Ol' red, white, and blue eyes: Frank Sinatra and the American Presidency
The close relationship between celebrities and politicians has become
so familiar a part of the American landscape as to seem unremarkable.
The motives of each party to this relationship are clear. On the
Hollywood side, as Ronald Brownstein (10) has written, "Celebrities
look to politicians to validate them as part of the company of serious
men and women." One thinks, for example, of Charlton Heston's earnest
defense of gun owners as head of the National Rifle Association, or
the relentless grilling on the issues to which the Hollywood Women's
Political Caucus regularly subjects endorsement-seeking Democratic
presidential candidates. Barbra Streisand is hardly alone among
celebrities in having a fulltime political director to advise her
about which causes and candidates to support.
On the political side of the relationship, Brownstein notes,
"politicians look to celebrities to validate them as part of the
company of the famous." Since the middle of the twentieth century, the
willingness of Americans to vote a reliably straight ticket for one
political party or the other has declined dramatically (Wattenberg).
As more and more voters make up their minds on the basis of other
cues, especially their impressions of candidates' personal qualities,
politicians have been encouraged to link themselves in the public eye
with stars and the courage, intelligence, compassion, glamor, youth,
or other qualities that people may associate with them because of the
roles they play. Thus, in 1976, Jimmy Carter involved the Allman
Brothers in his presidential campaign as a way of softening his
otherwise straitlaced public image. Twelve years later, George Bush
(the elder) enlisted country music stars and Arnold Schwarzenegger in
his run for the Presidency in the hope that they would mute the
public's impression of him as effete and elitist. Even the
relentlessly serious Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for
president in 2000, bragged that "I've got good celebrities," citing
Warren Beatty, Susan Sarandon, and Pearl Jam ("Perspectives" 15).
Politicians also look to celebrities to help them raise money for
their campaigns. The campaign finance legislation of the 1970s placed
a $1,000 ceiling on the amount an individual can donate to any
candidate's campaign for federal office. With campaign costs soaring
ever higher and the $1,000 contribution limit unadjusted for
inflation, the ability of celebrities to attract donors in large
numbers to concerts, cocktail parties, or dinners is much prized by
In all, few think remarkable in the 2000s activities that would have
been inconceivable a half century ago: the leading voter registration
drive of the past ten years conducted by the rock cable network MTV, a
television producer called to the White House to advise President Bill
Clinton on the eve of his grand jury testimony, actors testifying on
Capitol Hill about food additives--and all this on the heels of the
two-term Presidency of Hollywood's own Ronald Reagan. The credo that
George magazine used to print on the cover to describe its mix of
celebrity and politics -- "Not Just Politics as Usual" -- may be
accurate as far as political journalism goes, but it is old news in
the real world of Hollywood and Washington.
As in music, so in politics: Frank Sinatra paved the way, in this case
for the intertwining of celebrities and politicians that has become so
prominent a feature in modern politics. (1) Prior to Sinatra,
mainstream entertainers shied away from partisan political activity
for fear of complicating their public images and driving off a large
portion of their audience. (Studio executives were heavily involved,
but quietly and mostly as a way of promoting and protecting their
business interests [Brownstein cbs. 1-4].) In 1944, at the age of
twenty-nine, Sinatra broke the mold with his active support of
Franklin D. Roosevelt's bid for a fourth term as President and his own
public campaign for civil rights. For the next quarter century, he
continued to work for Democratic candidates, especially John F.
Kennedy in 1960 and Hubert H. Humphrey in 1968, as well as for
selected liberal political causes. During the 1970s Sinatra became a
Republican for a complex set of reasons that had less to do with his
becoming conservative than with personal disappointment over his
treatment by the Democrats.
Sinatra's Early Years
Path breaking as Sinatra's political involvement was, abstention from
politics would have been unnatural to him. Sinatra grew up in a highly
political home in a politics-dominated town. His father, Marty
Sinatra, worked for the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, as a fireman,
eventually rising to the rank of captain. More important, his mother,
Dolly Sinatra, was a leading cog in the Hudson County political
machine of Mayor Frank (I Am the Mayor) Hague. Extraordinarily for her
time (women could not yet vote), Dolly was named leader of the Third
Ward in Hoboken's Ninth District because of her familiarity with the
many dialects of Italian that were spoken in the immigrant-dominated
community. Her job was to help poor neighbors in their dealings with
city hall, then round them up to vote on election day (Hamill 78).
Frank Sinatra was that rarest of things in an Italian neighborhood: an
only child. Because Dolly's political activities kept her so busy, his
alternatives as a young boy were often to stay at home by himself or
to tag along with his mother. "I've been campaigning for Democrats
ever since I marched in a parade for Al Smith when I was a
twelve-year-old kid [in 1928]," he liked to say as an adult
(Taraborrelli 224). Even earlier, says daughter Tina Sinatra, "Dad was
carrying placards for candidates when he couldn't read what was on the
signs" (Hersh 139). During an April 1973 concert at the White House
for Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, Sinatra told the
audience, "When I was a kid back in New Jersey, I thought it would be
a great boot if I could get a glimpse of the mayor of Hoboken in a
parade" (Taraborrelli 397). John F. Kennedy introduced Sinatra at the
1961 inaugural gala as one who, "long before he could sing, used to
poll a Democratic precinct back in New Jersey" (Kelley, His Way 285).
Dolly was slow to recognize her son's passion to sing professionally,
but once she did she booked him at local Democratic party events. By
some accounts, she used political influence both to get Sinatra into
the singing group the Three Flashes, which (as the renamed Hoboken
Four) was about to make some movie shorts with entertainment
impresario Major Bowes (Levy 17-18), and to arrange the landmark 1938
booking at the Rustic Cabin nightclub in nearby Englewood Cliffs that
earned Sinatra his first significant notice as a singer (Shaw 16).
Dolly Sinatra gave her son more than an exposure to politics and a
boost in his career. As Pete Hamill (78) has written, "She also gave
him some of her values.... From adolescence on, Sinatra understood
patronage." Specifically, "She knew how to get a lawyer or a
bailbondsman," according to Hamill. "She showed up at weddings and
wakes. She was generous with her personal time, repeatedly helping
those neighbors who were less fortunate than the Sinatras." "Just as
her son would become years later," Randy Taraborrelli (27) adds, "she
was practically a padrone."
