Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous

Intimate Strangers: Comic Profiles and Indiscretions of the Very Famous

by Bill Zehme

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385333740
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/26/2002
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.11(w) x 9.19(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Bill Zehme is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’. A longtime writer-at-large for Esquire, his profiles have also appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

And Then There Was One: Sinatra Bequeaths His Rules of Order

Esquire, March 1996


In black tie, Dean sleeps forever. He lounges in his marble vault, behind the bank in Westwood, draped in midnight attire, in the uniform, crimson hanky peeking from breast pocket. He was the beautiful one. Always did know how to dress. The Leader liked that. Sam was another story. He was the youngest, the wild card. Onstage, 1963: "What are you doing in that cockamamie street suit!" Frank admonished, emerging godlike from the wings of the Sands, Dean by his side. "And what is this, with the tie down and the collar open? Where the hell did you learn that? Now, go up to your room and get yourself into a little ol' tuxedo!" This happened nightly. Sam: "What're you, Esquire magazine? Let's get one thing straight, Frank! I'm thirty-seven years old! I will change my clothes when I get good and ready!" Frank: "Are you ready?" Sam: "Yes, Frank." Sam was a pussycat in his tiny tux, Frank always said. Right now he's up on that Forest Lawn hilltop, wearing one of his English toy suits--over a red shirt. (Red--the color of Bojangles's eyes!) On his wrist is the enormous gold Cartier watch he so treasured. "Laid on me by my man, Francis," he'd tell those who asked, before the end. "It goes with me." Frank gave it to him on the reunion tour, the last time the three of them tried to do it all over again. Recapture the old mothery gas--that, of course, was Frank's idea. Dean told him, "Why don't we find a good bar instead."

Wrecked, the Leader sat amid the leftover antipasti Christmas night. Dag was dead since before dawn. They called each other Dag (pronounced daig), for no one else could, would dare. He was not surprised by the bad news, but the sorrow was pounding him in slow waves. "Don't worry," he said softly to a few intimates, "I'm not going anyplace for a long time." And he picked at his food. The mantle of style would now be his alone, although of course it always had been. It was just nice to have some company, their company, those two bums in particular. He embodied the code to which all freethinking men aspired, but only two truly understood how it was done, no lessons needed, sang and swung to boot. Thirty-five years after it started--all that rehearsed spontaneity in the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel--only the oldest survives; the freshly minted octogenarian, he persists. His force wanes not at all, keeping younger men of close acquaintance up all hours while he belts his Jack Daniel's and explains history as he knows it. He does not let go.

"You've got to love livin', baby! Because dyin' is a pain in the ass!" That was what he always told them, never stopped telling them. Sam paid heed until he couldn't anymore. Dean didn't, hadn't for years. His gorgeous indifference, which Frank quietly revered, finally withered him, which Frank detested witnessing. "How can you eat that motherfucking shit?" Frank goaded him from across the table last June. Together, they sat at Dean's booth, next to the bar, at Da Vinci in Beverly Hills. It was the final Summit. Dean had just turned seventy-eight, and Frank never missed a birthday. Frank missed nothing, never has, even now. So he saw what he saw and his heart broke and, hating it, he fought. ("Fight, fight, fight!" he whispers inside his head every day, staving off that rat-bastard, Time.) He wanted a rise out of gentle Dag, so he poked at the pasta and needled like a hero. He tore off bread and pelted his frail paisan, a ritual of theirs since always. Dean only smiled. Frank stayed feisty. They sipped their separate amber and talked as best they could. After an hour or so, Frank got up to leave, said he had to go to New York tomorrow. "Good," Dean said. "Don't come back." Such was the love between the largest of men.

