- Pub. Date:
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Michael Freedland is the author of thirty-one books, mostly biographies of leading personalities and figures in the world of music. He also writes for several newspapers and magazines in Great Britain and the United States.
Read an Excerpt
All the Way
A Biography of Frank Sinatra
By Michael Freedland
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Michael Freedland
All rights reserved.
Hoboken isn't exactly paradise, even if now they are trying to gentrify it, a word that would have been unknown and totally inexplicable to the people living in this grimy little New Jersey city eight decades ago.
Today, there are flowers in tiny front gardens where once there had only been trashcans. There are pictures on walls where once the sole colour had come from the blood of kids and much older men – the ones who daily had been forced up against the brickwork in the course of being made offers they couldn't possibly refuse.
The ferries still ply the Hudson River to and from Manhattan. These days, you can also take a train and get there in ten minutes. The journey isn't so pleasant in summer, but in the winter when the cold is so bitter that you find yourself envying a hibernating tortoise, those ten minutes are to treasure. This is not a town helped by its climate. Today when virtually every house and apartment has enough radiators to provide warmth in winter and air conditioners to cool the heat of summer, the weather plays less of a part in Hoboken life than once it did. But in the first three decades of the century, existence could be hard in a place where snow comes in November and lasts till March, and the only refuge from the stifling heat of July and August was to dance in the spray of a fire hydrant by day and sleep on a fire escape by night.
Hoboken has always been an insular sort of place. There are still people who have never been further than across the Hudson to New York and at least one man who has never even left New Jersey. Although an urban village, the inhabitants know each other as well as if Hoboken were a farming community in the middle of a Kansas plain; it is a place where, at one time, a couple living in sin would have caused as much of a stir as a country-town librarian taking a secret lover.
Familiarity is bred by size – or at least by the lack of it. From the ferry stop or the train station, take a taxi to anywhere in town and it is always four dollars. Hoboken is still only a mile square, just as it was when Francis Albert Sinatra – all thirteen-and-a-half pounds of him – fought his way into the world and confounded the doctor, the midwife and, not least of all, his twenty-year-old mother, Dolly.
Dolly, born Natalie Catherine Garavente, didn't look big enough to carry a sack of potatoes that heavy. She weighed no more than ninety pounds. No one in the room that day in December 1915 expected her to survive. Everyone thought that the baby with the lacerated earlobe and cheeks – along with a punctured eardrum, the result of being wrenched out of the birth canal with all the finesse of a plumber's mate using a pair of pliers – was dead. In fact, he would have been, had Dolly's mother Rosa, who ran a grocery store, not also been a part-time midwife. She held the baby under the cold-water tap until he screamed.
This was Hoboken in 1915, and the city has changed little over the years, even if today's gentrified population of 30,000, boosted as it is by the commuters taking those ferry trips and train rides, is only half the number it was. The legacy of the past fingers among the few families who still remember the Sinatras – along with the dirt and the squalor and the fights.
Not for nothing was this town the setting for On the Waterfront, the 1950s Marlon Brando film of union wars and corruption among the stevedores and longshoremen, a movie which almost might have been remembered as the Frank Sinatra film, a story to come later in this tale of the man who is regarded as Hoboken's favourite son – at least by some. Others have not forgiven him and doubtless never will. For what? For slighting the town of his birth during his greatest years? Or just for being the most successful entertainment figure American ever knew?
Let us begin with his name. Like almost every Frank Sinatra story, there is more than one version. A birth certificate records the arrival on 12 December 1915 of 'Frank Sinestro'. The surname could only have been a misprint. When a new copy was issued more than twenty years later, the name was changed to 'Francis A. Sinatra'. There is no doubt that Sinatra was the family name; but did his parents later wonder whether Francis didn't sound a little nicer than Frank? And the 'A'? Was his middle name always 'Albert'? Or did he copy Harry Truman and later find something to fit an initial? (In 1976 the matter was made official. The Officer of the Registrar of Vital Statistics issued yet another birth certificate – this time, the name was given as Francis Albert Sinatra.)
The notion that 'Frank' came before 'Francis' is supported by the fact that although the family proudly spoke about naming the child after the saint, his father Marty's dear friend and fellow amateur baseball player Frank Garrick always said the name was in honour of himself. Not only that; Garrick was chosen as the baby's godfather at the christening on 2 April 1916 – appropriately at St Francis's Church in Hoboken.
In these facts, too, there are no more certainties than in anything else concerning Sinatra's early years. According to legend, he was to have been named Martin after his father, Anthony Martin Sinatra – but the priest, having asked for the name of the godfather, got confused and called him Frank. However, it is hard to imagine the Sinatra parents, especially powerful Dolly, allowing something like this to occur. If she had really wanted to call her son Martin, she would surely have corrected the priest.
Opinions also vary about the links between Frank Sinatra and the town of Hoboken. In the City Hall, the local authority has put on a Sinatra tribute exhibition – old photographs, record labels and sleeves and a dozen or more posters recalling the days when Frankie wowed the crowds at the Paramount Theater over the water and only one or two of him performing in Hoboken because Frank didn't come back to his home town once that reputation as Frankie was made.