Sinatra and Franklin D. Roosevelt
Sinatra's meteoric rise in show business (by the mid-1940s, he was "a
bigger star in more media than anyone else in the world," according to
Shawn Levy ) did not affect his sense of himself as a little guy
who was represented politically by the Democratic Party and, in
particular, by Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR had first been elected
President in 1932, when Sinatra was sixteen years old. On January 10,
1944, Sinatra named his newborn son after the president: Franklin (not
Sinatra's first personal encounter with Roosevelt left him starstruck.
On September 28, 1944, in the company of New York restaurateur Toots
Shor, Sinatra met the President at a White House tea. Referring to the
singer's recent appearances at the Paramount Theater, Roosevelt
jokingly commended him: "Fainting, which once was so prevalent, has
become a lost art among the ladies. I'm glad you have revived it."
Sinatra was awed: "I thought here is the greatest guy alive today and
here's a little guy from Hoboken, shaking his hand. He knows about
everything, even my racket" (Shaw 77).
Sinatra's visit with the President was controversial. Politicians and
newspaper columnists denounced it. Senator Kenneth Wherry, a Nebraska
Republican, scoffed, "That crooner! Mr. Roosevelt could spend his time
better conferring with members of the Senate." Hearst columnist
Westbrook Pegler scornfully labeled Sinatra "the New Dealing crooner"
and others questioned the propriety of the President honoring someone
who had neither served in the armed forces (Sinatra was 4-F) nor gone
overseas to entertain the troops (he made a U.S.O. Tour the following
year). Nearly all of Sinatra's advisers urged him to withdraw from
partisan politics lest, as Sinatra himself summarized their views,
"you may lose fans who don't agree with you" (Shaw 77-78).
Instead, Sinatra campaigned widely for Roosevelt in 1944, singing and
speaking to audiences all over the country. The first politically
active star with a strong appeal to young people, he told audiences
that "This peace will depend on your parents' votes on November 7"
(Kelley, His Way 94). He donated at least $5,000 to the Roosevelt
campaign and, in a nationally broadcast election-eve rally at Madison
Square Garden (from which many pro-FDR entertainers had begged off,
fearing that they would alienate their Republican fans), he told an
audience of millions: "Since he is good for me and my kids and my
country, he must be good for all the other ordinary guys and their
kids" (Sinatra 63-64; Wilson 64). Alluding to his White House visit,
Sinatra even dropped a new lyric into the Adair and Dennis song
"Everything Happens to Me": "They asked me down to Washington / To
have a cup of tea. / The Republicans started squawking. / They're as
mad as they can be, / And all I did was say `hello' to a / man named
Franklin D. / Everything happens to me" (Brownstein 94).
Sinatra, Civil Rights, and the Left
Sinatra's early political involvement was not confined to presidential
politics. Beginning in the 1940s, a decade when civil fights was not a
popular or prominent cause on the American political scene, he
campaigned ardently for racial and religious toleration. "What other
star at the top of the charts had thrown himself into the civil rights
struggle so directly?" Jon Wiener (265) has asked. His answer: none.
Wiener (265-66) recalled the annual screening of the movie short, The
House I Live In, in his St. Paul, Minnesota, Sunday School class.
Sinatra, screenwriter Albert Maltz, composers Lewis Allan and Earl
Robinson, and director Mervyn Leroy, supported by RKO, had donated
their time and talent to make the ten-minute film in 1945. In it,
Sinatra steps outside from a recording session for a cigarette break,
sees some kids taunting a Jewish boy, and intervenes to preach
tolerance in word ("Look, fellas, religion makes no difference except
to a Nazi or somebody as stupid") and song ("All races and religions,
/ That's America to me" [Levy 68]). As Thomas Cripps (200-01) has
shown, the film pulled its punches to some extent by tracing the
origin of prejudice to foreign sources. But in the midst of World War
II, the argument that bigotry was unpatriotic and alien to traditional
American values was surely the most politically persuasive one that
could be made. The eighth grade-educated Sinatra, on the advice of his
publicist, George Evans, had been reading books such as sociologist
Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, whose thesis was that racism
contradicted Americans' fundamental beliefs about individual dignity
and equality. Evans, an ardent liberal, was the only Sinatra adviser
who supported his political activism (Kelley, His Way 105-06).
Sinatra's opposition to discrimination was longstanding. Even as a
six-year-old, he intensely disliked the ethnic name calling that was
so widespread among the boys in his neighborhood and argued with his
mother when she questioned his bringing home a Jewish friend (Sinatra
7-8). On stage and in the recording studio, he changed the opening
lines of "Old Man River" from "Niggers all work on the Mississippi"
(or even "Darkies all work," which lyricist Oscar Hammerstein had
substituted) to "Here we all work" (Sinatra 62). He slugged a southern
counterman who refused to serve a black musician in his orchestra
(Shaw 84). (Sinatra's civil rights work and, subsequently, his highly
visible friendship with entertainer Sammy Davis always reduced his
popularity in the South ["Sinatra" 96]. He appeared in person to urge
toleration at several high schools where racial or religious tensions
were running high (Kelley, His Way 107-09). "Your dad was a hero to
these kids and he took this powerful message right to them," Vice
President Hubert H. Humphrey later wrote to Sinatra's daughter Nancy.
"I am convinced that this early dedication and activity personified by
your father helped create the political climate that made possible the
passage of the civil rights legislation in the 1960s." Humphrey, who
was the mayor of Minneapolis at the time, believed that "[t]housands
and thousands of boys and girls in the 1940s who have become parents
in the 1960s had their eyes opened for the first time to the evils of
prejudice by your dad" (Sinatra 214).
Sinatra's crusade for civil rights came at considerable professional
cost. To be sure, Ed Sullivan, then a New York newspaper columnist,
defended Sinatra ardently. Rebuking stars such as Al Jolson and Rudy
Vallee for not yoking their celebrity to a social conscience, Sullivan
wrote: "Some performers will suggest that Sinatra is stupid to step
out of character, suggest that singing and social significance
shouldn't be coupled. But it seems to this observer that Sinatra
instead has added something new and important to popular singing, a
species of disinterested public service we should all render to the
things we believe" (Shaw 97).
Sullivan's praise for Sinatra was drowned out by a barrage of angry
criticism. In December 1945, spurred by a Life magazine article in
which Sinatra attacked racial prejudice, an informant of the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Philadelphia secretly charged that
Sinatra "has recently been admitted to the New York branch of the
Communist Party" (Kuntz and Kuntz 44). In 1946 the notoriously racist
leader of the America First party, Gerald L. K. Smith, told the House
Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that Sinatra "has been doing
some pretty clever stuff for the Reds" (Shaw 85). Indeed, during the
eight years that followed the release The House I Live In, Sinatra was
labeled a communist before the committee twelve times (Wiener 263). In
1949 the California State Senate Committee on Un-American activities
charged Sinatra with having "followed or appeased some of the
Communist party line program over a long period of time" (Wiener 264).