In the beginning, there was only Sinatra. He lent out the hubris, covered every ass, cleared the forest, rigged the tempo, made the rules. His battle cry: "Fun with everything, and I mean fun!" Born an only child, he did not like to be alone. So he handpicked his pallies with care, shunned all the hapless clydes who wanted in, and held court till the sun shone. Nineteen sixty: By day, they made their first film opus, Ocean's Eleven, playing war vets out to rob five Vegas casinos; by night, they kept on playing, onstage, on the Strip, on the loose, moving in a pack, like, well, never mind. In Frank's hands, hanging out turned to art, daubed with a palette of twinkle and menace. His good side was the side to stay on. He once said, "Trouble just seems to come my way--unbidden, unwelcome, unneeded." Above all, he was about fearlessness and good grooming. He bought his first jet in 1959, sang about it onstage: "When I'm up there wingin', I'm really ring-a-ring-a-ding-dingin'. . . ." Like so, he reinvented language and instructed eager pupils. From the third Sammy Davis Jr. autobiography, Why Me?: "A young cat with two wild-looking chicks walked by and Frank raised his eyebrows. 'Cuff links.' "

What man would not like to be near that man? Even Camelot came to the Sands. The young senator from Massachusetts became known as Chicky-Baby, as christened by the Leader, who shared all guilty pleasures guiltlessly. His men slept warm and strayed not far. The comedian Tom Dreesen, who spent thirteen years opening for and traveling with Sinatra, told me this story: "They were all in Las Vegas shooting Ocean's Eleven and one morning the actor Norman Fell woke up and looked outside of his hotel window. He saw Dean and Sammy and Peter Lawford running past the pool, running fast. So he stuck his head out and yelled, 'Hey, where are you guys going?' And Sammy said, 'Frank's up!' So the day begins. You have to understand that when you are with Frank Sinatra, it's his world and you are living in it. If you revolve around his energy, you benefit. With Frank, you can never learn enough."

Only because somebody asked, he once said: "I think my real ambition is to pass on to others what I know. It took me a long, long time to learn what I now know, and I don't want that to die with me. I'd like to pass that on to younger people." He wasn't talking about song artistry; he meant life nuance, how-to stuff, the business of comporting one's self--all of that which he has suggested only through music or private example. Two years ago, it occurred to me that he had not made good on his promise. Men had gone soft and needed help, needed a Leader, needed Frank Sinatra. So I wrote to him and appealed on behalf of manhood and mankind. I wanted to ask him essential questions, the kind that could save a guy's life. I wanted what might approximate Frank's rules of order. He took the clarion call and instructed his publicist, Susan Reynolds, to gather my questions as they came and bring them along on the road. He would sit on his plane, Jack in hand, and do what he could as an oracle, when he found the patience, a virtue he has never claimed to possess. (He was, in the end, either charmed by or merely tolerant of this exercise. "It helps me pass the time," he said, with kindly forbearance.) The process took many months. Later, I was encouraged to debrief his closest confidants, who further detailed the minutiae of his ways, both then and now. (To complete the style spectrum, I did the same with intimates of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.) Supplemented as such, there emerged a composite of how the role of Sinatra is played in everyday life, whatever the circumstance. "To be like Frank Sinatra," says his friend, producer George Schlatter, "you've got to be able to give a punch and take a punch. You've got to have a stomach like a still. You've got to be early for everything except bed. He'll make you eat salami at three in the morning with chocolate cake and pasta. You go, 'Oh no, Frank!' It doesn't matter. Frank is just like you. Just like me. Only bigger."

Q: What should a man never do in the presence of a woman?

A: Yawn.

Few mortals have seen him yawn. Yawning promotes sleep, which he does not. Sleep: dullsville, numbsville, weakness. He won't even do it on airplanes. Awake, he is aware, which is all. Be aware, he always told Nancy Jr., had the words inscribed on her St. Christopher medal, on her first key chain. "It's the number one priority," she says. He dims only when horizons brighten. He favors the tint of sky he calls Five O'Clock Vegas Blue. "I tell him he's the last of the Italian vampires," says Steve Lawrence, who has greeted too many dawns at his side, where scores of men have slumped. They cannot hit hay until he does, and they must drink apace with him to the finish. Hank Cattaneo, his longtime road manager, addresses the subject with dread: "By four or five in the morning, I've had enough Jack Daniel's, so I get the bartender to color Coca-Cola with water so he thinks I'm still with him." Begin to nod off, he will say, "Hey! What are you doing! Wake up!" Rise from the table, he will say, "Where the hell are you going!" Only excuse: "To the bathroom." Mountainous Jilly Rizzo, Frank's late number one, would use it as his exit line and disappear. Others who sneak away are summoned back. "He doesn't like Do Not Disturb signs," says Lawrence. "God help you if he knows what room you're in," says Cattaneo. "Frank himself will light firecrackers outside your door."

