March 18, 1939.
In a studio on West 46th Street in New York City, a band was playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee.” It was a simple place, a room with couches and lamps, hung with drapes to muffle the echo from the walls. This was a big day for the musicians, who were recording for the first time.
A skinny young man listened as they played. The previous night, at the Sicilian Club near his home in New Jersey, he had asked if he could tag along. Now, as the band finished playing, he stepped forward and spoke to the bandleader. “May I sing?” he asked.
The bandleader glanced at the studio clock to see if they had time left, then told the young man to go ahead. He chose “Our Love,” a stock arrangement based on a melody from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Standing at the rudimentary microphone, he launched into a saccharine lyric:
Our love, I feel it everywhere
Our love is like an evening prayer . . .
I see your face in stars above,
As I dream on, in all the magic of
Unseasoned, a little reedy, the voice was transmitted through an amplifier to a recording device known as a lathe. The lathe drove the sound to a needle, and the needle carved a groove on a twelve-inch aluminum-based lacquer disc. The result was a record, to be played on a turntable at seventy-eight revolutions per minute.
The bandleader kept the record in a drawer for nearly sixty years. He would take it out from time to time, with delight and increasing nostalgia, to play for friends. The music on it sounds tinny, a relic of the infancy of recording technology. Yet the disc is kept in a locked safe. The attorney for the bandleader’s widow, an octogenarian on Social Security, says the singer’s heirs have demanded all rights and the lion’s share of any potential income derived from it, thus obstructing its release.
The disc is a valuable piece of musical history. Its tattered adhesive label, typed with an old manual machine, shows the recording was made at Harry Smith Studios, “electrically recorded” for bandleader Frank Mane. Marked “#1 Orig.,” it is the very first known studio recording of the thousand and more that were to make that skinny young man the most celebrated popular singer in history. For, under “Vocal chor. by,” it bears the immaculately handwritten legend:
A year after making that first record, at twenty-five, Sinatra told a new acquaintance how he saw his future. “I’m going to be the best singer in the world,” he said, “the best singer that ever was.”
A Family from Sicily
Io sono Siciliano . . .” I am Sicilian.
At the age of seventy-one, in the broiling heat of summer in 1987, Frank Sinatra was singing, not so well by that time, in the land of his fathers. “I want to say,” he told a rapt audience at Palermo’s Favorita Stadium, “that I love you dearly for coming tonight. I haven’t been in Italy for a long time–I’m so thrilled. I’m very happy.”
The crowd roared approval, especially when he said he was Sicilian, that his father was born in Sicily. Sinatra’s voice cracked a little as he spoke, and he looked more reflective than happy. At another concert, in the northern Italian city of Genoa, he had a joke for his audience. “Two very important and wonderful people came from Genoa,” he quipped. “One . . . Uno: Christopher Columbus. Due: mia Mamma . . .”
This second crowd cheered, too, though a little less enthusiastically when he mentioned that his father was Sicilian. “I don’t think,” he said wryly, “that they’re too thrilled about Sicilia.” It was a nod to northern Italians’ feelings about the island off the southernmost tip of the country. They look down on its people as backward and slothful, and because, as all the world knows, it is synonymous with organized crime. It is the island of fire and paradox, the dismembered foot of the leg of Italy. Sicily: at ten thousand square miles the largest island in the Mediterranean, a cornucopia of history that remains more remote and mysterious than anywhere in Europe.
The island’s story has been a saga of violence. Its ground heaved to earthquakes, and its volcanoes spat fire and lava, long before Christ. Its population carries the genes of Greeks and Romans, of Germanic Vandals and Arabs, of Normans and Spaniards, all of them invaders who wrote Sicily’s history in blood.
“Sicily is ungovernable,” Luigi Barzini wrote. “The inhabitants long ago learned to distrust and neutralize all written laws.” Crime was endemic, so alarmingly so that a hundred years ago the island’s crime rate was said to be the worst in Europe. By then, the outside world had already heard the spectral name that has become inseparable from that of the island–Mafia.