Columnists for conservative newspaper chains joined the chorus.
Sinatra was "one of Hollywood's leading travelers on the road to Red
fascism," charged Hearst writer Lee Mortimer. Later, on the basis of a
tip from a source in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Mortimer and
Scripps-Howard columnist Robert Ruark tried to discredit Sinatra by
reporting on his 1947 trip to Havana, where he was seen in the company
of mobster Lucky Luciano (Hamill 144). The story was the first of many
that linked Sinatra with organized crime.
Nevertheless, Sinatra remained active and outspoken for civil rights.
"When I was young," he later recalled, "people used to ask me why I
sent money to the NAACP and, you know, tried to help in my own small
way." Remembering not just the discrimination his neighbors had
experienced in areas such as business and education, but also the
single largest lynching incident in American history, which involved
eleven Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1891, Sinatra would reply,
"Because we've been there too, man. It wasn't just black people
hanging from the ends of those fucking ropes" (Hamill 42-47). The
ending of Sinatra's 1958 movie, Kings Go Forth, left little doubt that
the character he portrayed would marry a black woman. In 1961, within
a few days of the inauguration-eve gala he had organized for President
Kennedy, Sinatra did a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for Martin
Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council. By the time
other mainstream stars became publicly involved in the civil rights
movement during the early 1960s, Sinatra had been active for nearly
twenty years (Brownstein 169).
Sinatra also worked on behalf of other liberal causes. In 1944 he had
moved from New Jersey to California in furtherance of his burgeoning
movie career. After FDR died in 1945 and the country's wartime
alliance with the Soviet Union was ended, much of Hollywood, led by a
growing cohort of New York writers and actors who had moved west with
the advent of the "talkies," shifted their political allegiance to the
radical left. Sinatra shifted with them. In July 1946, at the same
meeting of the newly formed Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee
of the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) that refused to adopt
a resolution rejecting communism "as a desirable form of government
for the U.S.A.," Sinatra was elected vice president of the
organization (Brownstein ch. 4). Like most HICCASP members, he
supported Henry A. Wallace when President Harry S Truman fired the
left-leaning Secretary of Commerce in September. In a letter to the
New Republic, Sinatra even urged Wallace to "take up the fight we like
to think of as ours--the fight for tolerance, which is the basis of
any fight for peace" (Wiener 265). He publicly blasted the right-wing
Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. In 1947, Sinatra attacked the
ongoing HUAC investigation of communist influence in Hollywood. "Once
they get the movies throttled," he asked, "how long will it be before
the committee gets to work on freedom of the air? ... If you can make
a pitch on a nationwide radio network for a square deal for the
underdog, will they call you a commie?" (Patterson 189).
For all the seriousness of his reading, Sinatra was, in his own words,
"not a heavy thinker." "I'm not the kind of a guy who does a lot of
brain work about why or how I happened to get into something," he
said. "I get an idea--maybe I get sore about something. And when I get
sore enough, I do something about it." By 1948, Hollywood was feeling
beleaguered by the assault from Washington. So was Sinatra, but in his
case beleaguerment over politics was compounded by growing criticism
of his alleged mob ties, his marital infidelity to Nancy Sinatra, and
his weakening (at least by the standards of newly faddish Frankie
Laine-style belters) singing voice. "I don't like communists," Sinatra
now said, "and I have nothing to do with any organization except the
Knights of Columbus." Although he did not actively campaign for Truman
in 1948, neither did he support Wallace, who was running as a
left-wing third party candidate (Kelley, His Way 106, 110).
The left may have been in retreat in Hollywood after the HUAC
hearings, but liberalism was not. In the early 1950s, as Sinatra was
struggling to restore his singing and acting career, he fell in with
the Holmby Hills Rat Pack, a group of show business and literary
friends who gathered around Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
According to Bacall, to be a member, "One had to be addicted to
nonconformity, staying up late, drinking, laughing, and not caring
what anyone thought or said about us." Sinatra fit in so well that he
was made "packmaster" of the group. One also had to be politically
liberal. As William Holden observed bitterly, "The Rat Packers are
only interested in being with people who think exactly as they do. You
have to believe in the same things, support the same political
candidates, have the exact same politics." Adlai Stevenson, the
Democratic Governor of Illinois and a rising favorite among liberals,
often visited the group when he was in Los Angeles (Quirk and Schoell
Sinatra joined Bacall and Bogart's Rat Pack in strongly supporting
Stevenson in his losing bids for the Presidency against Dwight D.
Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956. On October 27, 1952, at the height of
public controversy over his stormy second marriage to the actress Ava
Gardner, Sinatra sang and spoke for Stevenson at a large election-eve
rally at the Hollywood Palladium. (Gardner introduced him to the
audience, prompting "Frankie, Ava Kiss and Make Up" headlines that
eclipsed Stevenson's speech and the rest of the rally [Kelley, His Way
184; Wilson 104].) In 1956, having regained his popularity as an actor
and singer, Sinatra not only campaigned for Stevenson but was invited
to sing the National Anthem at the opening session of the Democratic
National Convention. According to Look magazine writer Bill Davidson,
Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, a Texan, slung his arm around
Sinatra's shoulder as he stepped down from the microphone and burbled,
"Aren't you going to sing `The Yellow Rose of Texas,' Frank?"
Sinatra's alleged reply (both he and Rayburn denied the story but
Davidson had an eyewitness) was, "Take the hand off the suit, creep"
After Stevenson lost the election, it became apparent that the real
story at the 1956 convention had been the young Senator from
Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. When Stevenson threw the vice
presidential nomination open to the floor, Kennedy ran a surprisingly
strong second and was pleasingly graceful in publicly conceding
defeat. As the convention wore on, Sinatra, who had met the Senator in
1955, spent more and more time with Kennedy and his political
lieutenants (Brownstein 147). He was impressed with the degree of
organization the family applied to the campaign. He also took note
when he heard Robert F. Kennedy, the Senator's younger brother and
campaign manager, tell people, "O.K. That's it. Now we go to work for
the next one" (Levy 69).
