Weisman was eating dinner. At the next table were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sinatra’s bodyguard buddy Jilly Rizzo, actor Richard Conte, and various“ladies.” The group was celebrating Dean Martin’s birthday. A little too loudly.

    Weisman asked Sinatra to observe the event more quietly. Sinatra recognized Weisman, and he replied with a nasty, anti-Semitic comment. Weisman stood up. A mistake. Sinatra stood up. More words were exchanged. Then Sinatra grabbed one of the famous Polo Lounge telephones, and he smashed Weisman over the head. Several times. Soon, Weisman was lying unconscious on the floor.

    Weisman remained unconscious in the hospital for forty-eight hours. His skull had been fractured in the attack. Weisman wanted to press charges against Sinatra. After all, the attack had plenty of witnesses. But he changed his mind—he told friends—after receiving threatening, late-night telephone calls. He was advised to drop any thought of charges against Sinatra if he wanted to enjoy his life and hobbies, particularly his passion for art.”

    United Press International’s coverage the following morning was downright laughable:

    “BEVERLY HILLS. Calif. (UPl)—Retired business executive Frederick R. Weisman, 54, who suffered a skull fracture after he allegedly struck Frank Sinatra last Wednesday, was in serious condition today following 2 1-2 hours of brain surgery. The altercation took place in the swank Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Sinatra was helping Dean Martin celebrate his 49th birthday. Sinatra. 50, told detectives

    Weisman “hit me in the right eye” without provocation and that he did not strike back. Weisman, former president of Hunt Foods, Inc., had not regained consciousness since his admission Wednesday night to Mt. Sinai hospital. Beverly Hills Police Chief Clinton H. Anderson said earlier, “we have a witness who saw r Weisman hit Sinatra in the face, but nobody saw Sinatra hit him back.”

    I’ve been a journalist almost forty years and that’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone suffer a skull fracture after hitting someone else.

  3. There are stories about Sinatra’s physical and mental cruelty, his diva behavior, and his positively juvenile attitudes about love and relationships on practically every page of Kaplan’s bio. The only drawback to the book is that this stuff is necessarily so pervasive.

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