Birth: December 12, 1912
New Jersey, United States
Death: May 14, 1998
California, United States
Frank Sinatra’s birth on December 12, 1915 was a rough one. The 13.5 pound baby almost died and it was so traumatic for his mother, that he remained an only child. His parents, Marty and Dolly, were Italian immigrants. Marty was a former boxer and a fireman and Dolly was an ambitious and strong woman with a lot of influence in their neighborhood. She was convicted twice for running an illegal abortion business, but bounced back quickly and became a committee woman for the democratic party. Frank was a bit lonely as a kid, since his parents were always working, but he always had friends.
Once he started high school, Frank became rebellious and he was expelled after 47 days. But he did not care since he only wanted one thing: to become a singer. In the meantime Frank started dating the shy, but sweet Nancy Barbato. In 1935 Frank joined The Three Flashes, which subsequently became the Hoboken Four. After appearing on Major Bowes Amateur Hour, they won a contract to perform on stage and on the radio for six months. But Frank did not feel at home in the group and he left after three months. He took on every gig he could get, singing at weddings and birthdays.
In 1939, at age 24, Frank married his girlfriend Nancy. A couple of months later he became a part of trumpeter Harry James’ band and toured the country. That December, Frank got the opportunity to join Tommy Dorsey’s popular band. It was the big break Frank had waited for. The band, and Frank, were a great success. He released more than forty songs with the band in their first year alone, with I’ll Never Smile Again topping the charts for weeks.
Meanwhile, in June 1940, Frank had become a father for the very first time when Nancy gave birth to their daughter Nancy Jr.. Frank was excited, but he was always on the road. He had legions of fans by now, mostly swooning teenage girls. 1940 was also the year he made his first feature film: Las Vegas Nights. By 1941 Frank was everywhere: on stage, on the radio, on records and in the movies. Frank was on top of the world and he started to outgrow the band. In August 1942 he went solo. His wife Nancy fully supported his busy career: she made his signature bow ties and was in charge of his fan mail.
In 1943 Frank signed with the successful Colombia Records as a solo artist and kept recording hit after hit. In January 1944 Frank became a dad again, this time to a son called Frank Jr.
But Frank had more dreams: he wanted to become an actor for awhile now and he signed a contract with film studio MGM. He was determined to succeed, so he packed up his wife and kids and moved the family to Los Angeles. There, he started shooting his first big feature film: Anchors Aweigh, co-starring Gene Kelly. At the same time Frank made sure his voice was heard politically as well. He was a big supporter of President Roosevelt and made the short film The House I Live In which dealt with tolerance and racial equality.
Frank was on top of the world: his films were a hit, his songs were a hit and he could do no wrong in the eyes of his large fan base. He lived the good life and became friends with Hollywood icons like Humphrey Bogart and hung out with sex symbols like Lana Turner. It wasn’t long before rumors started swirling about Frank’s cheating ways. In 1946 he released his first album The Voice which immediately shot to number one on the Billboard chart. But not everything was perfect: the press voted him ‘least cooperative star’ and when his wife found out about his cheating he nearly avoided a divorce. It was a sign for the rough years ahead.
Rumors about Frank’s association with the mafia began and Frank got so fed up with all the bad press that he punched a reporter. His personal life was starting to get complicated as well: his wife was pregnant again, but Frank was falling for sultry actress Ava Gardner. Nancy and Frank’s third child Christina was born on June 20, 1948, but that did not save their marriage.
Frank spent more and more time with Ava and the two developed a tumultuous but passionate relationship. Meanwhile Frank was feeling very down over the decline of his beloved career. Although his acting career did reasonably well because of films like Take Me Out To The Ball Game and On The Town, his music career stalled. And the bad publicity kept on coming: Frank and Ava were seen together all over town, which made for scandalous headlines.
Frank was usually seen as a respectable family man, an important image that was now destroyed. Their studios threatened to suspend them both and they even received accusatory letters from Catholic priests all over the world. Nancy had had it this time around and filed for a legal separation.