Sinatra and John F. Kennedy (Candidate)
"In the long history of Hollywood's relationship with politics,"
Brownstein (155) has written, the coming together of Sinatra and
Kennedy "was probably the pivotal moment." Sinatra's relationship with
Kennedy, both publicly and in private, was the closest in history
between a major party presidential nominee and an entertainer, then or
By the late 1950s, Sinatra had reached the peak of his popularity in
show business. Close association with Kennedy's 1960 presidential
campaign promised to open additional doorways for him, to power and
above all to respectability. "What could be better than being Frank
Sinatra?" the writer Leonard Gershe wondered at the time: "Being Frank
Sinatra walking along with the president." Sinatra's long political
experience and loyalty to the Democratic Party provided an additional
motive to support Kennedy. "Jack knew how to use power and Stevenson
didn't," he told actress Shirley MacLaine, who, like most of liberal
Hollywood, was still "Madly for Adlai" (Brownstein 148-49, 155, 156).
The basis of Kennedy's attraction to Sinatra was more complex. Kennedy
hagiographers tend to stress the innocence of it all. Sinatra was
"fun," according to one: he told Kennedy "a lot of inside gossip about
celebrities and their romances in Hollywood" (O'Donnell and Powers
18). Another, in the course of describing the troubled marriage
between actor and Sinatra friend Peter Lawford and Kennedy's sister
Pat, quotes JFK as saying, "Sinatra is the only guy who gives Peter
jobs. And the only way I can keep this marriage going is to see that
Peter gets jobs. So I'm nice to Frank Sinatra" (Klein 307).
Less partisan observers have emphasized the lures of Sinatra's
freewheeling lifestyle, which he gladly shared with Kennedy when the
candidate visited Las Vegas and Palm Springs. With Bogart dead, the
ethos of Sinatra's reconstituted Rat Pack was unbridled hedonism. (2)
To Sinatra, Davis, Lawford, and Dean Martin, fame entitled one to
freedom from restrictions on personal behavior (Brownstein 154).
Kennedy liked to join the ongoing party now and then, and when he did,
according to Lawford, "Frank was Jack's pimp" (Taraborrelli 223). On
February 7, 1960, for example, Sinatra introduced Kennedy to Judith
Campbell when the Senator stopped in Las Vegas between campaign
appearances in Oregon and New Mexico (Parmet 117-18). An affair
between Kennedy and Campbell began on March 7 in New York and
continued into the White House (Thomas Reeves 165). A few days after
the Kennedy introduction, Sinatra introduced Campbell to the Chicago
gangster Sam Giancana, and another affair was begun (Exner).
But just as Sinatra's attraction to Kennedy was based in part on
explicitly political motives, so was Kennedy's attraction to Sinatra.
In summer 1959 the candidate's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, met with
Sinatra to ask him to help raise campaign funds, recruit other
celebrities to the Kennedy campaign, and record a theme song. Sinatra
agreed (the theme song was Cahn and Van Heusen's "High Hopes," with
new lyrics like "K-E-double-N-E-D-Y/Jack's the nation's favorite guy"
and "Oops, there goes the opposition kerplop") and was invited to
participate in several West Coast strategy meetings with the candidate
(Taraborreli 216, 230; Brownstein 147). Joseph Kennedy also asked
Sinatra to speak with a number of labor and crime figures, all of whom
were wary of the Senator because of Robert Kennedy's recent attacks on
mob influence in the unions as a Senate committee staffer. For
example, according to Tina Sinatra, Joseph Kennedy told her father to
ask Giancana to arrange Teamsters Union support for Senator Kennedy in
the politically crucial West Virginia primary and, during the general
election, in Chicago. FBI wiretaps subsequently revealed large Mafia
donations to the Kennedy campaign. According to former federal
prosecutor G. Robert Blakey, the money went from Giancana to Sinatra
to Joseph Kennedy. In return, Blakey says, Giancana and his colleagues
were convinced that "the Kennedys would do something for them,"
namely, reduce FBI pressure on their activities (Hersh 137, 140; Levy
Sinatra's public role in the 1960 campaign (apart from his recorded
voice on "High Hopes," which blared constantly from Kennedy sound
trucks) was focused on fundraising. From 1920 to 1950, the cost of
presidential campaigns, measured on a per capita basis, had
essentially remained constant (Heard 403). But during the 1950s,
American politics entered the television age. In 1950, nine of ten
American homes did not have a television set; in 1960, nine of ten
American homes did. By the time Kennedy ran for President, the cost of
campaigning had skyrocketed to pay for political advertising on the
new medium, generating unprecedented demands for political funds that,
in Kennedy's case, Sinatra helped to meet. He marshalled a small army
of Hollywood stars to entertain at a convention-eve fundraising gala
for the Democratic Party. Nearly three thousand people paid $100 per
plate (nearly $600 in today's money) to attend the July 10 event in
Los Angeles, and Sinatra reveled in his presence at the head table
with Kennedy and other party luminaries. During the fall campaign,
Sinatra performed at several fundraisers and at a huge election eve
rally in Newark.
Kennedy's aides fretted about their candidate's relationship with
Sinatra. They feared that the Mafia-Sinatra linkage that existed in
many voters' minds would sully Kennedy's reputation for honesty, and
worried that the Rat Pack image would undermine their efforts to make
the forty-three-year-old senator seem mature and experienced. (Sinatra
did not help matters when he temporarily redubbed the Rat Pack the
"Jack Pack.") On one occasion, campaign staffers Harris Wofford and
John Seigenthaler advised Kennedy not to meet "in public" with Sinatra
at a conference that both men were scheduled to attend in New York.
Seigenthaler added in a memo, "It is hoped that Sinatra would realize
his own worth and keep his distance from the senator." He went on to
recommend that Sinatra be deployed to help a voter registration drive
in Harlem, "where he is recognized as a hero of the cause of the
Negro" (Wilson 169).
Sinatra was willing to do almost anything to accommodate the Kennedy
campaign. In March 1960, for example, after signing blacklisted
Hollywood Ten screenwriter Albert Maltz, his collaborator on The House
I Live In, to write the screenplay for a movie version of William
Bradford Huie's novel The Education of Private Slovik, Sinatra was
publicly chastised by conservatives. "I wonder how Sinatra's crony
Senator John Kennedy feels about him hiring such a man," actor John
Wayne snarled to an interviewer. Sinatra fought back with an ad in the
New York Times that said, "I do not ask the advice of Senator Kennedy
on whom I should hire. Senator Kennedy does not ask me how he should
vote in the Senate" (Wiener 266-67). But when the Roman Catholic
Cardinals of Boston and New York expressed their displeasure with the
Maltz hiring to Joseph Kennedy and, through him, to Sinatra, he paid
the screenwriter in full and abandoned the project. (3)
Unfortunately for Sinatra, the relationship between him and Kennedy
was inherently asymmetrical. Sinatra regarded Kennedy as a friend as
well as a political leader. Kennedy enjoyed Sinatra's company and
appreciated the glamor that the singer brought to the campaign, along
with his behind-the-scenes work with organized labor and organized
crime--but that was it. Affection, fellow feeling, even gratitude were
as nothing compared with political expediency. In September, two
months after Sinatra had exulted to Peter Lawford on the night of
Kennedy's nominations, "We're on our way to the White House, buddy
boy!" the candidate told a columnist, "He's no friend of mine. He's
just a friend of Pat's and Peter Lawford's" (Brownstein 151; Shaw 274).