Upstairs at City Hall, there are other photographs – of Hoboken when the great ocean liners docked there instead of at the more crowded piers of New York itself, of baseball teams, wholly appropriate because this was the nursery of baseball, the first place where the words 'pitcher', 'first base', and 'home run' were ever heard. Today, though, you have to be a local historian to appreciate those things. To know that Hoboken is Frank Sinatra's birthplace is something else. Children are taught about the great entertainer who put their town on the map along with the dates of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Those with grandparents and great-grandparents with long memories may hear slightly jaundiced tales.
The Mayor, Anthony Russo, certainly finds no cause for anything but tribute to the man he has never met. 'Frank Sinatra,' he told me, 'has a place in this town which is a microcosm of his place in the world.' And you can take that any way you wish. Russo went on, 'There may have been some conflict with some of the people here at the time when his career was blossoming. I think that people may have felt jealousies and that he was perhaps justified in staying away for a while.' Unquestionably, Sinatra had given Hoboken a sense of pride and they rejoiced in his talent. 'But for material things – the things that people do or have given to people or to a city – maybe he hasn't done that. But he didn't need to do it – because he has done so much as an artist.'
On the whole, the older folk in Hoboken remember Dolly Sinatra and her husband Martin a lot better than they remember Frank – and in that order because Dolly wore the trousers in the Sinatra home, while her blue-eyed husband Marty, as everyone knew him, was an inoffensive man who had worked on the docks as a labourer before becoming the local fire-station cook, and, in the early 1930s, was to open a tavern called Marty O'Brien's. The Irish name sounded right but because firemen were not allowed to operate such establishments, the licence was held in Dolly's name. In fact, Marty never seemed to exert much influence at all and it was Dolly who had got him the job as a fireman in the first place. She was a force in the local Democratic Party and her influence with the Fire Department was as strong as it was with the other ward leaders. When she put the idea to one of the local politicians his response was unenthusiastic: 'But Dolly, we don't have an opening.'
'Make an opening,' she replied – and they did. That was Dolly Sinatra. So her husband became one of the few Italians in Hoboken ever to get near to a fire engine. It was not the first time Marty realised that things might have been easier had he been Irish. As a bantamweight fighter, he boxed under the name he used for his liquor business: Marty O'Brien. His choice of name, then, had been deliberate – and, in the context of Hoboken, wholly appropriate.
It was not easy being Italian, even in Hoboken, a town where a third of the population was made up of the Sinatras' fellow countrymen and which boasted that it provided the best Italian food in America, with its macaroni in particular superior to anything on offer elsewhere. Marty came from Agrigento in Sicily, arriving as a small child with his parents, John and Rosa Sinatra. At least, that is what Nancy Sinatra, Jr., says in her book Frank Sinatra: An American Legend. But was that, too, a rewriting of history, like the birth certificates? Every other reference to the early Sinatra lineage says that John (Giovanni?) and Rosa were the names of Dolly's parents and came from outside Genoa. Nancy doesn't name their surname, Garaventes, at all. Why?
Could there be some resentment of the fact that when Dolly and Marty were married at a civil ceremony at the City Hall in Jersey City on St Valentine's Day in 1913, the Garaventes refused to attend? (They were later to relent and a church ceremony was held with both bride and bridegroom dressed suitably for the occasion, she wearing a chic short wedding dress, he a tuxedo and white tie.)
The couple had first met when Dolly's brother Dominic, known always as 'Champ Seger', fought Marty in the boxing ring – in an open-ended contest that would be completed only when one of the participants hit the canvas. Women were not allowed into New Jersey boxing crowds in those days, so Dolly borrowed a pair of Dominic's trousers and an old jacket and nobody was any the wiser. Her voice may have been higher than most men's, but what came out of her mouth wouldn't have let her down. Her language was always choice, to say the least. The evening Dolly met her future husband for the first time was a memorable one. Today, her granddaughter says that the two men fought over the event again and again for years afterwards – both claiming victory that night.
Why the Garaventes were not keen on their daughter linking up with the Sinatras can be traced to the traditions of the Old Country, and a desire, straight out of folklore, to move on once they had seen the Statue of Liberty. Marty's father had worked in a pencil factory and never learned to speak English. The Garaventes were a family of educated craftsmen – Dolly's father was a lithographer – and wanted nothing of any match. In this and in everything else, Dolly won.
She and Marty – he gave his occupation on the marriage certificate as 'athlete' – set up their home in the heart of Hoboken's Little Italy. The five-floor, ten-apartment, cold-water tenement at 415 Monroe Street was about as miserable a spot (but conveniently close to the fire station) as could be imagined, although later press stories made it even more miserable. These described it as so crowded that the family had to go out into the street to gasp for air – air that was polluted by fumes and noise from the docks and the Erie-Lackawanna railroad tracks. The problem with those stories is that the apartment was too far from the docks for a steamboat's horns to be heard, and the railway is more than half a mile away too. But it was bad enough.