The origin of that word is as much a mystery as the criminal brotherhood itself, but in Sicily “mafia” has one meaning and “Mafia”–with an upper case “M”–another. For the islanders, in Barzini’s view, the word “mafia” was originally used to refer to “a state of mind, a philosophy of life, a concept of society, a moral code.” At its heart is marriage and the family, with strict parameters. Marriage is for life, divorce unacceptable and impossible.
A man with possessions or special skills was deemed to have authority, and known as a padrone. In “mafia” with a small “m,” those who lived by the code and wielded power in the community were uomini rispettati, men of respect. They were supposed to behave chivalrously, to be good family men, and their word was their bond. They set an example, and they expected to be obeyed.
The corruption of the code and the descent to criminality was rapid. Well before the dawn of the twentieth century, the Mafia with a capital “M,” though never exactly an organization, was levying tribute from farmers, controlling the minimal water supply, the builders and the businessmen, fixing prices and contracts.
Cooperation was enforced brutally. Those who spoke out in protest were killed, whatever their station in life. The Mafia made a mockery of the state, rigging elections, corrupting the politicians it favored, and terrorizing opponents. From 1860 to 1924, not a single politician from Sicily was elected to the Italian parliament without Mafia approval. The island and its people, as one early visitor wrote, were “not a dish for the timid.”
Frank Sinatra’s paternal grandfather grew up in Sicily in the years that followed the end of foreign rule, a time of social and political mayhem. His childhood and early adult years coincided with the collapse of civil authority, brutally suppressed uprisings, and the rise of the Mafia to fill the power vacuum.
Beyond that, very little has been known about the Sinatra family’s background in Sicily. The grandfather’s obituary, which appeared in the New York Times because of his famous grandson, merely had him born “in Italy” in 1884 (though his American death certificate indicates he was born much earlier, in 1866). Twice, in 1964 and in 1987, Frank Sinatra told audiences that his family had come from Catania, about as far east as one can go in Sicily. Yet he told one of his musicians, principal violist Ann Barak, that they came from Agrigento on the southwestern side of the island. His daughter Nancy, who consulted her father extensively while working on her two books about his life, wrote that her great-grandfather had been “born and brought up” in Agrigento. His name, according to her, was John.
In fact he came from neither Catania nor Agrigento, was born earlier than either of the dates previously reported, and his true name was Francesco–in the American rendering, Frank.
Sicilian baptismal and marriage records, United States immigration and census data, and interviews with surviving grandchildren establish that Francesco Sinatra was born in 1857 in the town of Lercara Friddi, in the hills of northwest Sicily. It had about ten thousand inhabitants and it was a place of some importance, referred to by some as piccolo Palermo, little Palermo.
The reason was sulfur, an essential commodity in the paper and pharmaceutical industries, in which Sicily was rich and Lercara especially so. Foreign companies reaped the profits, however, and most locals languished in poverty. The town was located, in the words of a prominent Italian editor, in “the core territory of the Mafia.” The town lies fifteen miles from Corleone, a name made famous by The Godfather and in real life a community credited with breeding more future American mafiosi than any other place in Sicily. It is just twelve miles from the Mafia stronghold of Prizzi–as in Prizzi’s Honor, the Richard Condon novel about the mob and the film based on it that starred Jack Nicholson.
It was Lercara Friddi, however, that produced the most notorious mafioso of the twentieth century. Francesco Sinatra’s hometown spawned Lucky Luciano. Luciano was “without doubt the most important Italian-American gangster,” according to one authority, and “head of the Italian underworld throughout the land,” according to a longtime head of the Chicago Crime Commission. One of his own lawyers described him as having been, quite simply, “the founder of the modern Mafia.”
Luciano, whose real name was Salvatore Lucania, was born in Lercara Friddi in 1897. Old marriage and baptismal registers show that his parents and Francesco Sinatra and his bride, Rosa Saglimbeni, were married at the church of Santa Maria della Neve within two years of each other. Luciano was baptized there, in the same font as Francesco’s first two children.