Sinatra and John F. Kennedy (President)
Kennedy's election did not alter his fundamental attitude toward
Sinatra (enjoy him, use him, then abandon him if the political price
gets too high), but it did raise the stakes. As President-Elect,
Kennedy prevailed on Sinatra to organize a preinaugural gala, which
the singer did to wonderful effect. Yet during the Kennedy years, as
Lawford recalled, Sinatra "never flew on Air Force One and was never
invited to any of the Kennedy state dinners or taken to Camp David"
(Kelley, His Way 291). Eventually Sinatra was snubbed by the President
in a more public and thus a more humiliating way.
January 20, 1961, the day of Kennedy's inauguration, marked a
fundamental divide in his relationship with Sinatra. The
inauguration-eve gala that Sinatra organized at Kennedy's behest was a
remarkable entertainment event for which he pulled out all the stops,
flying in Ella Fitzgerald from Australia, Sidney Poitier from France,
and Gene Kelly from Switzerland and buying out the house of the
Broadway show Gypsy for the night so that Ethel Merman could appear.
The New York Times said that the gala "may have been the most stunning
assembly of theatrical talent ever brought together for a single show"
(Alter 64b). Not incidentally, it raised $1.4 million for the
Democratic Party. The next night, Kennedy briefly excused himself from
the official round of inaugural balls so that he could spend time at a
private party that Sinatra was giving at the Statler Hilton Hotel.
But Kennedy did not see Sinatra again until September, at his family's
compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Accounts differ about whether
Sinatra, who had been under pressure from Giancana to ask the Kennedys
(especially Robert Kennedy, the new Attorney General) to repay what
Giancana regarded as their election debt to him by muzzling the
Justice Department's investigation of organized crime, actually spoke
to John, Robert, or Joseph Kennedy about the matter. But an FBI
wiretap in December recorded Giancana lieutenant Johnny Roselli
quoting Sinatra's claim that he had given Robert Kennedy a piece of
paper with Giancana's name on it and said, "This is my buddy. This is
what I want you to know, Bob" (Kuntz and Kuntz 152; Richard Reeves
224; Brownstein 162). Wiretaps also revealed the Sinatra-Giancana
connection with Judith Campbell, whom Kennedy (and Giancana) were
continuing to see. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, no friend to either
Kennedy brother, visited the President on March 22, 1962, to tell him
that he knew about Campbell and Giancana, as well as about Sinatra's
role as intermediary between each of them and the president (Richard
Hoover's meeting with Kennedy had its intended effect. Robert Kennedy
urged his brother to break not just with Campbell (whom the President
called for the last time a few hours after Hoover left) but also with
Sinatra: "Johnny, you just can't associate with this guy" (Richard
Reeves 289-91). The Sinatra-Kennedy relationship had continued to draw
public criticism from conservative politicians and newspapers for
other reasons, ranging from the military limousine that Sinatra had
used while organizing the inaugural gala to the propriety of hosting
the exemplar of Rat Pack hedonism at the Kennedys' family compound.
Now the political stakes became considerably higher.
The President resolved to cut Sinatra loose. "It meant nothing [to
him]," according to White House aide Richard Goodwin. "If [Jack]
Kennedy ... thought it would even in the slightest wound his
presidency, of course he would cut it off; he would cut off people a
lot closer than Sinatra if he had to" (Brownstein 166). As early as
December 1961, Roselli had told Giancana, "they don't want him. They
treat him like a whore. You fuck them, you pay them, and they're
through" (Mahoney 125-26). The coup de grace came soon after Kennedy's
meeting with Hoover. Sinatra was informed that, contrary to previous
assurances, the President would not be staying at Sinatra's
much-refurbished (in anticipation of the visit) Palm Springs home when
he visited California. Instead, for "security reasons," Kennedy would
stay with the singer Bing Crosby (a Republican!).
Although Sinatra blamed Robert Kennedy and other Kennedy advisers more
than the President himself for the change in plans, he felt personally
betrayed and publicly humiliated. His embarrassment was compounded
when White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, asked at a November
briefing whether the President had seen a chrysanthemum-covered
rocking chair that Sinatra had sent for his birthday, said, "No, it
was sent straight to Children's Hospital with other birthday flowers
and the president never saw it" (Richard Reeves 320). The final
humiliation came when Sinatra was not invited to Kennedy's funeral
after the President was assassinated on November 22, 1963. "He's
already been too much of an embarrassment to the family," said Peter
Lawford (Levy 260).
The Post-Kennedy 1960s
Sinatra's relationship with John F. Kennedy was sadly ironic. Sinatra
had hoped that his association with the leader of the free world would
replace public perceptions of him as an associate of underworld
figures and a libertine with a more respectable image. Instead, the
old perceptions were reinforced. If Kennedy dropped Sinatra, many
seemed to think, then all the sordid stories about him must be true.
As Brownstein (167) has written, "By standing next to Kennedy, Sinatra
may have hoped to surmount his past; but he was only stamped with it
more indelibly than ever."
But Sinatra's disillusioning experience did not prompt him to retreat
from Democratic Party affairs: his roots in the party, and the
continuing influence of his mother, ran too deep for that. Sinatra was
heartened when California Democrats chastised the White House for the
Crosby decision (Brownstein 165-66). More important, he remained a
strong liberal. In a February 1963 Playboy interview, for example,
Sinatra denounced "practiced bigots," especially "that leering,
cursing lynch mob in Little Rock reviling a meek, innocent little
twelve-year-old girl as she tried to enroll in a public school." He
also told Playboy that "Our concern over a Sovietized Cuba ninety
miles from Key West must be equated with Russian concern over our
missile bases surrounding them" and called on Americans to cure "the
cancers of starvation, substandard housing, educational voids, and
second-class citizenship that still exist in many backsliding areas of
our own country." In a revealing comment, Sinatra added that "the only
chance the world has for survival" may be to lock up "all the leaders
in every country in the world" and "then--boom! Somebody blows up the
mother building." Among those he mentioned as belonging in the
building was Kennedy (Playboy).