Only Dean could leave. At the Sands, after a show, he'd stay for one drink, two, tops, then lie to Frank and say, "I've got a girl in my room." Dean fell under nobody's sway. He loved to sleep, then hit the morning links, nursing his glorious six handicap. Frank knew. "He likes golfball-thumpin' like I like humpin'--to each his own!" the Leader sang when the Friars roasted pally. Once, he gave a broad a grand to wait naked in Dean's bed. Dean gave her two grand to go back and tell Frank he was fabulous. Even Sam, after a couple and a half decades of merry nocturnes, after having finally seized sobriety, could no longer take it, but hung in. Sitting with his main man at 4 a.m. in the Golden Nugget lounge, all he could think was Bed, oh bed. Bed, bed, bed, soft bed.

How Frank does it: "He gets a lot out of a catnap," Barbara Sinatra told me. "He's like that little rabbit on television who keeps going and going and going."

Q: What kind of behavior will you never tolerate?

A: How much time do you have? Next question.

Q: What is worthy of a fair fight?

A: When I grew up, there was a lot of pushing, shoving, and occasional punching. But today we live in such a violent world that you must do everything you can to avoid any kind of brawl or fight. I never really was a street fighter--I never fought one street. My fights became street fights. They started in the saloons and then we went out into the street.

Q: What are your rules for drinking? Your most dependable cure for a hangover?

A: Don't drink to begin with. Dean and I did a lot of jokes about drinking. But let's face it: If we had actually drunk as much as people said we did, do you think we could have made movies all day and done shows at night, which we did? I would not recommend that anyone else live life that way. You have to know what you can handle.

Hangovers fear him. His metabolism knows no such thing. "He doesn't get hangovers--he gives them," says Schlatter. "He's a carrier." Only Sam saw him suffer, and that was just once!--after the night Frank wanted to punch out John Wayne. The Duke had briefly come over to Frank's table at a party and hovered uncomfortably close. "You're leaning on me!" Frank complained. Duke grinned and beat it, and an hour later Frank, who'd uncharacteristically gotten himself "about ten sheets to the wind" (per Sam), decided to settle the score. He confronted the big guy, who just lifted the Leader and set him aside. Sam went to the house the next day, he recalled, and "out of the back came Frank, staggering to the bar. He said, 'I gotta get a Ramos gin fizz.' " (Cure--hissing hair of the dog!)

He is particular about that which he hates. "I won't tolerate certain things, like being crowded into corners and not enough ice in the drink," he once said. If he hears the word nigger, he explodes or walks away. "You don't berate another human being in front of Frank," says Dreesen. "If you harm a child, you are his archenemy. He's offended by foulmouthed women or any man who uses abusive language around women. Also, if you compliment him, he will change the subject." He cannot be pushed. "Don't tell me--suggest," he suggested to Lauren Bacall. (She's the one who started that damned rodent phrase he hates--Rat Pack--back in 1955, when she was Mrs. Humphrey Bogart. After many sodden Vegas nights orchestrated by Frank, she gazed at the hungover carnage of Bogie and his drinking chums--the usual suspects such as David Niven, Judy Garland, and the writer Nathaniel Benchley--and groaned, "You look like a goddamned rat pack!" Bogie's was the real Rat Pack; how he and Dean and Sam and company later got stuck with it, he'll never understand. And their earliest moniker, the Clan, stank, too. His preference was always the Summit.)

"Frank takes things seriously; I don't," said Dean. Once, in a moment of contrition, the Leader confessed, "I'm too much of a volatile man." Like the time at the hotel in Pebble Beach when the two of them wanted room service after midnight and found the kitchen closed. Frank got the manager on the horn, hollered, got the guy up to the room, and punches flew, while Dean sat watching television. "Hey," said Dag finally, "can you guys fight a little to the left? I'm having trouble seeing the picture." But Frank was the master of extremes: "We cut the top of our thumbs and we became blood brothers," Dean would recall. "He wanted to cut the wrist. I said, 'What, are you crazy? No, here's good enough.' "

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