In all the years of speculation about Frank Sinatra’s Mafia links, this coincidence of origin has remained unknown. Other new information makes it very likely that the Sinatras and the Lucanias knew each other. The two families lived on the same short street, the Via Margherita di Savoia, at roughly the same time. Luciano’s address book, seized by law enforcement authorities on his death in 1962 and available today in the files of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, contains only two entries for individuals who lived in Lercara Friddi: one a member of his own family and the other a man named Saglimbeni, a relative of the woman Francesco Sinatra married. Even if the Sinatras and the Lucanias did not know each other, Luciano’s later notoriety makes it certain that the Sinatra family eventually learned that they and the gangster shared the same town of origin. Kinship and origins are important in Italian-American culture, and were even more so in the first decades of the diaspora.
As a boy, Frank Sinatra could have learned from any of several older relatives that his people and Luciano came from the same Sicilian town. He certainly should have learned it from Francesco, who lived with Sinatra’s family after his wife’s death and often minded his grandson when the boy’s parents were out.
Francesco, moreover, survived to the age of ninety-one, until long after Luciano had become an infamous household name and Frank Sinatra an internationally famous singer. Sinatra himself indicated, and a close contemporary confirmed, that he and his grandfather were “very close.” Late in life, he said he had gone out of his way to “check back” on his Sicilian ties. And yet, as we have seen, he muddied the historical waters by suggesting that his forebears came from Sicilian towns far from Lercara Friddi.
That the Sinatra family came from the same town as a top mafioso was not in itself a cause for embarrassment. The reason for the obfuscation, though, may be found in the family involvement with bootlegging in Frank Sinatra’s childhood and, above all, in his own longtime relationship with Luciano himself, the extent of which can now be documented for the first time.
. . .
There was only one school in Lercara Friddi, and few people there could read or write. Francesco Sinatra was no exception, but he did have a trade–he was a shoemaker. He married Rosa, a local woman his own age, when both were in their early twenties, and by the time they turned thirty, in 1887, the couple had two sons. As the century neared its close, thousands of Sicilians were going hungry, especially in the countryside. There were food riots, and crime was rampant.
In western Sicily, the Mafia’s power had become absolute. Palermo, the island’s capital, spawned the first capo di tutti capi, Don Vito, who would one day forge the first links between the Sicilian Mafia and the United States. His successor, Don Carlo, operated from a village just fourteen miles from Lercara Friddi. Some of the most notorious American mob bosses–Tony Accardo, Carlo Gambino, Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante–were, like Luciano, of western Sicilian parentage.
By 1889 Francesco and Rosa had moved to a working-class suburb of Palermo. Two more sons were born there, but died in infancy, possibly victims of the cholera epidemic that ravaged the neighborhood in the early 1890s. One and a half million Sicilians were to leave the island in the next twenty-five years, many going to Argentina and Brazil and, increasingly, to the United States.
Francesco Sinatra joined the exodus in the summer of 1900. At the age of forty-three, he said goodbye to Rosa and their surviving children–there were by now three sons and two daughters–and boarded a ship for Naples. There he transferred to the British steamer Spartan Prince, carrying a steerage ticket to New York. At Ellis Island, on July 6, he told immigration officials he planned to stay with a relative living on Old Broadway in Manhattan. He had $30 in his pocket.
Francesco found work, and soon had enough confidence to start sending for his family. His eldest son, Isidor, joined him in America, and Salvatore, just fifteen and declaring himself a shoemaker like his father, arrived in 1902. Rosa arrived at Christmas the following year, accompanied by Antonino, age nine, and their two daughters, Angelina and Dorotea, who were younger. Antonino–Anthony Martin or Marty, as he would become in America–was to father the greatest popular singer of the century.
The Statue of Liberty smiled, Frank Sinatra would say in an emotional moment forty years later, when his father “took his first step on Liberty’s soil.” For many Italian newcomers, however, the smile proved illusory.