Frank decided to work on his singing career again, but suffered a vocal-cord hemorrhage. To make matters worse, his film studio MGM decided to let him go. Meanwhile his relationship with Ava was as tumultuous as ever, with rumors swirling that they were cheating on each other. By now the successful Ava had to support Frank financially, something that also put a strain on their romance. They stayed together though, convinced they were the loves of each other lives. But Frank was feeling very down and reportedly tried taking his own life during this time.
In the summer of 1951, Frank and Nancy were officially divorced. Frank wasted no time and married Ava a couple of months later. Meanwhile his career was still in a downward spiral when he received bad reviews for his new film Double Dynamite. He tried to give television a try, but The Frank Sinatra show did not do well.
1953 was a turning point for Frank’s career though, he signed with Capitol Records and scored a hit with Three Coins in the Fountain. But what really created his big comeback was his part in the box-office hit From Here To Eternity. Frank was back in business. Ironically, his personal life was faltering. Frank and Ava were both on the road a lot and when they were together fights often erupted. They announced their impending divorce and Frank was devastated. By the end of the year, he was hospitalized for exhaustion.
The Hottest Item in Show Business
Frank bounced back quickly though. in 1954 he won an Academy Award, which gave him the recognition he so craved. His music career was on the rise again as well: he won best song and best LP of the year. He kept the momentum going by playing in movies like The Man With The Golden Arm, Guys and Dolls and High Society and releasing the albums In The Wee Small Hours and Songs For Young Lovers. He even made the cover of Time magazine as ‘the hottest item in show business’. Music and Ava were still on his mind though, and in 1957 he recorded the classic I’m A Fool To Want You for her. But later that year the divorce with Ava was officially finalized, though they would always keep in touch. Ava later stated they were simply too much alike.
Frank moved on and started dating the widow of his deceased friend Humphrey Bogart: Lauren Bacall. His career was still going strong; he made the wildly successful Christmas album A Jolly Christmas and played in movies like My Pal Joey. He saw his children frequently, though little Christina would never have the ‘hands-on’ dad that Nancy and Frank Jr. once had during their parents’ marriage.
He reportedly got engaged to Lauren Bacall. But Frank still could not be faithful and Lauren had soon had enough. Frank then moved from one fling to another. He did not have time to worry about his love life though: he was busy with albums like Come Fly With Me and movies like Some Came Running and A Hole in the Head.
In the early sixties a new phase in Frank’s career began: he was at the center of the now famous Rat Pack. Frank, Joey Bishop, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammie Davis Jr., collectively known as The Rat Pack, performed together in Las Vegas and made the box-office hit Ocean’s Eleven. Frank was seen as the ringleader of the group and many envied his lifestyle. He also remained involved in politics; he used his substantial star power to back up the campaign of his friend John F. Kennedy. But Frank was aware of a change in music during this time: rock & roll was on the rise. Despite speaking out against it years earlier, he now appeared on a TV show with Elvis Presley and sang his song Love Me Tender. In that same year he made a stand by supporting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and playing a role in the desegregation of Nevada’s hotels and casinos. Meanwhile his acting career was still going full speed ahead with films like The Devil at 4 O’Clock, Sergeants and The Manchurian Candidate. By now he was seriously involved with dancer Juliet Prowse, who he had met on the set of Can Can in 1960. They got engaged, but soon split up due to differences over their careers.
Then the end of 1963 drew near, which proved to be a tumultuous time. It started out well, his nineteen-year old son Frank Jr. made his singing debut and Frank was filming Robin and the Seven Hoods with The Rat Pack. Then, on November 22, his friend John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Frank was devastated, but there was more bad news to come. On December 8th his son Frank Jr. was kidnapped. He was released after two days when Frank paid the kidnappers 240.000 dollars. It had been terrifying days for the Sinatra’s and Frank Jr. came back malnourished, tired and freezing. Although the kidnappers were caught, the trial turned into a show and the kidnappers claimed it had all been a hoax by the Sinatra family for publicity. Though all three kidnappers were sentenced to long terms in prison, this rumor stuck around for awhile. When Frank Jr. tried his hand at singing again, he was booed offstage on more than one occasion.
