Change of pace: No politics today since it’s a national holiday. Or should be. A new biography, “Frank: The Voice,” reminds us that on this date, December 12, 1915, Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey.
No, I wasn’t around at the time but that doesn’t stop me from having a Sinatra story in my past. Some heavy name-dropping here, but if living in Washington half a century doesn’t entitle you to name-drop, what’s the point of it?
The story has to do with a trip to the West Coast I made with my then-employer, Vice President Spiro Agnew, in the summer of 1971. Agnew and Sinatra had struck up a friendship (despite Richard Nixon’s disapproval) and the Vice President soon became a frequent visitor at Sinatra’s home in Palm Desert, California.
On this particular occasion Frank, planning ahead, asked his guest if there was any new movie he’d like to see. Whether as a joke or to test the limits of their friendship, the Vice President asked to see The Godfather.
A little back-story at this point for those too young to remember our host’s undisguised antipathy to The Godfather and its author, Mario Puzo, whose depiction of the character Johnny Fontane was obviously based on Sinatra’s persona and career. At one point, according to Hollywood legend, the Voice threatened to break Puzo’s legs during a chance meeting at Chasen’s restaurant.
In any case, ever the gracious host, Sinatra had The Godfather on hand that evening as his guests – including his mother Dolly, his friend Jilly Rizzo, Jack Benny and publisher Bennett Cerf- gathered in his private theater.
Our host’s reaction to the movie? Not a murmur during the scenes alluding to the Mob’s alleged role in getting him out of his contract with Tommy Dorsey and muscling him into his Oscar-winning role in From Here To Eternity. No, only when the character Clemenza offered young Michael Corleone culinary tips on how to prepare spaghetti and meatballs did both Sinatras, mother and son, explode. Obviously, we were led to conclude, whoever wrote the screenplay was functionally illiterate when it came to genuine Italian cucina.
Now the punch line: After the movie, Agnew, pushing the envelope, told Sinatra that he thought it was OK except for Brando’s don, adding, “You would have been better for the part, Frank”; to which Sinatra, not missing a beat, narrowed his eyelids and, with a mock guttural inflection, replied, “You’re right.”
Happy birthday, Don Francis, whatever afterlife casino you might be playing.