Sinatra did withdraw from national politics for a time. He did not
campaign for Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, and the one personal encounter
he had with Johnson four years later was unpleasant. Johnson
reluctantly agreed to a meeting when Sinatra came to Washington to
perform in a charity concert at Vice President Humphrey's request.
Sinatra, who was hoping for a picture of himself with the President,
found Johnson naked on the massage table, awkwardly traded complaints
with him about the unfairness of the media, and was escorted out after
fifteen minutes. Reportedly, Johnson still resented Sinatra's brusque
treatment of his friend and fellow Texan Rayburn at the 1956
Democratic convention (Berman 96,135).
Even during his hiatus from national politics, however, Sinatra was a
mainstay of the California Democratic Party. In 1964 he publicly
opposed Proposition 14, which would have nullified the state's new
fair housing law, and supported Pierre Salinger's unsuccessful
candidacy for the U.S. Senate (Salinger 363). In 1966, he campaigned
hard on behalf of Governor Pat Brown's reelection bid against
movie-actor-turned-conservative-activist Ronald Reagan. Sinatra
disliked Reagan intensely--"almost as much as Richard Nixon," said
Lawford (Taraborrelli 357). For a time, he even added "Hates
California / It's Reagan and damp" to concert versions of the Rodgers
and Hart song "The Lady Is a Tramp." Along with 147 other actors,
Sinatra signed a newspaper ad that declared: "We believe very strongly
that the skills an actor brings to his profession are NOT the skills
of governing" (Kelley, Nancy Reagan 141-42). Nonetheless, Reagan was
Distaste for Robert Kennedy's candidacy for the Democratic
presidential nomination in 1968 ("Bobby's not qualified to be
president") helped motivate Sinatra to return to the national
political arena (Kelley, His Way 383). He had first gotten to know
Kennedy's chief rival for the nomination, Vice President Humphrey, in
1966, and the two had liked each other. Sinatra was one of the few
major stars to support the Vice President's candidacy for President.
He did ten fundraising concerts for the Humphrey campaign and, in
frequent conversations, advised him on matters such as makeup and
lighting for his television appearances. Sinatra even opened his home
to groups of Black Panthers, urging them to support Humphrey. Yet at a
time when many movie stars, including Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, and
Marlon Brando, were not only getting involved in politics but also
speaking out on the issues, Sinatra confined his public political role
to singing and raising money (Brownstein ch. 7).
Humphrey's nomination at the 1968 Democratic convention (RFK had been
assassinated in June) marked the high point of Sinatra's relationship
with him. Sinatra certainly did not lack enthusiasm: "I'll do anything
to defeat that bum Nixon," he pledged (Kelley, His Way 388). But, as
had President Kennedy's advisers eight years earlier, Humphrey's aides
now warned their candidate to stay away from Sinatra, citing the
singer's alleged Mafia connections, which were being rehearsed in
newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. ("Sinatra's Pals--Gangster
Friendships Cause Singer Trouble But He Isn't Fazed," read the Journal
headline [Kelley, His Way 386-88]). "It was an old story," Lawrence
Quirk and William Schoel (330-31) have written. "Politicians always
wanted Frank to use his showbiz connections to get entertainers from
all across the world to campaign and entertain for them, but once they
were in office their advisers would remind them of Frank's mob ties.
In other words, Sinatra had served his purpose and it was time to give
him his walking papers."
In this case, Sinatra kept walking, right into the arms of the
Becoming a Republican
Sinatra's conversion to Republicanism was not sudden. In 1970 he
endorsed Reagan's candidacy for reelection as governor of California
and raised $500,000 in benefit concerts for the Republican incumbent's
campaign fund. But he did so as the co-chair of Democrats for Reagan.
"I'm an Italian Democrat all the way," Sinatra affirmed. "On that
score I could never change." Indeed, he accompanied his endorsement of
Reagan with public support for several California Democratic
candidates, such as Jerry Brown, the son of former governor Pat Brown
and the party's nominee for Secretary of State, and Sen. John Tunney,
for whom Sinatra raised $160,000. In addition, Sinatra tempered his
endorsement of Reagan by declaring that "if Reagan ran for president
against Humphrey, I'd come out for Humphrey" (Kelley, Nancy Reagan
189, 186). Seen in that context, the July 9, 1970, Los Angeles Times
headline that accompanied Sinatra's Reagan endorsement--"Sinatra
Explodes Political Bomb"--may have overstated the extent of his
Similarly, although Sinatra formed a close friendship with the
controversial Republican Vice President, Spiro T. Agnew, when they met
soon after the 1970 elections, he did not embrace the ticket of which
Agnew was a part. "Now Nixon scares me," Sinatra said of the
President. "He's running the country into the ground" (Kelley, His Way
397). The Sinatra-Agnew connection prompted Nixon's chief political
adviser, Charles Colson, to urge the President to try to woo Sinatra
into the administration's political camp in early 1971. "Sinatra is
the most important person in the Hollywood entertainment community,"
Colson wrote in a White House memo, adding (perhaps less
realistically), "he has the muscle to bring along a lot of the younger
lights" (Oudes 211). Colson ended his effort after Sinatra announced
his retirement from show business in June 1971. But as late as
September Nixon fretted in a taped conversation with his chief of
staff, H. R. Haldeman, that "[Edmund] Muskie used Frank Sinatra's
plane in California" (Kutler 32). At the time, Muskie was the
frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to oppose Nixon the
Nonetheless, by 1972 Sinatra was firmly in the Republican camp. His
final reservation about the President was removed when Nixon decided
to keep Agnew on the ticket. Sinatra actually financed a pro-Agnew
write-in campaign in the early primaries to rouse support for the Vice
President (Kelley, His Way 406). He contributed $53,000 to Nixon's
reelection effort, campaigned with Agnew, and briefly abandoned his
retirement to sing at a Young Voters for Nixon rally at the 1972
Republican convention in Chicago. "They're both unique, the Quaker and
Greek. / They make this Italian want to whistle and stamp / Because
each gentleman is a champ" was among the special lyrics Sinatra sang
at the rally to the tune of "Tramp" (Wilson 267).
What explains Sinatra's political conversion? His own answer was that
his views on the issues had changed. "The older you get, the more
conservative you get," he frequently told his daughter Nancy Sinatra
(Sinatra 226). He liked the way Reagan had stood up to student
demonstrators at the University of California during his first term as
governor. In addition, according to Agnew, "we hated the way the
left-wingers were constantly running down the competitive,
free-enterprise system that was the real strength of America" (Agnew
205). Yet Sinatra was not consistently conservative. When he learned
about Governor Reagan's antiabortion, antiwelfare policies in 1970, he
urged him to moderate them. Part of his attraction to Nixon in 1972
was the President's bold opening to mainland China, something that
Sinatra had urged President Kennedy to undertake in 1963 (Sinatra 225).