But good things came around in 1965, when Frank met his third wife. Mia Farrow was twenty at the time; thirty years younger than Frank and five years younger than his oldest daughter. There was a lot of confusion about their unorthodox relationship, but they were happily in love. He was on a roll in his career as well: he won a Grammy for his album September of my Years. His fiftieth birthday was a big cause for celebration in show business. He appeared on multiple magazine covers and threw a lavish birthday party. But Frank was busy with something, or someone, else: he had married Mia Farrow. It started out great, but they soon drifted apart. It is reported that when Frank wanted Mia to play in his new feature The Detective and she passed so she could play in Rosemary’s Baby, he served her the divorce papers. Still, Mia currently claims they never really separated and that her son Ronan, conceived in 1987, could well be Frank’s son.
Frank made sure he supported his children’s careers though, in 1967 he recorded the hit song Somethin’ Stupid with Nancy and in 1968 he made the album The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas with all three of his children. 1968 ended with a bang, when he released the single My Way. Although it was not his personal favorite, it is the song that he is most associated with. The following year his beloved father Marty passed away and his new album Watertown sold poorly. He also stunned everyone when he came out to support Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. Frank was getting older and it was starting to show in his health and his behavior. Frank decided he was tired of being on the road and in 1971 he announced his retirement at the age of 55. He spent his new free time on charity work and politics. Meanwhile he started seeing model and socialite Barbara Marx, who was in the midst of divorcing Zeppo Marx.
But Frank was restless and started missing his work. In 1973 he released the album Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, which was a great success. He started performing to sold out audiences again. The following year he became a granddad for the first time. He subsequently recorded two songs for his granddaughter: Christmas Mem’ries and A Baby Just Like You. Two years later he would be a granddad again. By then he was engaged to Barbara Marx and the two got married in 1976.
His new wife did not get along with his children though, something that caused some problems in the family. Although his film career was over by now, his music career was still going strong. He performed regularly and recorded songs, as well as keeping busy with humanitarian work.
But on January 6, 1977 one of the most painful events in Frank’s life occurred. His 82-year old mother, who was on her way to see Frank’s opening show in Ceasars Palace, died in a plane crash. The plane was caught in a snowstorm and none of the four passengers survived. Frank was absolutely devastated by the sudden loss of his mother. Despite this he still continued to work hard, so hard that he had to cancel shows in December 1978 due to exhaustion. That did not slow him down though. In 1980 the 65-year old released his first feature film in years, The First Deadly Sin, and his album Trilogy: Past Present Future.
The Final Years
By now, Frank was considered an icon, a representation of a bygone era and he finally got all the respect he had so craved in his early days.
In the eighties he released successful albums like L.A Is My Lady and family was becoming more and more important to him. He toured with his daughter Nancy and in 1988 he asked his son, who had become a father the year before, to become his musical director and conductor. Meanwhile, Frank was eager to work with his old buddy’s again and arranged a tour with Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. Not long after their tour Sammy would die of throat cancer. Frank lost more and more friends during these years, something which he struggled with.
In the early nineties, Frank released two albums: Duets and Duets II. Despite his age, he seemed unable to slow down. In 1994 he received the Legend Award for lifetime achievement at the Grammy’s, but a few days later he collapsed on stage during a performance. He turned 80 in 1995 and the Empire State Building glowed blue in his honor. The years that followed were the first quiet years for Frank, without performances, recording sessions or location shoots. His children reportedly bickered with his wife Barbara over the commercialization of his name during these years, but their relationship with their father remained warm. Slowly Frank began to show signs of dementia and in February 1997 he suffered a heart-attack. He recovered, but a year later on May 14, 1998 he passed away of a heart attack at the age of 82.
See his life in pictures in the Frank Sinatra Gallery.