In the years following the Sinatra marriage, things began to change in Hoboken. Those piers which saw the luxury liners arrive and depart would, in 1917, be used by GIs going off to France to fight in the First World War. Two years earlier, when Frank was born, the Europe from which most of the city's inhabitants came was already in the midst of the conflict and nothing would ever be the same again.
In 1913 those changes hadn't yet come to affect the ethnic divisions, and to live peaceably in the town, it was important to emphasise them. A few streets away from where the Sinatras lived was Irish territory, the third of a mile famous for providing New York with its policemen. The notion of the Irish cop in his tight blue tunic and distinctive brown helmet, so famous in those early Technicolor Hollywood musicals, was no whim of a screenwriter's imagination; these were the immigrants who not only administered the laws, but made them – because they were the ones who spoke English. Young, strong Irishmen were fitted up with a uniform, given a gun and a 'billy club' and told that they were policemen. They controlled the politics of New York as openly as they did the traffic.
The German third of the population were the wealthy ones. They lived in uptown Hoboken and were concentrated around Hudson Street in particular. These were the people who kept the beer gardens, who were the local merchants, and who ran the vaudeville theatre, the Empire, as well as nearby movie theatres such as the Fabian, the US, the Eureka and the Europa. The fame of the German quarter extended well beyond the square mile. Jerome Kern set his musical Sweet Adeline in a Hoboken beer garden.
Even after the world had begun its somersault, each ethnic group kept to its own part of town as surely as if they were second-class citizens confined to ghettos. You didn't venture from Italian Hoboken into the German or Irish sections any more than you would allow your daughter to marry out into another community. 'The Italians were the greenhorns,' restaurateur Joseph Spaccavento, known by everyone in town as 'Sparky', now recalls. 'At one time we couldn't pass through Willow Avenue. The Irish would chase us out.
With the strength of the ethnic divisions came the insults. To every 'Mick' of an Irishman, an Italian was a 'wop', a Jew was a 'kike' or a 'sheeny'. The blacks were 'Niggers' and the other Latins, 'Dagos'. The adult Sinatra would say that even as a child he felt offended by the tag of 'wop'. It was an offence that would rankle forever after. And forever after, he would make the connection with the place where he first heard it – Hoboken.
'There was real hated there,' says another Sinatra contemporary, John Marotta. 'If we went further than Willow Avenue, they'd say, "Get down to Guinea Town where you belong." That's what they called the Italian part of town. It was hatred I couldn't understand.'
On one occasion that hatred hit Frank directly. Ten years old, he was attacked by an Irish gang and added a few more scars to the face already damaged at birth. One story has it that he went to the rescue of a Jewish boy in the neighbourhood, in response to the kindness of a Mrs Goldberg, a friend of his grandmother, who rewarded him with a Star of David medallion which he later backed with a St Christopher. If so, it was the first of many similar attacks by Sinatra on anti-Semitism and other examples of racial prejudice.
'Scarface', other kids called him, not a pleasant way for a child to be introduced to the wider world. But it was to stand him in good stead. When he made what was to become the most important movie of his life, From Here to Eternity, he would say of Maggio, the character he played: 'I knew him. I was beaten up with him in Hoboken.'
Not that ethnic mixing didn't occasionally happen and, when it did, Romeo and Juliet could have been set in Hoboken and West Side Story removed to west of the Hudson River. Ethnic conflict was always the best excuse for fists to be made and then used. And, sometimes, more than just fists.
The gangs were divided strictly by race – with the best fights between the Italian mobs and the Irish. Ask any of their descendants today who won and the Irish will tell you that they were hands-down victors and the Italians will say they had the winning ways all the time. Over the years, Frank has both spoken of the violence of those days and declared the aggression overplayed. In one of the former moods he said: 'Everyone carried a twelve-inch pipe – and they weren't all studying to be plumbers.'
Excerpted from All the Way by Michael Freedland. Copyright © 1997 Michael Freedland. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2 Nancy (with the Laughing Face),
3 Nice Work if You Can Get It,
4 I've Got the World on a String,
5 Melody of Love,
6 Don't Worry About Me,
7 High Hopes,
8 Same Old Song and Dance,
9 My One and Only Love,
10 The Music Stopped,
11 From Here to Eternity,
12 Don't Worry 'bout Me,
13 Makin' Whoopee,
14 The Gal That Got Away,
15 Why Should I Cry over You?,
16 They Can't Take That Away from Me,
17 Time After Time,
18 Come Rain or Shine,
19 Can I Steal a Little Love,
20 I'm Walking Behind You,
21 Don't Blame Me,
22 Hey, Jealous Lover,
23 Same Old Saturday Night,
24 Ill Wind,
25 The Girl Next Door,
26 Love Me or Leave Me,
27 Something Stupid,
28 Little White Lies,
29 Nice 'n' Easy,
30 Nothing in Common,
31 Around the World,
32 You Make Me Feel So Young,
33 Too Close for Comfort,
34 All the Way,