A second explanation of Sinatra's move to the Republican Party is less
ideological than populist. In speaking out for Roosevelt in 1944,
Sinatra had said of the President: "He's for little guys like me"
(Shaw 77, 79-80). Big business seemed to pose the biggest threat to
the common people in the 1930s and 1940s; an active federal government
seemed to be their defender. At some level, despite his success,
Sinatra continued to think of himself as a little guy for the rest of
his life. But by the 1970s, Sinatra and many other erstwhile New Deal
Democrats, most of them white ethnic Catholics like himself, had come
to regard big government as their nemesis. In particular, John
Rockwell (211) has written, "From Sinatra's point of view, his
constant battles with state and federal officials over his alleged
Mafia ties were proof of government malevolence."
A third, and perhaps deeper, explanation of Sinatra's political
conversion may lie in an aspect of his character that almost all close
observers of him have noted. Loyalty was the supreme virtue in
Sinatra's code of morality. He was "Il Padrone," in Gay Talese's (99,
102) marvelous phrase, a man of "fierce fidelity.... This is the
Sicilian in Sinatra: he permits his friends, if they wish to remain
that, no easy Anglo-Saxon outs. But if they remain loyal, then there
is nothing Sinatra will not do in turn--fabulous gifts, personal
kindnesses, encouragement when they're down, adulation when they're
up." To Sinatra, loyalty had to be unconditional and would always be
rewarded, but disloyalty was unacceptable and must be punished.
Thus, when Steve Allen published an open letter in 1970 calling on
Sinatra to put aside "Sicilian vengeance" and support Jesse Unruh,
Reagan's Democratic opponent in that year's California gubernatorial
election, he was on to something. Unruh had violated the code of
loyalty, in Sinatra's view. An ardent supporter of Robert Kennedy in
1968, Unruh had done nothing to help Humphrey when he won the
Democratic presidential nomination. "Unruh hurt my man badly in
Chicago [at the Democratic convention]," Sinatra said. "In fact, he
hurt the whole Democratic party. Humphrey didn't lose. His people lost
for him" (Kelley, Nancy Reagan 182). In contrast, Reagan defended
Sinatra when he had a public run-in with the staff at Caesar's Palace
in Las Vegas. "Why don't you ask about the good things he's done?" the
Governor asked reporters. (4) As for Agnew (205), even though
"political allies of mine did everything possible to persuade me that
Sinatra was a political liability because of the controversy that
always surrounded him," the Vice President stood up publicly for his
friend when Sinatra was called before the Select Committee on Crime of
the U.S. House of Representatives in July 1972 to answer questions
about a race track investment. Nixon telephoned Sinatra to
congratulate him on his testimony, which was a public relations
triumph (Kelley, His Way 410,409). In December, according to an FBI
document, high-ranking Genovese crime family member Angelo DeCarlo was
released from federal prison, allegedly because Sinatra persuaded the
White House to issue a presidential commutation of sentence (Kuntz and
Kuntz 226-28). Republicans, it seemed to Sinatra, understood loyalty
in the same way that he did, and Democrats did not.
The Republican Years
If Sinatra had set out to test Nixon's loyalty, he could not have
chosen a better way to do so than his behavior on the eve of the
President's second inauguration in 1973. When Secret Service
officials, citing insufficient time to run a security check, refused
to let Sinatra add comedian Pat Henry to the bill of the
preinauguration American Music Concert at the Kennedy Center, which
Sinatra was scheduled to emcee for an audience that included the
Nixons, he stormed out of the theater. Later that night, at a party,
Sinatra exploded at Washington Post society columnist Maxine Cheshire.
"Get away from me, you scum," he shouted. "Go home and take a bath."
Then (to cite the PG 13-rated version of the story) he added: "You're
nothing but a two-dollar broad. You know what that means, don't you?
You've been laying down for two dollars all your life." Before
stalking off, Sinatra stuffed two one-dollar bills into Cheshire's
drink glass (Wilson 270-73; Kelley, His Way 412-13).
Official Washington was shocked by Sinatra's behavior, and Nixon was
enraged at having his inauguration sullied by such crude antics. Yet
the President refused aides' advice to cancel Sinatra's upcoming April
17, 1973, appearance at the White House (his first White House concert
ever) to sing for the Italian Prime Minister (Taraborrelli 396-97).
Nixon had even less use for the Post than Sinatra. Later that year,
the President sardonically remarked to confidant Bebe Rebozo that
Cheshire's true price was, "Two bits, not two dollars" (Kutler 621).
On the night of Sinatra's White House performance, Nixon compared him
to the Washington Monument -- "The Top." Indeed, Sinatra turned out to
be, if anything, the less loyal member of the relationship with Nixon.
He never publicly abandoned the President during the Watergate affair
("Nobody's perfect," he would remind Nancy Sinatra), but after it was
over he told Pete Hamill, "You think some people are smart, and they
turn out dumb. You think they're straight, they turn out crooked"
(Sinatra 226; Hamill 180).
Sinatra's fidelity to Agnew never flagged, however. Agnew stayed with
him at Palm Springs many times; as an indication of where Sinatra's
political loyalties now lay, he even renamed the guest house he had
built in 1962 in anticipation of Kennedy's visit Agnew House. When
press reports broke in 1973 about a federal criminal investigation
into bribe taking by Agnew, Sinatra flew to Washington, made his
lawyer Mickey Rudin available to the Vice President, and phoned him
every day to buttress his flagging spirits. After Agnew resigned on
October 10, 1973, as part of a plea bargain and became the object of
Internal Revenue Service scrutiny, Sinatra made him an unsolicited,
pay-when-you-can loan of $200,000. Agnew dedicated his memoirs to
Sinatra, describing him as being "in a special bracket, a bracket of
one" (Agnew 177-80,203-04).
After Nixon and Agnew's exit from politics, Sinatra renewed his ties
with Ronald and Nancy Reagan. At a 1974 fundraiser for Reagan's
Republican presidential nomination bid, he sang, "Nancy's beam is like
a lighthouse. / She sees her husband in the White House," to the tune
of Silvers and Van Heusen's "Nancy with the Laughing Face" (Kelley,
Nancy Reagan 212). Reagan narrowly lost the nomination to President
Gerald Ford (whom Sinatra then supported in the general election), but
when he ran again in 1980, Sinatra campaigned hard. At one Boston
concert, he raised $250,000 for the Reagan campaign. As usual,
however, the same audiences that thrilled to Sinatra's singing at
political events winced at his spoken comments. "He wants to be
reelected," Sinatra said of Reagan's opponent, President Jimmy Carter.
"We should string him up" (Kelley, Nancy Reagan 455-56).
Sinatra's close relationship with the Reagans prompted criticism and
concern in some quarters. One critic likened the 1981 inaugural gala,
which Sinatra organized at the President-Elect's request and which
raised half of the inauguration's $10 million cost, to "a cross
between Dial-a-Joke and `Hee Haw.'" During Senate confirmation
hearings, Reagan's Attorney General-designate, William French Smith,
was taken to task by New York Times columnist William Safire and
Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire for attending Sinatra's sixty-fifth
birthday party a few weeks after the 1980 election. Incredibly, a
rumor spread that Reagan was going to appoint Sinatra as ambassador to
Italy. The Italian newspaper La Stampa was worried enough to huff: "If
the American government thinks of Italy as the land of mandolins and
La Cosa Nostra, then Sinatra would be the appropriate choice" (Alter 64b).
Ignoring the criticism, the Reagans remained loyal to Sinatra. When he
applied for a Nevada gaming license in 1980, Reagan listened to his
wife instead of to his close political adviser, Ed Meese, and wrote a
strong character reference for Sinatra (Kelley, Nancy Reagan 265-66).
The President awarded Sinatra the Medal of Freedom in 1985. Sinatra
was a frequent guest, especially of the First Lady, at the White
House, both for official events and personal visits. After Reagan was
reelected in 1984, Sinatra was invited to organize the 1985 inaugural
As always with Sinatra, loyalty was reciprocated with loyalty. In
1981, responding to Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner's
oft-expressed hostility to the President, Sinatra and others formed a
group called Actors Working for an Actors Guild and ran candidates for
the SAG board (Brownstein 290). He ardently defended Nancy Reagan
against press criticism of her extravagance in clothes and china. He
helped the White House staff to improve its lighting and sound system
for evening entertainments, and arranged concerts by artists ranging
from Zubin Mehta to Mel Tillis. ("I've already checked your schedule,"
Sinatra told Tillis, "and you are free" [Kelley, His Way 493]). In
1984 Sinatra raised money for the Reagan campaign at a series of
cocktail parties and accompanied the president on a frenzied campaign
visit to the Festival of St. Ann in Hoboken. Displaying a keen
understanding of the purpose of the appearance, Gov. Mario Cuomo of
New York, a leading Democrat, complained that Reagan was using Sinatra
to pander to Italian-American voters. In 1988, when former Reagan
chief of staff Donald Regan's tell-all memoir, For the Record, was
published, Sinatra decried the disloyalty of insiders who reveal the
secrets of their erstwhile bosses. "I'm saying they're the pimps and
whores," he charged. "They're the ones who write the books about
people with whom they had a kind of privy association and suddenly
they're out making a buck" (Kelley, Nancy Reagan 491). (5)
The story of Sinatra and the American presidency is interesting
because of what it tells about Sinatra, especially the code of loyalty
that seems to have animated almost every aspect of his life. The story
is important because of what it tells about the American presidency.
Sinatra's participation in the Roosevelt and Kennedy campaigns opened
the floodgates for celebrity involvement in presidential politics. As
Jonathan Alter (64b) recently has written, "Sinatra forever changed
the relationship between Hollywood and Washington."
Broadly speaking, the motivation for celebrities such as Sinatra to
seek out politicians has been less economic self-interest than a
personal and ideological attraction to particular candidates and an
aspiration to be regarded as serious public figures. The motivation
for candidates to seek out celebrities has been to bask in their
glamor and to recruit their help in fundraising. Yet Sinatra's
experiences with Kennedy and Humphrey reveal the fault line that
underlies the association: whenever a celebrity's public image becomes
controversial, candidates are likely to cut him or her loose.
Similarly, Sinatra's identification with liberal causes brought down
the animus of right-wing newspapers, politicians, and fellow actors.
More seriously, it made him a target of the FBI. Like Jane Fonda
during and especially after the Vietnam War, however, and distinctly
unlike the Hollywood Ten and other figures in the entertainment
industry who lacked a strong constituency of fans, Sinatra's fame
enabled him eventually to surmount many of these criticisms.
Beyond that marriage of self-interest, however, may lie a deeper
source of what Brownstein has called the "Hollywood-Washington
connection." Entertainers and politicians face similar challenges.
Whether on screen or on the hustings, they must woo the public and
adjust to changes in style and taste. For many years, celebrities have
had to deal with something that politicians, because of the
long-respected distinction in political journalism between private
life and public responsibilities, did not: a mass media that
recognizes few areas of life as too personal for the glare of
flashbulbs and the television spotlight. Since the 1980s, that
distinction no longer has prevailed in media coverage of politics. In
almost all aspects of their careers, therefore, celebrities and
politicians can not only help each other, but can also empathize with
each other in a way that few outsiders can.
I would like to thank John Lyman Mason of Rhodes College for his
thorough and thoughtful comments on this article and a reviewer for
this journal for helpful suggestions. I presented an earlier version
at the conference on "Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend"
at Hofstra University, 12-14 November 1998.
(1) For an assessment of Sinatra as a singer, see Nelson.
(2) As Gilbert has argued, Sinatra's emotionally rich recordings from
this period indicate that the Rat Pack side of Sinatra was only one
aspect of a highly complex personality.
(3) Sinatra also endorsed, albeit unenthusiastically, Sammy Davis's
decision to postpone his wedding to the white actress Mai Britt from
October 16, 1960, until after the election in deference to a request
from the Kennedy campaign. Sinatra had agreed to be Davis's best man,
and Kennedy's aides feared that the public would draw a
Davis-Sinatra-Kennedy-interracial marriage connection. Later, Sinatra
did not stand in the way when Davis was dropped from the program of
the inauguration eve gala (Levy 168; Sinatra 144-45).
(4) Democrats Brown and Tunney, whom Sinatra also supported in 1970,
were the sons of old friends and thus fit objects of his loyal support.
(5) Sinatra supported George Bush for president in 1988 and 1992, and
organized Bush's 1989 inaugural gala. But by this time his level of
activity was much lower than in the past, mainly for reasons of health.
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Michael Nelson works in the Department of Political Science at Rhodes
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